Somalis Balk at Bin Laden

Nobody wants a death threat from Osama bin Laden. Still, Thursday's release of an audio message from the al-Qaeda supremo calling for Somalis to overthrow their new President, Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, may be taken as a compliment in the world's most failed state. In an 11-minute message focused entirely on Somalia and entitled "Fight on, champions of Somalia," bin Laden claimed Sheik Sharif's appointment, which came after he was elected by Somali lawmakers on Jan. 31, was "induced by the American envoy in Kenya," a reference to the U.S. ambassador in Nairobi, Michael Ranneberger. Sharif had "changed and turned back on his heels ... to partner up with the infidel" in a national unity government, bin Laden said. "How can intelligent people believe that yesterday's enemies on the basis of religion can become today's friends? This can only happen if one of the two parties abandons his religion." Sharif "must be dethroned and fought." Somalia's Islamic militants must "continue fighting the apostate government."

The question of whether Sharif is a moderate is open to question. He was a founder of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) which took power in Mogadishu for a few months in 2006 after ejecting the city's long-sparring warlords. The ICU imposed strict Shari'a law and, unwisely, declared a jihad on Ethiopia, which subsequently invaded and overthrew it at the end of 2006. In addition, the ICU tolerated the presence of extreme Islamist militants, including the Somali-based al-Qaeda group that blew up U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, killing more than 200 people. (See pictures of al-Qaeda.)

But, just as Ho Chi Minh was a Vietnamese nationalist before he was a communist, Sharif probably has a bigger goal than pursuing Islamic extremism for its own sake. He has consistently sought alliances with other non-Islamist leaders. A former teacher, he helped found the ICU to try to restore law and order after one of his students was kidnapped by one of Somalia's marauding militia. And he has broken with al Shabaab, formerly the militant wing of the ICU and the main Islamist force in Somalia. That last prompted more extreme ICU leaders, such as Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, to denounce him — a condemnation seemingly endorsed by bin Laden's on Thursday. (See pictures of the modern face of Somali piracy.)

Ken Menkhaus, a professor of political science at Davidson University and one of the world's foremost experts on Somalia, told TIME that bin Laden's message would only bolster Sharif's standing in his own country. "There's nothing that plays as poorly in Somalia as foreigners trying to advance their own agenda in Somalia — telling them who they may or may not have as a leader — and al-Qaeda is falling into that category. In some ways, you could not script this any better for the new government. On paper, it all looks excellent."

Late last year, after two years bloody occupation of Somalia, Ethiopia withdrew. Instead of creating a vacuum for the Shabaab to fill, as many feared, Menkhaus says Ethiopia's withdrawal allowed Somalis to turn their attention to their own internal enemies. "The Shabaab have been pushed back by Somali communities," he said. "Somalis do not want their version of government."

Karin von Hippel, a Somali specialist and senior fellow at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, agrees. "This is the first time that those of us who have been watching Somalia for all these years have been able to feel a bit optimistic," she says. Somalia last had a functioning government in 1991 and "99% of Somalis are fed up with 20 years of fighting and no government, and are willing to give Sharif a chance," she adds. "He's someone who had a hand in the ICU, but who can also approach other Somalis. They see him as good enough. There's a slight chance that things are moving in the right direction."

Both Menkhaus and von Hippel caution that Somalia's new government faces the steepest of obstacles. Even without the Islamists, 18 years of war have robbed it of almost all infrastructure and anything resembling law, left millions of its people on the edge of starvation and given it a raging piracy problem along its coasts. But both warn that the world should not flood Somalia with help. Von Hippel said experience had shown that international peacekeepers or a U.N.-sponsored drive to create a central government were inappropriate to Somalia. Far more important was building up Somalia's own security services and the creation of a decentralized administration more suited to the country's clan structure. Menkhaus adds that the last thing Sheikh Sharif needs is overt Western backing. "The tape is a warning to the U.S. and U.N.," said Menkhaus. "Diffuse any idea that Sharif's administration is a puppet by limiting yourself to quiet support. Don't kill this administration with kindness."

See pictures of the modern face of Somali piracy.

Read a TIME cover story on al-Qaeda.

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