The news about Somalia can be confusing from far away because different vocabularies are used to describe the multi-faceted conflict occurring there. Its chief players are the Somalian Transitional Federal Government and the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC). This battle engages other local players and histories: secular warlords, neighboring countries, the United States, and foreign jihadists. The U.S. thinks of the Union of Islamic Courts as terrorist because they are Islamist, so the news in the U.S. about events in Somalia is told from the point of view of the war on terror.
CIA World Factbook
Somalia juts out of the eastern coast of Africa, where it borders the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean. It shares borders with Ethiopia, Djibouti and Kenya. The capital is Mogadishu. Somalia has been governed since 2004 by a Transitional Federal Government (called the TFG), which is supported by the United States. However, powerful warlords, among other forces, have kept Somalia unstable.
Union of Islamic Courts (UIC)The Union of Islamic Courts (also called Islamic Courts Union, ICU, and Council of Islamic Courts or CIC) is a coordinated group of Islamic courts. It took on service and security functions of the government after the 1991 collapse of the Somali government. They formed a union in 2000 and developed a militia. In 2006, the UIC challenged the Transitional Federal Government and secular warlord militias for control of the country. A U.S. backed Ethiopian invasion in 2007 restored TFG control. The U.S. believes that the UIC harbors Al Qaida. The UIC has been characterized by some commentators as a productive force that contributed to stabilizing the country, and as containing moderates as well as extremists among its ranks.
Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter-TerrorismThe ARPCT are a group of secular warlords who were threatened by the growing power of the UIC. They battled the UIC in Mogadishu in the spring of 2006. The UIC claimed victory. The U.S. government provided support to these warlords so they could challenge the UIC.
Somali Islamic UnionSomalia is also home to a nationalist-religious group, the Somali Islamic Union. This group envisioned a pan-Islamic state in the Horn of Africa. From 1991-1996, it controlled Luuq, an area near the Ethiopian border, where it imposed a strict Islamist rule. This group later found more power in working through the Islamic courts that banded together in 2004 as the Islamic Courts Union. The Somali Islamic Union also encouraged activities in Ogaden, a Somali Muslim region in Ethiopia that borders Somalia proper. They carried out some terrorist attacks in the mid-1990s, including assassinating Ethiopia's transportation minister.
EthiopiaIn 1999, Ethiopian troops raided Somalia in order to confront the Somali Islamic Union. Since 2007, Ethiopia has played a substantial role aiding the TFG in battles against the UIC. Human rights observers have recorded much Ethiopian troops' brutality against civilians. The United States (and much English language news media) represents Ethiopia as battling an Islamist insurgency with Al Qaeda links in Ethiopia. Ethiopia permits this explanation to stand, but it is also in Somalia in pursuit of its own objectives. These include proxy battles with Eritrea. Eritrea backs Somali troops at the Ethiopian border, and it has helped arm the UIC. The two countries have a border dispute that has been going on since 1993.
EritreaEritrea has provided support for the UIC in Somalia, in part to pursue its agenda against Ethiopia. The United States has warned Eritrea in the past that it may label it a state sponsor of terrorism, if it does not halt the support.
Al ShababThe Al Shabab militia grew out of the Union of Islamic Courts, and is essentially at war with Ethiopian troops and the TFG. Their rhetoric mimics that of global jihadists. They claim no connection with Al Qaida, however. It's leadership claims to be seeking to establish to create a state governed strictly by the group's conception of Islamic law, and to remove infidels, who may be Ethiopians or the United States. Al Shabab have attacked civilian Somalis they consider to be betraying Islamic mores.
Al QaidaSomalia has had figures associated with Osama bin Laden's group floating through it since the 1990s, when the Al Qaida leader maintained training camps in neighboring Sudan. These have included figures considered responsible for the bombings of American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998. The U.S. believes the UIC was safeguarding these members.
The United StatesSince January 2007, the United States has attacked Somilia several times from the air, in an effort to kill members believed to be associated with al Qaida. In May 2008, U.S. airstrikes killed Aden Hashi Ayro, who was considered to be an instrumental member of Al Qaida in Somalia, through a group called Al Shabab (or Youth). The U.S. has also pursued its agenda by funding Ethiopian forces in Somalia. The U.S. has strategic interests in the Horn of Africa.
KenyaKenya, which shares a border with Ethiopia, has absorbed spillover from the conflict between the TFG and the UIC in Somalia. In 2006, thousands of Somalis fled to Kenya in the midst of drought and food shortages, compounded by fighting between the UIC and secular warlords in the south. Following the ejection of the UIC from rule in 2007, Kenya rounded up tens of men considered to be fighters and conveyed them to Somalia. Some were, but others were apparently businessmen or others.
Warlord MilitiasSomalia has conventionally been ruled by warlords who govern and protect their particular clans, while battling or competing with those outside their own clans. In the absence of functioning government or civil society, warlords and the militias they can command are often ruthless in their rule.