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Islamic Militia Takes Control of Somali Capital

June 6, 2006 at 6:25 PM EDT
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MARGARET WARNER: After three months of fighting between Islamic militia and tribal warlords reportedly backed by the U.S., the so-called Islamic courts movement was patrolling the streets of Mogadishu today, celebrating its takeover of Somalia’s capital city.

Left out for the moment is a U.N.-backed transitional government in Baidoa, about 150 miles from Mogadishu. It has been unable to enter the capital because of the violence.

Somalia and its eight million people have been without an effective government since 1991, when clan-based warlords overthrew the ruling dictatorship.

In 1992, the U.S. and U.N. intervened to help end starvation there, but the warlords turned on the international forces the following year, killing 18 American soldiers in the now-famous “Black Hawk Down” incident. The U.S. left shortly after and has not had an official presence there since.

A decade of civil strife has followed, pitting the new Islamic courts movement against a new collection of warlords who claim the U.S. is covertly supporting them. U.S. officials have declined to confirm that but do contend that some suspects in the 1998 East Africa bombings are being sheltered by the Islamists.

Late today, as he left Texas, President Bush was asked about the Islamists’ apparent victory in Mogadishu.

GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: Obviously, when there’s instability anywhere in the world, we’re concerned. There is instability in Somalia.

The first concern, of course, would be to make sure that Somalia does not become an al-Qaida safe haven, that it doesn’t become a place from which terrorists can plot and plan, and so we’re watching very carefully the developments there. And we will strategize more when I get back to Washington as to how to best respond to the latest incident there in Somalia.

MARGARET WARNER: Today, the chairman of the Islamic Courts Alliance, Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, issued a letter saying, “We categorically deny and reject any accusation that were are harboring any terrorists or supporters of terrorism,” and adding, “We would like to establish a friendly relationship with the international community.”

Today, the Islamists and the transitional government both said they would begin talks with one another.

An uneasy optimism

Herman Cohen
Former State Department Official
Each clan formed their own Islamist court to provide justice and a little bit of security. And over the years, they've become stronger and stronger, because people felt, 'This is all we have.'

MARGARET WARNER: And for more on what's happened in Somalia and where these events may lead, we're joined by Herman Cohen, who was assistant secretary of state for African affairs under the first President Bush, when the U.S. sent troops into Somalia. He's now president of Cohen and Woods International, a consulting firm specializing in African issues.

And Abdi Samatar, a professor of geography at the University of Minnesota. Born in Somalia, he's now an American citizen and last visited his homeland in February.

And, Professor Samatar, the dispatches out of Mogadishu today -- and there is no film of this -- but that there were these large demonstrations with both for and against the Islamists taking over. How secure is the Islamic Courts Alliance hold on Mogadishu or anywhere else in the country?

ABDI SAMATAR, Professor, University of Minnesota: I think time will tell how secure that is, but what you have is, in my estimation, about 80 or so percent of the population of Mogadishu backing the Islamic courts.

And there were two demonstrations today, one small group led by two warlords and another group that were opposed to those same groups. So time will tell, but I think, for the time being, the city seems quite secure and that people are, in fact, able to get on with their lives in the evenings and in the middle of the night, when that was not possible when the warlords were in command of Mogadishu.

MARGARET WARNER: Help us understand who these players are. Secretary Cohen, who or what is the Islamic courts union or alliance, and where did it come from?

HERMAN COHEN, Former Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs: Well, when the government disappeared in 1991, there was anarchy, so local clans in Mogadishu essentially said, "We've got to do something to protect our security and give us some basis for public health and what have you."

So each clan formed their own Islamist court to provide justice and a little bit of security. And over the years, they've become stronger and stronger, because people felt, "This is all we have."

And, lately, they've formed a union and started to work against the warlords. And happily they've kicked most of the warlords out. That is a wonderful piece of news, that the...

MARGARET WARNER: Why is it a wonderful piece of news?

HERMAN COHEN: Because the warlords have caused tremendous hardship. They have roadblocks, shoot-outs, exactions. People were permanently insecure under the warlords, and it's very important to keep those warlords from coming back into Mogadishu.

Unifying support for change

Abdi Samatar
University of Minnesota
I would like to call these people Islamic practitioners, rather than Islamists. Islamists has the connotation that they are incredibly politicized and of the kind that you can expect from the Taliban's.

MARGARET WARNER: What would you add to that, Professor? Do you see it that way? And how did the Islamic Alliance get strong enough to take on these warlords, who I gather are fairly heavily armed?

ABDI SAMATAR: I think Herman Cohen is absolutely right. It's great news, not only for Somalis, but for the international community, that the warlords are out and hopefully will remain outside of the city and the country.

The reason why the Islamic courts and the population have been able to succeed in doing this is because there are three groups who are involved in this business: One is the Islamic court; the other is a huge number of very successful businesspeople who have tremendous amounts of weaponry; and, thirdly, there's a very widely distributed civil society movement.

It's these three groups who are holding the fort, so to speak. And the reason I think they have been successful in defeating the warlords is because the people of Mogadishu and Somalia have gotten sick and tired of the violence which has been visited on them, as Secretary Cohen earlier on. And finally they decided they had enough of this and, therefore, decided to go along with the Islamic people.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, could you explain, Professor, why the business community in Somalia is supporting the Islamists? That might seem to, you know, outside observers a contradiction.

