A new front in the “global war on terror” has emerged with its center in war-torn Somalia. The target of the new front, the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), both brought back normalcy to seemingly untamable southern Somalia and anxiously legislated morality to the point of social suffocation. According to the U.S. State Department, its greatest sin was its purported link to al-Qaida.

The military action to crush these “Islamic extremists” is already underway. Washington-supported Ethiopian troops carried out a preemptive attack against Somalia at the end of December. Ethiopian tanks roared all the way to the capital Mogadishu and then on to Kismayo near the Kenyan border. The invasion proved easier than expected. The comparatively more powerful Ethiopian army teamed up with a militia loyal to the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) to achieve their objective of regime change with an ease ominously reminiscent of the entry into Baghdad of the “coalition of the willing.”

With Ethiopian troops now in charge of Mogadishu, the political situation in Somalia has escalated dangerously. Militias are once again lining up according to clan loyalties. Ruthless warlords are resuming their pre-ICU roles, already setting up the infamous roadblocks, returning to banditry, and even carrying out vindictive assassinations. “My suspicion is that this is just another face of the conflict—clan versus clan; warlords versus warlords; ICU versus TFG—and the final chapter is not written yet,” says Abdi Kusow, one of the leading Somali intellectuals in the diaspora.

The presence of foreign troops has profoundly changed the political dynamics in Somalia. A grassroots-driven, wrathful nationalism will intensify, with ramifications beyond the Somali geographical boundaries. Indeed, unless the current trend is immediately reversed, the conflict will likely set the entire Horn of Africa on fire, spark an unprecedented humanitarian crisis, and widen the divide between the West and the Islamic world.

A Flawed Resolution

Until recently, the Islamic Courts controlled all but a small area of Somalia. The federal government, with the support of the Ethiopian troops, maintained control over the southwestern town of Baidoa. Then, in early December, Washington pushed a controversial resolution through the UN Security Council. The resolution authorized military intervention and the partial lifting of the arms embargo imposed on Somalia before the largest humanitarian mission in modern history (Operation Restore Hope) was undertaken 14 years ago. Many of Washington’s closest allies, including Britain, refused to cosponsor the resolution for its partiality and polarizing nature. The decision was also poorly timed, since the Khartoum peace talks between Somalia’s two major contending forces, the ICU and the TFG, was scheduled to resume the following week.

The ICU claimed that the resolution essentially ushered in Ethiopia through the back door by, among other things, failing to address the Ethiopian troops already present in the country since they first intervened in July.

The UN resolution opened up the flow of arms and money to the regime of Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, who perpetuated Somalia’s political hemorrhage for the past sixteen years through the financing, training, and arming of one faction against another. The resolution not only gave the estimated 8,000 troops who had been operating in Somalia the legitimacy to continue arming and “protecting” one side of the parties in conflict (TFG) but to take action against any group that “threatens the stability of the region,” a phrase euphemistically understood to mean “Islamists.” After the passage of the resolution, Ethiopia used Washington’s preemptive war doctrine to widen its intervention. This intervention into Somali internal affairs also discredited the moderates for whom such foreign preconditions were a kiss of death.

By taking on the ICU in order to find a handful of suspected terrorists in its midst, Washington was imprudently “looking to use a sledgehammer to crack a nut,” as an unnamed Western diplomat aptly put it. The same diplomat added that “even if they do get their six or so ‘high-value’ terror targets they will pay for it in frankly hundreds of people being converted to the cause.” Similarly, U.S. intervention in Iraq, presented as a way to combat terrorism, actually served as a recruitment opportunity for al-Qaida.

“I think the U.S. government panicked. They saw Islamic group; they said, Taliban is coming,” says Herman Cohen, former assistant secretary of State for African affairs. As with Iraq, Washington fell for politicized intelligence, probably from Ethiopia, which was eager to enlist U.S. assistance to deal with a potential security threat of its own. By giving tacit support to Ethiopia and because of its ill-advised preference for military solutions over diplomatic negotiations, Washington is helping to remake Somali in the image of Iraq.

