Nairobi — Last month, several hundred jihadis came to link up with Al Shabaab's latest offensive, and now the Taliban are reportedly flocking to Somalia en masse.
Waging insurgency in Afghanistan and Pakistan's tribal territories is not what it used to be. Pakistan's military has turned against their Deobandi protégés.
Cross-border drone missile attacks are taking out the Taliban's militant sheikhs. More importantly, civilians in once sympathetic areas like the Swat Valley are fed up.
According to the New York Times of June 11, Al Qaeda's foot soldiers are decamping to the Horn. CNN, citing recent US military intelligence, is reporting the multinational warriors and their Shabaab hosts are running several training camps in southern Somalia.
The American volunteer they interviewed personified jihadi tourism; those of the "Afghan Arab" class appear to be Taliban refugees.
The association between Somali's internal Islamist radicals and international terrorist networks is a function of linkages between a handful of individuals and Al Qaeda. Air strikes targeting the embassy bomber Nabhan and the notorious Al Shabaab commander Aden Hashi "Ayro" have reduced the main suspects to Hassan Dahir Aweys, Hassan Al-Turki and the elusive Faizul Mohammed.
Subsequent developments, and the critical role of Eritrean support, underline the thesis that the current insurgency is essentially a homegrown phenomenon fuelled by regional power relations. The reverse migration of jihadi tourists from Central Asia to Somalia ostensibly contradicts this argument.
So, the Horn is rapidly emerging as the latest theatre in what the Bush neoconservatives christened the "Long War Against Terrorism," which by extension reinforces some military analysts' view that the coast of Kenya is a critical front in the larger battle.
If so, the security implications for Igad states supporting President Ahmed Sheikh Sharif's fragile Transitional Federal Government are obvious enough.
But before East African Muslims start growing long beards and wearing baggy Punjabi outfits, there is an alternative perspective that deserves consideration.
Is the flight of Islamist warriors to war-torn Somalia an exodus underscoring the deteriorating position of radical jihad in the Muslim heartland?
To answer this question, let's begin by revisiting the rise of the Taliban and its relationship with Osama Bin Laden's Afghan Arabs.
Both entities are the product of social aspirations suppressed by the autocratic governments dominating most Muslim nations, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan provided the crucible where they bonded.
If the Soviet occupation was a blatantly imperialistic gambit, the second government they installed, led by Najibullah, was remarkably progressive in respect to land reform, women's rights, education, and its effort to modernise entrenched Afghanistan's feudal order.
Such qualities did not merit objective consideration in the bipolar world of the 1980s, nor did the religious conservatism of the Mujahideen warlords spearheading the anti-communist resistance.
For America's cold warriors, Sunni Muslims were ideal allies in the aftermath of the Iranian revolution.
Ahmed Rashid's 2001 book, The Taliban, meticulously details how the jihad continued following the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan and parallel developments responsible for the Mujahideen's "Afghan Arab" friends morphing into Al Qaeda.
Dr Abdullah Azam, a Jordanian Palestinian teaching in the University in Peshawar, initiated the recruitment of the volunteers who became known as the Afghan Arabs.
Their base was the Peshawar offices of the Muslim World League and the Muslim Brotherhood, Azam's residence serving as a dormitory for volunteers en route to Afghanistan. Osama bin Laden, who had met Azam at university in Jeddah, was one of the visitors.
Azam's recruitment campaign brought in some 35,000 radical Muslims from 43 countries who either fought or worked in a support role with Mujahideen between 1982 and 1992. As Rashid reports, none of these Afghan Arabs were Afghans and many were not Arabs but Filipinos, Uzbeks, Chechens, Uighur Muslims from China, and an estimated 60 volunteers from East Africa.
Bin Laden and Azam split over the focus of the continuing jihad after the Soviet defeat. Azam was killed by a car bomb several weeks later.
Bin Laden used his wealth to support Afghan Arab widows and children, was exiled after quarrelling with the Saudi interior minister over the American presence during the Gulf war, ending up in Afghanistan, where several thousand Aghan Arabs joined him.
A number of these agents, including the infamous Fazul Mohammed and several of the sleepers implicated in the East Africa embassy bombings of 1998, circulated back to their home regions and other nodes in the expanding Al Qaeda network.
As the war among Mujahideen warlords escalated, Osama fell out with the Tajik resistance hero Ahmed Shah Masud, while maintaining a close relationship with the Abdul Rassul Sayyaf and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar factions whose militias later fought Masud in Kabul.
In 1992-93, Egypt and Algeria advised Washington to re-engage in Afghanistan in order to end the war and the presence of Afghan Arabs. The advice was ignored. Instead, Bill Clinton and Madeline Albright tilted from ostensible neutrality to diplomatic support for the Taliban.
The Taliban were an exclusively Pashtun Afghan movement. Their name derives from students educated in Deobandi madrasas established to care for the millions of Afghans swelling the refugee camps on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.
The Deobandi is a reformist movement originating in India during the early 1900s and advocating a literal interpretation of Islamic sources that is in many ways more extreme than Wahhabism.
These students provided 30 per cent of the rebels who wrested control of the country from Hekmatyar and the fractious coalition of Mujahideen warlords ruling post-Soviet Afghanistan.
Pakistan, with support from the CIA and Saudi funding, played the crucial enabling role in their rise to power.
Like post-Barre Mogadishu, their ethnic capital, Kandahar, had been looted under Mujahideen rule; everything of value was sold to Pakistanis.
