FOUR MONTHS ago an Islamic fundamentalist movement gained control of Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia, after defeating an alliance of local warlords backed by the United States. Since then the Islamic Courts Union, as the alliance is called, has expanded its control over much of southern Somalia, including the port city of Kismaayo. It has alternatively negotiated and skirmished with a rival, internationally backed government that clings to a base in the western town of Baidoa. It has come to the brink of war with neighboring Ethiopia, which reportedly has sent troops into Somalia, and has won the support of Ethiopia's hostile neighbor, Eritrea.
The Islamic courts' central council has meanwhile come under the control of an extremist who is on the U.S. government's list of terrorists. One of its principal militia commanders is linked to murders of Western aid workers and journalists and is believed to be sheltering three members of the al-Qaeda movement who were involved in the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. There are reports that more foreign fighters are arriving in Mogadishu to join the movement, drawn by its call for jihad against Christians in Ethiopia.
What is the United States doing about this dangerous combination of an emerging terrorist base and possible regional war in East Africa? The sad and alarming answer is next to nothing. Since its allies were driven out of the Somali capital in June, the Bush administration has had few contacts and obtained scant intelligence about the Islamic courts. Officials maintain they don't even know for sure whether Ethiopian troops are in the country; the Somalis say they have seen and even fought them, but the Ethiopian government denies it.
In short, Somalia is looking more and more like Afghanistan in the late 1990s -- dominated by an Islamic fundamentalist movement that shelters al-Qaeda; prone to the meddling of neighbors; virtually ignored by the United States. Sadly, the chief difference is that, because of poor intelligence, even a military strike such as that attempted by the Clinton administration against Osama bin Laden in 1998 looks unfeasible.
The administration may have several international crises to worry about, but it cannot afford to neglect this gathering threat. It ought to appoint a special envoy to the region who could begin to work with the Ethiopian, Eritrean and regional Somali governments, and try to restrain them from touching off a regional war. The administration should seek contact with moderate elements in the Islamic courts (there are some) and encourage the ongoing mediation efforts of the Arab League. It should exercise greater control over the Somali coastline. It should consider giving diplomatic recognition to the breakaway northern region of Somaliland, which has a benign government. If the terrorist threat in Somalia cannot be eliminated by direct action, it must at least be contained.