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Somalia at the Brink

Prepared by: Eben Kaplan
August 7, 2006

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While much of the world's attention has been focused on violence in the Middle East in recent weeks, another troublesome conflict is churning away in Somalia (BBC). This summer, fighters loyal to a group of Islamic courts rolled into Mogadishu, routing the warlords who had served as power brokers in the capital since Somalia's last stable government collapsed in 1991. The emerging fundamentalist leadership in the violence-plagued African nation has raised U.S. fears (Newsweek) that Somalia could become a haven for terrorists much like Afghanistan was.

Aside from the Islamists, several other players—explained in a new Backgrounder—have a stake in the outcome of Somalia's power struggle. For instance, the Mogadishu warlords, calling themselves the Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism, appear to have received funding from the United States (WashPost). Ethiopia has reportedly sent troops (VOA) to protect the feeble transitional government, which, because of the lack of security in the capital, is located in the city of Baidoa. Power and Interest News Report summarizes the situation by saying, "As of now, it is the [Islamic courts] versus Ethiopia, with everyone else on the sidelines."

Eritrea, a longtime rival of Ethiopia, certainly hopes to enter the fray. Eritrea is believed to be responsible for the arrival in Mogadishu of a cargo jet suspected of bringing arms to the Islamists (BBC). Terrorism analyst Douglas Farah writes in his blog that the mysterious jet is likely linked to the notorious Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout.

Somalia's internationally recognized transitional government has been struggling to stay together in recent weeks. On July 30, Prime Minister Ali Mohamed Ghedi survived a contentious no-confidence vote (Reuters), which included fistfights between members of parliament. More than two dozen ministers resigned (BBC) in recent weeks in protest of the government's unwillingness to reenter peace talks with the Islamists.

As the Islamist courts grow stronger, many are concerned about Somalia's ties to terrorism, which are explained in this Backgrounder. Sheik Hassan Dahir Aweys, the spiritual leader of the courts, who has been dubbed a terrorist by the U.S. government, tells Newsweek he and his followers are simply Muslims, not terrorists, though he goes on to liken Osama bin Laden to Nelson Mandela. Congressional Research Service analyst Ted Dagne told a House of Representatives subcommittee the danger for the United States "is being perceived by Somalis as anti-Islam" (PDF). James Madison University's J. Peter Pham likens the emergence of Somali courts to the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan (PDF). An International Crisis Group report says that while Somalia would seem fertile ground for militant Islam, Somalis have historically shown "little interest in jihadi Islamism." Then again, as Washington Post reporter Craig Timberg tells Foreign Policy, "Governments don't always reflect the will of their populations."

One element often overlooked or not understood by Western media is the importance of historically entrenched clan allegiances, outlined in this Stratfor report.

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