What's happening in Somalia these days? 

Don't Panic ... Your war questions answered

What's happening in Somalia these days is that fundamentalist Islamic militants are about to take over and perhaps trigger a regional war in the process.

Don't feel too badly if you didn't know that.

Between all of the recent shocking celebrity news (Mel Gibson doesn't keep a chauffeur?!?! Lance Bass is a singer?!?!) and the, oh, 15 or so humanity-threatening major crises around the world right now, poor Somalia is easy for the public to ignore.

Though Somalia isn't an "A-list" White House worry like Iraq, gay baiting or flag protection, you can rest assured that the White House is indeed paying attention.

U.S. policymakers have long feared that Somalia could turn into an African version of Afghanistan, i.e., an incubator for militant Islamic terrorists, including al-Qaeda. The United States even went so far as to set up a military base in neighboring Djibouti in 2002. After we whacked the Taliban in late 2001, Somalia was actually on many a Bushie's "To Invade" list for 2002.

There are several reasons Somalia is worrisome to policymakers.

The country is strategically located. It sits atop that pointy part of East Africa that sticks out into the Indian Ocean. It's a short boat ride from the Arabian peninsula and most of the world's oil.

Somalia is unstable, and I'm talking banana-peel-on-a-greasy-floor unstable. The country hasn't had a working central government since 1991, when socialist strongman Mohamed Siad Barre was overthrown. It has since endured a combination of war, extreme poverty, anarchy and famine that we in the West can hardly imagine. When Henry David Thoreau said "That government is best which governs least," he was not thinking of Somalia.

The other factor that makes Somalia so worrisome is Islam. Somalis are Muslim, and militant fundamentalist Muslim groups thrive in violent, chaotic, poor Muslim societies like Somalia.

Somalia's so-called capital, Mogadishu, was recently taken over by an Islamic militia run by a union of Islamic courts that, coincidentally enough, goes by the name Union of Islamic Courts. Despite the UIC's brutality and heavy-handedness (recent UIC "law enforcement" efforts include shooting dead a man and child for expressing their wish to watch the World Cup semifinal, and breaking up a wedding reception because music was being played), many in Mogadishu are happy with their new rulers. After 15 years of chaotic brutality, predictable brutality has a certain charm.

Somalia isn't really an incubator for terrorists yet, but it is for sure already a safe haven. According to the International Crisis Group, an al-Qaeda cell comprised of about half a dozen "ranking" operatives calls Somalia home. They're believed to be (ir)responsible for the 1998 bombing of the U.S. embassy in Kenya (which borders Somalia to the south), as well as near simultaneous attacks in 2002 on a Kenyan hotel and an Israeli passenger jet leaving Kenya.

That Mogadishu has fallen to Islamic militants is not a guarantee that al-Qaeda's presence in the country will increase, but it's certainly not something we should be blase about. The U.S. actually tried to prevent the Muslim takeover from happening, using the CIA station in Kenya to funnel hundreds of thousands of dollars to Somali warlords who were fighting the Islamic takeover.

Critics of the administration -- including State Department officials, at least one former Clinton administration official, the International Crisis Group, and the kinda-sorta president of Somalia's internationally recognized pseudo government, Abdullahi Yusuf -- have criticized the administration's funding of unpopular secular warlords, noting correctly that it only seems to energize the Muslim militias and win them the support of patriotic, American-not-liking Muslim Somalis.

The U.S. isn't the only foreign country tactlessly meddling in Somalia. Rival neighbors Ethiopia and Eritrea are fighting a proxy war in Somalia. Eritrea is funding the Muslim militants while Ethiopia has actually moved its troops to the Somali city of Baidoa, home of Yusuf's government.

Somalia watchers fear that a clash between UIC forces and the Ethiopian forces backing Yusuf's Baidoa-based pseudo-government could draw Eritrean forces into the war directly, or restart the Eritrean-Ethiopian border war that, between 1998 and 2000, killed tens of thousands and displaced hundreds of thousands.

It's no Iraq, but it's worth keeping an eye on.

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