It was a rout. After months of fighting that left hundreds dead Mogadishu fell suddenly this week: pick-up trucks with mounted machine-guns and young warriors scrambled to leave the city.
The victors broadcast a triumphant announcement that the warlords had been ousted. In their place a relatively disciplined militia promised order and security after 15 years of mayhem. At a victory rally a militia leader, Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, made another promise: to create an Islamic state.
Mogadishu is now largely ruled by the Islamic Courts Union, a powerful movement that advocates a strict version of sharia law, including public executions, and has alleged ties to al-Qaida terrorists. The Horn of Africa, say some analysts, has just acquired its own Taliban.
News of the takeover broke like a thunderclap over Washington.
“This is worse than the worst-case scenarios – the exact opposite of what the US government strategy, if there was one, would have wanted,” said Ken Menkhaus, associate professor of political science and Somalia expert at Davidson College, North Carolina.
It has emerged that the Bush administration bankrolled the warlords, who are secular, to gain access to al-Qaida suspects and block the rise of the Islamic militia. CIA operatives based in Nairobi funnelled $100,000 to $150,000 (£80,000) a month to their proxies, according to John Prendergast, an International Crisis Group expert on Somalia who has interviewed warlords. “This was counter-terrorism on the cheap. This is a backwater place that nobody really wants to get involved in, so [they] thought, let’s just do this and maybe we’ll get lucky.”
Instead Washington got burned. Amid recriminations policymakers are asking how did the fiasco happen, and just how bad is it for US interests?
Somalia has been without effective government since Mohamed Siad Barre was overthrown in 1991. Warlords control ports, airfields and roadblocks, gaining great wealth while offering little but trouble to the average Somali.
In the vacuum of a failed state Islamic courts were established along clan lines to dispense justice where no other method existed. With financial support from local businessmen the courts, popular with Mogadishu residents for curbing some of the anarchy and providing basic services, built up a militia capable of taking on the warlords.
In recent years radicals used the courts to promote the idea of an Islamic state. Cinemas accused of showing immoral western and Indian films were closed and celebrating new year was made a capital offence.
It is alleged that terrorists became active in the movement. Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, closely allied to the court leadership, was the most prominent leader of al-Itihaad al-Islamiya, a fundamentalist group linked to al-Qaida and blamed for a series of bombings in Ethiopia and kidnappings and assassinations in Somalia in the 1990s.
There are rumours that Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys could soon take over the leadership of the courts. If that happens, there is the “very real potential for serious violence”, according to a Horn of Africa analyst, as it would pit him directly against President Abdullahi Yusuf, who is avowedly against Somalia becoming a fundamentalist state.
An unnamed network run by one of Aweys’s proteges, Aden Hashi Farah ‘Ayro, has been linked to the murder of four western aid workers and more than a dozen Somalis who allegedly cooperated with counter-terror organisations. The courts are allegedly protecting three al-Qaida members indicted in the 1998 bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, and possibly the team that staged attacks in Kenya in 2002.
The Bush administration faced a dilemma. It wanted to nab the al-Qaida suspects but did not dare send US troops back to the scene of Black Hawk Down, the ill-fated military mission that scarred Bill Clinton’s presidency.
“The approach – strategy would be too generous a word – was to strengthen [the warlords’] hand in order to try to eliminate the threat posed by these individuals,” said Mr Prendergast.
In February a group of warlords formed a coalition called Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism and accused the courts of harbouring al-Qaida. The courts called the alliance American puppets. US diplomats in Nairobi who criticised the warlord payments as shortsighted were ignored and, in one case, reassigned to another country. The State Department, which favoured a wider policy of nation-building, was trumped by the CIA and the Pentagon, which wanted results fast.
“They didn’t realise their limited engagement would actually make matters worse,” said Mr Prendergast. “It’s ignorance and impecuniousness that have led us to be in a more difficult and disadvantageous position than we were.”
Alarmed by Washington’s intervention, the militia escalated its operations in recent months, culminating in this week’s seizure of the capital.
For the White House it was a humiliating reversal but not necessarily a catastrophe. From their stronghold of Jowhar the warlords are regrouping and talking of retaking Mogadishu. Revenue from smuggling and business interests is likely still to flow, as will weapons from Ethiopia in defiance of an international embargo.
The courts would struggle to impose Taliban-type rule on a society more wedded to clan than Islam. Their victory rally was countered by a rival hostile demonstration. On Wednesday Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, chairman of the joint Islamic Courts Union, softened his rhetoric. “We want to restore peace and stability. We are ready to meet and talk to anybody for the interest of our people.”
The ICU sent a conciliatory letter to the US and UN and engaged with Somalia’s interim government, a feeble but potentially significant player based in the provincial city of Baidoa. The government is due to send a delegation to Mogadishu this weekend.
The Bush administration has offered an olive branch, of sorts, to Mogadishu’s new rulers. “In terms of the Islamic courts, our understanding is that this isn’t a monolithic group, that it is really an effort on the part of some individuals to try to restore some semblance of order in Mogadishu,” said a State Department spokesman.
Robert Rotberg, professor at the Kennedy School of Government and director of the Program on Intrastate Conflict and Conflict Resolution, said the US must try to befriend the Islamists. “Most of us suspect that if there are any real al-Qaida agents there, there are handfuls, and these guys would turn them in for money in a heartbeat.”
This week’s worst-case scenario, said Professor Menkhaus, could yet turn out well if the courts offer moderate leadership and participate in a national unity government acceptable to Ethiopia. “We could get lemonade from lemons.”
However grateful for the relative calm, Mogadishu’s residents know from experience to brace for something bitter.
Somalia, the product of the merger in 1960 between a former British protectorate and an Italian colony, has had a violent and unstable history. In 1970 President Mohamed Siad Barre proclaimed a socialist state and started close relations with the Soviet Union. Frequent conflicts with neighbours followed. When the regime was overthrown in 1991, Barre went into hiding and the country was carved up by heavily armed warlords. The long-suffering population, which numbers more than 10 million, was plunged into further misery when famine ravaged the country. In 1992 US Marines arrived ahead of UN peacekeepers in an attempt to restore order, but the “humanitarian intervention” ended in disaster when two US Black Hawk helicopters were shot down. As warlords celebrated the death of 19 American soldiers the US beat a hasty retreat. Somalian clan elders and other senior figures appointed Abdulkassim Salat Hassan president at a conference in 2000, but little progress was made until 2004, when a new parliament was created with Abdullahi Yusuf installed as president. The fledgling regime soon stuttered and fighting between the factions resumed.