WASHINGTON (IPS) – The takeover of Mogadishu this month by Islamic militias marks a major defeat for the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush, which had secretly backed a coalition of warlords that has reportedly been routed from the Somali capital.

While the victors, the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC), sought to assure the international community that they have no intention of setting up a Taliban-style fundamentalist state, U.S. officials have expressed strong concerns about their possible ties to al Qaeda associates believed to be in Mogadishu, including at least one individual who allegedly helped organize the 1998 bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi.

“We do have real concerns about the presence of foreign terrorists in Somalia and that informs an important aspect of our policy with regard to Somalia,” said State Department spokesman Sean McCormick Monday. U.S. officials say their biggest fear is that the UIC will offer safe haven to al Qaeda and other radical Islamists as the Taliban did after it took control of Afghanistan.


Some independent analysts, on the other hand, said the outcome could actually contribute to Somalia’s stabilization after 15 years of rule by rival warlords, and even make way for the transitional national government that has been based in Baidoa since its formation in 2004 as part of a national reconciliation process to set up shop in Mogadishu.

“The so-called Islamists provided a sense of stability in Somalia, education and other social services, while the warlords maimed and killed innocent civilians,” Ted Dagne, a Horn of Africa specialist at the Congressional Research Service, told the New York Times. He said radical Islamists within the UIC were unlikely to wrest control from more-moderate factions.

“In the short term, this is good news in that the warlords in Mogadishu have been dealt with, but, in the long term, it depends on what the courts’ agenda is,” one knowledgeable foreign diplomat told IPS. “They’re probably looking at least for stronger roles in the education and justice sectors within the transitional government, but what their specific terms of negotiation will be is at this point anyone’s guess.”

The UIC’s victory Monday capped two months of fighting against the forces of three Mogadishu warlords who called themselves the Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism. The violence, described as the worst since 1991 when starvation and anarchy provoked the dispatch of a U.S.-led U.N. peacekeeping operation to Somalia, is believed to have killed at least 300 people over the past several weeks.

The warlords, who since the outset of the U.S. “global war on terror” have reportedly been paid by the U.S. to monitor and help “snatch” suspected terrorists in Somalia, began receiving more cash — 100,000-150,000 dollars a month, according to the International Crisis Group — to challenge the UIC’s militias that were expanding their control over the capital earlier this spring, just as the transitional government in Baidoa was to convene parliament for the first time.

While the operation was reportedly organized by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the cash reportedly was funneled through the Pentagon’s Joint Combined Task Force (JCTF), a 1,800-troop force based in neighboring Djibouti since shortly after the Sep. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and the Defense Department. The JCTF is apparently charged with carrying out surveillance, “snatch”, and related operations against suspected terrorist targets in Yemen and the Horn.

“Support for the warlords came at a really bad time and made a lot of people, particularly the Europeans who were trying to support the government, very angry,” noted the diplomat, who asked not to be identified. “Convening the parliament was a big objective for everyone, but then it’s overshadowed by the fighting in Mogadishu that followed the injection of money for the warlords.”

The U.S. move also provoked some controversy within the U.S. government, although at relatively low levels that did not gain the attention of senior policy-makers.

In one case, a Kenya-based U.S. diplomat, Michael Zorick, reportedly submitted a dissent paper to both his State Department bosses and the Pentagon in which he complained that support for the warlords was counter-productive to U.S. aims in Somalia. He was subsequently transferred to the U.S. embassy in Chad.

Indeed, State Department officials and independent analysts have long argued that Washington’s single-minded focus on catching suspected terrorists in Somalia, combined with its failure to support efforts to rebuild state institutions and, most recently, to provide real support to the transitional government, would prove self-defeating. But they were overruled by hawks in the White House and the Pentagon.

“The U.S. now has nothing to show for three years of investing in these warlords as the sole element of their counter-terrorism (CT) strategy in Somalia,” noted John Prendergast, a Horn expert at the International Crisis Group here. “It’s a travesty that this has been the only strategy Washington has followed after 15 years of no government, no state, in Somalia.”

“There simply hasn’t been a U.S. comprehensive policy on Somalia; just a counter-terrorism policy that takes no account of the political context,” noted the foreign diplomat. “Do you give priority to snatching individuals by any means necessary, including backing warlords, at the expense of a wider political process? That’s essentially what the U.S. has done. One would hope that this could get them to broaden their thinking, but I think that may be a naïve.”

The current chairman of the African Union, Congolese President Denis Sassou Nguesso, also criticized U.S. support for the warlord alliance during a White House visit Monday.

“We think, and what we told president (George W.) Bush, that most important is to establish a government that must help the Somali people to have a real government. We think that if this effort is needed, we have to move in this direction, in order that the Somali government can truly be established in Mogadishu,” he said.

Ironically, some of the warlords who have benefited from U.S. backing fought its troops in 1993 when Washington was trying to crush resistance to U.N. efforts to pacify the country following the ouster in 1991 of President Siad Barre, a U.S. client during the Cold War, according to Dagne.

A disastrous raid in October 1993 by U.S. forces against another Mogadishu warlord in which 18 soldiers — as well as hundreds of Somalis — were killed, the subject of the book and blockbuster movie, “Blackhawk Down”, led to Washington’s withdrawal from Somalia and its subsequent refusal to commit U.S. ground troops to peacekeeping operations in Africa.

Regarding the warlords’ recent ouster, Amb. Robert Oakley, who acted as special advisor on Somalia for the U.N. during the intervention in the early 1990s, told IPS, “That’s a good riddance. If the provisional government can work out some kind of understanding with the Islamic courts, it does create the possibility of some stability.”

He also said the U.S. “should work with the African Union, the U.N., and the neighboring states” to promote such an understanding. “I wouldn’t expect us to put a huge effort in there, but there’s some possibility (of the U.S. doing so). I think it’s worth exploring.”

To Prendergast, Washington’s most recent misadventure in Somalia recalls earlier debacles. “During the Cold War, U.S. officials armed strongmen to carry out our perceived national interests, and the consequences for Africa were disastrous,” he said.

“It appears they’ve learned nothing since, as they’re repeating the same strategy of arming strongmen and ignoring institutions. The consequences, predictably, are equally disastrous.”