On 9 January, a huge American AC-130 gunship dropped bombs onto the south-eastern tip of Somalia, one of the poorest and most neglected places on earth. The stated goal was the elimination of an al-Qaeda cell. At the time of writing, there is no evidence that the U.S. has succeeded in this; but there is every reason to believe that the Americans themselves—and especially the Somalis—will pay a price for this action.

The first overt US military action in Somalia since 1994 is likely to have damaging consequences. This new front on the war on terror may not last long but it will neither be forgotten nor forgiven in Somalia or beyond. Remnant Islamist elements, and indeed many other Somalis, are likely to become more radical as a result of the air strikes: one of the ways the world has changed since America’s last disastrous intervention in Somalia is that there now exists, in the form of al-Qaeda and its offshoots, a globalised formula for violent resistance to the U.S. and its allies. Finally, the bombing is unlikely to improve the prospects for peace and stability in a nation that has been without central government for the past sixteen years.

U.S. policy is based on a belief that Somalia, the world’s most comprehensively ‘collapsed state’, has served as a safe haven for al-Qaeda operatives. A principal target in the recent air raids was Fazul Abdullah Mohamed, a Comorean national with a Kenyan passport, whom the U.S. accuses of being behind the 1998 of its embassies bombings in Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam, and the 2002 attacks on a Mombasa hotel and an Israeli airliner.

However, America’s preoccupation with hunting down al-Qaeda, and perhaps the festering wound of the humiliating ‘Black Hawk Down’ incident of 1993 when 18 U.S. servicemen lost their lives at the hands of Mogadishu’s faction fighters, appears to have led it to mistakenly equate the Somali form of political Islam with violent extremism. Thus the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) was included on America’s list of dangerous undesirables, even though, at the outset, the extremist elements were very much in the minority.

It is possible that the UIC was made more radical by the fact that the Americans alleged very loudly that the movement posed a terrorist threat. The U.S. attracted global attention to what was initially a disjointed group of sharia courts and, inadvertently advertised Somalia as a promising new battleground for the world’s jihadists. Furthermore, by fuelling U.S. suspicions about the UIC, enemies of the courts—namely Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG), the warlords and Ethiopia—were able to turn the tables on the movement. With tacit, and lately, overt U.S. support, they have driven it into the ground.

The Christmas day bombardment of Mogadishu’s air and sea ports by Ethiopian fighter jets marked the beginning of a very quick end for the UIC, at least in its recent incarnation. Just a week later, on New Year’s Day 2007, the UIC had abandoned its last urban stronghold, the southern port city of Kismayo, and disappeared into impenetrable bush near the Kenyan border.

Somalia’s defence minister, Colonel Barre Aden Shire, announced that it was all over for the Islamists. With the Kenyan border sealed, U.S. warships patrolling the coast, and heavily armed Ethiopian and Transitional Federal Government (TFG) troops advancing from the north, he said they had little choice but “to drown in the sea or to fight and die”. Once the American air raids began, it was not only the Islamists who had little option but to die, but also dozens of Somali nomads who were killed, together with their livestock.

According to its own rhetoric, the UIC will be back. Court leaders described the flight from Mogadishu as a ‘tactical withdrawal’. An ‘Iraqi style insurgency’ would follow, they said. Such a strategy has been encouraged by radical Islamists elsewhere in the world, some of whom have adopted the UIC militiamen as their fellow jihadists. In an internet audio recording believed to come from Al-Qaeda’s second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, Muslims are called upon to join Somalis in “launching ambushes, land mines, raids and suicidal combats” against “the crusader invading Ethiopian forces” and to “consume them as the lions eat their prey”.

Such a comeback is unlikely. The UIC overplayed its hand when, in mid-December, it declared jihad against Ethiopia. This gave Ethiopia’s prime minister, Meles Zenawi, the excuse he needed to go to war. UIC fighters had no chance of standing up to Ethiopia’s giant military machine, especially its air power and the surveillance assistance it was reported to be receiving from the U.S.

But does this rapid and unexpected rout really mean the end of the UIC? Do the last six months of 2006 represent no more than a brief but ultimately suicidal experiment with political Islam? Or was the perceived threat of the UIC little more than an illusion, based on a cynical manipulation of American paranoia by enemies of the Islamists, at home and abroad?

Even if the UIC’s miscalculation led to its military defeat, it has already won part of the battle for hearts and minds. For most Somalis, the presence of Ethiopian troops on their soil, and American gunships in their skies, is intolerable. On January 6, just a few days after the UIC was driven out of Mogadishu, Somalis in the capital staged rowdy demonstrations against the Ethiopians. Three protestors were shot dead. By January 7, the protests had spread to the town of Belet Weyn, closer to the Ethiopian border. Since then, there have been regular reports from Mogadishu of violent attacks on Ethiopian and TFG troops.

Regardless of whether Meles Zenawi manages to fulfil his promise of withdrawing his forces after “a few weeks”, he will leave behind a dangerous mess. There are indications that the TFG is finally managing to install itself in Mogadishu, after more than two years in the wilderness. But it lacks the means to protect itself or the city’s civilian population. The plan is for 8,000 African Union troops to come in to protect the government and keep the peace. The condition is that no AU soldier can be drawn from any country that shares a border with Somalia.

