Somalia has been wracked by low-level violence between armed factions for fifteen years. The collapse of the Siad Barre regime in 1991, the United States intervention of 1992-93, and long peace talks in neighbouring Kenya under United Nations auspices have punctuated these years of trauma for ordinary Somali citizens, as their country has increasingly been awarded the contemptuous designation of "failed state" in the eyes of the world.
Throughout this period, the vast majority of Somalis have wanted nothing more than to resume their lives amidst security and a sustainable economy. Today, that is looking an even more remote prospect as the rule of arms has acquired a new, religious dimension which raises the question: is Somalia becoming a pawn in the wider "war on terror"?
In the last few weeks, the already war-ravaged capital city of Mogadishu has experienced some of the heaviest and most costly fighting of recent years. Scores of people have been killed and hundreds injured in a dangerous new conflict that has divided relatives and former allies while uniting former foes.
The combatants are two emerging rival groups: a faction led by the same warlords who have been at the forefront of the country's civil strife, supported by businessmen, and an element gathering under the banner of the Islamic courts.
The Islamic courts, whose Mogadishu chairman is Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed have so far had the upper hand in the fighting. The courts's militias have seized heavy weapons and taken control of a seaport and an airfield (while forcing the closure of another airfield by threatening to shoot down any incoming planes). It is expected the warlords will regroup and come back for more. Mogadishu is preparing for the worst.
Harun Hassan worked for Associated Press in Somalia from 1992-1998 and for the BBC Somali service from 1995-1998. He currently works as a freelancer.
Also by Harun Hassan in openDemocracy:
"'Not housekeepers any more': Somali women of the diaspora" (November 2002)
"Black Hawk Down: the Baghdad sequel? "
"The 'Axis of Anarchy'" (June 2003)
Iraq: the lesson from Somalia"
"Somalia: exit into history? "
"America's two faces in Somalia" (August 2004)
"Yahya: death of a peace campaigner"
The mistrust between the two sides has been under the surface for a long time, but the warlords have always been too busy with their futile power-struggles to take on the Muslim scholars. At the same time, the warlords have watched with alarm the gradual accretion of authority by the Islamic courts, realising that this was both a result of their own ineffectiveness and a threat to their future.
Meanwhile, in the vacuum of political and legal authority in recent years and the frustration of the vast majority of the Somalis with the warlords, the Islamic courts found their own opportunity. The courts offered to restore peace and tranquillity to a people longing for an alternative route, through the complete implementation of sharia law. They point to evidence of its success in the areas that have tried it so far. The warlords have opposed any such proposal for over a decade, but the revival of the courts has given it a new momentum.
Thus, the all-out war that has exploded only in recent weeks has been brewing for far longer. For more than a year, there have been unexplained assassinations in Somalia that had every appearance of careful planning. Among the victims were former military officers, activists and moderate politicians, as well as human-rights and justice workers like Abdulkadir Yahya Ali. More than twenty Muslim scholars and top officials in the Islamic courts were also killed in this kind of well-organised operation.
No one has been able to establish exactly who was behind the murders on both sides. Off the record, the Islamic courts's leaders would claim that the United States and Somalia's historic adversary Ethiopia were recruiting former Somali army and intelligence officers to spy on and hunt down those inside Somalia suspected of Muslim extremism. These leaders were especially angered when a number of Muslim dissidents of Ethiopian origin living as exiles in Somalia suddenly disappeared, only to reappear in Ethiopian government custody. Ethiopia has always denied any involvement in internal Somali affairs. In any case, analysts believe that retaliation from Islamic activists for the abductions has taken the lives of several of the former officers.
Both sides the courts's leaders and Mogadishu's warlords were until recently united against the Somali government of President Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed, which was appointed in October 2004 as a result of negotiations in Kenya but has since failed to establish a secure base in Mogadishu. Instead, the government formed temporary headquarters in several other Somali cities. This led both the courts's leaders and the Mogadishu warlords to accuse President Yusuf of a sinister plot to undermine Somali sovereignty in collaboration with Ethiopia.
