Is a New Islamic War Brewing in Africa?

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When Islamic clerics captured Somalia’s capital Mogadishu last month, it seemed to offer some hope for peace in the war-torn Horn of Africa country. Somalia has had no central government for 15 years, and the country was a patchwork of fiefdoms run by murderous warlords. The rise of the Islamic Courts Union worried the U.S., which says the group has ties to Al-Qaeda and harbors known terrorists, but others saw opportunity: perhaps the Islamists could finally end the bloodshed and bring a functioning government to Somalia.

Six weeks on and those hopes are disintegrating quickly. Hardliners within the Islamic Courts Union have pushed aside moderates and appointed as their head a man the U.S. suspects of collaborating with al-Qaeda. Mogadishu locals, who had cheered the demise of the warlords, began to fret when their new Islamic leaders cracked down much as the Taliban did in its early days in Afghanistan: young men watching World Cup football from Germany were beaten, and men wearing long hair were forced to have it cut. Talks between the Islamists and the fragile interim Somali government — elected in neighboring Kenya more than two years ago but powerless ever since and holed up in the southern Somali city of Baidoa — also stalled.

Then, in the past week Islamic forces surrounded Baidoa. The Islamic Courts Union says it will not attack the interim government, which is mostly secular in outlook, but the government’s closest ally, Ethiopia, is worried enough to be massing troops to take on the Islamic forces itself. The Islamists and Somali journalists say that Ethiopia has already sent troops over the border, a claim Ethiopia denies. But there is no doubting Ethiopia's intentions. “We will use all means at our disposal to crush the Islamist group if they attempt to attack Baidoa,” Ethiopian Information Minister Berhan Hailu told Reuters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital.

It wouldn’t be the first time the Ethiopians have taken on Somali Islamists. In late 1996, Ethiopian troops crossed the border into Somalia to take out a group called al-Itihaad al-Islamiya (AIAI), which had connections to Al-Qaeda and aimed to remake the lawless Horn of Africa country as a hardline Islamic state. At that stage, though, the group had only a few hundred fighters, and Ethiopia, which claimed AIAI operatives had tried to kill Ethiopia’s transport minister and had attacked hotels in Addis Ababa, crushed the Islamic group within months. But the Islamists regrouped and adopted a new strategy. Much as Hamas in Gaza or Hizballah in Lebanon, the Islamists spent years winning support among the Somali public by running medical clinics, schools and courts. Ten years on, many of the leaders of AIAI now help run the Islamic Courts Union.

Ethiopia fears that a powerful Islamic regime in Somalia (or any powerful regime in Somalia for that matter) will threaten its borders and may link up with anti-Addis Islamic groups in the Ethiopian area of Ogaden. With its superior troop numbers and military hardware (including a small number of planes), Ethiopia is likely to win any battle between the two forces. But war could leave Somalia even more broken than it already is. John Prendergast, a senior adviser at the International Crisis Group and an Africa specialist in the Clinton administration, says a conflict would likely end the transitional government’s chances of taking over in Mogadishu, severely damage the Islamists capacity to lead, flatten the city of Baidoa and leave Ethiopia with heavy casualties. “The [Islamic] militias are highly motivated and disciplined and would rally around the slogan of protecting Somalia from foreign invaders,” says Prendergast. “But the reaction from Ethiopia would be hellish and the Islamists know that.”

There is still hope that the Islamists and transitional government will meet and come to some accommodation. “The place to deal with differences is at the negotiating table,” Kofi Annan’s Special Representative for Somalia, François Lonsény Fall, said last week. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Jendayi Frazer told journalists by video-conference that the U.S. has told Ethiopia “not to get drawn into this provocation.” She said the U.S. hopes that moderates within the Islamic Courts Union will pull back the Islamic militias and return to talks. “If there was a significant engagement from the region backed strongly by the international community, then there’s a chance war can be averted,” says Prendergast. Unfortunately, the international community is focused on other conflicts at the moment.