The AU may manage to muster such a force, but it will be entering one of the world’s most forbidding environments for peacekeepers to operate in. The AU risks repeating the nightmares of the 1990’s, when both US and UN operations failed. Somalis will never welcome peacekeepers with open arms, no matter what their nationality. Many will sympathise with the UIC’s declaration of war against any foreign troops in Somalia, stating that they would be treated as “enemy invaders”.

For residents of Mogadishu and other parts of southern Somalia, a degree of ‘nostalgia’ may set in for the days when the UIC was in control. For those brief six months, life was probably the safest it ever had been during the past 16 years.

The population paid a price for peace. Bloody sharia punishments were carried out; the popular stimulant, qat, was banned; women had to cover themselves; people were not allowed to watch films in public video parlours. But the violence and banditry that had blighted their lives for one and a half decades were dramatically reduced.

Insecurity increased as soon as the UIC left Mogadishu. People’s immediate priority was self-protection. They ignored the incoming TFG’s call for disarmament; the air was filled with gunshots as people tested new weapons bought in the markets. In the words of a Mogadishu resident, “We are back to square one, back to 1991”, referring to the violent anarchy that followed the fall of President Siad Barre.

In its area of influence, the UIC was more successful than any of the other post-Barre experiments in addressing security and making things work. Yet, in its nascent stages, the movement represented little more than a group of independent sharia courts. They had been steadily gaining prominence since the 1990’s because they performed some of the key functions of government in a stateless society. Equally important, the courts were increasingly viewed as legitimate authorities by the communities they served, which were mainly clan-based. Like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Hamas in the Palestinian territories, they gained support because they provided essential services to a neglected population.

The courts union emerged more by accident than as part of a grand design to open up a new front in the global ‘clash of civilisations’. However, as the courts gained power, they were seized upon by the politically ambitious, principally Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, a former senior member of the militant Somali Islamist group, al-Itihaad al-Islamiya, and an active promoter of Ayr clan interests. With the help of his Afghanistan-trained lieutenant, Adan Hashi Ayro, who transformed the court militias into the highly disciplined al-Shabaab army, Aweys sidelined moderate elements in the UIC and alienated many non-Ayr clan members.

The swift military defeat of the UIC suggests that, despite its positive impact on security, it was not a powerful or deeply-rooted organisation. It had been ‘talked up’ as something bigger than it was, both by itself and by outsiders. It is very possible that it is precisely the vague and decentralised structure of the courts’ union that accounted for its success.

The unexpected and speedy defeat of the UIC has parallels with its lightning takeover of Mogadishu from a coalition of brutal warlords, inappropriately named ‘The Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism’. The fragility of both these movements suggests that the real power existed neither with the Islamists nor with the warlords. In both cases, the clout rested with those who decided to back them: the clans and the business community. In Somalia, two things never change—clan identity and the smell of money. It is these factors that have served as the power base for most of the country’s political groups, be they factions led by warlords, spineless interim administrations, or a loose coalition of sharia courts.

It is due to the power of the clan, as well as a strong sense of Somali culture and nationalism that few Somalis have adopted militant Islamism as their principal code of political identity. This may explain why the country is unlikely to transform into the kind of threat to global security imagined by the U.S. government. Perhaps one reason why so many UIC fighters either melted away or rejoined their clan militias is that they were not prepared to die for their faith. It is unlikely that scores of Somalis will queue up to throw away their lives as suicide bombers, despite the warnings of the U,S, and Ethiopian governments, and the call by al-Qaeda that they adopt this method of war.

The population of Somalia has not risen up, en masse, to resist the TFG and its Ethiopian protectors, because people have taken an informed gamble on backing, or at least living with, the side most likely to give them a quiet life. As the UIC had no chance of beating the Ethiopians, many Somalis chose to live with the enemy, at least in the short-term. Over the years, they have become experts at living without the state; they have taken a considered risk by giving up on the UIC, which is being pulverised into oblivion. As one Somali put it, “the Americans are beating the dead”.

The destruction of the UIC has not eliminated the possibility of some form of Somali Islamist movement re-emerging in the future. It is likely that more Somali religious extremists are being born with every U.S. air strike, every Ethiopian soldier on Somali soil. The U.S., the Ethiopians and the TFG are laying the ground for a disaster, even if this does not become evident immediately. If the Ethiopians withdraw quickly enough, the AU peacekeepers will carry the can.

Outsiders will always be seen as the enemy in Somalia. And as the TFG cannot, at present, survive without foreign support, it will not be accepted as a legitimate Somali authority. In this sense, the UIC has achieved a kind of victory. Despite accusations that it was an al-Qaeda offshoot, it was essentially a home-grown Somali movement. And, unlike the warlords, the United Nations, the United States, and a long succession of transitional governments, the UIC proved that it could make life less dangerous for the Somali people.