At Long War Journal recent reports by Bill Roggio and Thomas Joscelyn highlight the the current state of Somalia. Both reports made me recall a small analytical report I wrote up at the end of 2006. I'm sharing a draft of a December 2006 update. The update contains information on the then-active war between Ethiopia and the Islamic Courts Union.
Please note: this is a working draft reformatted for this post, and lacks my footnotes and sources.
Somalia: An Al Qaeda Ally Takes Control
September 15, 2006 (with December 15th Update)
In June 2006, the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) took control over Mogadishu, the capital city of Somalia. ICU is a radical Islamist militia with close ties to Al Qaeda, which supports the establishment of Islamic law in Somalia. Since the seizure of Mogadishu, the ICU has expanded its control over much of the rest of Somalia, enforcing Islamic law, bringing in weapons, and setting up training camps for its forces. With its explicit support for Al Qaeda and Al Qaeda’s regional goals, the ICU poses a considerable threat to Western interests in Africa, as well as to regional governments. Particularly, Somalia’s strategic location along the east coast of Africa poses a significant threat to military and maritime traffic in the Red Sea, as it may provide an operational safe haven for Al Qaeda to plan and execute attacks on oil and natural gas infrastructure in the Persian Gulf region.
Significance of Somalia’s Location
Somalia’s strategic location along the east coast of Africa poses a significant threat to maritime interests and regional governments. Al Qaeda strategists are beginning to show interest in the region as a long-term strategic base of operations. For example, Al Qaeda leadership has publicly called for i) attacks on Gulf-based energy infrastructure and shipping; and ii) support for the ICU, as regularly mentioned in its public videos.
Somalia’s key location provides Al Qaeda not only an easy access to the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea, but also an operational safe haven for terrorists to plan and carry out attacks on oil and natural gas infrastructure in the region. Somalia has potential to become a logistical and strategic support center for terrorist activity across Africa. It will compound the already chaotic situation throughout the continent, involving volatile mix of smuggling and piracy along the coast.
The following is a chronology of recent terrorist activities involving Somalia and the region:
Recent Terrorist Activities Involving Somalia
2006 July Osama bin Laden released an audiotape praising the ICU.
2005 July Somali expatriates were suspects in attempted bombings in London.
2005 January A Somalia national was arrested and sentenced in Kuwait for participating in a series of attacks.
2002 The Al Qaeda field commander responsible for the embassy attacks fled to Somalia and is suspected of being the commander of the 2002 Mombasa operations against Israeli tourists.
1996-1998 Several Al Qaeda attacks in East Africa, including U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
1993 Islamist-backed Somalis, funded by a nascent Al Qaeda, attacked U.S. forces in Mogadishu.
ICU and Its Leadership
ICU came to prominence in 2004 as the political situation in Somalia deteriorated and the newly elected government was forced to flee to neighboring Kenya. President Abdullah Yusef, leader of Somalia’s traditional parliament, continues to operate a government in exile. Ethiopia is the only strategic counterweight to ICU support in the region and a key supporter of the Yusef regime, which is now located in Baidoa, Somalia.
ICU supports the strict imposition of Islamic law, and since its inception, the group has prevented the return of the Somalia government, and has threatened jihad against regional peacekeepers. It began instituting Islamic law as early as 2004 when it began closing down movie theaters and other recreational facilities they deemed unIslamic.
ICU has two leaders: Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed and Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys. Sheikh Sharif Shekh Ahmed founded the ICU in 2003 when he felt compelled to seek justice in the kidnapping of a student at his Islamic school. In 2005, Ahmed explicitly stated the organization’s goals to demonstrators in Mogadishu: “the only solution is to adopt the…Islamic laws.” Since its inception, the ICU has prevented the return of Somalia’s internationally recognized government and has threatened jihad against regional peacekeepers.
Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys was once head of Al-Ittihad al-Islamiya (AIAI), a radical Islamist group founded in the 1990s through the influence of Osama bin Laden, then located in Sudan. Since September 11th, AIAI has been placed on the State Department’s list of terrorist groups and has been the focus of western counterterrorism efforts. He also has a possible connection to the 2005 UK attacks. A London Times report has United Nations officials identifying U.S. and UK agents following members of AIAI and the Egyptian group al-Takfir wa al-Hijra (ATWAH) in the wake of the July 7th London bombings.
In May 2006, ICU militias drove their rivals from Mogadishu. Since then, the rivals have relented in their fight, further empowering the ICU. The situation continues to be fluid, but it is clear now that the ICU is the only group in control of Mogadishu and its environs. Without clear rivals, the ICU is the only authority in the country. According to a recent Associated Press report, the ICU has surrounded the compound of the internationally recognized government in Baidoa, Somalia. Ethiopian forces are poised to defend the recognized government, but U.S. officials recognize that the ICU has the advantage.
The ICU receives funds and support from a large expatriate community. A U.S. State Department official recently testified that money and weapons come from Eritrea and Yemen, and that “some of the funds came from Somali businessmen based in Saudi Arabia.” Another recent report notes that Sheikh Aweys travels abroad “quite freely – to Saudi Arabia and Dubai, without being arrested. ICU leadership refuses to accept United Nations or regional African relief services or any peacekeeping missions. The humanitarian situation in Somalia continues to deteriorate, including a steady stream of reports of brutal enforcement of Islamic law.
December Update: Since September 2006 ICU leadership has consolidated its control over key areas of the country outside of Baidoa where the internationally recognized Somali government is defended by Ethiopia’s military. Meanwhile, there were two assassination attempts targeting leaders of the recognized government using car bomb tactics regularly seen in Iraq. A recent United Nations (UN) report acknowledges the increasing presence of foreign fighters operating within the area of ICU control:
[F]oreign volunteers also provide training in guerrilla warfare and special topics or techniques consisting of bomb making and the use of bombs against different targets such as a variety of different types of transport and buildings. Other techniques include kidnapping and the conduct of assassination by ambush and sniping… [T]he ICU is fully capable of turning Somalia into what is currently an Iraq-type scenario, replete with roadside and suicide bombers, assassinations and other forms of terrorist and insurgent-type activities.
In December ICU leadership rejected UN requests for talks and has threatened war with Ethiopia unless Ethiopian troops leave Baidoa.
The African Advantage
In June 2006, Sada al-Jihad (Echo of Jihad), a Saudi-based jihad periodical, published an article by Al Qaeda strategist, Abu Azzam al-Ansari, exploring the possibility and advantages of a strategy for Africa. The following table summarizes the 13 advantages:
Al-Ansari's 13 Advantages to Expanding Al Qaeda Operation
1 “Jihadi doctrines” are well entrenched in most predominantly Muslim countries. This jihadi expansion has old roots in many of the African countries.
2 The general chaos and corruption found throughout the continent which eases “the ability of the Mujahidin to move and plan and organize themselves…”
3 Tribal and geopolitical conflicts produce “groups and individuals willing to heroically [sacrifice] themselves.”
4 [Similar to #2]
5 General chaotic conditions “provide [a] huge amount of weapons and military equipment easy to obtain…”
6 Western interests use Africa’s “maritime routes” to transfer weapons and equipment” and “use these routes to shift oil to the rest of the world. Targeting these routes will be fatal for the Crusaders…”
7 “Africa is also one of the closer routes to Palestine…”
8 Africa’s poverty offers opportunities to offer “finance and welfare” programs.
9 Educated Africans could be recruited for the jihad.
10 Africa’s large Muslim population is predominantly Sufi, a group considered to be easier to work with than “any other trend, such as the Shi’is or the Communists.”
11 Specific local conflicts pit “true Muslims against rivals, including the “potential of the renewal of the conflict in Egypt.”
12 “Another advantage is he links to Europe through North Africa, what eases the move from there to carry out attacks.”
13 “Africa is rich in economic sources, oil and raw materials. This is very useful for the Mujahidin in the medium and long term.