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Ethiopian attack on mosque marks intensification of war in Somalia

M.A. Shaikh

The US and Ethiopia, alarmed by the growing strength of the "insurgents" backing the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC), have stepped up their military operations in recent months to maintain the faltering interim government (IG) in office. Not only have they increased the number of indiscriminate air-raids and missiles, but they have also extended the targets to include crowded mosques. But they have succeeded only in provoking more Somalis to harden their hostility to the IG and its backers, and for the first time have even driven an international human-rights group (Amnesty International) to accuse Ethiopia of war crimes. Amnesty's anger and the Somali people's wrath were aroused by the Ethiopian troops' raid on a mosque in Muqdisho (Mogadishu) on April 19 that left 21 people dead, including the mosque's imam and some ulama'.

Describing the slaughter as "extrajudicial killings", Amnesty said that the attack on the mosque was launched when the Ethiopian troops were engaged in heavy fighting against "Islamic insurgents". It accused Ethiopian troops of slitting the throats of seven Somali men during the raid on the al-Hidya mosque, of arresting 41 children there, and of detaining them at an Ethiopian military base in the city. Eleven of the 21 who died in the attack, including the ulama', were killed in the mosque, Amnesty added.

Amnesty insisted that its report was accurate, because it was based on many interviews with eyewitnesses, including relatives of the dead, local journalists, and individuals who had actually seen the bodies. However, the Ethiopian government issued a statement on April 24, totally denying Amnesty's report and claiming that in fact no such raid had taken place. "This is a completely fabricated story, designed to blackmail the Ethiopian army, one of the most disciplined forces anywhere in the world, and will damage the reputation of Amnesty," the statement read. It also claimed that the report was based on "a story circulated by Shabab", the group of ‘Islamist' young fighters that constituted the UIC's initial fighting force.

The Ethiopian government's response to Amnesty's report is understandable, though its explanation of what actually happened is absurd. Since human-rights groups and aid-agencies normally ignore the "extra-judicial killings" and war crimes committed by American and Ethiopian troops, and the UN envoy to Somalia openly defends their presence there as ‘peacekeepers', Amnesty's report will give greater publicity to the issue and put it in a totally different light. It is true that Somalis and Ethiopians have always confronted each other as enemies divided by Islam and Christianity, but the assault on the al-Hidya mosque will be seen by Somalis – and other Muslims – as a declaration of religious war and a deliberate humiliation of Muslims.

Not surprisingly, the war is taking a new turn, and is no longer be seen by many Somalis as a confrontation between secular and radical Muslims, somewhat complicated by clan-rivalries and the backing of foreign powers (the US and Ethiopia) for the secular side. Both have tried to give the impression that they are in Somalia to fight "terrorists tied to al-Qaeda, not Islamists". Only two days after the attack on the al-Hidya mosque on April 19, Ethiopia broke off diplomatic relations with Qatar, accusing it of supporting terrorists in Somalia andEthiopia. The reference is to the UIC and Shabab al-Muslimeen in Somalia, and to the political activists in the Ogaden, who are fighting for independence from Ethiopian rule. Ethiopiaaccuses Qatar of spreading instability in the Horn of Africa by its alleged support for terrorists.

But Ethiopia's explanation of its attacks on the mosque and its attempt to put the blame on others, such as Qatar, have not impressed Somalia's people, and the insurgency against its army and the IG have reached new heights since April 19. The fresh fighting, for instance, has led to the deaths of 81 people in Mogadishu, according to a report on April 20; 119 people were taken to hospital for treatment. More towns were taken by the UIC, including Guda, on the southern coast, and Dinsor, in the southern-central area. On April 26 the insurgents raided the town of Johar to release prisoners. Seven people, including children, died during the raid. According to analysts al-Shabab is behind the attacks, which the government and its Ethiopian backers appear to be incapable of halting. In fact they are so incapable that 40 aid-agencies are warning that catastrophe will soon engulf Somalia. Their warning, however, appears to put the blame on the "Islamist rebels" and absolve the IG and Ethiopian army.

A report in the Economist on April 19 on the insurgency was, however, more impartial. Emphasising the IG's failure, the report said: "As an Islamist insurgency continues, the government spends much of the scarce money it has on the personal protection of president Abdullahi Yusuf, the prime minister Nur Adde Hussein, and the defence and intelligence chiefs. The parliament in the town of Baidoa, in the dusty interior, is empty; its members have drifted away."

However, the failure of the IG and its foreign backers is no consolation to the Somali people, who are paying the price for the "insurgency". Only if the Ethiopians and the Americans leave the country will there be a solution (though it may take time) for the continued confrontation and violence.

Article from

Crescent International Vol. 37, No. 3

Rabi' al-Thani 25, 14292008-05-01

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