After years of warlord control over Mogadishu and southern Somalia in general, in 2006 the so called “Islamic courts conquered all the center-south territories of the former Italian colony. Defeated and forced to flee from Mogadishu, the remains of the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) moved to Baidoa, where President Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmad obtained concrete help from Ethiopia and indirect support from the United States.
Then, just before Christmas 2006, Ethiopian and Somali forces launched an offensive against the courts in southern and central Somalia, quickly defeating the Islamist forces.
Not only Mogadishu but also the southern city of Kismayo fell after several days of fighting, leaving the Islamic militia disbanded and with only one possible alternative: hiding in the thickly-forested Lower Juba region and waiting for revenge. The Islamic courts are part of Somali history and tradition, though relegated in the past to administrative, social and religious duties. Somalis have never been religious zealots, nor has Somalia had a strong religious tradition or history. The courts were simply part of society, and they appeared in the recent past as a solution to the decline of the traditional clan role.
The courts’ forces were quickly welcomed as a positive element of stability by the local population; they reestablished order at the local level and confronted the warlords’ arrogant armed militias. In 2005, to increase their power and territorial control the most important courts decided to join forces. This alliance is what quickly allowed them to conquer Mogadishu and central and southern Somalia and relegate the remaining forces of the warlords and the TFG to Baidoa.
The courts then tried to establish an Islamic form of government based on a parliament or Shura and an executive government, the Fulinta.
The Shura was composed of 110 members from all the courts or local entities and was chaired by the radical Sheikh Hassan Dahir Haweis. The Fulinta comprised 25 members, called Hoghhaie (secretaries), and was chaired by the moderate Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmad. The original hierarchy of the courts was gradually replaced by factionalism. In the aftermath of the conquest of Mogadishu almost a dozen major factions emerged within the most important courts, mainly dominated by religious leaders and characterized by growing conflict. The most important faction was the Shabab (youth), the only real armed group serving the courts. It could count on almost 3,000 armed and trained men and an additional more poorly equipped and trained force of about 6,000. In recent years Saudi Arabia and Kuwait were the two main sources of income for the courts (except for remittances from Somalis abroad), through a huge network of private donors and charitable societies.
Shabab leader Abdulkardir Omar Addani was openly known as one of the most important recipients of these funds, which have been heavily invested in religious and social infrastructures all over Mogadishu and the surrounding area. Elements in Pakistani intelligence along with Pakistani private entities and charitable funds were also suspected not only of financing some religious organizations but of favoring the illegal entry into Somalia of terrorists from Afghanistan. However, it was Iran that provided potentially the most important source of support for the courts of Mogadishu in the last phase of their power. The Islamic Republic had a double set of direct interests in Somalia.
First, to pave the way for the development of a client state relationship that would transform Somalia into a “third front in case of a major international crisis. And second, to determine whether the local uranium mines were “rich and easy to develop, as stated by Somali sources. The first interest presented a complex mix of challenges. The country was totally unknown to Iranians in terms of both politics and of society, with a composition of forces on the ground only partially-and probably temporarily-interested in interacting with Shiite Iran.
The courts looked at Iran as a good temporary partner, and above all considered the alliance beneficial in the context of the crisis with Ethiopia. Shabab leaders Addani and Adan Hashi Farah had a completely different vision of the alliance, seeing Iran as a stable source of support as well as a partner supposedly linked with jihadist forces throughout the Middle East. Lebanese Hizbullah personnel were repeatedly spotted in Mogadishu and instructors from that organization and from Hamas were present in southern Somalia from 2003.
While the long-term evolution of this alliance was uncertain, in the short-run there was clearly a mutual interest in having at least open contact and basic support, for example in the training camps in the Lower Juba and the Lower Shabelle regions. But Somalia was and probably still is for Tehran also a territory where it can compete for influence with Saudi Arabia, one of the main threats to the internal security of the Islamic Republic. Tehran is well aware of the role the Saudis are playing with Iran’s Arab minorities, and the bilateral dimension of Iranian-Saudi relations is, despite appearances, at its lowest peak.
Iran is also unhappy with the role the Saudis are playing in southern Iraq and with the Kurds, and for that reason Somalia offers a unique opportunity to invest against Saudi Arabia’s interests. The country, in fact, not only represents a bridge that could easily bring forces onto Saudi territory, but is also an arena where Iranian financial and military support could threaten regional Saudi interests. As for the courts, they were ready to take advantage of Tehran’s availability in training and financing their militias while postponing the problem of how to deal with this complex mix of Sunni and Shiite sources of support.
The overall logic was probably more in favor of the Saudis, who are considered more stable and generous in the long run, while the Iranians were perceived as an immediate but probably temporary ally. Factions among the courts were already on the brink of an internal clash right after having taken control of Mogadishu and southern Somalia. There was disagreement on several political, social and religious issues, including the Shabab and its role inside the courts system.
With no more than 5,000-7,000 fully equipped soldiers, including, according to Somali military sources, nearly 70 “white troops (probably American and European converts), the Islamist militias were trying to surround Baidoa and TFG forces without considering the potential of the Ethiopian Army. The strength and tactical capacity of the courts units were highly overestimated by many foreign observers. Within a few days the entire defensive system of the Islamist forces had collapsed.
Mogadishu was abandoned largely due to fear of the local population after a brief summit of tribal leaders suggested that the courts quickly leave the city. Kismayo fell a few days later. Today, for the first time in more than a decade a renewed feeling of Somali nationalism seems to be emerging. The Islamist militias were enthusiastically expelled by the population, while Ethiopian forces were welcomed with stones and burning tires.
An additional factor is the unexpected positive role played by the clans, gathering forces without relapsing into tribalism. Yet Somalia faces three big threats: the doubtful political capabilities of the TFG, the presence of Ethiopian forces and the Islamist militias. The nightmare of any Somali today is assisting in the rebirth of the role of the warlords. If the TFG leaders are not able quickly to allay that danger the door will be reopened to instability and potentially, again, to the courts. Many Somalis are convinced that Addis Ababa is interested in taking control of the port of Kismayo, maintaining Somalia in a state of chaos and generally preserving its status of failed state with the active support of the breakaway states of Somaliland and Puntland north of Somalia-the latter the home region of President Yusu
For the moment, Ethiopian forces are at best simply tolerated as a necessary and temporary evil. The longer they stay in Somalia, the less the government will be able to gain support from the population. On the other hand, the less the Ethiopians stay the more the Islamist militias will be able to reorganize and regroup. Last but not least, southern Somalia is a perfect place to hide. Islamist forces could establish a temporary base there to rethink strategies and reorganize forces. Several foreign cells of terrorists and instructors had already arrived prior to the retreat and could influence a shift in the overall strategy of the Islamist militias, which are not totally defeated and are potentially subject to an evolution toward terrorism.
Additional forces and materiel could possibly come from the already unstable territories of northern Kenya and southern Sudan, both sanctuaries of terrorist cells.
Nicola Pedde is director of Globe Research, a Rome-based independent think tank and analysis center focusing on the Middle East and the Horn of Africa. This commentary first appeared at bitterlemons-international.org, an online newsletter