The growing strength of the Islamic Courts movement in Somalia has generated fears that Somalia might become another base for al Qaeda. Apparently, it already has. Several known al Qaeda operatives have been spotted in southern Somalia. However, Somalia isn't a very good base for al Qaeda, or anyone else. The country has minimal infrastructure. While there are some cell phone providers, operating under the protection of one warlord or another, any phone traffic in or out can be easily tapped by American intelligence agencies. Al Qaeda members have to be careful where they go, for warlords tend to get trigger happy when strangers wander into their territory. Roadblocks, that extort a bribe from any wishing to pass, are a common way to raise money. Some of the al Qaeda operatives known to be in Somalia, have prices on their heads. None of these rewards have been collected yet, although U.S. counter-terrorism forces in the area (there is a major U.S. base just to the north, in Djibouti) have let warlords know who is wanted. This appears to indicate that the al Qaeda people have stayed put. Getting into and out of Somalia is not easy, as the countries land and sea borders are closely watched.
The Islamic Courts movement has been compared to the Afghan Taliban. There are similarities (both groups are religious, and live according to Islamic law), but important differences as well. While the Taliban was led by hundreds of religious school students, the Islamic Courts are run by a small number of Islamic clerics, and warlords who find it convenient to go along with the Islamic law angle. Somalia has been in chaos for the last fifteen years, since dictator Muhammad Siad Barre was overthrown. The tribal/clan warfare has prevented the formation of a national government ever since. Meanwhile, in the north, several tribes have split off to form new nations (Somaliland and Puntland), containing about a third of Somalias ten million people. Older Somalis remember the unification of the Italian and British colonies in 1960 to create present day Somalia. In that light, the formation of the two new countries in the north does not come as much of a shock. However, these two breakaway nations have received little international recognition. To Somalis, the Islamic Courts are not seen as unusual either. In times of stress, similar religiously inspired organizations have formed, and then faded as tribal loyalties reasserted themselves.
The Islamic Courts are popular, even with the warlords, because they provide some restoration of rule of law between tribes. There are dozens of clan groupings, who sometimes join together with other clans in their tribe. Sometimes, but not always. The clans are the primary social organization, the ultimate refuge for any Somali. Another reason for the short duration of religious governments in Somalia is the independent and freewheeling attitudes of Somali men. Islamic law means less fun for well armed and testy Somali men. For example, the Islamic Courts are currently shutting down makeshift movie theaters in Mogadishu. The main reason for this is because these theaters show Western and Indian movies that offend Islamic sensibilities. But at the moment, the theaters are showing World Cup football games taking place in Germany (and illegally pulled off satellite feeds). The World Cup only occurs once every four years, and billions of people watch it. Including Somalis. This will cause a lot of stress, but it also demonstrates how the Islamic Courts will eventually make themselves as unpopular as most other warlords. To make matters worse, the Islamic Courts are already in a standoff with tribal gunmen who, without a warlord to work for (the Islamic Courts ran them out of town), have now rallied around their clan chiefs and elders. The Islamic Courts that invaded Mogadishu were from a different tribe than the one that has long dominated the city. And then there's the Transitional Government, an alliance of warlords that has, via tortuous negotiations, put together a new national government. But the Islamic Courts don't believe in democratic government, control about a third of the population, and are trying to subdue the rest by force.
American counter-terrorism forces have not been idle in all this, but they have been secretive. And for good reason. The Somalis are quite willing to let American troops come in and do their fighting for them. However, American Special Forces would rather play by Afghan rules (a few dozen Special Forces troops directing the delivery of smart bombs, followed by local troops exploiting the destruction.) But the Somalis are more fractious and unreliable than Afghan warlords. Backstabbing is considered a national sport in Somalia, and unity a weakness. So American operators proceed with caution, trying to play the same complicated game the Somalis favor.