Somalia's Islamists suffered rapid defeat against Ethiopian troops and their Somali government allies because they fought the wrong kind of war -- a conventional one, experts said on Tuesday.
But the slaughter of their forces on Somalia's low bushlands and arid wastes, followed by a hasty retreat from the capital Mogadishu and later the key southern port of Kismayu, may portend the start of a campaign of bombings and assassinations.
After systematically defeating warlords in more than four months of fighting for Mogadishu, the Islamists won credit for producing one of the most disciplined military forces in Somalia since the Cold War heyday of dictator Mohamed Siad Barre. "Taking on the Ethiopians in a conventional war, fighting these set-piece battles, was a tactical mistake for the courts," said independent Somalia analyst Matt Bryden.
The gunmen of the Somali Islamic Courts Council (SICC) chose to fight the joint Somali-Ethiopian forces, packing the support of tanks, helicopter gunships and jets, on front lines spread across flat terrain with only rudimentary cover. "I think the Islamists were on a roll and overconfident ... against a competent, professional military force like the Ethiopians," said a military expert and combat veteran who follows Somalia and is not authorised to speak to the press.
Ethiopia has demonstrated its military power in the Horn of Africa before, sending troops to attack the militant Somali group al-Itihaad al-Islaami several times from 1992 to 1998, and combating Eritrea in a 1998-2000 border war that killed 70,000. No independent casualty figures are available from Ethiopia's latest war, but the Somali government estimates its fighters and the Ethiopians killed several thousand Islamists.
A Reuters reporter saw about two dozen dead Islamist fighters in Moode Moode, 12 km (7.5 miles) east of Baidoa, their bodies arrayed a few metres apart along trails through the thorny brush -- evidence of a one-sided fight.
The ideological motivation of the SICC -- which wanted to impose a harsh form of sharia, Islamic law -- was thought to have given it a decisive edge in the battle for Mogadishu last year. But that evaporated against the Ethiopian military. "They realised they were not capable of resisting this sophisticated machine. That is the story of war throughout history. Ideology is not enough to get you through when you are being smashed militarily," the military expert said.
But hardcore militants in the SICC's ranks, whom the United States and United Nations say have links to al Qaeda, may plan to return to the kind of insurgency they practised in Somalia in limited instances before the rise of the SICC.
Most experts say there is a risk the remaining fighters, especially those with training in bombings, assassinations and sniping, will go underground and use their skills in Ethiopia, Somalia and even Kenya. "You don't go up against tanks and jets and helicopters if you don't have an offset to them. But there is a greater plan, and we're just waiting for the rubber band to snap back," said a security expert who declined to be named.
The Ethiopian army, one of the strongest in Africa, appears intent on flushing out the last SICC fighters, chasing them to hideouts in Ras Kamboni on the coast and in the desert as they head for the Kenyan border.Kenya is trying to seal its lengthy and porous frontier. Intelligence sources say Kenya has also beefed up ground and sea patrols, and the United States is providing surveillance to help capture three fighters believed in the SICC ranks who are on lists of wanted terrorists. "This is going to be the final fight. We still have to wait and see if they (the SICC) are going to go underground or be annihilated," the military expert said. "The Ethiopians want to finish it."