Islamic militias captured Mogadishu — an anarchic city no single group could control for 15 years — because of superior training, popular support and religious motivation, experts said on Wednesday.
The Islamic fighters, who fought an alliance of warlords widely believed to
have been funded as part of the United States’ counter-terrorism war, were
also getting external assistance, according to a U.N. report.
The militia transformed the face of warfare on Mogadishu’s battle-scarred
streets, shifting away from the traditional haphazard, frenzied attacks made
famous by the book and movie “Black Hawk Down”.
“Increased military-style tactical training, massive popular support and the
strength of commitment of ideological motivation — as opposed to mercenary
motivation — means the Islamists were motivated to continue in the face of
adversity,” said a former military official who follows Somalia closely but
declined to speak on the record.
In a typical fight in the anarchic capital, poorly-trained and paid gunmen
clattered into battle en masse on the back of “technicals” — pick-up trucks
with heavy guns — and blasted wildly with mortars, machine guns and
rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs).
But on several occasions over the three-month battle for the Somali capital,
the Islamic side carried out night commando raids, attacked before dawn or
fought through the night — all rare tactics in Somalia, residents and
“If you’ve got military leaders, you can do that. The warlords are living in
medieval times,” said a Western diplomat who follows Somalia but whose job
does not permit him to be quoted by name.
The improved tactics may be explained by the presence of former military men
in the top ranks of the Islamic side, chief among them Sheikh Hassan Dahir
Aweys, an ex-army colonel decorated for bravery during war with Ethiopia in
A May U.N. report on violations of a 1992 Security Council arms embargo on
Somalia said Aweys had set up military training programmes for his militia
since early 2005.
The report also said Eritrea and Ethiopia shipped weapons to Somalia.
Eritrea denied this but Ethiopia did not respond.
The warlords, who had divided the capital into rival fiefdoms with their
private armies since ousting Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991, are largely
despised by ordinary citizens.
In contrast, the Islamic courts were popular for restoring a semblance of
order to parts of the violent and anarchic city.
The Islamic side was also credited with taking more care to avoid killing
civilians, many of whom were hit by stray warlord mortars, residents said.
“I think they were a bit more restrained in that respect and the result of
that was an overwhelming popular support,” the military expert said.
Somalis say wealthy Islamic businessmen in the country provided most of the
money for the militia, although diplomats suspect Somalis in the diaspora
and foreign Arab businessmen have provided money as well.
A protege of Aweys, Aden Hashi Ayro, was trained in Afghanistan — many
suspect by al Qaeda, though the Islamic militia denies any links to the
The warlords, who dubbed themselves a counter-terrorism alliance, said they
were fighting to remove those elements from Somalia, some say in a cynical
ploy to win U.S. funding.
As result, many Somalis saw them as a puppet of the United States and its
“war on terror”, often seen by Muslims as an assault on Islam.
“I think we won because most of our fighters were fighting for the sake of
Allah. They fought knowing they are defending Islam,” Fuad Ahmed, an
Islamist militiaman, told Reuters by phone from Mogadishu. (Additional
reporting by Guled Mohamed)