Islamic Courts Union

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search
Islamic Courts Union (ICU)
Midowga Maxkamadaha Islaamiga  (Somali)
Flag of Somalia.svg

The Islamic Courts Union (Somali: Midowga Maxkamadaha Islaamiga) was a legal and political organization formed to address the lawlessness that had been gripping Somalia since the fall of the Siad Barre regime in 1991 during the Somali Civil War.[1]

The Islamic Courts Union was embraced by a plurality of Somalis, as Islam was viewed as one of the last credible institutions left in the wake of the collapse of the state. The courts were able to quickly gain the trust of war weary Somalis, as they had emerged at a grassroots level and claimed to rule under the neutrality of Islam, which was viewed as an attractive alternative to the country rife with heightened clan tensions.[2][3]

The union was a diffuse organization, with rivaling leaders sending conflicting messages about the group’s goals. Some members had national political ambitions, while others wanted to focus on resolving local disputes and bringing people closer to Islam.[4]

In the summer of 2006, the ICU would expel an alliance of Somali warlords funded by the American Central Intelligence Agency and became the first organization to consolidate control over all of Mogadishu since the collapse of the state in 1991.[5] The six month period that followed is commonly heralded as the most stable and productive era Somalia had seen since the outbreak of the civil war up to that point.[2][6] Residents of Mogadishu were finally able to move around the city without fear of attack, the international airport and seaport would be opened for the first time in over a decade, a massive rubbish clean up campaign was started and there was a significant reduction of arms on the streets.[7][4][8]

The reign of the Islamic Courts Union would be ended during the final days of 2006 by a U.S. backed Ethiopian invasion.[9][10][11][12] The organization would completely dissolve early in 2007 due to the invasion and internal disagreements.[4]

Following the foreign intervention most of the moderates of the organization would flee Somalia. Consequently an obscure radical wing of the Islamic Courts, the now infamous Al-Shabaab, stayed behind and invoked jihad against the American backed Ethiopian invasion, greatly empowering themselves.[4]

Many of the high ranking members of the Islamic Courts would later became members of the internationally recognized Transitional Federal Government, with former chairman of the ICU, Sharif Sheikh Ahmed becoming president of Somalia in 2009. In 2012 the country would adopt a new constitution that would go on to declare Somalia an Islamic state whose primary source of law was Shari‘a.[4]



The first attempts to use Islamic law (Shari'a) began sometime in 1992, in the northern part of the Somali capital Mogadishu, in attempt to address the spiraling chaos and lawlessness that was gripping the country following the toppling of the Barre regime and the brutal clan driven civil war.[13]

The Islamic courts were not the first attempt to use Islam in an attempt to quell the growing disorder in Somalia. Just before the dictatorship had been toppled, a group of sixty highly prominent members of Somali society, under the banner of "Islamic Call", published a public manifesto addressed to dictator Mohammed Siad Barre warning that he had committed serious transgressions against the laws of Islam and unsuccessfully called for him to peacefully step down from power. Though the ICU would represent the earliest attempts to use Islam to build local stability.[4]

The first Shari'a courts were started on a very small local neighborhood level by Somali religious leaders as a way to address issues in their communities. Most problems they dealt with were related to petty crimes and family disputes. In the chaotic political context of war torn Mogadishu the religious leaders were considered by most Somalis as some of the only people who could be trusted to impartially resolve disputes.[4]

Importantly, the courts did not take positions on national-political or clan affairs, lending significant credence to their purported impartiality.

The Sheikh Ali-Dhere court[edit]

In either 1993 or 1994 (the precise year is difficult to determine due to the chaos of the civil war) a Sheikh named Ali Dheere, living in one of the most dangerous regions of Mogadishu had become exhausted with the growing anarchy and decided to put his religious training to use and set up the first known Shar'ia court in Somalia. The infamous "Siisii Street" ran through his community, and was notorious for being one of the most dangerous roads in war torn Mogadishu.

Siraadka Qiyaama iyo Siisii Allow na mooti (Translation: "Oh god save me from the troubles that are associated with the day of judgement and those of Siisii Street")

— A popular saying in war torn Mogadishu prior to the establishment of Sheikh Ali Dheeres court[13]

Primarily his court focused on aiding merchants and store owners resolve their disputes, helping people arrange legal agreements for large purchases like homes, and trying people for crimes. Local scholars, elders, businessmen and political leaders cooperated with Dheere in a bid to end the spiraling chaos in their community.[13] Soon Ali Dheere had a staff that would apprehend bandits and thieves in the area and bring them to be put on trial. His success in bringing order to his neighborhood in Mogadishu became well known through out the city and led to the establishment of another copycat Shar'ia court.[4]

The court did not shy away from strict punishments and even carried out executions. Soon word began rapidly spreading that law and order was being established in Dheeres sector of the city and the crime rate in the area subsequently dropped dramatically.[13]

The Islamic courts grow across Mogadishu[edit]

In 1993 or 1994, other Shari'a courthouses began opening up in Northern Mogadishu, operating independently in their own self contained jurisdictions in the city. The first Sharia court did not start in southern Mogadishu until 1998, as the de facto ruler of the territory, General Mohammed Farah Aideed opposed the Islamic courts, and no progress occurred until after his death. As the years passed, with nothing but warlords offering to replace its authority, the rule of the ICU began to cement.[2]

If you want peace, establish an Islamic court.

