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Islamist Militia Seizes Capital of Somalia

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

Somalia, on the horn of Africa, another battle ground in the war on terrorism. Americans recall it from the killing of U.S. soldiers more than ten years ago in the incident known as Black Hawk Down. Now, an Islamic militia has seized control of Somalia's capital, Mogadishu, from warlords reportedly backed by the U.S.

NPR's Michele Kelemen has this report.

MICHELE KELEMEN reporting:

James Dobbins was a special envoy to Somalia in the early 1990s after Black Hawk Down. He says his job was basically to help the U.S. get out and to persuade Somali's not to shoot at the departing Americans. He was not surprised to see the latest drama unfold in Mogadishu, where there has been no functioning government for more than a decade.

Mr. JAMES DOBBINS (Former Special Envoy to Somalia; Director, International Security and Defense Center, RAND Corporation): You can't allow one of these societal black holes to exist indefinitely and not expect that there are going to be consequences. And I think that if it was anywhere but Somalia there might be a stronger effort to do something about it.

KELEMEN: Dobbins, who's now with the RAND Corporation, says the international community doesn't seem to have the stomach to do nation building in Somalia, even though international efforts have paid off in other failed states.

Mr. DOBBINS: Every failed state has some individual idiosyncrasy, but Somalia's a failed state just like Sierra Leone was or Liberia was. There are a variety of power centers, warlords; in case of Somalia, they tend to be clan related warlords, that is they drive, derive their power from clan relationships.

KELEMEN: The group that claimed to control Mogadishu this week is different, Dobbins says. It's known as the Islamic Courts Union and supports Sharia law to restore order in Somalia. Ted Dagne, of the Congressional Research Service, says the U.S. knows little about how the organization is run, but says it is unusual that people from various clans are part of it.

Mr. TED DAGNE (Africa Specialist, Congressional Research Service): This is unprecedented. And I think if Somali's were to build on this that they can work together. After all, they have the same religion, the same language, the same culture, and the only thing that we've seen over the past decade that contributed to the instability and violence is the clannish politics.

KELEMEN: Dagne says the U.S. shouldn't jump to conclusions that this group supports terrorism just because it has the word Islamic in its name. U.S. officials will only say that the situation is fluid, and don't rule out the possibility of contacts with the Islamic Courts Union, though the U.S. nominally supports a U.N. backed transitional government.

John Prendergast of the International Crisis Group says the U.S. made a mistake in not supporting the U.N. process more, and he suspects clan rivalries will emerge in the Islamic Courts Union if it really tries to extend its influence.

Mr. JOHN PRENDERGAST (Senior Adviser, International Crisis Group): Because they've minimized their goals up until now, they've been able to continue to have success where the others failed. I think once they try to do more and actually try to govern particular areas, we'll start to see the fissures develop along clan lines.

KELEMEN: Prendergast says the U.S. made matters worse in Somalia by funneling money to warlords who claimed to be fighting terrorism. U.S. officials have been careful to avoid questions about how they backed the wrong horse. President Bush has only said he'll have to, as he put it, "strategize with his aids."

President GEORGE W. BUSH: There is instability in Somalia. The first concern, of course, would be to make sure that Somalia does not become an al-Qaeda safe haven; that it doesn't become a place from which terrorists can plot and plan.

KELEMEN: To do that, analysts say the Bush Administration should be looking at its own national security strategy, which says the U.S. should do more to help failed states so that they don't become havens for terrorists. Ted Dagne of the Congressional Research Service says Somalia is a good place to start.

Mr. DAGNE: The youths growing up in Somalia over the past decade and a half, been surrounded by violence and poverty. And unless there is an end to this status quo, to this lifestyle, these are the extremists of tomorrow, because they have nothing to live for and nothing to lose.

KELEMEN: And he says the U.S. can't succeed in fighting terrorism as long as Somalia has no central government and continued chaos.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.