Somalia: A New Front Against Terrorism
Published on: Feb 05, 2007

The Failures of the Islamic Courts

The UIC victory meant the de facto disappearance of the factions but it left open the question of building a political order. Potential Ethiopian involvement carried the risk of the return of some or all of the faction leaders to the fore. This threat served as a repeated justification for increased radicalism in the Islamic group.

At the same time, the UIC had to restore some order to the area it controlled. Although the public stalwartly defended its legitimacy, they had contradictory demands: they wanted security but were not always willing to pay for it; they wanted a working administration but one that was organized less in terms of competence than a highly unstable balance of clans.

The Courts had to learn how to work together. This was an ambitious task since their personnel were not always familiar with each other. Many had no real political experience and even fewer had political goals. This was not true of everyone, however, and those with experience had relative success in using it to their advantage.

The Islamic Courts Face Their Contradictions

The unsteady balance in the Courts between the followers of different religious groups (“sociological,” traditionalist, Brotherhood, Salafist, Islamist and Jihadist Muslims) became even less stable after June 2006. This difficulty was compounded by the challenges the Courts were to face in the following months.

The influence of the Courts spread rapidly beyond the borders of the capital. A first extension was linked to securing the capital: they could not leave the town of Jowhar in Alliance hands. The combat to secure the town was, however, very minimal. Second, Courts rapidly appeared in other cities and called for UIC assistance. The victory of the Courts in Mogadishu meant the end of the faction as a form for organizing Somali political life, a role it had held since 1991.15 Something that has not been mentioned is that this victory also signaled the arrival of a new generation of political figures. Behind the old leaders and religious figures, a younger generation of men had stepped forward, most of whom were less than forty. Opportunism also suggested that the creation of an Islamic Court could allow one to challenge the power of those who had assumed it or had directly benefited from the power of a faction. For example, in Beled Weyne and Jowhar, like in Mogadishu, there was no “religious revolution,” just the dismissal of an unpopular administration by sectors of the population that took advantage of the Islamic Courts’ rise to join them. These evolutions were fundamentally “political” but there was a third form that would give more credence to Ethiopian and American claims: military annexation, primarily in the Lower Juba region with the capture of Kismayo in September 2006.

The Courts committed this major mistake due to a convergence of several factors. The context was not good. The Juba Valley Alliance that controlled Kismayo since the spring of 2006 was divided for several months. It was not divided over interpretations of the Koran but over the more secular distribution of money from the port and the future structure of the local administration. Initially, the Courts did not wish to be involved in this affair because they did not feel ready to extend their influence before coming to terms with serious internal problems. After a few weeks of hesitation, however, they become involved. There were at least two motivating factors. First, Eritrean advisers warned that Kismayo would be occupied by Ugandans and Ethiopians; one more rumor, but one with radical implications. Second, Hasan Abdullah Hersi “al-Turki” and his followers in the Hizb al-Shabab and the Courts were pushing to secure Lower Juba and the frontier with Kenya. They won the debate on the strength of rumors of an American presence in northeast Kenya. Kismayo’s capture was not without consequence. It gave rise to the first popular opposition to the Courts, which sent one of its harshest leaders to the region. This action gave credence to the idea of an encirclement of the TFG.

But the developments outside the capitalwithout mentioning the incidents that occurred in Somaliland and Puntlandcontributed less to the dysfunction of the Union of Courts than other obstacles: problems with internal organization, ideological differences and clan troubles.

Early on, in June 2006, the Courts established an executive committee presided over by Sheikh Sharif that quickly grew to twenty members. The advisory committee, the shura, led by Hasan Dahir Aweys, ballooned to more than 90 members.16 Which of the two bodies had the final say? What were the decision-making procedures? Who had the mandate to do what? No one ever knew, including the Courts themselves. Not only did they do nothing to eliminate these many ambiguities but decisions were often made by commanders in the field who only had relative respect for these two authoritative bodies and favored their own contacts on each committee. Simply accepting fait accompli rather than debating decisions became a common occurrence. The ban on qaat and on charcoal exports, the requirement for women to be accompanied outside by a male family member, the proscription of cinema and sport, etc. were all decisions made without a collective process at the top and only had local validity that spread through horizontal relationships between militia leaders.

Ironically, the Courts, who had wanted to preserve justice, renewed the arbitrary authority of the militias. This is not to say that the leaders (like Hasan Dahir17) accepted this situation. The terms of debate inside the country changed with the massing of Ethiopian troops in Somali territory, when unity became a question of life or death. We should also note that, contrary to what some have called a “Talibanization,” in many places in Somalia, daily life continued without any interference or coercion from Court representatives.18 Yet, the Prime Minister of the TFG and the Ethiopians singled out examples of coercion to prove the al-Qaeda influence within the UIC.

There were deep ideological differences in the Islamic Courts. Somali Islam and Islamism are profoundly connected to global dynamics, which should come as no surprise.19 There is no need to evoke al-Qaeda to explain the extremism of some and to explain the moderation of others. Neither of these arguments has any merit without historical contextualization. Many thought that discussions should be held with the TFG, which would return to govern in the long term while the Courts would continue to use their prerogative to maintain order. Others wanted a power-sharing agreement and welcomed the negotiations sponsored by the Arab League. They did not contest the president of the TFG; however, the Prime Minister was unanimously opposed. The latter, who welcomed the loss of the faction leaders, held the most radical position against the Courts, revealing his dependence on Addis Ababa and his desire to stay in his position no matter what the cost for Somalia. However, a radical and military popular elementthat some have oversimplified by saying it was the Youth Party alonerefused negotiations, saw them as a betrayal and even tried everything up until the last minute to sabotage them. Given the lack of ideological unity and the pressure from a foreign threat, this movement gained ground in the Court-controlled regions. It sparked increasing resistance in Court organizations but also among the populace. The people began to protest the drastic rise in taxes in October 2006, the ban on qaat that punished the thousands of people who earned their living in its trade, and the normative coercion that had young militia members with limited religious knowledge humiliating anyone in the street who did not seem sufficiently pious.20  

