Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia, fell to the pro-al Qaeda Supreme Council of Islamic Courts back in June. As the group gradually takes control of the rest of the country, the U.S. government still can't decide what to do about it.
That America is loath to intervene in Somalia is easy to understand; U.S. forces got a bloody nose there in 1993 at the hands of Somali warlord Mohammed Farrah Aideed (the "Black Hawk Down" episode). But "hands off" seems pretty foolish, too - for the Islamic Courts is not just another gang like the conglomerate of warlords it defeated in June; it's an al Qaeda ally.
Its chief is Sheik Hassan Dahir Aweys, who has been on the official U.S. list of global terrorists since November 2001. Aweys headed the Courts' precursor in the '90s, the al Ittihad al Islamiya, which was funded by al Qaeda, and he's one of one of three men wanted in connection with the 1998 al Qaeda bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
It was armed thugs under the command of an al Qaeda-trained Aweys protégé, Aden Hashi 'Ayro, who gunned down Sister Leonella Sgorbati in Mogadishu on Sept. 17 - after another Islamic Courts cleric, Sheik Abubukar Hassan Malin, called for Pope Benedict's murder for the pontiff's remarks on Islam.
Western nations continue to disburse humanitarian aid in Somalia - but Mideast states send jihadists and the money to arm them. Afghan, Kashmiri, Pakistani, Palestinian and Syrian fighters are entering the country. Money from that estimable American ally, Saudi Arabia, is the Islamic Courts' chief source of funds.
The old, fractious, largely unarmed but internationally recognized Transitional Federal Government is still holding out in parts of the country. Its president, Abdullah Yusuf Ahmed, even survived a Sept. 18 suicide car bombing (Somalia's first) that killed six of his officials. But the Courts are now poised to launch an offensive against the remnants of the prior government in the inland city of Baidoa.
What is America doing? Begging Islamic Court-backing neighbors (like Eritrea) not to "destabilize" the situation. The State Department's spokesman, Sean McCormack, reassures us brightly that it is "working with the Arab League" - that is, with those munificent Saudis and others - to somehow form a coalition between the failing government and the Islamic Courts.
In other words, the State Department is pressing for successful rebels to join with the government they're fighting to replace. State's efforts may explain why the speaker of the Somali parliament, Sharif Hassan Sheik Aden, recently made a beeline to Mogadishu to come to terms with the Islamic Courts, without consulting President Ahmed or anyone else, a move that might cause the legal government to collapse altogether.
The United States, in short, is wasting time and talent working with dubious allies to entrench an al Qaeda ally. Instead, it should be orchestrating the forces at its disposal to eliminate the Islamic Courts before the group subjugates a country strategically located at the Horn of Africa - only a boat ride from Yemen and thus the Mideast's gateway to black Africa.
The U.S. military is stretched by other commitments, but the 1,600-strong Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa is based in nearby Djibouti, with Marines, special-operations forces, civil-affairs teams and a U.S. and international naval task force. And next-door Ethiopia has a military force with experience fighting Somali Islamists, having destroyed the al Ittihad al Islamiya in the mid-'90s. In July, Aweys called for a jihad against the Ethiopian forces, estimated at 4,000 strong, who are reported to be preparing to defend Baidoa against the Courts' attack.
But all this will amount to little without purposeful American direction - instead of diplomatic myopia and an empty "peace process."
Daniel Mandel is a fellow in history at Melbourne University.
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