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Somalia in Crisis


An Islamic fundamentalist listed by the State Department as a suspected al-Qaida collaborator was chosen a few days ago as the new leader of a Muslim militia that has seized control of all of Somalia. But Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys’ appointment makes it unlikely that the increasingly powerful militia will govern using the moderate form of Islam practiced by most Somalis.

VOA East Africa correspondent Alisha Ryu, who was recently in Somalia, describes the emergence of Sheikh Hassan as a “disturbing” turn of events. Speaking with host Judith Latham of VOA News Now’s International Press Club, Ms. Ryu says he is a well-known, hard-line, “firebrand” cleric, who headed up al-Itihaad al-Islamiya, a Somali Islamist/nationalist group that had links with al-Qaida back in the 1990’s. Although the Council of Islamic Courts, which Sheikh Hassan now heads, denies any links with al-Qaida and says it is interested only in restoring law and order to Somalia, Alisha Ryu says she thinks that claim is not credible. And the people with whom she has spoken in Mogadishu say Sheikh Hassan has been actively involved in anti-American and anti-Western activities. Furthermore, the Council of Islamic Courts has begun imposing shari’a law. Ms. Ryu explains that Somali society is based on Sufi Islam, a moderate form of Islamic theology. But the shari’a that the Council of Islamic Courts is imposing in Somalia follows the extremely conservative Wahhabi tradition practiced in Saudi Arabia.

However, Ali Iman Sharmake, co-director of HornAfrik radio station in Mogadishu, does not share Ms. Ryu’s pessimistic view of the Council of Islamic Courts. He says the Somali people want the Courts to do what they promised – that is, to bring law and order to Mogadishu. He notes that Somalia has had no central government since 1991 and its capital has had no police force for the past 15 years. The United States has been supporting various secular warlords, which many Somali analysts suggest has backfired. Alisha Ryu warns that, if the United States “rushes headlong” into Somalia without understanding that it is undergoing a form of nationalism – in addition to a change in the makeup of power – and if Washington uses Ethiopia as a “proxy to try to eliminate the hardliners in Mogadishu,” there may be a backlash against the United States, just as there was a backlash against the warlords.

Ms. Ryu stresses that Somalia’s clan structure is the single most important factor in the current power struggle, and the Council of Islamic Courts is made up of diverse clans. Richard Cockett, Africa editor of the Economist magazine, describes it as an alliance of 14 or 15 clans with “shifting alliances among the sub-clans.” He suggests it is a temporary union formed to take on the secular warlords. Mr. Cockett says that, although Sheikh Hassan does have terrorist connections from his past, he is “only one element” in the Council of Islamic Courts. Somali journalist Ali Iman Sharmake says Americans should not view Somalia solely through a counterterrorism prism. He says they need to broaden their focus and help Somalia establish stability and a functioning government. Although some U.S. analysts have suggested that Somalia might end up with a “Taleban-like” state, Richard Cockett and Alisha Ryu say it is far too early to predict that Somalia might become the Afghanistan of the Horn of Africa.

To listen to all of the comments, click on the audio link above.