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Taliban 2.0: Mogadishu’s Union of Islamic Courts

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J. Peter Pham writes in the Wall Street Journal this morning about the danger posed by the takeover of Mogadishu, Somalia, by hard-line Islamists called the Union of Islamic Courts. (Subscription required). Key excerpts:

[T]he truth is that the Union is made up of at least four major jihadi groups: al-Ittihad al-Islami (“Islamic Union”), a group which used to appear on the State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations (the folks at Foggy Bottom apparently bought at face value the group’s previously self-proclaimed dissolution); al-Takfir wal-Hijra (“Excommunication and Exodus”), a group so extreme that it considered Osama bin Laden too moderate and tried to kill him in Sudan in 1996; al-Islah (“Reconciliation”), an Islamist group pushing for the establishment of a Islamic state in Somalia; and al-Tabligh (“Making Known”), an Islamist “missionary” group with links to the same madrassas in Pakistan which gave us the Taliban.

The forces of the Union, like those of the Taliban, are reinforced with foreign jihadis including, according to my sources in Somalia, Arabs, Afghans, Pakistanis, Kashmiris, Palestinians and Syrians. And, again like the Taliban, the Union is generously supplied by nominal U.S. allies on the Arabian peninsula — in this case Saudi Arabia and Yemen, via daily flights from Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

The Taliban proved the lethality of allowing a militantly Islamist group to seize control of any country. But in contrast to isolated Afghanistan, Somalia sits astride shipping lanes vital to the global economy for the flow of oil and cargo.

The day after Mogadishu fell to the Union, I interviewed Deputy National Security Advisor J.D. Crouch on the situation there:

HH: Yesterday, the news came that Islamists in Somalia are declaring that Mogadishu is now under their operational control, and of course, the threat arises that that could become the new Kandahar, the new Kabul. What are we doing about that?

JDC: Well, obviously, we’ve got to…and this is a problem of safe havens, obviously that the President and Secretary Rumsfeld and others have talked about. We have defense relationships in the region that we will be exploiting. We obviously have contacts along the border. We do not have diplomatic relations with Somalia. We’re not a…this is not a country that we could have direct relationship with. So we’re having to exert pressure and exert influence from basically around and outside the country.

HH: But it is indeed a serious threat, isn’t it, that you have Islamists in charge of a major port city with some industrial base?

JDC: Absolutely. It’s something we’re going to have to deal with, and as I said, we’ve got an approach to that, and we’re working not only with the countries in the region, but we also have, as you know, we also have military forces in the region from a Naval perspective that are in and around that area.

What Pham argues is that “exerting pressure” or “exerting influence” will not work with the new Taliban any more than it did with the Taliban of Afghanistan. The time to act via a proxy is now, or the day will rapidly arrive that requires the return of U.S. troops to Mogadishu.

Pham writes about the next steps to watch for by the Somali Islamists:

[T]he Union will turn its attention to destabilizing Somaliland, whose democratically elected, secular government has already been declared anathema by the Union’s chief ideologist, Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, the al Qaeda-linked head of al-Ittihad. (This month alone, the Somaliland government has intercepted two major arms shipments destined for Union-aligned jihadis from well-wishers in Arabia.) Then the Union will turn on Ethiopia and Kenya, both countries with large ethnic Somali populations with significant pockets of jihadi infiltration. If all this sounds a bit far-fetched, recall that the Taliban’s Mullah Omar thought of himself as the emir of a nascent Central Asian caliphate.

Somali ex-pats living in the U.S. deny that the Union is Taliban 2.0, but concern is growing that with Mogadishu in hand, the Union will push to extend control north and south, and the London papers are following the developments closely. David Blair’s Africa blog carries occasional reports on the Union, and the Times of London carried this lengthy profile of the Union’s leader, Sheikh Sharif Ahmed.

When the Taliban swept to power in Afghanistan, few people in the U.S. noticed or cared, and even when the statues of the giant Buddhas were destroyed in early 2001 the reaction was not “do Mullah Omar’s radical views pose a threat?” but rather a sense of dismay and regret but also a refusal to contemplate any meaningful intervention.

Now a replay appears to be underway.


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