Al-Qaeda, long hovering in the shadows, has established itself as a presence in the Somali capital, say U.S. officials, who see a growing risk that Somalia will become a new haven for terrorists to launch attacks beyond its borders.
Meanwhile, a major war — promoted and greeted approvingly by Osama bin Laden — looms between Somalia and Ethiopia, threatening a regional conflagration likely to draw more foreign extremists into the Horn of Africa.
The Sharia Islamic Courts Council (SICC) that forms the country’s de facto government has given Ethiopia, its traditional foe, until tomorrow to withdraw the thousands of troops protecting Somalia’s official Government, holed up in the town of Baidoa, 150 miles from the capital. The imams of Mogadishu, in lorries with loudspeakers, exhort Somalis to prepare for battle. Newspapers carry photographs of Somali women dressed in niqabs and brandishing AK47s. Businesses contribute the heavy weapons used for security. A hospital has been commandeered for casualties. Ethiopia and the United States are denounced at mass rallies for supporting a Government that most ordinary Somalis detest.
“War is imminent . . . the guns are loaded,” said Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, the council’s pre-eminent leader. He also appealed for a last-minute intervention from Europe to persuade Ethiopia to withdraw.
The stakes are high. A war between Muslim Somalia and Christian-ruled Ethiopia could rapidly engulf the entire Horn of Africa, sucking in neighbouring Eritrea, Djibouti, Kenya, Sudan and even Yemen. It would give Islamic jihadists the chance to establish a new front in Africa after Iraq and Afghanistan, and to wage another proxy war between East and West. For ordinary Somalis, war would shatter the first six months of peace they have enjoyed in 15 years, the result of the council’s banishment of the warlords who had turned Somalia into one of the world’s most dangerous and lawless countries.
So, what does the U.S. do? Throw everything behind Ethiopia’s invading army or allow an al Qaeda ally to consolidate a hold on a country that will become the new Afghanistan?
Beneath the veneer lies the grim prospect that Al Qaeda, Osama Bin Laden’s merchants of death, could have opened shop in Somalia. “This is a new chapter and part of the terror group’s plan to wage war against the West,” says the Somali President. That draws the magnitude of the war if it breaks out; the ordinary Islamist gunman sees more than Ethiopian presence.
On the crosshairs are the perceived anti-Muslim states, top on the list being the US and the UK. The two have vast interests in Kenya. As we have seen in the past, it is not beyond Al Qaeda, if indeed it has opened shop in Somalia, to strike Western interests on the Kenyan soil. The package includes massive injuries and deaths.
The Council of Islamic Courts, which controls most of southern Somalia, has vowed to launch a Holy War (Jihad) starting Tuesday “unless Ethiopian troops supporting the government leave Somalia.” On Friday Islamic leaders distributed sermons about the Jihad for dissemination at mosques during worship