Somalia Believed Headed for 'Draconian Sharia Law'

By Monisha Bansal | July 7, 2008 | 8:17 PM EDT

( - As Islamic groups continue to gain control of more areas of Somalia, there is a growing fear that the country will begin to resemble the former terrorist haven of Afghanistan.

The Islamic Courts Union (ICU) took control of the capital, Mogadishu, last week and has since taken control of the southern cities of Jawhar and Baidoa.

"The Islamic groups are taking more cities. Most of the South is now in Islamic control," said Omar Jamal, director of the Somali Justice Advocacy Center, in Washington, D.C., at a recent news conference.

The ICU has gained popular support by ejecting the secular warlords who had ruled the country since they overthrew Somali dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991. The coup conducted by the warlords 15 years ago led to the withdrawal of U.S.-dominated United Nations peacekeeping troops in 1994.

America was believed by many people not to have had any involvement in the country since the mid-1990s, even as suspicions grew that after the U.S. military routed the Taliban regime and al Qaeda operations in Afghanistan, terrorists fled to Somalia.

But on June 7, the New York Times reported that the CIA has been covertly funding the warlords with $100,000 a month to form an anti-terror group called the Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism.

ICU leader Sheik Sharif Ahmed denies a connection to the terror network. In a letter to the U.S. government dated June 7, Ahmed reportedly wrote that "the alleged support of the U.S. government to these warlords has contributed considerably to the recent fighting in Mogadishu and the killing of the Somali people who have suffered so long in the hands of these warlords."

During his National Press Club appearance, Omar Jamal criticized both the ICU and the CIA-subsidized warlords. The ICU, he said, is infringing on Somali sovereignty.

"Their intent is to bring a Talibani style government to Somalia. I don't think they will be happy with anything short of that," said Jamal. "That is the purpose of their movement, to bring about very draconian Sharia law in the country," he added. "I don't think the country is ready for that right now."

But Herman Cohen, former U.S. assistant secretary of state for Africa, said it was premature to label the ICU philosophy draconian.

Cohen argued that Somalia is different from Afghanistan because the source of conflict is internal, not foreign. "To call Somalia another Afghanistan is greatly exaggerated and misses the point," he said. "Somalia would not take very well to a Taliban type government."

The ICU may end up benefiting Somalia, Cohen said, adding that "Mogadishu is now a safe place to go."

Cohen does not believe, as many people do, that U.S. support for the warlords increased the popularity of the ICU and fueled its rise. "The idea that the U.S. empowered the Islamic Courts is nonsense. What empowered the Islamic Courts [were] the horrible conditions in Mogadishu," he said.

The ICU's establishment of a Somali contact group is a step in the right direction, according to Cohen. Members of the contact group met with U.S. State Department officials and members of Somalia's various clans on June 15 to try to establish diplomatic relations.

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