The relationship between the Islamic Courts and the clans is extraordinarily complex. On the one hand, Islamic affirmation is a way to reduce identification with a clan. But clan identity is not solely an explicit acknowledgement. There are accents and dialectal forms in the language that indicate a region of origin and often a clan. Sociability, economic support and place of residence, among other factors, are especially important. In a way, the Courts themselves are clan institutions even though they evolved after June and attempted to employ horizontal coordination instead of vertical coordination alone. For a number of reasons, the Courts have very diverse ties to the clans. In some instances, their influence is limited; in others, the ties are deep and longstanding. This very political reality was taken into account for nominations to the Executive Committee and the shura but it left an opening for criticism.21 Several times, when individual decisions were disputed, the individuals blamed the weakness of their clan or of its representation in Court institutions for allowing such questions to be raised. This argument usually silenced any criticism. The TFG, blindly followed by an easily manipulated panel of experts,22 identified the trouble-making clan as the Ayr, a sub-clan of the Habar Gidir. Other more perceptive experts underlined the Hawiye influence in the Islamic Courts. The reality is more complex. A large presence is not always a powerful one when the primary goal is unity. The impotence of the two Court leaders can be understood in this light. They each disagreed with some decisions but were more concerned with maintaining the unity of the UIC. This was a fatal mistake. Moreover, members of the most radical trend often came from more marginal groups or clans since radicalism was the only way they could influence the movement as a whole.23

Failed Negotiations and the Return to War

Given the context, the negotiations between the TFG and the UIT were rife with problems. Yet they could have taken a different course if the Arab League had been less superficial in its mediation and if other countries, like Ethiopia, had been less aggressive towards the UIT and less accommodating to the TFG. The first meetings in Khartoum in June 2006 produced meager results but could have gained some momentum. Not only was there mutual recognition, which is not negligible, but they declared a ceasefire. However, the Arab League did not insist on the creation of a joint commission for verification. This commission could have been a first instrument to limit incidents, put pressure on the war-mongerers in each camp and confirm the presence of foreign troops on Somali soil. During the second round of discussions in August, the idea was included in the final document but the TFG second-guessed its own delegates. The Europeans were on vacation and applied no pressure to enact the principle immediately.24  The situation was quite different than in southern Sudan where, starting in the fall of 2002, a unique mobilization was made to avoid ruining the peace process through an accumulation of incidents. The negotiations of Khartoum 3 in October 2006 had not even started when the courts committed a further strategic mistake. By placing preconditions on the negotiations, they appeared to be the cause of their failure despite the fact that every observer could see that the TFG had no intention of entering discussions. The United States and Ethiopia had their casus belli. War, once only probable, became certain.

There were, however, two glimmers of hope. First, the Parliament speaker traveled to Mogadishu in early November following the failure of Khartoum 3 and made an agreement to return to real negotiations on December 15. But the TFG once again turned a deaf ear. On December 20, the European Commissioner for Development, Louis Michel went to Baidoa and Mogadishu to obtain signatures on a memorandum to return to negotiations, establish a joint commission and ensure European involvement. But his political success, which took more work with the TFG than the UIC, was swept aside by fighting between the Ethiopian army and the militias of the Courts. We know the rest.

Before the intervention, the Security Council passed resolution 1725 on December 6. The text proposed by the United States was very surprising. It authorized an organization, the African Union, to intervene in Somalia and asked the international community to finance it. The United Nations was not included in any way! France and Qatar had to convince the other members of the Council, especially the British, paralyzed by their disagreement with George W. Bush over the appropriate policy for Iraq, to amend the text but they were unable to reach agreement on the European position: no troop deployment without the consent of all parties. Why did they pass this resolution when negotiations were supposed to resume ten days later and the vote itself placed enormous pressure on the two Somali parties to have substantive discussions? Was it a diplomatic gaffe or an intentional affront? Predictably, after violently criticizing the resolution, the UIC declared an ultimatum on December 13 demanding the departure of Ethiopian troops. They lifted their threat when Louis Michel’s visit was announced. But skirmishes began on the night of December 19 and by December 20 war had begun.

How should we interpret the swift defeat of the Court fighters? There are at least two explanations. First, there is the heterogeneity of the forces involved. The Ethiopian contingent was comprised of more experienced soldiers who had received training from American advisors in Djibouti. They were a professional army with air support (combat planes and helicopters.) The UIC militias were very different. There were many last-minute recruits who died in large numbers in the first three days of combat since they fought more with their faith than their heads. Then there were professional militiamen who had served with the factions and then recycled themselves with the Islamic Courts. They wanted to live and their experience told them the battle was already lost, so they rushed back to Mogadishu. The militia members closest to the Courts quickly decided that they had to take a different approach to the war. This is what we will see in the coming months. In any case, the swiftness of this defeat or rout dispels any Ethiopian claim of a military threat from the UIC.

Second, there was less popular support for the militias of the Courts than expected. People were traumatized by the number of deaths during the first three days: they were rumored to be in the hundreds. Awash in nationalist and bellicose rhetoric, Somalis had no idea the battle would be so deadly. But there was also a deep feeling of disillusionment with the Courts. Nominations for the leaders came from a small group made up exclusively of Islamists, taxes were high and prohibitions weighed on daily life. The UIC did not respect its repeated promises to respect the diversity of support it received during its war with the factions. And the UIC paid the price. It is hard to imagine the return of an Islamic movement like the one present in the second half of 2006.