[Illustration: Delta Force video game; insert, Somali soldier killed in heavy fighting in Mogadishu is dragged through the city’s streets in late March. Photograph: Mustafa Abdi/AFP/Getty]

The impoverished East African country of Somalia is continually in the news. Minority Rights Group (MRG) International announced a month ago that Somalia is now the least safe country in the world for minorities, edging out Iraq and Sudan for this dubious distinction. Nor can it be said that Somalia is safe for majorities, given its recent, bloody history. In the past month more than 1,000 people have died, rivaling the surging toll in Iraq.

In 1993, a decade before Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was shocked and awed into anarchic free fall, a team of U.S. commandos parachuted into Mogadishu, the capital of this strife-torn East African country. Two Blackhawk helicopters were downed and the warlord escaped. Hollywood’s cinematic version hit the screen eight years later with the same bad ending. Then came the video game, Delta Force Black Hawk Down. Now a savvy teenager, armed with cheats, could rewrite history and let the good guys win. But in Somalia today it is hard to figure out just who the good guys are.

The day after Christmas in 2006 it was Ethiopian airpower rather than American helicopters that strafed the capital, Mogadishu. Déjà vu without the Delta Force. For the previous six months in 2006 Somalia had started to look like Taliban West, the Afghanistan of Africa. A loose coalition called the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) accomplished the welcome task of freeing much of the country from the terror of the entrenched warlords. At long last a measure of order had calmed the streets, but only by enforcing strict Islamic shariah law that was especially harsh on minorities. Since the rapid Ethiopian incursion almost four months ago, the Islamist rank and file merged back into the general population. The warlords seemed to be back calling the shots.

The shots never really stopped. Like the unorganized Taliban forces, the supporters of the UIC have been biding their time and choosing their targets. A month ago a combined Ethiopian and Somali unit in southern Mogadishu was attacked, ending with the haunting repeat media image of a dead soldier being dragged through the streets. Soon after the shadow media service of al-Qaeda announced a presence of enemy terrorist group number one on Somalia soil. There is not much such a rogue anti-diplomat can do except serve as a rallying point for former UIC supporters. This was not the first global positioning for the Somali conflict. In early January Ayman al-Zawahari, the elusive number two man on the most-wanted Al-Qaeda list, as reported by al-Jazeera, warned: “As happened in Iraq and Afghanistan, when the world’s strongest power was defeated by the campaigns of the mujahidin troops going to heaven, so its slaves shall be defeated on the Muslim lands of Somalia. You must ambush, mine, raid and [carry out] martyrdom campaigns so that you can wipe them out.” Fears of a new front for jihad-blinded extremists are once again all over the news media.

But Somali Muslims are not the Taliban, and this impoverished former colony of Italy and Britain with over half its population nomadic or semi-nomadic is quite different from Iraq. Despite the wishful thinking of virtually based Al-Qaeda masterminds, Somalia is not likely to be torn apart by religious rivalry. Nor are the defeated Islamists capable of mounting an effective long-term insurgency as we see daily in Iraq. Somalia is torn apart today not by sectarian violence but long established clan rivalry. When the dictator Muhammad Siad Barre fell in 1991, the clan-based bosses shaking down the citizens of Mogadishu were little more than land-based pirates, thriving on the almost total lack of security. This is why United Nations peace keepers and Delta Force rangers became involved in the first place.

So why do we not need to worry about Somalia becoming a new from in the global war on terror? First, the population of Somalia is remarkably homogeneous, with no major ethnic or linguistic barriers. Historically Somalis trace their identity to one of six tribal clans, all linked to one legendary founding ancestor. In the absence of a stable central government clan membership has been the only viable way to function in the society. Mutual economic support within clans is coupled with strategic alliances across kinship ties to adapt to changing conditions on the ground. Ironically, clan politics is largely a democratic process, mitigated in recent years by the creation of mafia-like urban clan fiefdoms. The problems within Somalia are more like a family feud, increasingly Tony Soprano style, than anything else.

Second, the so-called Islamist take-over of the country last June was about justice rather than religious dogma. In Afghanistan the Taliban arose for different reasons, as a foreign-supported jihad against the Soviet presence and also as a way out of the continuing nightmare of armed ethnic factionalism. But foreign occupiers left Somalia almost half a century ago. In Iraq today the civil war has coalesced around generic categories of Sunni vs Shia, dredging up rivalries that date back to the origins of Islam. But the Muslims in Somalia are virtually all Sunni. You can get killed in Somalia because of who your great grandfather was, but not for the way you pray or your first name. Nor are there ethnic minorities in the sense there are in Iraq. Tribal affiliation or economic lifestyle define minority status, but not persecution for religious persuasion.

Finally, it boils down to old-fashioned geography. Somalia is dirt poor with no oil wealth. Only about ten percent of the land can be cultivated. One of the main exports is on the hoof, although the major market of Saudi Arabia banned the import of Somali animals over health scares. This is not the kind of place really worth fighting over as the British finally realized by pulling out of their former colony in 1960. The Mad Mullah who rallied Somalis against the British at the turn of the 20th century is ancient history. There are no Bora Bora caves for Islamist leaders to hide in. Most significantly, the Horn of Africa would be a poor place for a new jihad with no American troops as targets.

The Ethiopian presence has not helped matters, but the transition to African union troops is underway with 1,500 Ugandan troops already on the ground. So far no Ethiopian general has unfurled a “Mission Accomplished” banner, nor will there be permanent Ethiopian military bases here in the future. Ethiopia has reason to be concerned about its neighbor, since the civil strife of the 90s forced thousands of Somali refugees across its border, where over four million ethnic Somalis already lived. But there is no African crusade in the making, since there are more Muslims than Christians in Ethiopia. The battle for Somalia is far from over, and no pundit knows who will best survive the seesaw politics. Somalia might as well be a video game out of control. The problem is that no one has the right cheats yet.

Daniel Martin Varisco

[An abbreviated version of this commentary ws published in today’s Long Island Newsday.]