— Another popular saying Mogadishu after the creation of the cities first courts[13]

By 1999 the multiple Islamic courts had jurisdiction over much of the south of the city as well and five active Shari'a courts were operating in the region.[14] While the courts were not an organized movement or a government, they represented the closest thing Somalia had to either of those things. The Islamic Courts Union's influence was enhanced by financial donors abroad who sought to bring any semblance of stability to the country.[15] In April 1999 the Shari'a courts came together for the first time and jointly seized control of Mogadishu's Bakara Market from the warlords and later that year made a successful united effort to push the warlords to the outskirts of Mogadishu, though they did not control the entire city.[4]

Official formation of the Islamic Courts Union[edit]

In 2000, after clearing much of Mogadishu from control of the warlords, eleven separate Shari'a courts in the city would finally merge to form the Islamic Courts Union.

Mark Fathi Massoud, a professor of politics at UC Santa Cruz, notes that the turn that Somalis made in the late '90s and early 2000s towards establishing local religious courts for self-governance and then linking them into a system mirrored the same patterns of early democratic Western Europe and colonial North America, where state-building relied upon courts, and judges invoking will of God.[4] He also notes that, "In using religion to build stability, the Shari‘a courts bear striking parallels to those courts that played an influential role in the early development of democratic states."


While many Somalis voiced disapproval of the more fundamentalist ways of the original Shari'a courts, most felt that they were well organized and effective civil administrators.[16]

When the Transitional National Government of Somalia was established in Djibouti during the spring of 2000 the momentum of the ICU was slowed. It would not return until it was revived in 2004 by Sharif Sheikh Ahmed who was subsequently elected as chairman of the ICU.[14]

The Union of Islamic Courts was established to ensure that Somali people suffering for 15 years would gain peace and full justice and freedom from the anarchic rule of warlords who refuted their people to no direction.

— An interview featured in the BBC Online Somali section in June 2006 with Sharif Sheikh Ahmed

Top UN officials have referred to this period as a 'Golden era' in the history of Somali politics.[6][17] The courts would go on to create a coast guard to combat the growing phenomena of piracy in Somalia, and were able to successfully curb its rise during their rule.[18]

The ICU becomes a target of the War on Terror[edit]

The Bush administration had become increasingly concerned with the growing power of the Islamic Courts Union, and feared that they would make Somalia a haven for Al-Qaeda to plan attacks from, like in Afghanistan.[19][20] The Americans would go on to approve funding for the Somali warlords and actively encourage them to counter the ICU, a decision made by top officials in Washington which would be later reaffirmed by the U.S. National Security Council during meeting about Somalia in March 2006.[19][21] At the time of the meeting there was fierce fighting in between the warlords and the Islamic Courts around Mogadishu, and the decision was taken to make counterterrorism the top policy priority for Somalia.[20]

The warlords had united under the banner of the "Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism", and according by the International Crisis Group, had a notorious pattern of seizing innocent clerics with little or no intelligence value, which greatly feed into a growing perception among Somalis that the Americans and the warlords were waging a war against Islam under the guise of the War on Terrorism.[22]

The internationally recognized Transitional Federal Government of Somalia, being both in conflict with the Islamic Courts and backed by the Americans, openly opposed the Americans operation to fund the warlords.[5] Also, nine of Mogadishu’s most prominent community leaders that were opposed to the ICU claim they secretly flew to neighboring Djibouti in early March 2006 and pleaded with U.S. military officials there to stop funding the warlords who were devastating the city. They allege that they warned the Americans that backing the hated warlords would end up greatly empowering the Islamic Courts and inflame the radical elements within it.[22]

We would prefer that the U.S. work with the transitional government and not with criminals. This is a dangerous game. Somalia is not a stable place and we want the U.S. in Somalia. But in a more constructive way. Clearly we have a common objective to stabilize Somalia, but the U.S. is using the wrong channels.

