A little more than six months after seizing control of the Somali capital of Mogadishu, Somalia's Islamic Courts Union is enforcing its form of law and order across a wide swath of the east African nation, home to a large majority of the population. But the hard-line Islamist leaders' alleged ties to terrorism, and their expansionist policies, have brought Somalia to the brink of war with neighboring Ethiopia. VOA's East Africa Correspondent Alisha Ryu, who has traveled widely in Somalia, tells us in this yearend report, there are fears that clashes in Somalia could trigger a wider regional conflict.
When Islamist forces captured Mogadishu in early June and spread with lightning speed throughout southern and central Somalia, few people outside the country knew much about the Somali Islamist movement.
Somalia's Islamic Courts Union arose, at least in part, from chaos that followed the overthrow of dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991. It is dedicated to restoring law and order through an Islamic Sharia code.
Islamic courts in Somalia have traditionally operated independently, but efforts to unite the separate groups began about six years ago. The militia of the Islamic Courts Union that emerged has become the most powerful force in Somalia during the past two years. Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, a hard-line Islamic cleric listed as a terrorist by the United States, leads the Islamist group.
Mogadishu fell after months of vicious fighting between the Islamists and militias loyal to a self-styled antiterror alliance of factional leaders. Amid the fighting, rumors swirled that United States was funding the factional leaders, and that the Islamists were getting money, arms and training from al-Qaida and Muslim extremist groups.
The American ambassador to Nairobi says no financial support has gone to the factional leaders. However, the United States' assistant secretary of state for African affairs, Jendayi Frazer, makes clear that Washington is deeply worried about Somalia becoming a breeding ground for terrorism.
"We have said over and over again that the people responsible for bombing our embassies [in 1998] in Nairobi and Dar Es Salaam - and we have evidence [of this] - are in Mogadishu," he said. "That constitutes a safe haven. We do not want it to become a further safe haven."
In a telephone interview with VOA in July, the Islamists' supreme leader, Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, said he has no ties to terrorism.
"What Somalis want is to unite under is Islamic law," he said. "The West thinks that is bringing terrorism to Somalia. I tell you that we are installing Islamic laws to promote peace, and we will not stop until all of Somalia is under Sharia."
Neighboring Ethiopia has watched the Islamists' rapid military expansion with growing alarm, especially after some Islamist leaders called for the absorption of Somali-populated areas of Ethiopia into a "greater Somalia."
Despite repeated denials by Ethiopia, U.N. observers and eyewitnesses say Addis Ababa began sending large numbers of troops across the border to protect Somalia's secular transitional government, headquartered in the town of Baidoa, 250 kilometers northwest of Mogadishu.
The transitional government, formed in 2004 by feuding factional leaders, is an attempt to give Somalia its first functional government in more than a decade. But it has been too weak politically and militarily to challenge the Islamic courts.
During two rounds of peace talks in Khartoum, members of the international community led by the African Union and the Arab League tried to convince the two sides to put aside differences and form a unity government. The talks produced little more than a rise in tensions across the Horn of Africa.
The Islamists declared a holy war against Ethiopia for sending troops to Somalia. At the same time, Ethiopia's archrival, Eritrea, began sending troops and arms in support of the Islamists, prompting speculation that Somalia could become a proxy battleground for Addis Ababa and Asmara.
In September, Somalia experienced its first-ever suicide attack, a car bomb targeting a convoy carrying interim government President Abdullahi Yusuf. He escaped unhurt, but that incident, along with Islamist claims that foreign fighters were joining their militia, pressured the U.N. Security Council to act. The United States backed a resolution calling for African peacekeepers in Somalia, to protect the interim government and train government forces.
A subsequent U.N. report on Somalia accused at least 10 countries from across Africa and the Middle East of taking sides in the brewing Somali conflict, but warned against deploying peacekeepers. Authors of the study said this could further destabilize the region.
Despite threats from the Islamists, the Security Council passed the resolution. A few days before the vote, Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said his country faces what he called a clear and present danger from the Islamists. He warned he would not wait for international approval before launching an offensive.
"If we are to protect ourselves, we know we are on our own," he said. "While we respect the views of our friends in Brussels and the United States, we do not expect any light [signal] from them - red, green [or] yellow -- for us to defend ourselves."
The Bush administration has dismissed media reports that suggest it is tacitly supporting any Ethiopian military intervention in Somalia. Assistant Secretary of State Frazer says the United States believes the best way to avoid a catastrophic war in the region is by reopening a dialogue between the Islamists and the interim government.