Building the Case

How did such a one-sided and potentially dangerous UN resolution pass with a unanimous vote in the Security Council? Again, the parallels with Iraq are disturbing.

This time around, no secretary of state was needed to deliver a “smoking gun” speech and no prime minister was needed to unveil a “dossier” of death and destruction. That pretext was conveniently provided by an 86-page report prepared by the Monitoring Group (MG) made up of four experts who have been almost entirely dependent on the United States and Ethiopia for intelligence. The report included almost all the sensationalized elements that made the Iraq War possible.

First, there were the “demons.” Some individual members of the ICU in towns such as Bulo Burte recklessly issued extreme fatwas that force their constituents (those within their area of control) to practice Islam according to their ill-informed interpretation. More alarmingly, the courts threatened to call for a worldwide jihad against any invading troops.

Furthermore, the MG report concluded that the ICU was a religio-political entity in the business of exporting terror. According to the report, the ICU sent 720 of its army (the radical wing Al Shabaab or “The Youth”) to help Hezbollah against Israel. The report claims that the legendary leader of Al Shabaab actually “handpicked” them. The report, however, does not explain why the ICU would send one-fourth of its estimated 3,000 Al Shabaab militia to help the Hezbollah at a time when they themselves were struggling for survival against the warlords.

The final sensationalistic charge is an even more direct echo of the case for the Iraq War. According to the MG report, the ICU brought in two Iranian scientists to explore for uranium in Dhusa Mareb. The alleged link to potential weapons of mass destruction recalls the Bush administration’s attempt to link Saddam Hussein with al-Qaida and the infamous “yellow cake” story involving a fictitious Iraqi attempt to buy nuclear material from Niger.

The State Department, again in a reprise of earlier arguments, concluded that diplomatic engagement with the “extremists” of the ICU was an exercise in futility. According to the State Department’s top diplomat for Africa, Jendayi Frazer, “The Council of Islamic Courts is now controlled by al-Qaida cell individuals, East Africa Al-Qaida cell individuals,” and “(the) top layer of the courts are extremist to the core.”

“We need to treat many of these claims with caution until we see firm evidence,” says Matt Bryden, a consultant with the International Crisis Group (ICG). Ken Menkhaus, a political scientist and Somalia expert, agrees adding that “Somalis, whether secular or Islamist, are parochial, and have never been animated about distant causes.”

Relying on this politicized intelligence, Washington gave Ethiopia the green light to widen the conflict.

A Viable Alternative

Instead of increasing the volatility of the Somali issue, Washington should use Somalia as a springboard for reestablishing good relations with the Islamic world. First, it must be remembered that the ICU has had overwhelming support within Somalia. In the eyes of the majority of Somalis, the ICU brought law and order to the country. And, on the other hand, the wounds caused by Operation Dung Beetle—the covert action fiasco of last summer that brought the United States into an unholy alliance with the most despised warlords against the ICU—are still raw. Needless to say, only goodwill diplomacy and substantive fence mending can heal that.

All Islamists must not be lumped together. Such un-nuanced analysis clearly alienates the majority of Muslims who practice a religion the Koran refers to as diin al wasata, or “the middle ground religion,” and who consider seeking the moderate position in all affairs to be an Islamic obligation. The ICU in particular includes representation from almost all shades of Islam.

In terms of immediate actions, Washington should pressure Ethiopia to recall its troops and should push for the resumption of the Khartoum peace process. Also, the European Union must have a seat at the table. The EU has both the credibility and the willingness to support and fund sustainable peace and nation-building.

It is deeply ironic that the UN resolution authorizing the use of force in Somalia was approved on the same day that the bipartisan Iraq Study Group issued its report. By ignoring the lessons of the Iraq War, and favoring force over diplomacy, Washington has made the same mistakes once again. If it acts quickly to rein in Ethiopia and reach out to the supporters of the ICU, however, the United States might still avoid the worst-case scenario.

FPIF contributor Abukar Arman is a freelance writer and a council member of the Interfaith Association of Central Ohio.

Get more news like this, directly in your inbox.

Subscribe to our newsletter.