Africa's Taliban

It might seem that somalis were put on this earth to suffer. For the past 15 years, they've had civil war. For most of the past decade, there's been drought. The few times the drought has eased, there've been floods. The state has collapsed so totally there are no public services whatever. Potholed roads have been replaced by tracks in the bush. Water is sold by private entrepreneurs. Hospitals tell patients to bring their own mattresses, even their own beds, and enough money to fuel the generator if, for instance, they need the use of an X-ray machine. Early this year the drought was even worse than usual, and the meager crops failed. Aid agencies poured in relief--now going to 2.1 million out of 10 million Somalis--but only half the budgeted amount made it. Much was lost to thieving warlords; pirates even seized two World Food Program vessels and shot up a third. A humanitarian disaster was averted this spring, thanks to indifferent rains and determined relief work, but only just--U.N. officials warned that renewed warfare could spell doom. Then in July, of course, there was renewed warfare.

This time, however, the fighting was brief, and by Somali standards relatively bloodless (400 died). Afterward, for the first time, the warlords who had been running amok were chased from Mogadishu. A visitor last week was able to spend five days in the capital without hearing a single gunshot or negotiating a militia roadblock (there used to be 10 just on the road to the airport). The Islamic Courts Union (ICU), a popular movement built around traditional Islamic Sharia courts and financed by fed-up businessmen, collected the militiamen's guns and rounded up their "technicals"--jeeps with gun mounts in the back. "In 15 years, no one was able to do what they did in 15 days," says U.N. official Saverio Bertolino.

Instead of warlords now, though, Somalis have what many are calling an African version of the Taliban, bent not only on imposing a harsh, Wahhabi-style Islam on the country but allegedly also providing a safe haven for international terrorists. Movies, music and mixed wedding ceremonies have been banned; open-air video parlors showing World Cup matches were shut down. Recently the group appointed a majlis al-shura (consultative council) to be its supreme spiritual and policy-setting body and appointed as its leader Sheik Hassan Dahir Aweys, who is on the U.S. terrorist watch list for his connection to a Somali militant group, Al-Itihad al-Islamiya. In an interview with NEWSWEEK, Aweys praised Osama bin Laden, likening him to Nelson Mandela, and tried to justify Al Qaeda's attack on the World Trade Center. "Since Osama was fighting against his enemy, he could use any tactic he had available to him," Aweys said. And he confirmed he had been a leader of Al-Itihad, though he added: "I don't know anything that Al-Itihad did to America."

U.S. officials have accused the ICU of harboring three terrorists accused in the bombings of the U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya in 1998. The Islamists reject the charge, but there are plenty of kindred spirits in the Islamists' ranks. Among them is Aden Hashi Ayro, an Afghan-trained Somali who U.S. officials say was behind the assassinations of four aid workers in Somaliland and the execution of Abdul Qadir Yahya, an internationally known civic leader, last year.

Aweys describes Ayro as "a good man" who's never been convicted of a crime. Yet some of his acknowledged exploits have been dubious enough. Last year Ayro and his followers disinterred all the bodies from the colonial-era Italian cemetery in Mogadishu and dumped them in the trash. In their place they set up an Islamic militia training camp. An ICU-made propaganda video titled "Punishment of the Converts," obtained by NEWSWEEK from an Islamic militiaman in Mogadishu, shows the Somali Islamists training in the cemetery, interspersed with speeches from several of the ICU's leading military figures, including a partially masked man who appears to be Ayro, according to Somalis who know him. The dialogue is Pan-Islamic and pro-terrorist; the voice-over features Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri. "Every Muslim who is victimized in the world, we are calling him to come here," says one masked Somali fighter. "It will be a safe haven for him." The Islamic militias' internal newspaper, Al Jihad, puts it more bluntly: terrorism is compulsory, reads a July 3 headline. terrorism, extremism and fundamentalism are part of islam and good.

In February, the warlords in Mogadishu--having lost not only the capital but most of the rest of south and central Somalia to the Islamists--banded together in what they dubbed an "antiterrorist alliance," which was rich, considering their past attacks on first U.S. and later U.N. peacekeepers, whom they finally drove out of the country in 1995. They were worried about the growing influence of the Courts Union. The Transitional Federal Government, an internationally recognized body that rules only the bush town of Baidoa, took in some of the defeated warlords. The transitional government cried foul when the ICU militia advanced to a town 60 kilometers from Baidoa, establishing a Sharia court there and then returning to the capital. Neighboring Ethiopia was so alarmed that it threatened to invade if the Islamists entered Baidoa, and even sent an advance party of 120 troops to the city last Thursday, according to U.N. witnesses. Somalia's long run of suffering may still be far from over.