Somalia: Radical Muslims Vow to Fight On

Once again Mogadishu has fallen, and once again Somalia's troubles appear only to be beginning anew. This time Ethiopia is the invader, and the hardliners of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) have fled the capital. But the new government still faces opposition. When Prime Minister Ali Mohamed Gedi visited Mogadishu Friday, thousands of residents burned tires and blocked streets in protest, many apparently angry at the presence of Ethiopian troops. Gedi said Friday that the country will face three months of martial law as the new government attempts to restore security.

Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys , the ICU’s pro-al Qaeda spiritual leader, made it clear he planned to carry on a guerrilla war with Ethiopia as other Somalis did with the United States. In remarks to a NEWSWEEK reporter as he prepared to leave the capital on Wednesday, Aweys said, "I am going somewhere else in my country, and we will think of a way to overwhelm the enemy ... We will give them unprecedented lessons, as we did in 1993 [when the United States intervened in Mogadishu]."

In remarks to reporters at the Mogadishu airport, the Courts' other main leader, the more moderate Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, vowed to "prolong the fighting and reach other countries and other cities." Sheikh Sharif had just arrived at the airport from a trip abroad, landing shortly after Ethiopian MIG jets bombed it, along with another airport outside the capital city, according to eyewitnesses reached by telephone. "We are quitting the city with our forces to avoid fighting over the people and destroying the city," he said. "Islamic court officials will not surrender, we will defend ourselves and defeat the enemy."

Ethiopian troops, after a stunningly fast advance into Somalia only a week old, advanced into Mogadishu Friday with troops of the Transitional Federal Government of Somalia. The TFG is a confederation of former warlords that until Ethiopia's intervention had controlled only the remote, small city of Baidoa in the west of Somalia. But it had the backing of Western countries and the African Union. Ethiopia's intervention was sparked by an offensive on Baidoa by the ICU, seeking to reduce the last place in southern and central Somalia not under their control. With typical bravado, the Islamists vowed to carry the fight to Ethiopia, which has a large Somali ethnic region, the Ogaden, over which the two countries have twice gone to war. Hard-line Courts members even threatened terrorist strikes against Ethiopian cities. "Ethiopia has a right to bomb the Islamist targets," said Saad Ali Jelle, the TFG's assistant defense minister, "because they want to start fighting in Ethiopia."

As they fled, the Islamists turned over weapons to the warlords they had disarmed only six months earlier when they swept to power. The Courts' militiamen were believed to be taking refuge in Kismayo, in the south of the country, where hardline elements were still in control, and most roads had been cut off by recent floods. No sooner had the ICU left Mogadishu than warlords began carving up neighborhoods with roadblocks, and looting and armed robbery broke out throughout the city, with constant but sporadic gunfire.

"The Mujahideen will defeat the enemy and Somalia will become an Ethiopian cemetery," said Courts spokesman Sheikh Mohamoud Ibrahim Suley, before fleeing himself. The retreat, he claimed, was a "war trick." But their fallback was clearly a major setback, as ill-trained militiamen, many of them adolescents, were unable to stand up to Ethiopia, which has the region's most formidable military. The ICU was so desperate as allied militia warlords abandoned them, that they canceled school classes so they could enlist hundreds of young boys to send into the fight. After only a few days of fighting, one provincial city after another fell as the TFG and Ethiopian forces advanced. Ethiopia had previously claimed only to have military advisers in Somalia with the TFG, but that pretense was dropped this week. In Addis Ababa, Ethiopian officials said they had no intention of remaining in Somalia.

Sheikh Aweys, in his comments to NEWSWEEK, blamed the fighting on behind-the-scenes support by the United States for the Ethiopian offensive. "We believe USA is attacking Somalia—they funded the warlords who we defeated, and now they are pushing and funding Ethiopia,” he said. “I assure them that they will not succeed to occupy Somalia. We will not compromise our ambition to install an Islamic state, and Ethiopia will not remain much longer in Somalia. We will give them unprecedented lessons like we did in 1993."

As the Islamists packed up in Mogadishu and other cities, they ran a last-minute recruiting drive and hundreds of young men signed up as jihadis, leaving with them as they fled. But many others were clearly happy to see the end of harsh Islamic rule, which had shut down movie theatres and even soccer matches, and outlawed not only alcohol but also the national pastime of chewing khat, a mild narcotic plant. Within hours of the city's fall, khat was back on sale openly in Mogadishu. In the city of Jawhar, west of the capital, one of the country's most notorious warlords, Mohammed Dhere, was back in charge as the Courts fled. He appeared in public, saying, "We got rid of the terrorists, now the people of Jawhar are free, open your cinemas, open your businesses, you are now under the care of the forces of the Transitional Federal Government."

While many residents in Mogadishu welcomed the departure of the Islamists, there was also widespread resentment about the role of Ethiopia in toppling them—which may be why their forces remained outside the capital proper. "I feel like a Palestinian," said Madina Ali, a mother of five. "Even if they give us milk and honey, the Ethiopians are our enemies, we prefer death to becoming an Ethiopian colony."

Barre Aden Shire, the TFG's defense minister, boasted that his forces backed by Ethiopia had killed 1,000 Islamists, and said, "We want to massacre the rest." But witnesses in the capital estimated that some 6,000 Courts militiamen had successfully fled to the south. "The fighting will not end as long as one of the terrorists remain in Somalia," Shire told reporters. That may be a very long time indeed.