by Alex Wilner,
AIMS Security and Defence Intern
International politics offers the curious observer two lessons. First, history has a tendency of repeating itself, and second, governments feign surprise when it does.
Today, this cyclical lesson is being borne out in Somalia with precedence from Afghanistan, circa 1990. Canadians should take careful note; these two cases share characteristics that will prove of prescient value.
Here’s the rub. If Canada and her NATO allies were forced to remove the Taliban from Afghanistan following al-Qaeda’s 2001 attack, it has become increasingly likely that a coordinated campaign against Somalia’s Islamic Courts Union (ICU) will be required in the coming decade.
If this sounds like the ringing of a far-off fatalistic bell, consider how the Somali and Afghan cases are strikingly similar.
First, Somalia, like Afghanistan, spent much of the 1990s in total disarray: no central government or functioning economy existed; warlords battled freely over territorial pockets; famine, lawlessness, and poverty afflicted millions; small arms proliferated.
Chaos, to say the least, reigned supreme.
Both disorders birthed fanatical movements that sought control through a mixture of religious dogma and coercion. In Afghanistan, the power vacuum left in the wake of the Soviet Army’s 1989 retreat was filled by a nascent Taliban eager to consolidate its base. Likewise, the withdrawal of nearly 50,000 American and UN peacekeepers from Somalia between 1993 and 1995 gave the Islamic Courts some expansionist breathing room. Today, they control large swaths of Somalia including the capital of Mogadishu.
Second, both the Taliban and the ICU sought popular support under the guise of national unity, stability, and justice. Ideologically, both movements agree that the economic, social, and moral dilemmas facing Afghans and Somalis requires an Islamic solution. Upon increasingly exhausted and war-weary populations, the application of strict Islamic doctrine was indeed a welcome respite from infernal anarchy.
Of course, draconian measures come at a rather severe humanitarian cost.
Taliban rule resulted in the forcible segregation of women from society, the persecution of Hindu, Hazara, and Tajik minorities, a prohibition on Western dress, on dancing, music, television, and the internet, and the implementation of medieval punishment – the removal of limbs, public executions, stonings, and the like.
In Somalia, the ICU’s promise of stability is exacting a similar price. Consider, for instance, the Court’s success in eliminating piracy off the Somali coast. It has everything to do with the fact that the new punishment for piracy is death or amputation. Adulterers and petty criminals should be weary too. And, as with the Taliban, the Courts have segregated the sexes and outlawed dancing, music, television, wedding parties, and mixed-sex social gatherings. During this summer’s World Cup, the ICU shot and killed Somalis that had gathered to watch the semi-final match between Germany and Italy.
Third, and perhaps most importantly, both the Taliban and the Courts ally themselves with groups exporting global terrorism. Strategically speaking, these symbiotic alliances make sense.
International terrorist networks, like al-Qaeda, require ideologically friendly regimes to provide them with a territorial base upon which to organize their activities. In exchange, indigenous movements are supplied with logistics, training, finances, and weapons.
It is well known that the Taliban and al-Qaeda built a companionable relationship in the years leading up to 9/11. Perhaps less well known, however, is bin Laden’s direct involvement in Somalia. In a June 2006 audio recording, bin Laden states bluntly: "We will continue, God willing, to fight you and your allies everywhere…in Iraq and Afghanistan and in Somalia and Sudan until we waste all your money and kill your men."
And indeed, a budding alliance exists.
The orange-bearded Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, onetime leader of Al-Ittihad al-Islamiya, a terror group with operational ties to al-Qaeda, is now the head of the ICU’s consultative shura council. Aweys, no stranger to American authorities, is a wanted terrorist for his role in the 1998 bombings of the US embassies in Tanzania and Kenya and the 2002 suicide attack on the Paradise Hotel in Mombasa, Kenya.
Somalia’s first suicide car-bomb, detonated this September in a failed assassination attempt of Interim President Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed, the IUC’s principle rival, had all the hallmarks of an al-Qaeda operation. And in November, a UN Monitoring Group entrusted with overseeing the arms embargo of Somalia, presented an 86-page report that evidenced an array of links developing between the ICU and international terrorist groups like al-Qaeda, state sponsors of terrorism like Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Syria, and regional terrorist groups like Hezbollah.
That al-Qaeda and others eye Somalia greedily is understandable – they’re shopping around for a new home.
That even the UN acknowledges the expanding web of international terrorism adds to the urgency of the crisis enveloping the Horn of Africa. Unfortunately for Canada, it is unlikely to remedy itself. Alongside Afghanistan, another front in this long war is emerging.
Alex Wilner, a doctoral candidate at Dalhousie University, is the Intern in Security and Defence Policy at the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies.