Article by Peter Maass

Court Martial

The New Republic  |  March 13, 2000
An Islamic militia gains ground in Somalia.

Over the past decade Somalia has earned a reputation as the world capital of senseless violence. It scores almost as high in the poverty department. The coastal city of Merca, then, is that strangest of phenomena—a Somali boomtown. Merca’s marketplace is loaded with everything from mangos to jewelry to stereos. The town boasts two computer schools, a cellular phone network, and, coming soon, an Internet service provider. For the first time in years, people can travel to Mogadishu, 65 miles away, without fear of being robbed or killed at any of the dozens of checkpoints that used to dot the road.

The man responsible for much of this is Sheik Hassan Ainte, a top leader of Mogadishu’s Islamic Courts. The Courts have existed for many years but didn’t possess a well-organized militia to enforce their edicts until last year. That’s when businessmen in south Mogadishu got fed up with their feckless warlord, Hussein Aideed, who inherited the job when his father, Mohamed Farah Aideed, was killed. Hoping to establish a semblance of order, the businessmen bankrolled a new militia run by local clerics, including Ainte.

Ainte soon pushed the militia’s influence beyond Mogadishu. In a matter of months it seized Merca and the strategic road that links it to Mogadishu. Now the Islamic Courts (as everyone refers to the militia) are pushing even further south, deep into Somalia’s fertile Lower Shabelle region. The group eventually hopes to sweep through the country, much as the Taliban did in Afghanistan, and unify it under Islam. And, for better or for worse, it just might.

For U.S. policymakers worried about Islamic fundamentalism, an African Taliban is not an ideal solution to Somalia’s troubles. But even they must admit how serious these troubles are. Since the failed U.N. intervention in the early ‘90s, the country’s northern regions, known as Somaliland and Puntland, have achieved a surprising measure of stability. But southern Somalia is still plagued by v-chip levels of violence and anarchy. Kidnapping is a serious problem. Americans who visit Mogadishu tend to stay for only a few days and usually surround themselves with a jeepload of Kalashnikovtoting bodyguards. Merca is far safer, but even there I was flanked by several nononsense youths who possessed Columbine levels of personal firepower.

And for good reason. one day, as my Landcruiser bounced across the sand dunes outside town, the three guards with me spotted an Islamic Courts pickup truck with an anti-aircraft gun in its flatbed approaching from the opposite direction. With a flick of his thumb, the guard sitting next to me undid the safety catch on his AK-47. We waited tensely. The pickup passed us without incident.

If anyone can make such events a thing of the past, it is Ainte, whom I tracked down at his headquarters in Merca’s Hotel Fatxi. The entrance is usually guarded by several dozen Islamic militiamen draped in bandoliers and leaning against a bullet-pocked truck. The hotel, a star or two below seedy, reflects the no-frills seriousness of the sheik.

When I visited a month ago, a half-dozen men were crammed into an ill-lit room, some wearing sarongs, others in vaguely militaristic outfits. Most had the sort of hard stare you see from Mike Tyson just before the first bell. A cell phone rang, prompting several of the men to reach into their pockets to check their Nokias. But the ringing came from the sheik’s phone, and, after checking the incoming number—the sheik has Caller I.D.—he handed the phone to a bearded assistant.

Asked how many fighters he commands, Ainte was coy. He also preferred not to discuss the United States. But he was more forthcoming about the Taliban—whose lightning-quick ascension to power the Islamic Courts wish to emulate. “There are similarities and differences, but very big differences,” Ainte said. “We are all Muslim. They came to power by shedding blood, but we don’t want to do that. They killed a lot of people. We don’t want that. We came here at the request of the people. Everyone is happy with us.”

Well, not quite everyone. Merca’s business community is indeed pleased with the open road to Mogadishu and the stability in town, but it is worried about what will come next. The militia has rounded up lawbreakers and handed out mild punishments, at least by the Taliban’s limb-reducing standards. But nobody seems altogether confident that the Courts’ current moderation will last. “There are two ways this can go,” says Isse Haji Ismail, a leading businessman in Merca. “One way is evolution. We tell them how grateful we are that they have brought us security ... and that it is time for them to go home. The other way is that, at the same time, we get our own [armed] groups ready, and, if they will not leave when we ask them, we will fight them.”

If the militia’s leaders try to turn it into a force capable of militarily and politically dominating the country, that fight will almost certainly occur—since the businessmen who fund the Courts think Islamic law, or sharia, is bad for business. But by that time the militia may be more powerful than the moneymen who gave birth to it. After all, although the sheik denies it, most observers assume that his militia gets money from abroad as well.

Powerful factions oppose the Islamic Courts, including the Rahanwein Resistance Army—based in central Somalia and backed by the Ethiopian army, which has fought inside Somalia off and on for some time and is no friend to fundamentalist movements. Also, it’s unclear whether Islam is a unifier strong enough to overcome Somalia’s legendary clan allegiances. Although Islamic law is often used to adjudicate disputes or criminal acts, Somalis also have a deep-seated tradition of meting out justice through gatherings of clan or village elders. They would balk at transferring all judicial power to the clerics. But Ainte is in no mood for compromise. “There will be nobody against Islamic Courts or sharia,” he said, shaking his head vigorously. And he stood firm in his commitment to spread sharia to all Somalia: “We are not here for anything else.”

As if to underscore the point, one of the sheik’s younger advisers sidled up to me as the interview drew to a close and asked whether I was interested in becoming a Muslim and joining the militia. After several seconds of horrified silence, I blurted out a reply I hoped would get me off the hook: “I think my mother would be very disappointed if I did that.” They laughed, fortunately, and bade me farewell.