Merchant of Death
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Somalia Presents Vital, Little-Watch Front in Fight Against Radical Islamists
Somalia, reeling from decades of strife, civil war and chaos, has emerged as an important front in confronting the spread of armed Islamist groups with links to al Qaeda. Recent fighting in and around the rubble of what remains of Mogadishu has been the first armed response by a coalition of unsavory warlords against the growing strength of Islamist militias that have moved to impose sharia law on the land.

The warlord's coalition is a self-styled "anti-terrorism alliance" aimed at pushing back against gains made by Islamist militias that contain members who trained in Afghanistan and elsewhere by al Qaeda and its allies. Osama bin Laden's men helped train the Somali militias that downed the U.S. Blawkhawk helicopter in 1994 and dragged the bodies of U.S. troops through the streets. In the years since, bin Laden has mentioned Somalia as a possible venue for a "third war," after Afghanistan and Iraq, to tie up U.S. troops and weaken the West.

There are reports of U.S. support for the warlords, who have blood on their hands from years of brutal warfare but resent and fear the growing strength of the Islamist militias. The U.S. has not confirmed or denied the reports of support for the alliance, but Somalia presents another variation of the constant set of poor options available to U.S. counter-terrorism policy: support bad people who will fight the enemy to the death, or allow the Islamists to gain access to another safehaven with easy access and the multiple advantages of operating unfettered in a geographic region.

The question is not hard to answer. Somalia provides not only easy access to much of East Africa, where al Qaeda has long been active, but to the conflict theaters in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and elsewhere.

Failed states where terrorists can teach, receive ideological and religious indoctrination and train militarily are vital for the Islamist network to regenerate and improve itself. Somalia offers all of that, and more. It offers access to highly trained fighters with years of experience to share. It offers, as Afghanistan did, the possibility of more permanent structures that allow for experimentation with biological and other weapons in rugged, uncontrolled terrain.

The Islamist groups began to push forward in the imposition of sharia law and the taking over of key roadblocks around the city in October. The Islamists set up Islamic courts to judge even non-Muslims. They also began forcing the shutdown on entertainment centers. The nation's fragile Transitional Federal Governmet (TFG) has no presence in Mogadishu and is barely functioning. There is no state military or other structure to push back.

So the warlords, setting aside some of their differences and with possible outside assistance, decided to act. This month the fighting in Mogadishu between the Islamists and warlords has been the heaviest in years.

This is the type of engagement, not through boots on the ground but aiding those who want to fight, that the United States should be doing on a larger scale. This will not topple a legitimate government or thwart a democratic process. It will simply keep the Islamists from taking root in a distant but vital battleground.
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