April 20, 2007

Jihadist Warfare in the Horn of Africa and Beyond


April 20, 2007 02 00 GMT

A suicide bomber blew up a truck at an Ethiopian army base in the Somalian capital of Mogadishu on Thursday, an attack Somalian Deputy Defense Minister Salad Ali Jelle blamed on al Qaeda elements. The bombing was the third suicide attack in Somalia since June 2006, when hostilities began between the country's interim government and the Supreme Islamic Courts Council (SICC), the group that gained and ultimately lost control of much of the country.

While the first two attacks occurred in the Somalian city of Baidoa and targeted the government of Somalian President Abdullahi Yusuf, Thursday's attack was aimed at the Ethiopian forces that arrived in the country in December 2006 to reinforce the Somalian government's position. The blast, which likely was meant to further the Islamist goals of driving the Ethiopians from Somalia and collapsing Somalia's secular government, came only days after an al Qaeda node staged similar bombings in both Algeria and Morocco. It reveals that al Qaeda's reach has expanded from the Horn of Africa to include the northern part of the continent.

The most recent strike against Ethiopian troops in Mogadishu came a day after three senior Somalian opposition leaders -- former SICC political head Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, former parliamentary speaker Sharif Hassan Sheikh Adan and Somalian Deputy Prime Minister and Housing Minister Hussein Mohammed Farah Aided -- met in the Eritrean capital of Asmara to demand Ethiopia withdraw its troops from Somalia or face war. The leaders are notable for their ties to both the SICC and the Hawiye clan that supports the group.

The trio's threat will certainly provoke condemnation from Ethiopia. Prime Minister Meles Zenawi's government is deeply hostile toward Eritrea, with whom it fought a 1998-2000 border war. In July, Ethiopia accused the Eritrean government of funneling arms to the SICC, a claim that was repeated April 9 by U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Jendayi Frazer.

However, the threat and the suicide bombing are unlikely to dislodge the Ethiopians, despite that country's desire to reduce its deeply unpopular footprint in Somalia. Though Ugandan peacekeepers are stationed in Somalia, it is the Ethiopian government's willingness to use its own soldiers to fight in Mogadishu that is keeping Yusuf in power. If the Ethiopians were to withdraw, the holdout SICC fighters -- who melted into Mogadishu rather than face a battlefield defeat when Ethiopia invaded Dec. 25, 2006 -- and their warlord allies from the Hawiye clan would quickly overpower Yusuf's militia.

This potential outcome keeps Ethiopia's troops in place. A resurgent SICC victory, in partnership with the dominant Hawiye clan, could allow the group to regain control over its lost territory in southern and central Somalia -- and then some. Former SICC chief Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, who survived the Ethiopian invasion along with his deputy, SICC military commander Adan Hashi Ayro, likely would surface from where he is believed to be hiding in Mogadishu to lead this resurgence. Aweys, who has made a career out of fighting Ethiopia, likely would take revenge on the departing Ethiopians by stirring up trouble in the enemy's Ogaden region. Fighting over the Ogaden -- which is comprised of ethnic Somalians -- is what originally sparked Ethiopia's intervention in Somalia.

While the recent suicide bombing in Mogadishu will not achieve its intended goal of driving Ethiopian troops from Somalia, the incident indicates jihadist warfare is now being waged on a broad scale in the Horn of Africa and beyond. Given the April 11 suicide attack in Algeria and the April 17 attack in Morocco, al Qaeda nodes clearly have penetrated a wide and diverse swath of African territory, from ungoverned spaces like Somalia to cosmopolitan capitals in the Maghreb.

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