Somalia's piracy issue has dominated the headlines but more important changes in the country are occupying the US State Department; namely that hard line Islamists are moving to consolidate their dominant military position with an equally dominant political one. And, with the return to Mogadishu of the conservative cleric Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, this vital Horn of Africa nation is on the path to becoming an Islamist state, something sure to be a boost for Al Qaeda and its Somali affiliates.
Sheikh Hassan Aweys is on America's most-wanted list of suspected terrorists. He is also an influential leader of one of Somalia's most powerful clans, a position that gives him a power base few can rival. Fleeing to Eritrea in 2007 after Ethiopian troops invaded Somalia at the instigation of the Bush administration, he has vowed to establish Sharia law as part of his agenda. It was his uncompromising stance that caused him to fall out with his more moderate fellow Union of Islamic Courts leader Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed. Now his low-key arrival in Mogadishu signals a possible rapprochement with the person he once labelled as a "man siding with the enemy". It may also signal that Sheikh Aweys now feels strong enough to challenge for the top post in the Somali government, something sure to cause serious concern in Hillary Clinton's new US State Department.
"How do we talk to a man listed as a most-wanted terrorist?" observers question. President Obama's "dialogue even with the enemy" is sure to come under serious strain in this situation. To open a dialogue with Iran is one thing, but to open it with a listed Somali terrorist is something else altogether.
On the day Sheikh Aweys returned to Mogadishu the UN wrapped up an aid conference for Somalia in Brussels. Pledging $250m, one quarter to be supplied by the European Union (EU), the conference was declared a success. Referring to the piracy issue UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon opined that "piracy is not a water-borne disease".
He went on: "It is a symptom of anarchy and insecurity on the ground. Dealing with it requires an integrated strategy that addresses the fundamental issue of lawlessness in Somalia." The fact that this had been tried before and failed did not seem to deter either the secretary-general or the pledging donors.
This raised the question of whether any of the financial aid would actually be delivered if a radical hard-line cleric like Sheikh Aweys took over the government, or at...