Flawed Sheikhs and Failed Strategies: Lessons of the Jihadist Debacle in Somalia
Published on: Feb 20, 2007


There are indications that the Americans have finally taken their revenge, and made it clear that it was the motive of air attacks on the SCIC terrorist bases around Ras Kamboni at the southern tip of the Somalia coast, where certain Al-Qaeda terrorists were reportedly hiding. Revenge is the honourable thing to do in this part of the Horn of Africa and allows people to respect you. It is taken much better than interfering in other people’s affairs, or across other countries’ borders, which is often a source of trouble. So the Americans have not only recovered their honour, they have, incidentally, also done a service to Somalia and the region, by helping them rid themselves of the jihadists, who were making their lives difficult, as well as inviting trouble. This region will understand.

Launching attacks across other countries’ borders is often a serious mistake, as it entitles them to return the compliment. You cannot rationally expect to just go home and claim sovereignty. It is a lesson that Sheikh Aweys would have done well to learn at a much earlier stage, when after launching terrorist attacks into Ethiopia from bases in Somalia, he had to flee to Ras Kamboni and Mogadishu, when Ethiopia eventually responded.

The leader of Somalia’s Supreme Council of the Islamic Courts (SCIC), the Al-Qaeda linked Islamist group of Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, whose militia over-ran much of southern and central Somalia, between June and December 2006, used an initially successful strategy of talking peace and making war. For months, it helped to diffuse resistance, lull opponents into a false sense of security, and divert the attention of regional organizations and the international community from the nature of the SCIS and its potential threat to Somali, regional, and basic human security. The ambivalent attitude of much of the international community, and the engagement of some elements of the Arab League appeared to contribute to the problem.

Now the SCIC strategy has run its course, with disastrous results for the SCIC and its followers. The Islamist extremist group tried to jump too far, too fast and wound up taking a very bad fall. On 22 December 2006, following yet another SCIC cross-border incursion into Ethiopian territory, the Ethiopian Government issued a final warning that was apparently dismissed by the SCIC. Ethiopia reacted on 24 December, with multiple strikes against the SCIC militias. On the same day, the Associated Press quoted an Ethiopian Foreign Ministry spokesman as saying that Ethiopia was taking measures to counterattack the SCIC and foreign terrorist groups.1  

Following the initial clashes, the SCIC militias were soon in full flight across much of central and southern Somalia, abandoning their positions ahead of the advance of the Ethiopian and Somali Transitional Federal Government forces. Clearly, the SCIC policy of talking peace and making war had reached its limits. For the previous five months, they had expanded their sway to towns across most of central and southern Somalia, by the simple expedient of arriving in towns and communities with massive displays of armed force that local residents had found too dangerous to resist.

The Ethiopian response was hard and fast, and the SCIC militias quickly lost their will to fight, abandoning after town before the fast-moving Ethiopian and TFG forces could reach them. On 28 December, the TFG forces with Ethiopian backup entered Mogadishu, to the cheers of the population, while others continued to chase the remnants of the SCIC and their foreign allies, who had already fled toward the southern port city of Kismayo. During the night of 31 December, the SCIC abandoned Kismayo without a fight and fled under cover of darkness, towards a small dhow port at Ras Kamboni and the nearby Kenyan border.

Initially, the Islamist victory in Mogadishu had appeared to many observers to represent a step forward, as indicated by the restoration of peace in Mogadishu. Initially, as well, some of those who appeared to be among the key Islamist leaders were making peaceful noises, hinting at willingness to talk to the Transitional Federal Government (TFG), based in Baidoa, and disclaiming any intention of forming their own government, or of imposing an Islamist regime by force.

