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INSIGHT

Islam in Somalia

Aired August 28, 2006 - 18:00:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


JONATHAN MANN, CNN HOST: In the Horn of Africa, an antidote to anarchy: Islam. Somali fundamentalists impose harsh law and order after years of no order at all.
Hello and welcome.

For 15 years Somalia hasn't had a national government. Now it has two groups that both claim to be the rightful rulers of the country. One of them, though weak and in decline, has the support of most outsiders. The other, gaining strength and terrain by the day, has frightened Western nations and even some African ones because it's rallying cry is Islam.

This week, the two sides are to meet to see if they'll work together or potentially plunge the country even more deeply into war.

On our program today, Somalia: Islam ascendant.

We have this report from CNN's Tim Lister.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TIM LISTER, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): A country long condemned to chaos and poverty, a battlefield for rival militia and gangs, may now be on the verge of Islamic rule.

For more than a decade, clan warfare has made Somalia a byword for anarchy. In the 1990s, American and then U.N. forces left in disarray after a humanitarian mission, immortalized in the movie "Black Hawk Down," was ensnared in factional fighting. Since then, the world has almost forgotten about Somalia.

There seemed a glimmer of hope that 15 years of clan warfare might end when the transitional government was formed two years ago, but it was little better than the anarchy it replaced.

As nature abhors a vacuum, so another power has risen. In the last few weeks, the Islamic Courts Union, long active at neighborhood level, has taken on the warlords. After gun battles that left some 300 civilians dead, the Islamists ejected militia of the transitional government from Mogadishu, and they've moved to impose strict Islamic law. These young men were publicly whipped after being caught in possession of drugs.

Western movies are banned as non-Islamic, though the court has retreated from an attempt to keep people from watching the World Cup. Their opponents describe the Islamic Courts as the Taliban of East Africa, but they are providing what most Somalis crave, security.

When journalist Nir Rosen returned to Mogadishu recently after a year away.

NIR ROSEN, JOURNALIST: The city was much safer. People could go out at night, which they hadn't been able to do, really, for 15 years. Many people said that it was the first time that they could go out on the street and use their mobile phones without being worried about being killed for them or having them snatched.

LISTER: Even Mogadishu Airport, closed for more than a decade, has reopened. So has the seaport.

The Islamists have quickly extended their authority beyond the capital, across southern Somalia and along several hundred miles of coastline north to Hobya. The transitional government controls a shrinking area around Baidoa, 250 kilometers from the capital.

Within the Islamic Courts, hardliners line Sheik Hassan Dahir Aweys have gained influence. He led a radical Islamic group in the 1990s and is on a U.N. list of al Qaeda associates.

SULMAN BALDO, INTL. CRISIS GROUP: Sheik Aweys hates the Shura (ph) Council, the consultative council of the Islamic Courts, and it is the real seat of power in the system, and this tells us that the radicals are gaining authority within the Islamic Courts.

LISTER: When the Islamic Courts won Mogadishu, Osama bin Laden was quick to praise them, adding.

OSAMA BIN LADEN, TERROR LEADER (through translator): We warn all the countries in the world from accepting a U.S. proposal to send international forces to Somalia. We swear to God that we will fight their soldiers in Somalia and we reserve our right to punish them on their lands and every accessible place at the appropriate time and in the appropriate manner.

LISTER: The Islamists say they'll fight any peacekeepers sent to Somalia, and they have their backers. At the end of June, a transport plane with Kazak markings landed in Mogadishu with tons of equipment. Onlookers were kept away. Analysts believe that cargo was flown from an airport in Eritrea, across East Africa. The Eritreans support the Islamic Courts, but deny flouting the U.N. arms embargo on Somalia.

But Ethiopia, which fought a border war with Eritrea, smells trouble. With a restive Muslim minority of its own, it's reported to have sent troops to bolster Somalia's transitional government in Baidoa, a move that may backfire.

BALDO: That would be a grave miscalculation, because that would give -- any intervention by Ethiopia would give the Islamic Courts a rallying cry for a defensive jihad of the homeland, they could put it to the population, and offer defending the country against interference from its big neighbor.

LISTER: The United States is also concerned. It tries to monitor events in Somalia from a base in neighboring Djibouti, but has no presence on the ground. After backing the discredited warlords, it now recognizes the Islamic Courts as a force to be reckoned with.

TOM CASEY, STATE DEPT. DEPUTY SPOKESMAN: The way forward is for the Courts Union, for the Federal Transitional Institutions and for other actors in the process to work together. It's important that Somalia's neighbors avoid any kind of actions that would prevent these groups from getting together.

LISTER: The Islamic Courts have told a U.N. envoy they will attend talks with the transitional government.

ROSEN: They want aid from the international community and the Americans. They want a dialogue. They desperately want recognition and legitimacy. If we don't engage the Islamic Courts, and recognize that they have overwhelming popularity, in Mogadishu, at least, then we will only be encouraging them to turn, perhaps, to the extremists, and only sort of justify what the extremists are saying about the United States and the West.