— Prime Minister of Transitional Federal Government, Ali Mohamed Gedi, in an interview with NBC[19]

American support for the warlords extended to the point where, on numerous occasions, Nairobi-based CIA officers would land on warlord-controlled airstrips in Mogadishu with large amounts of money for distribution to Somali militias.[5] According to John Prendergast, CIA-operated flights into Somalia had been bringing in $100,000 to $150,000 USD per month for the warlords and he further claimed that the flights would remain in Somalia for the day so that CIA agents can confer with them.[20] The CIA also gave its newfound allies surveillance equipment for "tracking al Qaeda suspects".[20]

According to multiple U.S. officials, the decision to use of the warlords as proxies was born from fears of once again committing large numbers of American soldiers to Somalia following the disastrous 1993 Battle of Mogadishu.[5] Ironically, the warlords the Americans would fund to fight the Islamic Courts Union were many of the same ones that had fought directly against the Americans in Mogadishu during the bloody summer and fall of 1993.[19]

According to Mary Harper, a journalist with BBC Africa, the Islamic Courts Union was in reality more of a loose federation and only began to unite into a homogenous body with a clear authority when its existence was threatened by the Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism.[2]

Between May and July 2006 the warlord alliance went on the offensive against the Islamic Courts Union, and attempted to seize total control of Mogadishu.

Defeat of the warlords and the 2006 ICU offensive[edit]

Advance of the Islamic Courts offensive

On June 5, 2006, the Islamic Courts Union decisively defeated the warlord alliance in the Second Battle of Mogadishu, gained total authority over the capital and proceeded to establish a 65-mile radius of control around the city. This was a seminal moment in modern Somali history, as the ICU was now the first group to have consolidated control over all of Mogadishu since the collapse of the Somali state.[8] According to Chatham House, "The Courts achieved the unthinkable, uniting Mogadishu for the first time in 16 years, and re-establishing peace and security".[23]

Soon after, the courts began going on the offensive and began pushing deep into the regions surrounding the city for the first time. Their offensive capability was greatly aided by new weaponry it had captured from the warlords – most of which had been bought with U.S. funds.[22]

The Islamic Courts had nothing in the beginning, they only got their power through fighting. Now, they’ve captured $15 million in weapons from the warlords.

— Ali Iman Sharmarke, a member of the delegation that flew to Djibouti to warn the Americans[22]

On June 24, Hassan Dahir Aweys would be named head of the ICUs newly formed 88 member parliament, the Council of the Islamic Courts.[24]

On 15 July 2006, the Islamic Courts Union reopened Mogadishu International Airport, which had been closed since the withdrawal of the international forces in 1995.[25] The ICU organized a clean-up campaign for the streets of Mogadishu on 20 July 2006. This was the first time litter and rubbish had been collected in the entire city since it collapsed into chaos over a decade earlier.[26] On the 25 August they also reopened the historic seaport of Mogadishu, which had been one of the busiest in ports in all of East Africa.[27]

Two of the defeated warlords allegedly fled to an American naval vessel off the Somali coast according to witnesses in Mogadishu.[22] During the summer of 2006, the ICU was allegedly being given support by Eritrea, Djibouti, Iran, Libya, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Syria.[28][29]

Criticism of Islamic Courts Union rule[edit]

Despite its significant achievements, the ICU would attract criticism for many of its actions.

Somalia's only popular drug, Khat, was outright banned. During the civil war many Somalis had relied the selling and distribution of the drug as one of their sole sources of income and consequently the ban had serious repercussions on peoples ability to afford basic necessities.[2]

Charcoal exports were banned, on account of the industry devastating Somalia's fragile environment. Once again many Somalis had relied on the practice to make ends meet.[2]

Ethiopian invasion of Somalia and the Fall of the Islamic Courts Union[edit]

To avoid turning Mogadishu into a warzone once again, the ICU peacefully withdrew from the city on December 26, 2006.[30]

Extent of ICU's influence preceding the Ethiopian invasion

The top leaders of the Islamic Courts Union, including Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed and Sheikh Abdirahman Janaqow, resigned the next day.[30]

On January 1, 2007, the ICU would abandon its last urban stronghold in the city of Kismayo, far south of Mogadishu and the remaining leadership would flee to Eritrea.[2]

Following the Ethiopian invasion and subsequent occupation, the Islamic Courts Union disbanded and Somalia once again began slipping into a state of chaos. Between 2007 and 2008 approximately two-thirds of Mogadishu's residents would be forced to flee the growing violence in the city, and Somalia began to experience one of the worst humanitarian crisis's in its history.[2]


Somalia after the ICU[edit]

The Islamic Courts Union had actively fought pirate activity on the Somali coast, and consequently piracy would thrive in their wake.[31]

Under the Courts, there was literally no piracy.