During their brief occupation of central and southern Somalia, the SCIC leadership had thoroughly alienated most of the population by its erratic behavior and attempts to impose an extremist version of Islam—unknown in Somalia. They distinguished themselves in the commission of diverse crimes against humanity, including shooting young people for watching videos of football games, ordering the execution of any Somalian who did not pray five times daily, and forcible recruitment of young children into their militia forces, along the lines of the “Lord’s Resistance Army” (LRA) in Uganda. Here there might be a useful role for the  International Criminal Court (ICC) as regards members of the SCIC leadership who may have managed to escape.

The Rise of the SCIC

The residents of Mogadishu and other central Somali towns had welcomed the expulsion of the warlords, but their replacement by the SCIC, much less so. The warlords had made their lives difficult for more than a decade and they hoped for something better. They were happy to see the warlords go, but they were not expecting the Islamic Courts to be transformed into an armed political group attempting to impose a fundamentalist ‘Salafi’ version of Islam on Somali society. The new Islamist rulers had brought a measure of peace, but also a new type of clerical control and limitation of individual freedom that most Somalis neither believed in nor could accept—and one very open to abuse.

Mogadishu had represented the face of a stateless Somalia, where brutal warlords ruled in lawless fiefdoms. In much of southern Somalia, similar conditions prevailed, where those same warlords, alone or in alliance with their local equivalents, had subjugated local populations—often from different clans—and forcefully appropriated land and resources. But that is not the whole story.

Further north, in central Somalia, the origin of most of the Mogadishu warlords, many local communities had already restored a measure of peace, and established their own sub-clan based governance mechanisms. Here, the legitimacy of the factions was being challenged and alternative forms of leadership and authority were beginning to emerge, with new leaders ruling with the broad consent of their people and supported by legitimate taxes and duties rather than extortion.

In Northern Somalia, which comprises the regions least affected by the collapse of the Somali State, and with more than a third of its population, this process had gone much further.2 In the Northwest, the former British Somaliland declared its independence in 1991, and went about the difficult but ultimately successful process of rebuilding its Somaliland Republic, with a robust and stable democracy, and a growing economy. In the Northeast, the regions largely inhabited by the Mijerteen clan restored peace and a measure of law and order and established their own autonomous state under the name of Puntland, with a functional government and economy and little connection with the stateless turbulence of central and southern Somalia.3  

In the Northeast, Northwest and in the Rahanweyn regions of southwestern Somalia, the aggression of the SCIC and its efforts to forcibly impose a Taliban-like hardcore fundamentalist regime on populations under its control came to pose the principal threats to human security. Both Somaliland and Puntland came out strongly against any establishment of the SCIC’s “Islamic courts” in their territory.

The Puntland Authorities quickly deployed their troops to their border with central Somalia to repulse any incursions by the SCIC militias. This is where a peacekeeping force with a proper mandate might have made a contribution to peace. The UN finally approved sending such a force, but, hindered by opposing voices in the Security Council, it did so far too late, when it was no longer relevant.

The SCIC was highly dependent on its strategy of threatening to bring foreign jihadis if a peacekeeping mission should come to Somalia. In fact, they were already bringing in contingents of foreign jihadis, with weaponry and terrorist technology that has increasingly been used in terrorist attacks within Somalia. Many of these foreign terrorists fled to Kismayo with their SCIC hosts. Some were believed to be heading to Ras Kamboni, from where they could try to escape by boat.

The SCIC and some of their foreign advocates claimed that the Islamist group controlled the majority of Somalia’s population. But this was never true. They controlled Mogadishu; eventually most of the Hawiye-populated regions of central Somalia, and the non-Hawiye regions overrun by their militias in the South. But they continued to talk peace while conquering new territory. If no effective measures had been taken to stop them, they just might have eventually controlled the majority of Somalia’s population.  

At that point, in view of the known recklessness of Sheikh Aweys, it is entirely possible that he might undertake the second part of his frequently announced agenda, that is, taking over the areas of the countries bordering on Somalia that are inhabited by nearly half of the region’s ethnic Somali population. That would almost certainly have led to a devastating regional war. As it is, he apparently sent his militia on one too many cross-border incursions into Ethiopian territory, even after being warned.