Islamists controlling Somali capital Mogadishu the last 6 months and enforcing medieval laws were driven out by Western-supported Somali government troops and backed by Ethiopian tanks and MIG fighter jets. The Islamic fighters, mostly Arabs and South Asians (from Pakistan and Bangladesh) but led by three al Qaeda leaders wanted for the 1998 bombing of US Embassies, were seen fleeing south in heavily armed trucks towards the Kenyan border 100 miles away.
Battered by the Ethiopian army for the last 13 days, Islamist leaders had discounted reports of withdrawals saying that it was part of a grand strategy. But their hasty withdrawal seemed to suggest that the force was more bark than bite—at least when it comes to conventional battle. Somalia’s nominal Prime Minister Ali Mohammed Gedi proclaimed that his “forces have captured Kismayo” (a heavily mined seaport) and vowed to hunt down those have fled. Gedi says that three bombers are still suspected to be holed up in Kismayo and is intent on capturing them and “hand them over to the United States.”
Before retreating, Islamic fighters seemed to have deserted the movement but indulged in looting of warehouses off supplies that includes weapons and ammunition and rival gangs skirmished on the streets to gain control of the loot. Eye witnesses say that loosely formed gangs are looting the warehouses for arms and ammunition to fill the vacuum of power left by the Islamists. Even if the government troops start controlling the capital, they are bound to have a tough time to control the gangs.
Apparently, the Islamists still hold a base on a small peninsula called Ras Kamboni where traditional ocean faring boats known as dhows are used by them to transport personnel and supplies. Ethiopian jets flew low over the base looking for dhows that may be carrying escapees. The Islamic group also seemed to be in mutiny within the ranks after Ethiopian heavy artillery battered forward posts with a group of militia refusing to go to the frontline and put up the bloody fight that they promised. But, the Islamists have promised a Iraq-style guerrilla warfare to kill every Somali who supports the government and the Ethiopian forces even if they lost to the largest force in Africa. It remains to be seen if that promise will be kept or whether the looting of the warehouse by “gangs” is a proxy measure installed by the retreating Islamists. However, there was already an unexplained bomb blast in Mogadishu suggesting that the guerrilla war has already begun.
Alarmed that the retreating forces may enter its Northern border, Kenyan president Mwai Kibaki called for an urgent summit of the east African regional body IGAD to discus the Somali crisis. It is not known if he is blocking the borders to bar their entry or even assisting the Somali government and Ethiopian forces to capture the militia. Gedi says that he has talked to the US ambassador in Kenya asking for their intervention to motivate Kenya to seal the border and prevent the escape of the fleeing militia. The US government’s diplomatic or military response with its counter-terrorism task force based in Djibouti or the Fifth fleet off Somali coast is still secret but their involvement to capture the fleeing terrorists should be expected. After all, they have been heavily involved in the training of Kenyan and Ethiopian forces at least in border protection. At the very least, the fifth fleet may try preventing boat loads of fleeing Islamists and lean on Kenya to stop the retreating militia or even help capture them.
The Islamists have consistently denied any ties with al Qaeda but Osama bin Laden’s second in command Ayman al Zawahiri issues a recorded message on the Internet asking Somali Muslims and those worldwide to fight the “infidels and crusaders.” This lends steam to Gedi’s frequent accusations that al Zawahiri and the al Qaeda is trying to destabilize Somalia. The Council of Islamic Courts, the umbrella group for the Islamic movement, wants to transform Somalia into a strict Islamic state and was thought to have strong control over much of the nation except near the secondary town of Baidoa.