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Somalia: The Ethiopia Factor in the Rise of the Union of Islamic Courts
Nairobi , December 5, 2006 – As the US and Britain spearhead a campaign to have Somalia declared a haven for terrorists linked to al Qaeda, a profile of the Union of Islamic Courts prepared by the International Crisis Group gives a humane face to the organization.
The Profile of the Council of Somali Islamic Courts, by Matt Bryden, a consultant with the ICG on Somalia, portrays the Islamic Courts as well organized outfits that, contrary to popular opinion, have a well thought out military strategy for taking control of and restoring order in a country characterized by 15 years of anarchy.
They emerged partly from the collapse of law and order following the fall of the Siyad Barre regime in 1991, but also from the entrenchment of Islamic religion and practice, which have a 1,000 year-long history in the country.
Initially, the courts operated merely as a community response to lawlessness and violence in much of southern Somalia.
Largely unknown then, most Islamic courts were started along clan lines, were headed by a respected local Sheikh, and supported by leading business people within the communities.
The Islamic Courts have a well thought out campaign of not only restoring hope in the country but also ensuring that they gain monopoly in the use of force. For instance, Bryden says, each time they secure victory over militias loyal to warlords, they not only acquire the heavy weapons and vehicles of the enemy, but also ensure that their forces attain military dominance in an area, they maintain a low profile but are able to respond rapidly to any threat.
"As a result, no other group - whether clan-based, commercial or factional - is able to muster sufficient arms to successfully challenge the courts."
He adds that they are also not vindictive to their captives and usually invite them to join their ranks or to support their programmes. Once they accept the offer, the militias are then sent to training camps "for re-orientation and further training."
Bryden says early prototypes of the courts include such outfits as Sheikh Ali Dheere's, established in north Mogadishu in 1994 and the Beled Weyene court initiated in 1996.
The warlords who controlled different parts of Mogadishu and the country did not take kindly to the courts' interference on their turfs and soon, the Islamists found themselves in open competition with them and with other political forces, forcing them to either scale back their activities or close entirely.
But as anarchy reigned and attempts to restore peace failed, the Islamic Courts were re-established afresh between 1998 and 2000. Before then, individual courts operated more or less as separate entities.
But they soon saw the sense in working together through a joint committee to promote security. This move was initiated by four of the courts - Ifka Halan, Circolo, Warshadda and Hararyaale - who formed a committee to co-ordinate their affairs, to exchange criminals from different clans and to integrate security forces.
The current leader of the Council of Islamic Courts, Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, is said to have been instrumental in this initiative. As a former leader and military commander of al-itihaad al-Islaami (an organization accused by the US of being a terrorist outfit), he had sought to have the courts involved in political activism.
He is also said to have been the brains behind the conversion of the joint committee into a Sharia Implementation Committee. This was around the same time the Transitional Federal Government was formed under the then leadership of Abdiqasim Salat Hassan.
Unfortunately, the Courts and the TFG did not agree and the Courts were forced to remain low key between 2001 and 2004.
Evidently not one to give up, Aweys is said to have used the opportunity to seek financial and military support in the Middle East. When he returned, he laid the foundation of the Union of Islamic Courts in his home town of Galgudud, central Somalia.
During the peace process in Nairobi, Bryden says, Aweys and colleagues managed to convince other groups that the process was heading towards the establishment of a regime friendly to Ethiopia, Somalia's arch-enemy.
This development could not be allowed and with other like-minded people, Aweys commenced the formation of the Supreme Council of Islamic Courts of Somalia headed by Sheikh Shariff Sheikh Ahmed.
Shaped as an outfit for political negotiation, the Supreme Council found favor among many of the courts so that between 2004 and 2005, its membership rose to 11.
Bryden says the "Ethiopian factor" in TFG was to lead to an unofficial split in the transitional government with the "Mogadishu Group" headed by the Speaker establishing links with the Courts, whose anti-Ethiopia sentiments it shared. The other group remained in Johar.
Soon, however, the Union of Islamic Courts found itself in open conflict with the warlords in Mogadishu, especially after the latter agreed to be used by the US Central Intelligence Agency to fight the Courts through the warlords' Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter-terrorism.
The war between the Courts and the warlord alliance started in January, when militias loyal to warlord Bashir Raghe clashed with the family of Aboker Omar, the most influential financial backer of the Courts.
Bryden reports that Raghe had captured several "technicals" (pick-up trucks mounted with heavy machine guns) belonging to Omar and refused to hand them over, saying that the US would not permit him to release such material to "terrorists".
Soon, the stage was set for a bigger conflict, which became imminent when the Courts launched a pre-emptive attack on the warlord alliance to the west of Mogadishu.
Following several months of fighting, the warlords were defeated. "It was a victory so rapid and comprehensive that it took even the Courts by surprise," Bryden reports.
The success in Mogadishu seems to have given the Courts the impetus they needed to wage a wider campaign for the control of Somalia.
But there have been hiccups to the campaign. From the outset, the courts seemed unified, but the truth is that they do not represent a commonality even in religious terms, he says.
While the ICG's reports on Somalia have provided insight into events in the country, they have occasionally angered Somalis in the diaspora, who regard the ICG as an agent of Western governments out to make things worse in the country.
Bill Anashe, the editor of Burtinle Online News, a Somali information outfit, for instance accuses the ICG of putting out factually erroneous reports "intended solely to destabilize the political cohesiveness of our people."
Source: The East African