Islamists come to fore in Somalia


Iran and Sudan are reportedly backing the fundamentalists, writes Mark Huband

The Guardian, 26 September 1992


ISLAMIC militias in Somalia and fundamentalist groups with strong influence among Somali refugees are emerging possible as a new factor in the chaos which has brought famine and dislocation to the war-torn country’s population.

Both main factions in the civil war, which has killed thousands and led to millions suffering from starvation, have confirmed the presence of Islamic groups who are fighting with sophisticated weapons. Both factions have also claimed that the Islamic fighters are receiving assistance from Islamic states.

According to General Ahmed Jilow, chief of staff of the forces loyal to Somalia’s interim president, Ali Mahdi Mohamed, Islamic fundamentalists have only become significant within the past few months.

They are strong in the capital, Mogadishu, and the town of Merka and were highly influential in Bossasso until fighting erupted there earlier this year. On August 15 they held a secret congress in Merka. The congress was attended by three Iranians, Gen Jilow said.

Bossasso is now controlled by the South Somali Democratic Front (SSDF), with whom Ali Mahdi is hoping to forge an alliance against the Somali National Alliance and its chairman General Mohammed Farah Aideed.

SSDF forces captured Egyptian Muslims during the fighting in Bossasso, General Jilow claimed. He said General Aideed was planning to use the Islamic fighters as part of his army.

Gen Aideed in an interview with the Guardian confirmed the presence of Islamic fighters in the territory of southern Somalia which his four-faction SNA coalition controls. He said that a group known as It-Ahad is present in the SNA-controlled town of Merka, and that the Islamists are “equipping themselves to take over the country. They have a connection with outside countries, and they are receiving money and military equipment and buying weapons,” he said.

Their presence in his territory did not appear to worry Gen Aideed, who said that there had been no attempt by the SNA to negotiate with the Islamists despite their perceived military capabilities. He claimed they were linked with the Manifesto group, of which Mr All Mahdi is a member, as well as with the remnants of the deposed dictator Siad Barre’s Somali National Front forces which are attacking the SNA along the Kenyan border.

Given the absence of an ideological basis for the war, it is possible that well-equipped Islamic forces could find themselves playing an increasingly important role as the factions seek the support of whichever army is available.

Neither Mr Ali Mahdi nor Gen Aideed are prepared to identify which countries they believe have given support to the Islamic forces.

However, Gen Jilow claims the arms have come from Iran through Sudan. In May weapons were discovered in Balydogle, and Gen Jilow claims they resulted from the official visit by the Iranian president Ali Akbar Rafsanjani to Sudan earlier this year.

Both Iran and Sudan deny giving any military backing to groups in Somalia, whose population is almost entirely Muslim. However, both acknowledge a strong desire to become involved in providing relief for Somalia on the grounds that it is a Muslim country.

“Our main purpose is to expand our presence in Third World countries and increase our co-operation with Third World countries. In accordance with Islamic duty, it is a necessary for us to help the poor and oppressed,” Iran’s ambassador in Kenya, Hamid Moayyer, said yesterday.

Iran has given £10,000 worth of food and medicine to Somali refugees in the past few months.

For Sudan, which is itself split by a religious war between the Muslim north and the non-Muslim south, Somalia represents a threat to regional stability, as it does for Kenya. This week Sudan announced that it was sending 1,000 tonnes of food and medicine to Somalia.

While Sudan denies it has any plans to use itself as a base from which to promote Islam in other countries, it has already become the most orthodox Islamic country in sub-Saharan Africa. “Sudan is trying to make a success of its own Islamic experience. If this can produce a model for others to follow, that will be very good. We hope that we are doing the right thing,” said Sudan’s ambassador in Nairobi, Abdellatif Abdelhamid.

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