This week's news that Somalia's Islamist opposition and Somalia's Transitional Federal Government (TFG) signed a peace agreement in Djibouti was quickly undermined by the bad news: Somalia's radical Islamists, the Islamic Courts Union, or ICU, (the ones actually fighting the U.S.-and-Ethiopian-backed government), denounced the agreement and immediately staged attacks—including an attack on the airport today as Somalia's president, TFG's Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed, was getting ready to fly to Ethiopia.
None of this is a surprise. The ICU had boycotted the Djibouti meetings from the start. (Check the skeptical footnote I wrote next to the link when news broke in late May that there were peace talks in Djibouti:
"'Somalia's rivals launch peace talks,' AlJazeera, 5/31/08 (Annoying note: The article does not make it clear what parties are at the negotiating table and if, for example, the ICU is involved in the talks.)"
Indeed, it turns out, the ICU wasn't involved in the talks. They denounced them. Al Jazeera quoted one of the ICU's original leaders, Shiek Hassan Dahir Awyes ultimately condemning the deal:
Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, former leader of Somalia's Islamic Courts' Union, has rejected a new peace agreement between the country's interim government and its main political rivals.
The deal faced criticism just hours after it was signed. Speaking to the Reuters news agency by phone from Eritrea, Aweys said: "We encourage the insurgents and the Somali people not to be tired of combating the enemy."
"The aim of the meeting was to derail the holy war in the country."
The ICU's other former leader, Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, was actually part of the Djibouti peace talks with the TFG, yet the ICU still didn't want any part of it. (In Djibouti, Ahmed was now representing the more moderate Islamist opposition, the Alliance for the Reliberation of Somalia, the ARS). But without the ICU at the table, the agreement seems sort of like getting permission to stay up past bedtime from Dad, but never getting the okay from Mom. (TFG prime minister Nur Hassan Hussein agreed to make Ethiopian troops to leave the country in 120 days and the "opposition" agreed to a cease fire. We shall see.)
The proof of ICU's radical position—more than its dismissal of Ahmed and the Djibouti agreement—is the ascendance of its youth wing, Hizbul al-Shabaab (Party of the Youth). The militant Al-Shabaab, the ICU militia's special forces, have basically taken over the ICU in the last year and a half.
In December 2006, the ICU was run out of country into the bordering Kenyan hinterlands by Ethiopian and American troops—true—who were backing the TFG.
After that defeat, the ICU, renaming itself the Popular Resistance Movement in the Land of the Two Migrations (PRM for short), pledged to run a guerrilla war to retake Somalia—which the ICU had dominated for most of the decade, and outright controlled in 2006.
Operating out of Kenya and southern Somalia now during this recent guerrilla phase, the ICU's youth forces, al-Shabaab (which had gained a reputation during the ICU's command of the country in the mid-90s and 2000s as a bloody and reckless goon squad brigade that often embarrassed the more moderate ICU leadership), began to emerge as the lead fighters in the guerrilla movement. The war has killed about 6,000 civilians in Somalia in the past year.
Al-Shabaab surfaced in the mainstream media in spooky fashion this week in reports about the endangered Djibouti agreement.
The faction that signed the deal does not include influential leaders like Sheik Aweys or the Shabab, a separate militant group responsible for much of the current fighting. The group seems to be gaining strength, with government troops defecting to it and Shabab fighters seizing town after town. Much of south-central Somalia is now under the control of the Shabab or other Islamist groups.
Shabaab's leader is Aden Hashi Farah Eyrow, a protoge of Sheik Hassan Dahir Aweys (the Islamist leader mentioned in the NYT account directly above and in the Al Jareeza accounts at the top denouncing the recent agreement). During the '90s and 2000s, Aweys was the co-leader of the ICU along with Sharif Sheikh Ahmed (the former ICU leader who signed off in Djibouti, now as a member of the more moderate ARS).
During their ICU days, Aweys was basically the ICU's prime minister and Ahmed its president. Aweys, always the more radical of the two (and formerly the head of a Somalia-based Qeada-related terrorist group, al-Itihaad al-Islamiya) resurfaced in Eritrea in 2008, the country which had armed the ICU during the ICU's heyday. Ahmed, the ICU's spiritual founder (a former high school history teacher, a Koranic scholar who studied law at a Libyan university, and something of a moderate) resigned after the military defeat in December 2006.
On the ground now in Southern Somalia, and pushing back into Mogadishu, it's Awey's follwer, Eyrow, and his militant ICU youth offshoot, Shabab. Their goal is to establish sharia in Somalia. (Despite being Sunni, they sent some 720 fighters to Lebanon in July 2006 to fight alongside Shitte Hezbollah against Israel. Hezbollah wants to bring sharia to Lebanon)
The ICU wasn't always so radical. They emerged in the early '90s as an antidote to the anarchy that plagued Somalia under feuding warlord rule. The ICU set up a loose confederation of 11 autonomous Islamic courts in 11 towns throughout Somalia to deal with rampant crime. The order they brought was welcomed by the muslim population, which wasn't necessarily as religious as the courts, but longed for some peace and quiet. Soon the courts started dealing with civil matters and routine things like car titles. They also created a higher court to bring consistency to their legal system, the Supreme Islamic Court of Banadir (headed by Ahmed). They also established an army.
Additionally, they created a governing body, the Shura Council, headed by Aweys. (Both Aweys and Ahmed had been judges in one of the original 11 regional courts, with Ahmed establishing himself as more of a moderate and Aweys aligning himself with the more orthodox courts who were issuing death sentences, cracking down on bollywood movies and "licentious music," and reportedly going after porn and soccer.)
As the ICU's power grew in the 2000s, and as they threatened the warlords, the warlords banded together and formed The Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism (ARPCT). The ARPCT, funded by the CIA, was the precursor to the TFG. The ICU and the ARPCT duked it out until the ICU eventually took control of the capital, Mogadishu, and most of central and Southern Somalia in the summer of '06. This led to the U.S. and Ethiopian military campaign in December '06 that toppled the ICU, sending them fleeing south to Somalia's netherland border with Kenya. Ethiopia's interest in toppling the ICU stems from their concern about having a radicalized Islamic state as their neighbor.
Defense Update and GlobalSecurity.Org have both published good primers on the ICU.