As the Obama administration has attempted to rally support for intervention against the Islamic State (IS) in Syria and Iraq, critics and pundits have questioned the use of the analogy to the “successful” counter-terrorism campaigns in Yemen and Somalia. Is it really possible to label these campaigns as “successful”?

Yemen, wracked by violence, threatened by al-Qaeda affiliated militias, lacking any semblance of an effective central government, and verging on the outbreak of civil war, can hardly be classified as a success. Somalia, on the other hand, after suffering through these problems a decade ago, is beginning to show signs of “success.” It might be useful in today’s debates to examine what worked and didn’t work in Somalia.

Following the Somali Civil War in the early 1990s and the overthrow of President Siad Barre’s regime in 1991, the colonial state of Somalia collapsed and broke up into autonomous regions of Puntland, Somaliland and southern Somalia. Southern Somalia became essentially stateless, ruled by rival clans, militias, criminals and warlords who did little to maintain stability and the rule of law. Into this power vacuum the phenomenon of Islamic Courts was born in 1994. Following the initial success of the independent Islamic Courts in imposing law and order, the diverse courts united into the broad based Islamic Courts Union (ICU) and developed a political agenda. As ICU increased its area of control and raised the specter of an Islamic state in Somalia, it attracted the attention of the George W. Bush administration and became a focus of the “War on Terror.”

Although some elements of ICU had connections with al-Qaeda- linked groups, ICU remained a very diverse organization encompassing both moderate and very radical groups. Unfortunately, dealing with nuance was not a strong point of the Bush administration. The U.S., in conjunction with Ethiopia, a predominately Christian neighboring country with a restive Somali Muslim minority, hijacked an internal Somali issue for its own foreign policy agenda.

The ICU was no match for the U.S.-armed Ethiopian Army and in 2007 was quickly defeated and most of its leaders and fighters melted back into Somalian society. The most radical of the ICU adherents migrated to al-Shabaab (the youth), and became the core of al-Qaeda influence in the Horn of Africa. The period of statelessness, with accompanying disorder, that followed the overthrow of ICU made the brief period of Islamic rule feel like a “golden age” to most Somalis. At one point the U.S./Ethiopia installed Transitional Federal Government (TVG) controlled only a few blocks of Mogadishu.

In 2008, the TFG formed a coalition government with ICU and other insurgent groups. In 2010 a new technocratic government was elected. By late 2012 the central government had reclaimed control of 85 percent of southern Somalia. The messages that I take away from this saga are that:

  • Counter-terrorism tactics of targeted killings, selecting winners and losers with little local knowledge and installing “friendly” governments not only are likely to fail, but also to make matters worse by creating ungoverned space for the most dangerous and radical elements.
  • Not all Islamist groups are created equal and painting with a broad brush is dangerous
  • Local groups and individuals are best equipped to find a governing solution
  • Colonial imposed borders are not sacrosanct
  • External actors can help, but they can’t be the solution, especially if their actions are driven by their own agendas

While the Islamic State is not the Islamic Courts, it has succeeded in bringing a semblance of governance to the territories that it controls—territories ignored by the central governments of Syria and Iraq or suffering under competing rebel groups. The Islamic State has provided education, paid municipal salaries, built roads, opened hospitals, maintained electric, trash and sewage services, and even began issuing parking tickets. Al-Monitor correspondent Edward Dark (a pseudonym) reports from Aleppo, “For almost three years, the opposition and the local rebels have failed to provide any semblance of civil administration or public services to the vast areas they controlled. This lawless chaos added to the people’s misery, already exacerbated by the horrors of war. In the end, they rallied around the only group that managed to give them what they wanted: the Islamic State.”

Regional powers Turkey and Iran seem to be reluctant to get directly engaged in countering IS. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has said that, “for Iran, Baghdad and the holy sites (in Karbala) are a redline.” This says to me that Iran is okay with Iraq breaking up. Turkey, faced with its own internal Kurdish problem, dealing with Islamist groups within, is reluctant to intervene to aid Syrian Kurds against IS, which it has supported in the past. If the U.S., without regional support, is going to intervene unilaterally in order to destroy or defeat IS, it better have a plan for what comes next.