Magazine article Foreign Policy in Focus

A New Frontier of Jihadi Islam?

Magazine article Foreign Policy in Focus

A New Frontier of Jihadi Islam?

Article excerpt

Somalia today is very much like Afghanistan was in 1996. In the wake of years of civil war, chaotic rule by warlords, and the death and displacement of countless Muslims, a ragtag Islamic militia has moved in to take control of much of Somalia.

After running off some prominent warlords from their entrenched strongholds, the Islamic militia has sought to establish and expand its writ and has threatened to dislodge an internationally backed transitional government made up of veteran warlords with limited authority. Businessmen, clan leaders, and the general public, having tired of seemingly interminable factional violence and lawlessness, have lent support to the al-Qaida-aligned, fiercely anti-American Islamic militia, which draws legitimacy from its plans to restore peace and order. The militia has purported to do so by enforcing a court system based on an ultra-orthodox version of the Sharia (Islamic law) and tribal social norms.

The parallels between the predicaments of Somalia today and Afghanistan in 1996 are striking. Unless neighboring countries and the international community take this "Afghanistan" scenario seriously, Somalia will become the next frontier of jihadi Islam. Unless the United States changes its policy of funding an anti-terrorism alliance of Somali warlords, it will face a second Taliban. And unless Ethiopia rethinks its July 20 military intervention to prop up the transitional government against the Islamic Courts, Sunni Muslim sentiment in Somalia will turn even more radical.


Many analysts underestimate or simply dismiss the potential of Somalia becoming the Afghanistan of Africa. The Somali tradition of "religious moderation and tolerance" is cited as a deterrent to a Taliban-like, medieval administration that could destabilize the region and provide support for militant Islamic movements worldwide. For instance, in his July 11 testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, former U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia David Shinn noted that the rise of Islamic militias "does not mean, however, that Somalia is likely to become a major al-Qaida base or that it is headed toward a Taliban form of government. The vast majority of Somalis follow a moderate form of Islam and they are highly suspicious of foreign influence."

An International Crisis Group report says that "Somalis in general show little interest in jihadi Islamism; most are deeply opposed. Somali militant movements have failed to gain broad popular support, encountering instead widespread hostility. The most remarkable feature is that Islamist militancy has not become more firmly rooted in what should, by most conventional assessments, be fertile ground."

Still others point to the diversity of Somalia. The Islamic courts, Somalia observers say, have yet to venture into areas outside the Hawiye belt and, even within this clan, ideological and intra-clan differences are sharp. Some of the Islamic courts and Islamic leaders are seen to be more moderate than others. It remains to be seen if their radical Islamic rhetoric can keep the disparate Union of Islamic Courts united. Conventional Somali wisdom says clan affiliation comes before anything else.

Yet a look at Somalia's recent history, the events of the past few months, and the geo-strategic context in which the Islamic courts have gained ground all point to a more ominous future.

The Rise of the Courts

Since the fall of General Siyaad Barre's military regime in 1991, Somalia has been at war with itself, fragmented and carved up by warlords and clan-based militias, and without central rule. No less than fourteen attempts to restore statehood through internationally brokered national governments have failed to bring order of stem the violence. The Barre government had suppressed the Islamic movements of all hues for over twenty years. In the political vacuum and power struggle that ensued after Barre's rail, militant Islamic movements resurfaced with a vengeance, working on all fronts ranging from commerce to the judiciary. …

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