ABDI SAMATAR: I would like to call these people Islamic practitioners, rather than Islamists. Islamists has the connotation that they are incredibly politicized and of the kind that you can expect from the Taliban's.

These folks, in my estimation, are far away from that and quite different. The reason why the businesspeople have decided to join forces with this is because the businesspeople have to protect their businesses and their property, and so they literally have to have their own security systems.

If there was a state and if there is peace in Mogadishu, then they wouldn't need all of that. And, secondly, they were also the victims of the warlords, in terms of prosecution, looting, and what have you.

The civil society groups have joined the Islamic courts in large measure because they are the ultimate victims of the war in Mogadishu and elsewhere in the country, so you have a coalition of people spearheaded by the Islamic courts who are doing this at the moment.

Should the world be worried?

Abdi Samatar
University of Minnesota
What they want to do is create the conditions in which the Somali people, and particularly the people of Mogadishu and the Banadir region, could be able to have determination as to which way they want to go.

MARGARET WARNER: So if all of this is the case, Secretary Cohen, then why is the U.S. government apparently -- though they've never confirmed that the U.S. has been supporting the warlords financially -- why is the U.S. so concerned about this Islamic group?

HERMAN COHEN: I think the U.S. government panicked. They saw Islamic group; they said, "Taliban is coming."

Also, there are friends in the region, like the Ethiopians, who probably are feeding false intelligence about terrorists being hidden and that sort of thing, because the Ethiopians are deadly afraid of Moslem control and also they have their own Moslem problem among the Oromo ethnic group in Ethiopia.

So they want to keep the Islamists out of power, and they will bring the U.S. into it, if they can.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, though you heard the president still express some concern about whether it will become a safe haven for al-Qaida-style terrorists, how great a danger do you think there is of that?

HERMAN COHEN: I think it's minor, because the people in the Islamic movement saw what happened to the Taliban and they don't want the same thing to happen to them; that's why this letter that came out in your presentation earlier is saying, "Don't worry. We're not going to have any of these folks here. Don't start fighting with us."

And I think that's right, because the first thing they need to do is consolidate power where they are. They don't want to get into a fight with the United States.

MARGARET WARNER: But, Professor, the same leader who wrote that conciliatory letter to the international community about not harboring terrorists also was quoted as saying at this rally today, "We won't stop until we've established an Islamic state throughout Somalia." He talked about Sharia law.

Is this group determined to impose a very strict form of Islamic rule, theocracy, if you will, in Somalia?

ABDI SAMATAR: I think Somalis have always been moderate practitioners of Islam and very, very free people. The same gentleman, Sheikh Sharif, also noted today that they are not interested in becoming ministers or government themselves -- that's the Islamic courts -- and that they will be using the Sharia law until such a time when a constitutional government is formed.

I'm not too concerned that they will be able to impose the kind of draconian rules that the Taliban's or anybody of that ilk have done to their people.

What's relatively very refreshing about this group is the fact that they have committed themselves to say that they are not interested in becoming ministers; they are not interested in becoming government, but what they want to do is create the conditions in which the Somali people, and particularly the people of Mogadishu and the Banadir region, could be able to have determination as to which way they want to go.

That's quite refreshing. We have not seen that in any group of movement who have taken over a city anywhere in the world, whether they are religious or secular.

Struggle not over yet

Herman Cohen
Former State Department Official
This represents legitimacy. And if they can negotiate with the Islamic courts, you might get the beginning of a national government, which would be great.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Secretary Cohen, do you think then that this Islamic courts movement wants to actually, what, support this transitional government that's been holed up in that town, Baidoa?

HERMAN COHEN: Well, the traditional government has some form of legitimacy. The U.N. has recognized them; the European Union has recognized them. Only the Americans have been a little reticent, and I think even now, from what I hear from the spokesman in the State Department today, that the U.S. is ready to recognize them.

So this represents legitimacy. And if they can negotiate with the Islamic courts, you might get the beginning of a national government, which would be great.

MARGARET WARNER: But, in the meantime, the warlords are still vowing that they're not going to give up without a fight. They certainly, this large clan in Mogadishu, had this big rally today. Do you foresee more fighting?

HERMAN COHEN: I do foresee more fighting. They're not going to give up, but this is the job of the United States right now, to put pressure on the Ethiopians, "Look, stop supporting these guys. This is only trouble."

MARGARET WARNER: You mean that money has been funneled through the Ethiopians, you believe, to the warlords?

HERMAN COHEN: And also there's the other element of Eritrea. Anything that Ethiopia supports, Eritrea goes against, so Eritrea is feeding arms to the Islamic courts. We should tell them, "Stop doing that now. Now is the time for talks instead of fighting."

But the main thing is to keep those warlords out of Mogadishu.

MARGARET WARNER: But some of them are in Mogadishu?

HERMAN COHEN: In the fringes. In the fringes, yes.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Professor, last word from you. Do you think we're going to see more fighting?

ABDI SAMATAR: I think there will be some skirmishes along the way, but I think this is an opportunity, both for Somalis, but more importantly for the international community to seize this moment and take these groups on their word.

They said they want to protect human rights. They want to invite all the international community to come to Mogadishu and look at every cranny and nook to be able to see if there are any terrorists. They want to cooperate. I think we should call their bluff and call them on their word; that's an opportunity which we have not seen for almost 15 years, and it's time to move on that one.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Thank you, Professor Samatar, Secretary Cohen, thank you both.

HERMAN COHEN: You're welcome.

ABDI SAMATAR: Thank you, Margaret.