LISTER: Somalians, their neighbors and the international community are waking up to a new reality in the Horn of Africa.

Tim Lister, CNN, Atlanta.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MANN: We take a break now. When we come back, will the Islamic Courts end the chaos or make it worse?

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MANN: Sheik Aweys' beard is dyed red with henna in a traditional Muslim sign of piety, but his rise in Somalia was not simply a matter of faith. The United Nations reports that Eritrea has armed his forces, at least in part to destabilize Ethiopia, and there are fears of full-scale war involving Somalia's neighbors.

Welcome back.

The United States says the Islamic Courts Union is too cozy with terrorists, but supporters say it's led disarmament efforts in Somalia and forced gunmen off the streets. Some Somalians don't seem to mind if it helps them walk their communities safely or put food on the table.

Is the Islamic Courts Union making life better or worse?

Joining us now to talk about the group's influence is Said Samatar, professor at Rutgers University and managing editor of "The Horn of Africa Journal."

Thanks so much for being with us.

Let me ask you first of all just one very basic question. How would you describe the situation that Somalia is in today? Is it civil war? Is it amorphous chaos? Or is there essentially a government, however incomplete, that's been imposed by the Islamic Courts Union?

SAID SAMATAR, RUTGERS UNIV.: Amorphous chaos, and if I may, I would like to inform the West that they are making much ado about nothing.

Your lead-off point, for example, said something to the effect that Somalia might be on the verge of Islamic rule. Nothing could be farther from the truth, because the so-called Islamic Courts, in my view, and I have studied them, ae neither Islamic nor courts nor a union, but a combination of ethnic, of clans, wrapping themselves in an Islamic flag in order to appear to the West respectable and, of course, to give the United States a fright.

MANN: Well, let me stop you. You just made a very important point. You say that they're not particularly Islamists? They seem to be. This is an organization that has a long history, some of its members are well known, going back years, and they're imposing Islamic law, they say, and with at least very visible evidence -- floggings on the street -- to prove it.

SAMATAR: Of course, what they say is one thing, but what their intentions are is another matter.

For example, take Sheik Aweys. Sheik Aweys is a "Johnny Come Lately" to Islam. He has made his reputation and career as a military officer, known for his military exploits in the now dead Somali army.

MANN: Let me jump in on that very point while we're talking about him, because one of the reasons that he has caused so much concern is his own past with an organization that is described as having carried out terrorist attacks. It's called Al Itihad Al Islami and attacked Ethiopian troops more than once.

SAMATAR: If I may give you a little background on Itihad Al Islami, in the early 1990s, this organization, and not much of an organization, a rather fragile coalition of different groups, attempted to wrest control of power from now the current president of the TFG or Traditional Federal Government, in Puntaland (ph).

Abdullah Yusef (ph) then unleashed his militia mercilessly and Sheik Aweys, who was the leader of Al Itihad at that time, has a personal grudge against Abdullah Yusef (ph).

MANN: Nothing religious about it?

SAMATAR: No. It's much more personal and ethnic.

MANN: Let me ask you to expand on that point, because you passed over that very quickly. There are some people who look at this and they say there are two sides, one of them seems more secular, the other more religious. There are people, and you seem to be one of them, who say that really this is all a matter of clan warfare and not that different from what Somalia has seen in the past.

SAMATAR: If I may ask, I would like to answer that question by asking this: if this is in fact an Islamic movement that we are dealing with, why are there 11 of them? I'll tell you the answer. The 11 so- called Islamic Courts represent 11 different ethnic groups. And as we speak, by the way, their influence is kind of waning away, because when they went as far as Hobya, and Puntaland brought up some troops and the Ethiopians made a show of force, they went back.

MANN: And yet, forgive me, people are saying that whatever the concerns about this particular group, it does at least represent a unified effort to establish a national government. Whether it's ideological or clan-based, can it at least do that? Can the people of Somalia hope for that much from it?

SAMATAR: I'll tell you, the achievement that we need to give them credit for, what has been the devil in Somalia for the last 15 years, has been the capital center of Mogadishu. In and around that city, which has become almost a gangster city, roaming everywhere with militia, what you can give credit for to the Islamic Courts is that they have disarmed this militia. But as far as them playing a role in the creation of a centralized national government, the jury is still out on that.

MANN: Well, there's more than just a jury out. There is a possibility at least being spoken about by outsiders, and you can tell us, that depending on the success of the Islamist Court Union, Ethiopia and Eritrea might both become involved in Somalia to the point of making things dramatically worse with yet more war supported by outside armies. What are the chances of that?

SAMATAR: They're already involved.

MANN: Why would they bother? Why is the Islamic Courts Union so crucial to those two states?

