On Oct. 9 Somali jihadists declared holy war against Horn of Africa rival Ethiopia. But for days before the pronouncement, church leaders in southwestern Ethiopia already had discovered they were locked in battle with radical Islamists. Locals say the radicals include Somalis. If true, the clashes could mark the beginning of a dangerous new regional conflict.
For weeks a group of over 300 men whom locals described as "Muslim fundamentalists" were training in a remote area outside the city of Jima, 250 miles southwest of Addis Ababa. According to eyewitnesses, the group has included a number of Somalis. Government forces, alarmed by their activities, arrested several of the leaders. But when the remainder organized themselves and-armed with machetes and knives-attacked Christian churches and villages, the government did little to stop them.
Within two days, the militants had killed 31 Christians, captured well over 250 as hostages, and burned more than 350 homes, according to local church leaders. The Muslim attackers burned one Catholic church, one Orthodox church, and three evangelical churches. The latter are part of the 75-year old Kale Heywet Church (EKHC), which began under the missionary influence of what was then known as Sudan Interior Mission and now includes over 5 million Ethiopian believers.
Attackers quickly converted five local EKHC churches into mosques. They ordered some Christian men to dress in traditional turbans and women to wear veils and djellaba. They also tried to force churchgoers to recite Quranic prayers five times a day.
"There are almost 400 churches in that area, also many Muslims living there. But they have been living together for a long time. Now the Muslims are attacking," said an EKHC officer who asked not to be named because of fear of ongoing attacks. He told WORLD that while many residents had noticed an increasing level of radical Islamic activity in the area, most were "very surprised" by the armed attacks.
One early confrontation led to Muslim deaths, however. When armed militants showed up at an Orthodox church function to take control of the facility, a youth suddenly appeared with an AK-47 and shot four militants. The violence seems to have escalated during a month of concurrent religious observances: Ramadan for Muslims, and Meskel, or the feast of the exaltation of the holy cross, for Ethiopian Orthodox. Militants at one point ordered women in the village of Denbi to prepare confiscated cattle for the fast-breaking evening meal marking Ramadan.
Local church leaders estimate that nearly 3,000 Christians have been displaced in under a week of raids. Last week many of the homeless hastily organized themselves into five camps for protection and to share food and other supplies. They quickly began constructing new tukuls, or clay and mud huts with thatched roofs. Others are hiding out by day, the church officer said, and returning to their homes to sleep at night. And about 100 remained missing a week after the attacks.
The church officer described government response to the violence as "late action." Muslims in recent years have sought key political roles in the province, and some, he said, "did not give good information to the federal government" as violence erupted. After EKHC leaders wrote a letter to federal officials, local police forces moved in. In some areas they have set up patrols beginning Oct. 10 outside churches. By Oct. 11 the government had arrested over 200 militants suspected of involvement in the attacks.
The U.S. humanitarian relief group Samaritan's Purse has provided $50,000 in emergency food aid. The group's vice president of programs, Ken Isaacs, called the attacks "another example of Christian persecution in the world today" and said, "It is important to help the victims of these attacks because they desperately need it and because so few people in the world are even aware of this situation."
Tension between Somalia and Ethiopia has increased dramatically since an Islamic militant group in June took over Somalia's capital, Mogadishu, and areas to the south. Islamic militant leader Sharif Sheik Ahmed accuses Ethiopia of sending troops to support the crumbling interim government. Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi says his government has sent military advisors only. Ahmed's call for jihad on Ethiopia came hours after government fighters, allegedly accompanied by Ethiopian soldiers, took over the Islamist outpost of Buur Hakaba, only 20 miles from Ahmed's base of operations at Baidoa.
"Starting from today, we have declared jihad against Ethiopia," Ahmed proclaimed at a news conference Oct. 9, wearing combat fatigues and clutching an AK-47. "Heavily armed Ethiopian troops have invaded Somalia. They have captured Buur Hakaba," he said. And then, in an apparent reference to the 1993 "Black Hawk Down" debacle, in which 18 U.S. soldiers and two U.S. helicopters were lost in Mogadishu, he said: "History shows that Somalis always win when they are attacked from outside."
U.S. counterterrorism experts have said that Somalia bears watching more as a terrorist haven and transit route than a breeding ground to export international jihadism. That may be changing with the further erosion of the interim government-Somalia's 14th attempt at central government since 1991-and the triumph of the new radical religious movement known as Islamic Courts Union (ICU) over not only government forces but also entrenched warlords. If the Somali Islamists also are spreading holy war to Ethiopia, however, the United States has more reason to take seriously the rise of Islamic radicalism in the Horn of Africa.
At parade grounds outside Mogadishu the ICU is training holdovers from the city's infamous warlord militias into an army of Allah, according to a recent report in London's Sunday Telegraph. They chant "Allah akhbar!" or "God is great!" as they drill, spend hours studying the Quran, and draw frequent comparisons to the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Like the Taliban a decade ago, the militants' dramatic ascendancy is winning initial popular support for bringing a semblance of order and decency to one of the world's most dangerous cities. But already order comes at the price of freedom: The courts have tried to shut down cafés showing Bollywood films and to limit soccer matches; they have urged radio stations to stop playing love songs; and they have pressured women to wear veils. Amputation has become the sentence of choice for many crimes.
Given the comparisons, many suspect that ICU is a front for establishing a Horn of Africa al-Qaeda. But the ICU remains a far from unified entity politically or religiously: Its core members range in Islamic belief from moderate Sufism to rigid and legalistic Wahhabism.
Nevertheless, the comparisons put neighbors like Ethiopia and Kenya on the alert. With the ever-present challenges of endemic poverty, famine, and a harsh environment, one more destabilized government in their backyard can be too many. This month's attacks in Ethiopia are a reminder that Somalia is just such a neighbor-with factions ready to inflict not only devastation but also fear.
As the wave of violence eases, villagers say they are hesitant to return to their land for fear of revenge attacks. "Even if these people go back to their village, they have lost everything. And it's very difficult to go back unless someone is helping them," said the EKHC church official. "They have to restart life again from zero. It's so disappointing."