— Hans Tino Hansen, CEO of Risk Intelligence, a Danish maritime security consultant[18]

Al Shabaab, an obscure organization at this point, would gain immense popularity as a resistance group fighting against the Ethiopians. Consequently much of Somalia south of Mogadishu would become Al Shabaab ruled territory.[2]

See also[edit]

Notes and references[edit]

  1. ^ "The Islamic Courts Union". Harvard Divinity School. Archived from the original on 4 August 2020. Retrieved 30 September 2020.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i Harper, Mary (2012). Getting Somalia Wrong?: Faith, War and Hope in a Shattered State (African Arguments). Zed Books. OCLC 940704916.
  3. ^ Shephard, Michelle (2017-03-10). "My meeting with a forgotten terrorist in Somalia". The Toronto Star. ISSN 0319-0781. Retrieved 2022-04-13.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Fathi., Massoud, Mark (2021). Shari'a, Inshallah. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-1-108-96598-9. OCLC 1295275479.
  5. ^ a b c d "Efforts by C.I.A. Fail in Somalia, Officials Charge". New York Times. 8 June 2006.
  6. ^ a b "Somalia Mourns a 'Golden Era' as Crisis Worsens | Africa Faith and Justice Network". Retrieved 2021-09-04.
  7. ^ "Somalia's High Stakes Power Struggle". Council on Foreign Relations. 3 Aug 2006.
  8. ^ a b "Islamic Militia Seizes Somalia's Capital -". 2006-06-14. Archived from the original on 14 June 2006. Retrieved 2022-04-12.
  9. ^ CHERIAN, JOHN. "Bush war in Africa". Frontline. Retrieved 2022-04-11.
  10. ^ "How US forged an alliance with Ethiopia over invasion". the Guardian. 2007-01-13. Retrieved 2022-04-11.
  11. ^ "US backs Ethiopia's invasion of Somalia". World Socialist Web Site. Retrieved 2022-04-11.
  12. ^ "WikiLeaks Reveals U.S. Twisted Ethiopia's Arm to Invade Somalia - FPIF". Foreign Policy In Focus. 2010-12-08. Retrieved 2022-04-11.
  13. ^ a b c d e Abdi, Elmi, Afyare (2010). Understanding the Somalia Conflagration : Identity, Islam and Peacebuilding. Pluto Press. ISBN 0-7453-2974-8. OCLC 847450809.
  14. ^ a b Barnes, Cedric; Harun, Hassan (24 July 2007). "The Rise and Fall of Mogadishu's Islamic Courts". Journal of Eastern African Studies. 1 (2): 151–160. doi:10.1080/17531050701452382. S2CID 154453168. Retrieved 30 September 2020.
  15. ^ "Somalia's High Stakes Power Struggle". Council on Foreign Relations. Retrieved 2018-10-24.
  16. ^ "Wall Street, Somalia, and Jack Sparrow". HuffPost. 2009-03-06. Retrieved 2022-04-13.
  17. ^ Gettleman, Jeffrey (2007-11-20). "As Somali Crisis Swells, Experts See a Void in Aid". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2021-09-04.
  18. ^ a b "Did U.S. action create Somali pirate haven?". Deseret News. 2008-12-04. Retrieved 2022-04-13.
  19. ^ a b c d "U.S. secretly backing warlords in Somalia". NBC News. Retrieved 2022-04-12.
  20. ^ a b c d "US funding Somali warlords-intelligence experts say - Somalia". ReliefWeb. Retrieved 2022-04-12.
  21. ^ "U.S. Accused of Backing Warlords in Somalia". Los Angeles Times. 2006-05-19. Retrieved 2022-04-12.
  22. ^ a b c d e "Somali leaders say U.S. ignored pleas | The Spokesman-Review". Retrieved 2022-04-12.
  23. ^ "How Al Shabaab was born". Guardian. 4 October 2013.
  24. ^ "Militant leader emerges in Somalia - Africa & Middle East - International Herald Tribune". 2006-07-01. Archived from the original on 1 July 2006. Retrieved 2022-04-13.
  25. ^ Mohamed Abdi Farah, Somalia: Reopening of Mogadishu's airport welcomed, SomaliNet, July 15, 2006.
  26. ^ Ethiopian troops on Somali soil, BBC News, 20 July 2006.
  27. ^ First ship arrives in Mogadishu, BBC, August 25, 2006.
  28. ^ "U.N. Report Ties Somali Islamists to Hezbollah". Retrieved 2022-04-13.
  29. ^ "Egypt 'trained' deposed' UIC fighters, Djibouti provided uniforms – WikiLeaks". Retrieved 2022-04-12.
  30. ^ a b "Islamic Courts Union". Standford University.
  31. ^, Associated Press, October 17, 2007"