In the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington DC, Islamic politics and movements around the world are coming under greater scrutiny than ever. The Horn of Africa is of particular importance on this score as a region where radical Islamist movements have been increasingly active over the past decade. While the endemic conflicts in the Horn are attributable to a wide range of causes, radical Islamic movements are intimately involved in some of the region’s turmoil.
A quick inventory underscores the point. Sudan has been home to a fundamentalist Islamic regime since 1989; for a number of years in the 1990s it even hosted Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda organization. The Sudanese government’s insistence on imposing Sharia law on its southern, non-Muslim populations has been one of the factors fueling the long-running civil war there. In Ethiopia, where about half of the population is Muslim, the government has been waging a decade-long battle against Islamist insurgencies. Those insurgency groups enjoy support from external Islamic backers waging jihad on what they consider an oppressive Christian regime. Eritrea, the population of which is split evenly between Muslims and Christians (Orthodox), has to date man aged to keep religious politics relatively depoliticized, but Eritreans are expressing growing concern over “identity politics” issues voiced by its mainly coastal Muslim population. In Uganda, three mainly non-Muslim ethnic insurgency groups — the Lord’s Resistance Army, the West Nile Bank Front and the Allied Democratic Forces — have all received backing from the Islamist government of Sudan. (2)
Kenya’s Muslim population — comprising 25-30 percent of the total population — has for the most part kept its political activity within the parameters of legal party politics, but it includes radical elements sympathizing with or actively supporting al-Ittihad (Islamist) cells. Kenya was also the site of the 1998 terrorist attack on the U.S. embassy by non-Kenyan Islamic extremists. (3) Because large sections of its border areas and many of the teeming slums of Nairobi are essentially beyond the control of Kenyan police, Kenya remains a convenient haven for Islamic radicals and weapons smugglers.
Finally, there is Somalia, a country that has endured over a decade of civil war, recurring famine and complete state collapse. Despite — or perhaps because of — the fact that it is the only country in the Horn of Africa which is almost entirely Muslim, (4) Somalia has not historically been home to the same level of radical Islamic political activity as has been the case in neighboring, religiously divided states. But over the course of the past decade, Islamic political activity has dramatically increased in Somalia. Sharia courts have sprung up throughout the country; al-Ittihad groups have temporarily seized control of several ports and towns; al-Ittihad cells exercise influence within the political and commercial elite; and in a few instances, evidence suggests that Somali al-Ittihad cells as well as secular factions have hosted and facilitated the operations of radical non-Somali Islamists such as Bin Laden’s Al Qaeda. Ethiopian fears — whether warranted or exaggerated — that Islamic radicals are using Somalia as a base of operations have led Ethiopia into protracted and at times intense military operations inside Somalia and even across Kenya’s borders. (5)
Fears that lawless Somalia may become a new safe haven for Al Qaeda are generating renewed Western interest in that country, largely ignored by the West since the ill-fated U.N. peace operation in Somalia closed in 1995. This revived interest and concern has collided with the troubling realization that little is known about the nature and extent of political Islam in contemporary Somalia. This article constitutes a first step in addressing that problem. It provides an overview of our current state of knowledge about the subject and assesses the Islamist movements in terms of their potential to threaten, or coexist with, Western security interests.
The thesis of this analysis is that most of the wide range of Islamic political activities and agendas present in Somalia can coexist with Western security concerns, but that two radical Islamist agendas inside Somalia constitute serious threats. These are (1) the commitment to jihad against the Ethiopian government (embraced mainly by Somali Islamists with some external support) and (2) the commitment to a terrorist war against the West (embraced by a very small number of Somali and non-Somali radicals associated with Al Qaeda).
A collorary to this thesis is the argument that distinguishing between the “benign” and “malignant” strains of political Islam in Somalia is a difficult but vital first step in establishing successful security strategies in the Horn. Understating the threat runs the risk of overlooking a potential base of operations or safe haven for Al Qaeda. Overstating the threat runs the risk of alienating a great many Somali Muslims whose interests, agendas and allegiances can and should be kept quite separate from those of Al Qaeda.
Middle East Policy
| March 01, 2002 | Menkhaus, Ken | COPYRIGHT 2002 Middle East Policy Council. This material is published under license from the publisher through the Gale Group, Farmington Hills, Michigan. All inquiries regarding rights should be directed to the Gale Group. (Hide copyright information)Copyright