Islamist Triumph in Mogadishu Worries Security Experts

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:17 PM EDT

( - Thirteen years after U.S. troops were withdrawn under fire from Mogadishu, security and political analysts worry that the emergence of a victorious Islamist militia in the anarchic Somali capital may be setting the scene for a new, dangerous phase in the war against Islamic terrorists.

Somalia's fragile transitional government described the city's takeover by the radical Islamic Courts Union network as a positive development, given that the warlords defeated by the Islamists have caused chaos in Somalia since 1991.

Members of the government, which is located 150 miles from Mogadishu, began exploratory talks with the Islamists on Thursday.

Africa and some nations in the West also have been cautiously supportive of the Islamist takeover.

American Enterprise Institute scholar Michael Rubin observed that some news reports put a positive spin on the Islamist militia's victory, saying it may restore order in Somalia.

Rubin called that assessment "shortsighted," saying that it "eerily parallels the spin which journalists put on the 1996 Taliban takeover of Kabul."

Some Western analysts faulted the U.S. government for allegedly financing the routed coalition of Somali warlords and businessmen known as the Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism (ARPCT).

The critics include John Prendergast of the International Crisis Group, whose arguments in Western media that support for the ARPCT had strengthened the hands of the Islamists have circulated widely this week.

Prendergast, who worked in the Clinton administration's National Security Council, said the Islamist win had undermined the anti-terror campaign and increased the chances of Somalia becoming a safe haven for terrorists.

The safe haven concern is shared by numerous security experts.

Terrorism specialist Douglas Farah said in an article posted online that while Somalia offered few economic benefits to terrorists, it did offer "proximity to numerous battlefronts where militant Islamists want to fight and where they have a well-developed infrastructure."

He cited neighboring Kenya, where al-Qaeda bombed the U.S. Embassy in 1998, and Yemen across the Aden Gulf, where the U.S. Navy destroyer USS Cole was attacked in 2000.

"In the near future we could well look back on the Islamist triumph in Somalia as the beginning of another serious Islamist threat to a much broader world."

Osama bin Laden lived in Sudan in the 1990s, and in 1993 he issued a fatwa urging Somalis to drive out of their country U.S. forces deployed on a humanitarian and peacekeeping mission.

Al Qaeda reportedly trained militias in Somalia, including those who downed two U.S. Black Hawk helicopters in Mogadishu in October of that year. Bin Laden later claimed responsibility for the deaths of 18 American soldiers in the battle.

'New front'

The terrorist leader later moved to Afghanistan, where he was sheltered by the radical Taliban militia. Since U.S.-led forces routed the Taliban and al Qaeda following 9/11, he has been on the run, believed to be in hiding in the remote Afghanistan-Pakistan frontier region.

A lawless Somalia under a sympathetic Islamist regime could offer al Qaeda a new base, analysts say.

Walid Phares, terrorism expert and professor of Middle East studies, wrote on the Counterterrorism blog that the hand of al Qaeda was behind Somalia's Islamist movements, and he said that "a new 'front' is now open in the Horn of Africa."

Taking part in a National Review Online symposium, Heritage Foundation scholar Peter Brookes said: "Heck, if I were Osama, I'd pull up tent stakes right now and head for safe haven in the Horn of Africa.

"It's better than living on the Pakistani frontier, or taking on American GIs in Iraq or Afghanistan."

Andrew C. McCarthy, senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, said al Qaeda had been most effective in the past when it had a stable base.

"All of the major attacks against the U.S. occurred when al Qaeda had a real headquarters," he said, referring to Sudan and Afghanistan.

"Ever since the Taliban was routed after 9/11 and Qaeda's leadership was chased out of Afghanistan, bin Laden and company have had to scramble - it's not easy to plot big operations when you have to keep moving just to survive."

"Radical Islam has its sights focused on Africa as much as on the Middle East," warned another participant, Paul Marshall, senior fellow at Freedom House's Center for Religious Freedom.

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow