WASHINGTON, July 8 (UPI) -- The growing power of the Islamic Courts in southern Somalia is a serious setback in the war on terror and a threat to the stability of the strategically situated Horn of Africa.
Stateless Somalia has proved an ideal setting for the emergence of a secretive and dangerous jihadist organization, Al Itihaad Al Islamiya, which lies at the heart of the Somali Islamic Courts. As long as the Al Itihaad faction remains in a dominant position within the Islamic Courts, little good will likely come of the international effort to re-establish a responsible central government in Somalia.
Al Itihaad has actively worked with al-Qaida since 1993 to carry out acts of aggression against the United States, including the "Black Hawk Down" incident in Mogadishu and the bombing of the American embassy in Nairobi, Kenya. In 2002, Al Itihaad also likely provided support to al-Qaida operatives who attacked the Israeli-owned Paradise Hotel in Kenya and a failed missile attack against an Israeli civilian airliner. Osama bin Laden and some of the Al Itihaad leaders have apparently known each other from their Afghan mujahidin days.
Al-Qaida and Al Itihaad became closely allied in opposing the U.S.-led humanitarian intervention in Somalia known as Operation Restore Hope. Their plan was to create a large Islamic state in the Horn of Africa that could serve as a launching pad for attacks against the ultimate prize, Saudi Arabia. Bin Laden has claimed that al-Qaida operatives helped orchestrate the 1993 Black Hawk Down incident -- the downing of a U.S. army helicopter in Mogadishu and the subsequent loss of life of 18 American soldiers. There is now substantial evidence to back up bin Laden's claim. The Black Hawk Down incident and the subsequent televised images of the bodies of dead American soldiers being paraded on the streets of Mogadishu provoked strong reaction by the U.S. public and ultimately led to the decision of President Bill Clinton to withdraw U.S. forces from the United Nations intervention in Somalia. The success of the al-Qaida-Al Itihaad operation in Mogadishu undoubtedly encouraged al-Qaida in its belief that the United States was a paper tiger and likely emboldened its tactics against U.S. targets.
Al Itihaad forces also provided support to al-Qaida in the 1998 bombing of the U.S. embassy in Nairobi, Kenya. Soon after, bin Laden reportedly visited a joint Al Itihaad-al-Qaida camp at Ras Kamboni in southern Somalia near the Kenyan border to congratulate those who had provided material support for the al-Qaida operation.
A strategic objective of Al Itihaad is the establishment of a pan-Somali Caliphate in the Horn of Africa that would bring Somali ethnic populations in neighboring Ethiopia, Djibouti and Kenya into a territorially enlarged Somalia. In the mid 1990s with al-Qaida and Sudanese support, Al Itihaad launched a terrorist campaign and a military invasion of Ethiopia. Bin Laden transported several hundred Arab mujahadin veterans of the anti-Soviet Afghan struggle to assist Al Itihaad in its military ambitions inside both Somalia and Ethiopia. In response to Al Itihaad aggression, Ethiopian forces entered Somalia and defeated Al Itihaad forces on the battlefield.
This decisive defeat prompted Al Itihaad to re-invent itself, and by 1999 key elements of Al Ithihaad had morphed into the Islamic Courts in southern Mogadishu. One of Al Itihaad's top military commanders, Sheik Hassan Dahir Aweys, who has been linked to al-Qaida, became a leading figure in the Courts. Financed by Somali businessmen to provide protection, the Islamic Courts sought to enforce sharia justice on the lawless streets of Mogadishu. In short order, though, Al Itihaad, cum Islamic Court, started out again on a strategy of territorial conquest, first, occupying the strategic port of Merca in southern Somalia and then launching an offensive against secular political leaders in the area of Somalia known as Puntland further to the north. Over the years, there have been many reports both of Al Itihaad recruiting among Somalis living in Kenya and of its proselytizing its severe version of Islam in Kenya's North Western Province -- home to Kenya's ethnic Somalis and a large refugee population from Somalia. In 2002, the Kenya constitutional commission noted an upsurge of support in North Western Province for the establishment of an Islamic Caliphate.
The Islamic Courts have been blocking the installation in Mogadishu of a new interim government, whose formation has been supported by the international community, including the United States. News reports out of Sudan suggest that recent initial talks between the interim government and the Islamic Courts may be heading to a détente between the two, but unless the Islamic Courts show a willingness to break with their Al Itihaad antecedents and connection with international terrorism, the incorporation of the Islamic Courts into an interim Somali government may serve to further legitimize a group that poses a threat to United States, Ethiopia, Kenya and Djibouti.
The response of the Islamic Courts to the recent request by Assistant Secretary of State for Africa, Jendayi Fraser, to hand over al-Qaida operatives responsible for the Nairobi Embassy bombing and the terrorist attacks against Israeli targets in Mombasa will be telling in this regard. But the prospects of this happening appear unlikely. Within days of Fraser's request, the Islamic Courts named Sheik Hassan Dahir Aweys as the new leader. Sheik Aweys is believed to be one of the masterminds of the Black Hawk Down attack and a key architect of Al Itihaad's territorial aggression. In 2001, the United Nations named Sheik Aweys as an associate of bin Laden and al-Qaida and asked member states to freeze his assets.
How Ethiopia is disposed toward any new political configuration inside Somalia will be a key to the future of the region. With large Muslim and Christian populations, a multi-cultural Ethiopia can ill afford to have an aggressive Islamist state on its border, and in the past, Ethiopia's enemy, Eritrea, has supported Al Itihaad to fight against Ethiopia. To reduce the Somali threat to its sovereignty and stability, Ethiopia has built up an alliance of Somali militia leaders as a counterforce to the Islamists, and in the past intervened militarily to crush jihadists. Don't be surprised if Ethiopia takes pre-emptive military actions to hobble what it perceives as the jihadist threat along its borders.
Ultimately, it may be the success of the democratic experiments in Kenya and Ethiopia that will serve as the best antidote to a regional Islamist threat. Kenya is an emerging multiparty democracy that is well advanced in comparison to Ethiopia. The continued promise of political freedoms and signs of robust economic growth will likely serve to undercut Islamist sentiment within its own Somali population, though Kenya would be well served to assure that the ethnic Somalis in the economically disadvantaged North Western Province receive their fair share of such growth.
Ethiopia, too, has made important strides in achieving a multi-party democracy, but last year an apparent resort to armed rebellion by impatient elements of the Ethiopian opposition provoked a crackdown by the government of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. In the long run, a genuine commitment to representative government as well as more rapid economic growth may well be Ethiopia's best defense against those like Al Itihaad who would like to see the multi-religious Horn of Africa region under the rule of an Islamist state.
(Gregory Alonso Pirio is president of Empowering Communications, and Hrach Gregorian is president of Institute of World Affairs.)
(United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)