ThreatsWatch.Org: PrincipalAnalysis

Islamic Courts Union Returns to Somalia

The Return of the ICU in Somalia Highlights Our Failures

By Kyle Dabruzzi

Just three months after Ethiopian and US forces routed the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) in Somalia, the organization has significantly returned to prominence. Early reports of the fighters returning to Mogadishu and other areas of Somalia relayed a quiet return by ICU of leaders and fighters. Reports now point to preparations for "a comeback."

An article released two weeks ago indicated that several hundred fighters have begun re-assimilating in Mogadishu where they "work day jobs but meet regularly with officers and tribal elders." In addition, fighters said that they kept an "underground arsenal of automatic rifles, grenades and other weapons," that survived the Ethiopian advance. Moreover, Prime Minister Ali Mohamed Gedi recently admitted that "daily attacks by insurgents are undermining the government’s ability to bring peace and assert authority."

ICU forces are proving Gedi’s words to be accurate. Using the aforementioned underground arsenal, the ICU launched numerous mortar attacks against government officials, African Union peacekeeping troops and Ethiopian troops. Wednesday, as ICU fighters battled with government forces, masked men dragged the corpses of two government soldiers through the streets of Mogadishu; a scene disturbingly reminiscent of the 1993 'Blackhawk Down' incident where two American soldiers were dragged through the streets.

Other recent attacks include a strike on the capital seaport on Tuesday just as African Union troops were securing the area, a series of mortar attacks on four areas within Mogadishu last week, and a 10-minute mortar attack on the presidential palace just hours after President Abdullahi Yusuf moved in. Also last week, Colonel Abdi Mohamed Abdulle, a Somali police commander leading a crackdown on militants, was killed by his own bodyguard, who then fled with armed gunmen.

The ICU's return to Mogadishu highlights a recurrent error in the fight against al-Qaeda and aligned organizations: the failure to pursue, capture or eliminate the leadership of enemy forces, and their supporters. In this case, Somalia's weak Transitional Federal Government (TFG), and the limited African Union forces supporting the TFG, will pay a significant price for the failure. Had the Ethiopian forces followed the enemy to finish them off, aided by US forces acting to constrain the flight of ICU fighters, the TFG and AU would find a significantly more stable state and a population capable of supporting the TFG's actions.

Initially, the Ethiopian advance against the ICU was swift and effective. As Daveed Gartenstein-Ross noted in an article at Pajamas Media, a trusted military intelligence officer indicated his surprise at Ethiopia’s willingness to commit to the fight against the ICU. However, that commitment proved to be short-lived. In assessing the Ethiopian ousting of the ICU, U.S. diplomats noted that "Ethiopian forces captured few fighters and killed none of the top Islamists."

After the ICU’s retreat, there were many reasons to suspect that they would make a return to Mogadishu. A confidential UN report stated that "the ICU is fully capable of turning Somalia into what is currently an Iraq-type scenario, replete with roadside and suicide bombers, assassinations and other forms of terrorist and insurgent-type activities." Moreover, Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, the allegedly moderate leader of the ICU, threatened to initiate an insurgency in Somalia. Thus, the ICU's ability and willingness was clearly established.

Amidst the glaring signs of an impending insurgency, the Ethiopian military began pulling its troops out of Somalia just one month after over-running the ICU. And with that, the Ethiopian military’s failure to establish a secure Mogadishu has partly led to a re-infestation of ICU militiamen. Through them, the ICU will most likely continue what they previously started: An attempt to establish Somalia as a Sharia-run state and a potential safe haven for al-Qaeda and al-Qaeda-aligned terrorists.

At the same time, the United States’ failure to support the UN-recognized Transitional Federal Government also hurt Somalia's chance to rebuild itself. A number of articles were released suggesting that the United States and the UN had a great opportunity to offer support to the TFG. (See here, here, and here.)

However, no financial or logistical support was provided to the TFG. The United States’ failure to establish an ambassador to Somalia indicated a lack of willingness to help the TFG and deter the ICU. As a result, the TFG has been unable to curtail the general insecurity that has returned to the country; a situation that led many Somalis to originally welcome the ICU’s prior occupation. Although a report from the State Department indicated that it would provide immediate support for the deployment of Ugandan troops into Somalia, this has proven to be inadequate support considering the resurgence of the once-retreating ICU back into Somalia.

If a second ICU advance in Somalia is to be stopped, the countries in the Horn of Africa, as well as the United States, must commit their resources to helping the TFG establish control of the country and help a TFG-led Somalia rebuild itself.