In a country that has known no functioning government for 15 years, about the only thing predictable is anarchy and warlordism. Since Somali warlords ousted dictator Mohammed Siad Barre in 1991, their clans and sub-clans have coalesced into militias and largely run the capital, Mogadishu. But for the first time in 15 years, a new opponent has wrenched power from their hands.
Their nemesis was a coalition of militia-backed Islamic courts, which has been on the ascendancy for two years. After weeks of exchanging gunfire and mortar shells with the warlords in Mogadishu, the Islamic Courts Union took control of the capital. The surge in fighting killed some 300 Somalis, mostly civilians caught in the crossfire. Their victory was as much a defeat for the United States as it was for the warlords, who have received U.S. backing against Somali Islamists.
For Americans, Somalia evokes images from 1993 of 18 U.S. servicemen killed and one dragged through Mogadishu streets after Somali militiamen shot down a Black Hawk helicopter carrying out a United Nations peacekeeping mission. The tragedy increased American skepticism about both UN missions and foreign nation-building efforts. Since then, the United States has had no official presence in Somalia, while U.S. policy has been to prevent Somalia from bubbling into a terrorist haven as Afghanistan did under the Taliban.
U.S. officials believe that Somali Islamic leaders are harboring al-Qaeda terrorists connected with the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania and two other 2002 strikes in Kenya: a suicide bombing of an Israeli-owned hotel and an attempt to shoot down an Israeli airliner.
Hoping to nab them, the United States enlisted the help of secular warlords aligned against the Islamic Courts Union. In February, the warlords adopted a heartwarming name: "The Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counterterrorism." The International Crisis Group, which has direct contacts with the warlords, said in June that the CIA was funneling $100,000 to $150,000 a month to them. At the most, U.S. officials have acknowledged anonymously that they have backed the alliance. But in official comments, the Bush administration has neither confirmed nor denied the support.
The United States wanted quick results without thinking of long-term destabilization and further violence, argues Suliman Baldo, Crisis Group's Africa program director. The warlords, meanwhile, "saw an opportunity to cash in on the counterterrorism policies of the U.S., and they did cash in." The effect was to play into the hands of the Islamic Courts Union, he said, which styled its victory as a defeat for foreign elements interfering in Somali affairs.
Mr. Baldo said many of the alliance warlords are the same ones who have kept the country in shreds since 1991, employing violence and tactics such as hostage-taking. They have also prevented the weak official government, formed two years ago, from taking control of Mogadishu, unwilling to cede their moneymaking fiefdoms. Some of the warlords were even cabinet ministers in the Transitional Federal Government, which sits in the town of Baidoa 155 miles northwest of the capital. But they rebelled by joining the counterterrorism alliance, earning expulsions from their government posts.
At any rate, U.S. support to the warlords did not prevent the Courts Union's sudden win, which could mark the long-feared swerve toward national Islamism. The group began gaining influence soon after Siad Barre's 1991 overthrow, supplying much-needed health, judicial, and educational services. Soon they organized courts-with 11 now in Mogadishu-to deal with a petty crime wave, and by the mid-1990s had moved on to tackling big crimes such as robbery and murder. They also organized militias to enforce order, which this month drove the warlords northward to their last stronghold of Jowhar and defeated them there on June 14.
The unrelenting chaos has taken its toll on Somalia's 8 million inhabitants. The under-5 mortality rate is one of the highest in the world. Clan fighting has displaced some 375,000 within Somalia, according to the United Nations, putting them in dangerous living conditions. Delivering food and medical aid is also perilous, making Somalia a no-go area for many humanitarian groups.
Doctors Without Borders is one of the few that operate in Somalia, and it reports that fighting has destroyed most hospitals and clinics, forcing some Somalis to travel 500 miles just to receive health care. The country is also suffering through its worst drought in a decade, which especially hurts Somalis in southern regions.
Living without a government has forced Somalis to adapt-often to their benefit. In Mogadishu, private businesses supply electricity and water. With no government to tax and regulate, the telecommunications industry is also thriving. Somalia boasts the lowest cell-phone rate in Africa, and installing landlines takes days as opposed to months or weeks in some African nations with governments.
But war-weariness means many Mogadishu residents appreciate the law and order the Islamic Courts Union has brought. While analysts consider leader Sheikh Sharif Ahmed a moderate, his deputies are radicals. Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys and Adan Hashi Ayro began the Somali terrorist group al-Ittihad al-Islami, which has reported links to al-Qaeda. Still, Mr. Ahmed did not sound very moderate initially when addressing a rally soon after taking over: "Until we get the Islamic state, we will continue with the Islamic struggle in Somalia." He was even more aggressive when talking to the Saudi-owned Asharq al-Awsat daily, saying, "If U.S. forces intervene directly against us in Mogadishu, then we are ready to teach them a lesson they will never forget and repeat their defeat in 1993."
But Mr. Ahmed's tone quickly turned conciliatory in an e-mail to diplomats, promising no shared "objectives, goals or methods with groups that sponsor or support terrorism," particularly al-Qaeda. He said the Union would like "a friendly relationship with the international community that is based on mutual respect and interest and seek their support for the Somali peace process." The leader also extended an olive branch to warlords and clans, describing the Union's desire to end the bloodshed. If nothing else, the Union knows the warlords remain a threat and see a need to widen support for their power. "I don't think they were ready for a victory at this moment. . . . They were the underdogs in this fight," said Mr. Baldo.
The burning question is whether the Islamic Courts Union will turn militant. "Now they're in control of Mogadishu, the stakes are higher," Mr. Baldo said. "Those who are militant may try to control the process now."