But Pakistan's real economic interest lay in the export of manufactured goods via the Kandahar-Herat route to Turkmenistan and other newly oil-rich republics in Central Asia. Some 40 roadblocks, however, had choked off this commerce.
To solve this problem, the late Benazir Bhutto dumped the Hekmatyar mafia and switched Pakistani support to the Taliban.
The Taliban, like the Mujahideen factions before them, ended up as a one-man show with no political structures, Mullah Omar dispensing cash from a tin trunk that served as the Taliban Treasury.
The Afghan Arabs, for their part, segregated themselves in their relatively luxurious camps. Their extreme Wahhabism and failure to complete the development projects they committed to alienated many Afghans.
Before the Taliban takeover, Masud had observed, "Bin Laden does more harm than good."
In 1998 the Taliban brutalised his northern stronghold, Mazar-e-Sharif. A unit under Mullah Dost Mohammed entered the city's Iranian consulate, herded 11 diplomats into the basement, and shot them dead. Thousands of slain Tajik fighters and civilians were left to rot in the streets for six weeks -- dogs who fed on the corpses went mad.
Masud continued to oppose the Taliban from his Panjshir Valley stronghold -- until Al Qaeda assassins posing as an Arab TV crew blew him up two days before the World Trade Towers attack in 2001.
But 9-11 proved to be the Taliban's undoing.
It is important to recognise that the Taliban were a mainly Pashtun affair. If Bin Laden and friends provided a valuable alternative source of cash after the Saudis cut off their funds, the Taliban also saw Al Qaeda as a bargaining chip with the West, the marriage between Osama Bin Laden's son and Mullah Omar's daughter notwithstanding.
It is also important to acknowledge the seriousness of the Pashtunwali cultural code, and the principle of nanawateh, which mandates protection of those (even enemies) who petition the tribe for sanctuary.
Faced with the ultimatum, expel Al Qaeda or suffer the consequences, the Taliban Loya Jirga replied that although they could not forcibly make them leave, they had invited their guests to exit of their own accord.
In contrast to the civil war and violence ravaging Mogadishu during the mid-1990s, an Ogaden Somali warlord allied with the Al Ittihad movement established a semblance of stability in the environs adjacent to the Kenya border by imposing a severe religious order. Hassan Turki and his Ikhwan (the brotherhood) banned cigarettes and miraa (khat), and made bearing firearms subject to his approval.
Based in the historic settlement of Bur Gao, in 1996 the Sheikh invited agents of Al Qaeda to set up a training camp six kilometres from the Kenya border in Ras Kamboni. Reports of alien combatants operating in the open and even training on the beach filtered across the border with Lamu.
The Ras Kamboni training camp continued to operate despite the international attention focused on the region by the 1998 US embassy bombings; the "light-skinned" foreigners went underground, moving in with local residents.
As was the case in Afghanistan, the jihadis were unpopular and disliked by their local hosts, and their presence a magnet for American military intervention.
They relocated to Mogadishu following the defeat of Al Ittihad in Kismayu, apparently leaving Somalia before the events of 9-11 further raised the stakes.
Now they are back. The linkages, including the financial network sustaining the insurgents on their impoverished terrain, have always been active.
Hassan Al Turki went on to start the original Al Shabaab militia.
The New York Times recently described the combination of the Islamist movement in Somalia and the influx of foreign jihadis as "reminiscent of the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan in the late 1990s."
The implication is that the insurgents want to turn Somalia into a safe haven replacing the Pashtun homeland straddling Afghanistan and Pakistan. There are indeed similarities, but the time and settings are different.
The tide has turned since the 2006 accord brokered by the pro-Taliban Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam that in effect secured Pakistan's North Waziristan as a safe haven for Islamist militants.
Pervez Musharraf is gone and the Taliban are on the run. President Obama has just instituted new rules of engagement prioritising the safety of the civilian population in Afghanistan.
Migrating to Somalia in these circumstances appears to be an act of desperation; financing jihad in Somalia is at best a dubious investment.
Somali nationalism is a resilient phenomenon; if Islam is one common denominator, antipathy for outside intervention in their internal affairs is another.
It's a rough neighbourhood. Islamist law and order relies on a heavy hand.
There is a difference between governing and beating men in public for wearing kikois and destroying saints' tombs. During the recent Shabaab-Hizbul Islam offensive in Mogadishu, two of their factions were fighting each other in Luuq.
True, the government of Ahmed Sheikh Sharif may not be the final solution, even though many former Islamic Union Courts members have joined its ranks.
Somali culture, to the best of my knowledge, does not emphasise the Pashtunwali principle of nanawateh. The jihadi tourists and refugees speaking Asian tongues would soon find themselves surplus to requirements even if the rejectionists take their place.
The latter prospect may be the penultimate act in the nation's long slog to domestic equilibrium. In an article posted on the Internet (Hiraan Online, Tuesday, June 9), The Best for Somalia: Islamists Take Over!, Hassan Zaylai offers the following perspective:
The sooner the Islamists take over, the faster and easier will be their undoing and complete eradication of their narrow ideology from Somalia!
Their ascendancy to power plus the end of illegitimate governments, of unholy and unwilling coalitions of misfits and pushers of clan politics, will produce the best incentives for total liquidation of armed Islamism in Somalia.
Years ago a friend from Hamarwein told me, "These guys can fight for years -- then again, they can come together and sort themselves out in one sitting." This too, may yet come to pass.