Tuesday, June 6, 2006

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Has Al Qaeda acquired a new base?

I've occasionally riffed about how Al Qaeda acts like the Tampa Bay Devil Rays Kansas City Royals of world politics. However, this was predicated on the assumption that Al Qaeda had lost their base in Afghanistan and failed to acquire a new one.

Which brings me to Somalia, and the takeover of Mogadishu by an entity called the Union of Islamic Courts. There are some very disturbing parallels between what's happening in Mogadishu, Somalia right now and what happened in Afghanistan when the Taliban took over Kabul. Consider this BBC report:

The Islamic Courts say they want to promote Islamic law rather than clan allegiance, which has divided Somalis over the past 15 years.

However, all but one of the 11 courts is associated with just one clan - the Hawiye, who dominate the capital....

The Union's public face is its chairman Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, a moderate who sought to assure Somalis and the international community this week that the Islamic Courts were no threat and only wanted order.

But the Union does contain radical elements.

Two of the 11 courts are seen as militant; one is led by Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, on an American list of terrorism suspects because he used to head al-Itihaad al-Islamiya, which was linked to al-Qaeda.

Mr Aweys says al-Itihaad no longer exists and also denies accusations from some western diplomats and observers that there are training grounds for Islamic fighters in Somalia.

He is, however, strongly critical of the United States and its "war on terror"....

During the years of warfare and anarchy, many Somalis have increasingly turned to their faith for some sort of stability.

One visible sign is that before the civil war began in the 1980s, very few women wore headscarves in Mogadishu.

Now, almost every woman wears a headscarf and an increasing number are wearing veils covering their faces, with just narrow slits for the eyes.

Even those Mogadishu residents who are wary of Islamic extremism may welcome a single group being in control of the capital for the first time in 15 years, saying there will at least be some authority.

And many will prefer Islamic preachers to the warlords who have fought over and in many cases systematically looted the city since 1991.

This July 2005 report from the International Crisis Group about Somalia does not make me feel any more sanguine.

James Gordon Meek has a roundup of U.S. intelligence views in the New York Daily News:

"Now you've got a safe haven for al-Qaida," said a defense intelligence official monitoring the country that was used as a base to stage attacks on two U.S. embassies and an Israeli resort in East Africa. "It's definitely a concern."

However, current and former U.S. officials told the New York Daily News that Osama bin Laden's terror network isn't firmly established in Somalia, though the country hasn't had a central government in 15 years.

U.S. Special Forces teams have found no signs of a firm al-Qaida presence, such as terror training camps, sources said.

"Probably our worst fears have not materialized," said recently retired CIA counterterrorism official Paul Pillar.

But Pillar said events in Mogadishu this week are "somewhat similar" to how the Taliban ended infighting by Afghan warlords in the 1990s, brought peace to a war weary country and gave sanctuary to bin Laden's training camps. Pillar said the CIA is likely telling its operatives to "collect, collect, collect" intelligence urgently.

"Having a place to stage attacks in that area is going to be attractive" to al-Qaida, warned former National Counterterrorism Center chief John Brennan.

Developing.... and not in a good way at all.

posted by Dan on 06.06.06 at 07:55 AM


Hmmm, so the Islamicists plan to take on the clan system in Somalia, the one they've relied on for hundreds of years? Good luck with that. Worked out well for the UN a few years ago.

posted by: Don Mynack on 06.06.06 at 07:55 AM [permalink]

The US has not necessarily been idle.

posted by: Appalled Moderate on 06.06.06 at 07:55 AM [permalink]

If memory serves, a large part of the 9/11 attack planning was done, not in Afghanistan, but in Hamburg, Florida, Arizona, and San Diego. The 3/11 attacks in Spain were carried out by Morrocans long resident in Spain.The recent 7/7 attacks in London were conducted by home grown UK Muslims. This major plot that was busted in Canada seems to involve long term resident (or native?) Canadian Muslims. All of this without a 'base' in some god-foresaken third world country. So, the question is, does it really matter from a counterterrorism perspective that there is Islamist activity in Somalia?

posted by: Mitchell Young on 06.06.06 at 07:55 AM [permalink]

And, to take Mitchell Young's point to its conclusion, these events become potentially tragic not because of how they will affect our "War on Terror" but because of the mid-grade civil war being waged (with a potentially illiberal and theocratic outcome for its citizens).

posted by: Matt on 06.06.06 at 07:55 AM [permalink]

I actually visited (if that's the correct word) Mogadishu while backpacking through East Africa in April (there's a weekly humanitarian flight from JK Airport in Nairobi).

I blogged about my impressions-based, I admit, on a two day visit, here http://selectedinsights.blogspot.com/2006/04/back-from-brink-or-thoughts-on-somalia.html

posted by: AV on 06.06.06 at 07:55 AM [permalink]

The visible rise of fundamentalism in Somalia seems rather abrupt, but is part of the general world trend in this direction. Two decades ago women rarely wore a hijab in Malaysia; now many do. This fundamentalism is not limited to Islam - there appears to have been a world rise in fundamentalism in Christianity as well. The Christians might not wear headscarves but their influence is certainly a part of the world political situation.

posted by: Jo on 06.06.06 at 07:55 AM [permalink]

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