On January 24, the US launched a second round of airstrikes in Somalia against alleged al-Qaeda terrorists believed to be responsible for the bombings of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998. Intended to eradicate these extremist elements from the Horn of Africa, the airstrikes instead exacerbated the chaos brought on by the fall of the Union of Islamic Courts to US-backed Ethiopian forces late last year. Continued instability renders Somalia ripe for the reemergence of the same kind of militancy the US strikes aimed to eliminate. Limited military actions cannot prevent Somalia from reverting to militant haven status, but a comprehensive, three-pronged US approach could.
First, the US should call for a national reconciliation conference under the auspices of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, East Africa’s regional development organization. All of Somalia’s neighbors should be encouraged to participate, including Ethiopia, Kenya and Eritrea. The conference should include representatives of the transitional federal government and, most importantly, moderate members of the Union of Islamic Courts, particularly Courts leader Sheikh Sharif, who recently surrendered to Kenyan authorities. Though undeniably containing a minority of militants, the Courts were composed of a majority of moderate Islamists — moderates that the US government has acknowledged in that past and has urged the transitional government to work with once again.
Second, the US should advocate for the deployment of an international force in Mogadishu while urging the rapid withdrawal of Ethiopian forces from all of Somalia. Ethiopian forces, regarded by many Somalis as occupiers, are a lightning rod for popular resentment. Moreover, the Ethiopian presence reduces the legitimacy of the transitional government in the eyes of Somalis, many of whom view it as an Ethiopian and American puppet incapable of instituting order on its own. An international force made up of neutral parties is an important step toward achieving calm in Mogadishu, but one that can only come after a larger reconciliation conference reestablishes a legitimate constitutional process that includes the various political factions.
Finally, the US needs to support serious and sustained political reconstruction in Somalia to fill the vacuum left by the Union of Islamic Courts. Though not strong militarily, the Courts came to power in the context of the collapsed state in Mogadishu, peddling a brand of Islamic law that finds popularity amidst chaos. To an extent unseen in over 16 years of clan warfare, the Courts built alliances to establish law and order, physical security, a protected commercial environment and a functioning judicial system. In the aftermath of the Courts’ fall, there are reports of Islamic-affiliated militias striking out on their own in the Somali capital. Until a strong, legitimate, centralized state takes charge, similar groups will return, with larger numbers and greater popularity. Reestablishing law and order and a functioning central state must be a priority of the transitional federal government and the international community. To do so effectively will require the cooperation of moderate Courts members.
As a lesson for the war against terrorism, events in Mogadishu show that it is not Islamic militant ideology, but rather poverty and, even more, economic and physical insecurity, that turn countries into potential breeding grounds for extremism. It was not because al-Qaeda already existed in Somalia that the country became unstable, but rather because of Somalia’s complete instability that al-Qaeda was able to operate there. While there is no inevitable link between state collapse and Islamist terrorism, the absence of legal and bureaucratic institutions can lay the groundwork for the rise of militant groups. By addressing these problems in Somalia, through diplomatic and financial support, the US can get at the roots of extremist recruitment.