April 5, 2007

HARRISONBURG—In his weekly “Strategic Interests” column for the World Defense Review, Dr. J. Peter Pham, Director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs at James Madison University, warns that the security situation in Somalia is at a “tipping point” due to the rapid upgrade in tactical and operational capacity that the recent fighting has shown Islamist insurgents to have achieved.

In last week’s column, Dr. Pham had warned that the situation in Somalia has become untenable: while both the country’s nominal “Transitional Federal Government” (TFG) is and such units of the United Nations-sanctioned “African Union Mission to Somalia” (AMISOM) as have materialized were keeping a low profile, the Ethiopian intervention force that drove the radicals of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) from the city three months ago was engaging in street battles with the resurgent militants and their newfound clan allies. Now, he reports, “The situation have only gotten more perilous in the past week as reports emerge of the worst fighting since the ill-starred international effort to intervene in the early 1990s.”

According to Dr. Pham, up to now the Islamists attacked their enemies with mortar attacks or assassination. However, they have shifted tactics recently:

First, the insurgents have acquired the ability to take down aircraft: in addition to the shooting down of the Ethiopian helicopter, there is the downing of the Belarusian-operated Ilyushin-76 cargo plane which I reported last week. Second, the insurgents have gained enough confidence and accumulated enough firepower to abandon their hit-and-run mobile mortar assaults in favor of open artillery duels. Third, the insurgents have begun to use the roadside bombs and other improvised explosive devises (IEDs) which have been a bane to United States and other Coalition forces in Iraq: just this past Sunday, a tightly packed Ethiopian military convoy was destroyed near Bali-Dogle, about 100 kilometers southwest of Mogadishu, when one of the vehicles detonated a roadside bomb.

Dr. Pham contends that “all three of these shifts in combat tactics not represent major advances on operational capacities relative to just a few months ago when the ICU was forced to abandon urban centers when confronted by Ethiopian conventional forces, but they also point to significant outside inputs from transnational jihadi networks.” Consequently, while maintaining the strategy he advocated last week, Dr. Pham concludes:

U.S. and allied forces in the region…need to step up their interdiction efforts to prevent the flow of men and weapons into Somalia from monitoring to active enforcement… America and its allies must also keep all options open: containing the spread of insecurity throughout the Horn may well require preemptive action. While we should be wary of efforts which involve outsiders imposing an alien entity like the TFG on reluctant Somali clans that should be allowed to discern their own future, political neutrality does not mean indifference to the terrorist threat. In the end, it might serve both our security agenda and the long term interests of the Somali peoples if means can be found to decapitate the radical Islamist leadership of the insurgency before it completely hijacks the legitimate aspirations and grievances of ordinary Somalis and thus acquires near-unstoppable momentum across this geopolitically significant bridge between the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa.

To read Dr. Pham’s article, “The Tipping Point in Somalia,” click here.