In October 1993, eighteen U.S. soldiers on a UN relief mission were killed in the streets of Mogadishu in a prolonged gun battle that followed a raid gone awry (Philly Inquirer). The deaths shocked the American public and resulted in a more cautious U.S. approach to military interventions that lasted until 9/11. Since the UN withdrawal from Somalia in 1994, warlords and clan rivalries have ravaged the country. According to the U.S. State Department, this lawlessness and instability has created a terrorist haven that is "threatening the security of the whole region" (PDF). Yet as this new Backgrounder explains, there is a real threat that Somalia will become an incubator for more serious international terrorism.
The violence Mogadishu has experienced this month is some of the worst in more than a decade. Residents of the city are fleeing their homes (AllAfrica.com) as Islamist militias square off against a band of warlords calling themselves the Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism (BBC). The alliance's name is widely seen a marketing ploy to attract U.S. support (LAT), and there is some evidence to suggest that the United States is backing the group (WashPost).
Somalia is known to have been a transit point for terrorists, and an International Crisis Group (ICG) report says it is the likely hiding place of the al-Qaeda cell that bombed a Mombasa hotel and fired a missile at an Israeli passenger jet in 2002. In recent years, Somalia has spawned its own terrorist group (Jamestown), which has carried out a number of attacks, including the 2003 murder of an Italian nun. There are also concerns that Somalia will be overrun by Islamic extremists. In much of the country, the only semblance of law and order is provided by sharia courts, which are propped up by the Islamist militias involved in the current round of fighting. But another ICG report indicates militant Islamist movements in Somalia are often met by widespread resistance, and says it is remarkable "that Islamist militancy has not become more firmly rooted in what should, by most conventional assessments, be fertile ground."
Experts say the best counterterrorism strategy for Somalia is one that focuses on restoring order to the war-ravaged nation. As journalist Douglas Farah explains, failed states "are vital for the Islamist network to regenerate and improve itself." Since 1991, thirteen efforts to establish a functioning government have failed. A fourteenth, the product of prolonged international mediation, has produced a transitional government that may well collapse if the current violence persists (Reuters). International observers have called for African Union peacekeepers to protect the government (ICG), and the Somali cabinet has agreed, though they have specifically requested troops from Uganda and Sudan (AP), neither of which is a model of stability.
Even if a government is installed, Somalia faces a host of challenges, not the least of which is an entire generation of citizens who have known nothing but violence and anarchy (BBC). A BBC timeline offers a glance at Somalia's history.