SAMATAR: Because they are fighting a proxy war over Somalia. Eritrea is just fishing in troubled waters. Eritrean President Issayas Afewerki, of Eritrea, is a very ambitious, pompous individual who likes to be a big player in the Horn, and he will support whatever -- he will support whatever Ethiopia doesn't support, and vice versa.

As far as Ethiopia, Ethiopia has a genuine national interest in Somalia, because as you know, the large segment of the territory of Ethiopia, the (UNINTELLIGIBLE) region, is inhabited by ethnic Somalis, and the Somalis go back and forth across the border. And so Ethiopia has to be careful about being destabilized by the Somali troubles.

MANN: Said Samatar, we're going to ask you to stay with us. We have to take a break.

When we come back, what has the United States been up to and what's it prepared to do now?

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MANN: U.S. forces landed in Somalia at the end of 1992, 25,000 U.S. soldiers deployed to provide security for the delivery of humanitarian aid. By June the following year, the United States had withdrawn 80 percent of its troops and transferred a more challenging mission to the U.N.'s command, disarming warring factions and establishing the rule of law.

The attack that killed 18 U.S. soldiers and wounded 84 others briefly brought U.S. reinforcements back into Somalia, but in March of 1993, the United States withdrew its last soldier. Two years later, the United States briefly returned to help the United Nations withdraw its troops as well.

Welcome back.

A decade after leaving Somalia, the United States shifted its strategy, planning this time to try to change the country from the inside out. The United States reportedly backed local warlords who failed to stop the Islamic Courts' advance.

What was the United States trying to do in Somalia? Joining us now to talk about that, once again, is Said Samatar, of the "Horn of Africa Journal."

What do you know? We've seen press reports, the U.S. government has been very sketchy about what it's willing to admit to. What evidence is there and what do you know about what it's actually been doing in Somalia in recent months?

SAMATAR: It is obvious that the United States had been supporting some secular warlords, for example like Mohammad Grinyera (ph), Yelaho (ph) and others, who they were paying. I think it's an open secret that the United States was paying these individuals to fight off the Islamic Courts Union and that that was, in my view, a vain, useless effort, because in the first place, these warlords were hated, they were nothing but thugs who have terrorized the Somali people for years, and the fact that the Islamic Courts Union routed them is not indicative of any great strength on the part of the Islamic Courts Union. It is because of the lack of support for these hated warlords by the Somali populous.

MANN: Now, there is a certain irony in the United States making common cause of these warlords. These are said to be the same warlords that the United States was fighting just a decade and a half ago.

SAMATAR: Correct. I suppose it is a case of strange bedfellows. The United States was unnecessarily, in my view, unnecessarily concerned, as President Bush said, that the United States is concerned about the rise of Islamic terrorism and that Somalia might become a haven for Islamic terrorists.

MANN: If that were the case, couldn't the United States, and did the United States, back the transitional government that was trying to keep power, trying to keep it away from the Courts Union?

SAMATAR: Well, there again you have a little problem because, as you know, it was the -- what the transitional government needs is arms, and the resources to train respectable, credible military force, and until lately, as you know, there was a general ban, an arms embargo by the United Nations on Somalia, so that the United States could not openly violate that U.N. arms embargo.

MANN: So it backed the warlords instead. What kind of support did it give them? There have been, once again, various reports that it was cash, the idea of weapons comes up. There has also been reporting that said that in fact it was simply money for services, if the warlords could come up with intelligence about terrorists or suspected terrorists, they got paid for that and that alone.

SUMATRA: It is an open secret that the United States was backing, I believe there were a number of CIA personnel in Mogadishu itself. The United States was backing these warlords with arms and logistical support. But I don't think that anybody other than the principals involved can say the magnitude of the support.

MANN: Which, to be fair, the United States government has not done. So without knowing for sure from those involved exactly what the United States did and why, let me ask you about what it can do now. Outsiders are still involve din trying to bring a government to Somalia. There are the meetings this week in Khartoum between the two factions. Will those meetings succeed? Can outsiders try and help them succeed?

SAMATAR: It's kind of doubtful. If I were to give the United States a piece of unrequested advice, I would say calm down. Don't worry. Be happy. There is no way, given the social fabric of the Somalis, that an Islamist, al Qaeda style Islamic government is going to take over. The Somali social structure mitigates against the rise of Islamic fundamentalism.

MANN: Why is that?

SAMATAR: Because the Somali society is characterized by a principle that social anthropologists describe as the segmentary lineage system.

MANN: Can you explain that in 20 seconds? We have very little time.

SAMATAR: OK. The country is made of segments that are warring with each other and that mitigate against the centralization. The social fabric of the Somalis -- for example, you will never have in Somalia a religious leader, like bin Laden, whose word will become a law unto others. Never, in my view.

MANN: Said Samatar of Rutgers University and the "Horn of Africa Journal," on that note, thank you for talking with us.

SAMATAR: My pleasure.

MANN: That's INSIGHT. I'm Jonathan Mann. The news continues.

END

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