Then, suddenly and out of nowhere, Mogadishu's main politicians turned against the courts. A number of powerful faction leaders and businessmen met to set up a new group called The Alliance for Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism. Terrorism has never been an issue in Somalia and there have never been any terrorism-related incidents in Somalia. This made the change of tone evident in the formation and title of this new alliance all the more striking. The political hostility the alliance expressed had the shape of a definite ideological stance.
One of the main warlords behind the alliance (and the second most powerful in the capital) is Mohamed Qanyare Afrah. Afrah has accused the Islamic courts of harbouring foreign terrorists and assassins; while one of the alliance's businessmen, Bashir Rage, went further: he claimed that Interpol had given the new grouping a list of more than seventy "suspected foreign terrorists" in Somalia under the auspices of the Islamic courts. Rage, who has led the alliance's latest campaign, is rumoured to be the CIA's "best man in Mogadishu".
Colonel Hassan Dahir Aweys, the most prominent Islamic courts leader, denied these allegations and in turn accused the warlords of "opportunism". He claimed that the warlords themselves were acting on "the orders of foreign elements". Aweys insisted that he himself had nothing to hide, that he had just retuned from Saudi Arabia, and that he does not belong to any unlawful group.
There is no independent verification as to whether there are seventy or more terrorists in Somalia. However, Kenya as well as the United States claims that those who masterminded the attempted downing of an Israeli plane in Mombasa in November 2002 may have planned the attack from Somalia. The United States also regards the Somali religious group Al-Itihad Al-Islam (AIAI) as a "terrorist organisation". Hassan Dahir Aweys is a former head of AIAI's military wing. The group as a whole has never concealed that its principal objective is to turn Somalia into a religious state ruled by sharia law.
The next intervention
The clash between the warlords and the Islamic courts thus has an international as well as a Somali dimension. It seems likely that some help in the form of moral and financial "incentives" from other countries presumably the United States, Italy and Ethiopia, three countries whose designs on Somalia are (it might be said without exaggeration) hardly "pure" has encouraged the warlords to mobilise their forces against the courts under the guise of the new alliance.
Indeed, a US state department official who monitors Somalia is quite explicit about US involvement in the conflict; he told AP on condition of anonymity that "U.S. officials had made contact with a wide range of Somalis." He declined to say what kind of support the US was supplying.
The militias involved in the latest Somali fighting belong to the same clan groupings that are normally deployed in the field (occasionally shifting sides in accordance with the balance of forces). What is different is the fresh ideological dimension underlying the tension and violence. Somalia's earlier wars have been based on local rivalries, power-struggles and disgruntlements among ruthless but secular warlords; this one is propelled by a more strategic but potentially more complicated dispute.
This is making an already grim situation even more serious. What scares many ordinary Somalis is the scale of the hostility and the deep hatred that both sides have shown for each other; one index of this is the way they have exchanged shellfire and heavy-weapons fire indiscriminately in and around the 2 million inhabitants of Mogadishu.
The big question is whether this exercise will prompt another intervention by the United States, even in the light of the failure and humiliation that attended its "operation restore hope". The US conducts regular sea and air surveillance over Somalia, and has military facilities in the region that could be a stepping-stone to such involvement (including a large military base in neighbouring Djibouti).
The US's predicament in Iraq makes an immediate US commitment to a physical presence in Somalia unlikely. But the US worries that the lack of political progress and popular disaffection with the warlords will lead Somalis to give more support to the Islamic courts.
Some leaders, including President Yusuf, are in favour of some international intervention. Both sides involved in the current Mogadishu fighting oppose the idea, but they face their own dilemma: how to afford to continue fighting. The warlords have more money, militias and guns compared to the Islamic courts, but the courts are determined and well-organised, and can draw on significant backing from Somalis.
The United Nations, which monitors the situation from Kenya, wants both sides to stop fighting. Its agencies are afraid that a worsening humanitarian crisis could be intensified by severe starvation, as the absence of a functioning administration makes it near-impossible to cope with the pressures of drought. Somalis fear that the disaster that has engulfed the country since 1991 shows as yet no sign of ending.