The rise of the Union of Islamic Courts in Somalia mirrors the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan a decade earlier. Both groups emerged from the ashes of failed states and in two years established themselves as the most potent fighting forces in their respective countries. The Islamic Courts, like the Taliban before them, command great support from a populace traumatized by decades of incessant civil war and willing to accept any group that would bring an end to the fighting. Both groups espouse a radical and intolerant form of Islam and both are sympathetic to Al Qaida. The Courts' chairman, Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, considered by some to be a moderate, has sought to assure Somalis and the international community that the Islamic Courts were no threat and only wanted order. However, a leading cleric in Mogadishu, Shykh Muhamed Abdulle, was quoted as saying the Courts will “work hand in hand with Al Qaida to defeat the enemies of Islam in Somalia”. He also referred to Osama bin Laden as a “friend of the oppressed people of Greater Somalia”. Nairobi security consultant Jackson Mbuvi has described the Courts as “extremists hiding in the cloak of Islamic courts”.
Many people, fatigued by the continual chaos that is Somalia, have greeted the rise of Islamic Courts with a cautious enthusiasm. Yahoo! News, after acknowledging fears of an emerging Taliban-style regime and US accusations of harboring al-Qaida leaders responsible for the 1998 bombings, declares that the Courts “have brought a remarkable amount of control to a country that has seen little but chaos since 1991.” BBC’s Yusuf Garaad reports that despite protests from human rights bodies, Mogadishu residents were pleased to enjoy law and order. Even veteran journalist Salim Lone writing in the Daily Nation suggests that Kenya needs to “reassess our support for the transitional government of Somalia that has little domestic support” and implies that we should instead be engaging with the Courts which according to Garaard, are the most popular political force in the country.
The Taliban, though, amply demonstrated the folly of a policy of peace at any price. They were initially welcomed by many for eliminating the payments that warlords demanded from business people, reducing factional fighting and poppy production, and establishing relative stability by imposing a set of norms on a chaotic society. Many chose to ignore their extreme theology, their oppression of women and their connection to terrorism. Soon we had the August 7, 1998 “bomb blasts” and 3 years later 9/11.
Kenya, which has suffered two terrorist attacks in the last decade, seems to be oblivious of the threat posed by having such a group on its borders. Kenya needs to adopt a more aggressive policy to counter the rise of the Islamic Courts. Support for the Transitional National Government of President Abdillahi Yusuf is rightly the lynchpin of our present policy. However, two years after it was formed with the help of the UN, the government wields little authority outside the town of Baidoa. It has no military and relies on Yusuf’s personal militia. And now Prime Minister Ali Mohammed Ghedi’s crumbling and ineffectual Cabinet has been dissolved. The ship needs to be steadied. We must provide military and political support for the TNG. Ethiopia has already taken the lead in this. We should back the AU's call for a lifting of the 1992 arms embargo to allow for peacekeepers to be sent to the country and to enable the TNG form an effective national army. We must also convince Eritrea and Saudi Arabia to stop arming the Courts.
We also need to encourage talks with the more moderate elements of the Courts to work out a power-sharing arrangement and isolate the extremists. Finally, Kenya has to do more to focus international attention on this issue and to highlight the need for sorting out and rebuilding Somalia. We must emphasize that its continuing instability, and consequent poverty, is providing fertile ground for Islamic extremism and is a threat to world peace. The fact of the matter is we ignore Somalia at our peril.