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Friday, February 24, 2006

Islamic Fundamentalists On The Rise In Africa

A recent upsurge in violence in Somalia's capital has focused attention anew on the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in the chaotic Horn of Africa state. The violence had killed at least 22 people and wounded more than 140 since Saturday.

Somalia has been without an effective central government since 1991, when warlords overthrew the government and then began fighting each other.

Sheik Hassan Dahir Aweys, said by the United States to be linked to al-Qaida, describes his rivals as "forces of evil" supported by Western powers. Wednesday he pledged to keep fighting a new alliance arrayed against him in Mogadishu, the Somali capital.

His rivals, meanwhile, describe the fundamentalists as terrorists, accusing them of killing moderate intellectuals, Muslim scholars and former military officials in a string of unexplained murders. Islamic militias have set up their own courts in some parts of Mogadishu, where they shut down bars and destroy shops that reproduce or sell pirated DVDs and music cassettes.

The United States linked Aweys, who has vowed to establish an Islamic state, to al-Qaida shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Aweys has said such allegations were invented by his enemies.

Last year, U.N. experts monitoring an arms embargo on Somalia reported that Islamic hard-liners were importing heavy weapons and establishing military training camps. Among them were members of Al-Ittihad al-Islami, which wants to impose Islamic law in Somalia and allegedly has ties to al-Qaida.

Also last year, the International Crisis Group reported the emergence of a Mogadishu extremist cell led by a young Somali militant trained in Afghanistan, where al-Qaida was once based.

The International Crisis Group, a private think tank which tracks conflicts around the world, noted that al-Qaida contributed to attacks on U.S. and U.N. peacekeepers in Somalia in the early 1990s and used the country as a transit zone for attacks in neighboring Kenya and later as a hiding place for some of its leading members.

Saturday, a coalition of warlords and businessman announced they were taking a stand against the fundamentalists. They said in a statement they would "eradicate the extremists, terrorists and their supporters so as to pave the way for a peaceful country for the Somali children."

The emergence of the coalition is evidence the warlords see the fundamentalist as a serious threat. With stakes high on both sides, it could signal the start of a significant deterioration in security in an already lawless land.