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Rough Cut: Somalia: A Reporter's Search for Al Qaeda
Background Facts and Links
Follow a synopsis of events leading up to the recent upsurge in violence in Somalia, and links to news and analysis of the country's political situation.

Who Will Win Somalia's Tug of War?

by Rob Krieger

For most Americans, conflict in Somalia brings to mind Black Hawk Down, the popular Hollywood film based on the real-life downing of two U.S. helicopters in 1993. The infamous incident took place during the 1992-93 U.S. mission in Somalia, Operation Restore Hope. It was also during the time that Osama bin Laden called on the region's al Qaeda to launch "fatwahs," or pronouncements under Sharia law, against the United States.

Since the fall of Somalia's central government in 1991, when the dictator Mohamed Siad Barre was overthrown by warlords, the East African nation's capital, Mogadishu, has been a city of conflict and competing militant factions. For the past 16 years, there has been no official national police force, which has contributed much to the lawlessness.

Al Qaeda and other affiliated Islamic militant groups such as the Islamic Courts Union, sometimes just referred to as the Somali Islamists, have played a prominent role in much of Somalia's continuous violence since 1991. For more than a decade, these extremist groups have been taking over much of the country and its major cities, except for a few pockets in the west and north, bordering Ethiopia.

Mohammed Atta, the al Qaeda suicide terrorist held responsible for the first plane that flew into the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, visited Somalia in 1998 and is reported to have played a role in the simultaneous bombings that occurred later that year at the U.S. embassies in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and Nairobi, Kenya, which killed 257 and wounded more than 4,000.

In spring 2006, a conflict now known as the "Second Battle of Mogadishu" erupted between the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) and a group of warlords. The latter group, calling itself the Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism (ARPCT), is believed to have received backing from the U.S. government. Before this battle, the ICU and warlord factions controlled most of Somalia, despite the establishment of an internationally backed transitional government in 2000, and a federal charter drawn up in 2004 to try to restore legitimate governance to the country under President Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed.

In a military offensive in December 2006, Ethiopian troops, in support of the transitional government, entered Mogadishu, the last stronghold of the ICU. The Ethiopian push to the capital drove the ICU militias to the southern city of Kismayo. Although the initial battles were led by Ethiopia, the U.S. military has stepped up action in the region.

On January 7, 2007, the U.S. military bombed specific hot zones, targeting suspected al Qaeda members and ICU leaders Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys and Sharif Sheikh Ahmed. Intelligence reports revealed that the two men had taken advantage of Somalia's instability and were using the south as a place to hide and recruit members.

Following the January air attacks, some analysts have been concerned that the U.S. involvement in Somalia may be a double-edged sword. The Bush administration and the U.S. military have allied with numerous secular warlords who played a major role in bringing down Somalia's 1991 government.

The United Nations fears that warlord militias will again take advantage of a power vacuum, this time left by the ICU. As it stands, more than one million people in Mogadishu need humanitarian aid, and Islamic fundamentalists hiding in the city continue to randomly attack government buildings and civilians.

Somalia's safety and political situation remain uncertain as the country is still without a true central government, and conflicting forces inside the country and from neighboring nations push for different agendas.

SOURCES: U.S. State Department; U.S. Department of Justice: Moussaoui Terrorism Indictment; The BBC; The New York Times; The Washington Post; CBS News; NPR.

Related Links

"One Dead as Mortar Bombs Hit Somalia's Mogadishu"
This Reuters dispatch follows the February 16 attack by "extremists" on Ethiopian and Somali troops in Mogadishu. The article draws attention to the "near daily attacks" on the capital and highlights the government's instability as African Union troops may be deployed in late February.

CBS News: "Somalia's Warlords Re-Emerge"
CBS News reports on the United Nations' warning that post-1991 anarchy could return to Mogadishu if warlords are free to fight over control of the capital in the event that African Union peacekeeping forces do not move in. The peacekeeping operation has become more difficult as Islamist groups continue to attack civilians and create growing humanitarian problems for the country.

BBC News: "Fears stalk Somalia's capital once again"
The BBC provides an in-depth look at what is happening on the ground in Mogadishu. In the context of growing violence and confusion in the capital, this story from January 11, 2007, reports on how people living there are being affected.

BBC News: "Twin U.S. aims in Somalia"
This BBC analysis explores the reason why the U.S. military has played a major role in Mogadishu since Ethiopian troops began their offensive against the Islamic Courts Union last year. Ayman al-Zawahiri, al Qaeda's second in command, has announced a call to arms in Somalia, and President Bush has named Somalia one of the frontlines of the war on terror. By backing the allied Ethiopian forces and supporting the new transitional government, the analysis suggests, the United States can confront al Qaeda in Mogadishu, a long-standing safe haven for the terrorist group.

NPR: "Timeline: Violence Ties U.S. and Somalia Together"
In January 2007, National Public Radio put together a brief timeline of U.S. involvement in Somalia, beginning in 1991 and concluding with the U.S. targeting of al Qaeda member Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, who was involved in the 1998 embassy bombings in Nairobi.

BBC News Video: "Somalia needs peace force"
This three-minute video from the BBC highlights the first speech of the new transitional government president, Abdullahi Yusuf, after the removal of the ICU. It warns of an "Iraqi-style insurgency" by Islamists and notes the government's great challenges in the loosely controlled capital that must make a transition from Ethiopian protection to African Union peacekeeping.

The Washington Post: "U.S. Secretly Backing Warlords in Somalia"
This article, from May 2006, revealed early U.S. involvement in Somalia and its support of warlords during a weekend of fierce fighting that left 150 dead in Mogadishu. The prime minister of the interim government, Ali Mohamed Ghedi, welcomed the U.S. assistance and noted the mutual benefit of stability in Somalia. But of U.S.-warlord alliances, Ghedi said, "the United States is using the wrong channels."