The Islamic Courts Union (ICU) was a legal and political organization founded by Muslim clerics from the Abgal subclan of the powerful Hawiye clan that operated from 2000 to 2006 in Mogadishu. These Islamic courts adjudicated personal status and criminal law matters according to Islamic law (shari’a). Because they were backed by clan-based ICU militias, they were extremely effective in maintaining order. Abgal clerics did not start the courts in a desire because they promoted Islamism, but rather because they hoped the courts would address the lawlessness that had become endemic in the wake of the 1991 civil war.
Technically speaking, the courts were not overseen by Islamic scholars, nor did they adhere to one particular school of Sunni Islamic law. Rather, they were an extension of Abgal Hawiye clan power, were enforced by clan militias, and received support from clan members. Because these courts were clan-based, they came up against other Hawiye subclans, including the Habr Gedir, that of the powerful former military commander and post-civil war warlord General Muhammad Aideed, whose forces controlled parts of Mogadishu. Aideed’s death in 1996 allowed for the formation of new courts, including those sponsored by the Habr Gedir. Other subclans sponsored their own courts. As courts spread, they became more tied to political Islam and less directed by clan politics, especially when al-Itihaad al-Islamiya (“The Islamic Union,” IU) became involved.
The IU was an Islamist organization not based on clan power. Its leaders were from different clans, and included Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys. In 1996, a struggling IU fled to Mogadishu after seeing combat against Gen. Aideed and others elsewhere in the country, and joined in the Islamic court effort. In 2000, these disparate but related courts officially formed the Islamic Courts Union, an umbrella organization, with Sheikh Aweys wielding significant control over the group.
By 2006, the ICU represented a major threat to other warlords controlling areas of Mogadishu. Some of these warlords were suspected of aiding American forces in apprehending terrorism suspects, including high-status figures in local religious circles. At the same time, a new Transitional Federal Government (TFG) had just taken power and its members were being targeted by a wave of assassinations that implicated an emergent militia calling itself al-Shabaab. Warlords grouped together to form the Alliance for Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism (ARPCT), appealed to the United States, and framed the ICU as a terrorist organization seeking to establish an Islamic state. In the post-9/11 context of the global war on terror, the George W. Bush administration was particularly keen to address terrorism issues in perceived hotspots such as Somalia. These factors forced the ICU to take an increasingly political stance.
The US-backed ARPCT came into armed conflict with the ICU, which ICU militias won. By June 2006, the ICU had control of nearly all of Mogadishu and the warlords had fled. A remarkable transformation took place in the embattled capital; peace and security were restored, roadblocks removed, trash was cleared, and the air and seaports reopened. New courts were established to address land disputes, reflecting practical approaches to dealing with a crumbled but not hopeless infrastructure. The ICU received widespread support from Mogadishu’s citizens.
As an umbrella organization, the ICU managed to bring together a broad spectrum of religious groups, from moderate to radical Islamists. Al-Shabaab was one of the more radical groups affiliated with the ICU. Different perspectives among ICU leaders led to competing visions of how the ICU should move forward.
Sheikh Aweys, who represented a more radical faction within the ICU, was emboldened by the group’s successes. He and others began promoting an Islamic state alternative to the TFG, took a critical nationalist stance to Ethiopian involvement in Somalia, and indicated a renewed desire to retake the Ogaden. This alarmed Ethiopian leadership, which was an important backer of the TFG. A third external factor was Ethiopia’s neighbor Eritrea, which had broken from Ethiopia in 1991 and supported the ICU. Lastly, the United States was concerned that Somalia was becoming a haven for al-Qaeda militants with support from the ICU. This complex political dynamic led to the Ethiopian and American decision to eliminate the threat of the ICU, and to UN resolution 1725, authorizing African Union forces (UNISOM) to deploy.
These pressures empowered the most radical factions within the ICU, but its militias were no match for the powerful Ethiopian and UNISOM forces. By December the ICU had lost Mogadishu, and chaos and a refugee crisis soon followed. ICU leadership split apart with more moderate elements resettling in Yemen and Kenya. In Somalia, al-Shabaab emerged as the most powerful splinter group from the ICU. Unfettered by ICU oversight, it initiated a campaign that eventually took control of most of southern Somalia, including Mogadishu, and in 2010 formed an alliance with al-Qaeda.
Cedric Barnes and Harun Hassan, “The Rise and Fall of Mogadishu’s Islamic Courts,” Journal of Eastern African Studies, Vol. 1, No. 2 (2007), pp. 151-160.
Mary Harper, Getting Somalia Wrong? Faith, War and Hope in a Shattered State (London: Zed Books, 2012)