The situation in Somalia is bloody grim.
Yesterday, the United Nations declared three additional regions of the country enfamished, including the blighted capital of Mogadishu. Currently, some 3.5 million Somalis are in need of aid, and starvation has cost the lives of nearly 29,000 children under the age of five. The southern part of the country is facing the worst food security crisis on the planet.
Sadly, what Somalia lacks for in foodstuffs it makes up for as our planet’s principal breeding ground of instability, internal displacement and mass-murder.
But how did Somalia achieve such spectacular state failure? Before the current famine struck, the country was making headlines as the world-wide leader in piracy, as cruise-lines and supertankers fell prey to modern day brigands off the Horn of Africa.
Of course, our most vivid memories of Somalia date back to 1993, when a 90 minute lightning assault collapsed into a 17 hour ordeal that left eighteen American soldiers dead, executing President Clinton’s vision of a “vital humanitarian mission.”
Since 1988, when the last “legitimate” regime sanctioned the massacres that triggered the Somali Civil War, the country (if you can still call it that) has suffered the complete collapse of central government and the disintegration of economic and military infrastructure. There is no constitution, no civil society nor rule of law.
In place of these rudiments of a modern, functioning polity, the emergence of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) ushered in a wave of Islamic orthodoxy. Mirroring the Taliban’s ability to seize authority with an iron fist, much of Somalia suddenly found itself under grips of a bloodthirsty militia that enforced a medieval interpretation of Sharia law.
Eventually, the ICU was driven off by Ethiopian troops and its leadership fled to Eritrea — but its most extreme elements remained in Somalia to rebrand themselves as al-Shabab (translated literally: “the youth”). Elements of this extremist group trained with al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, and their vision of militant Islam has attracted foreign fighters from Yemen, Pakistan and a number of African countries. In 2008, they were added to the State Department’s list of “foreign terrorist organizations.” Since then, they’ve seized broad swaths of this fractured, tribal country by brute force and a liberal take on beheadings.
Five months ago, when the United States decided to spearhead a UN mission to support rebels fighters in eastern Libya, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton justified the action to keep Libya from “descending into chaos and becoming a giant Somalia.” If recent statements from the Gaddafi clan are true, the Obama administration may have ensured what it sought to prevent.
In a rare interview with the New York Times, released today, Muammar Gaddafi’s son and would-be successor announced intentions to formalize bonds with radical Islamists within the Benghazi-based rebel alliance. Seemingly content to have traded his doctoral dissertation from the London School of Economics on democratization and civil society for a set of Islamic prayer beads and a freshly grown beard, Seif al-Islam Gaddafi’s presaged a new political outlook: “Libya will look like Saudi Arabia, like Iran. So what?”
We might have seen this coming. Discussion of the political future of Libya has been undermined by doubts about the composition of rebel groups currently propped up by the NATO mission.
Liberals fight alongside hard-line nationalists, victims of regime brutality and radical Islamists with avowed links to al-Qaeda and Islamic Jihad. Even if the Gaddafis are bluffing about an alliance with fundamentalists, the country’s opaque tribal power structure is far too complex to profile. Violent Islamists may represent the fulcrum point on which the political identity of tomorrow’s Libya rests.
The fact is we have no idea who we’re supporting.
Here’s what we do know: we’ve chosen sides in a civil war that may play into the hands of our ideological enemies. The state collapsed under the weight of mass murder and internal conflict. Lacking any real civil society beyond the patchwork of tribal patronage that supported the regime’s hold on power, we cannot predict the rule of law that may emerge from this conflict. Elements of radical Islam are poised to advantage themselves when the dust settles in this country the West neither understands nor wants to be involved with, any longer than necessary
Radical Islam. Scarce resources. Civil war and American entanglement in a distant political backwater. The only thing Libya needs to become the next Somalia is some enterprising young men to hoist the Jolly Roger.