THE breakaway northern bit of Somalia, Somaliland, struck a blow for full independence last week by busting an al-Qaeda cell. Embracing perhaps 3.5m of Somalia's 11m or so people, the former British Somaliland has long been a lot more secure than the country's anarchic, formerly Italian, south. If multi-party elections due this week in Somaliland are reasonably fair and open, the outside world, including the African Union and the United Nations, may have to start seriously reconsidering its status, which has been fudged since the collapse of unitary Somali in 1991. All three of Somaliland's parties contesting the election are adamant about wanting outright independence.
A shoot-out on September 23rd in Hargeisa, Somaliland's capital, resulted in the arrest of seven men loyal to the al-Qaeda brand. Somaliland's president, Dahir Riyale Kahnin, said the men were mostly locals, trained at a camp outside Mogadishu, the still-chaotic capital of Somalia proper. Some had received training in Afghanistan; at least one was internationally known. Their aim, he said, was to destabilise Somaliland by killing leaders and foreign aid workers, four of whom have been murdered by Islamist radicals since 2003.
There was a heady whiff of convenience about the arrests. What better, the week before an election in such a fervently patriotic fief, than to demonstrate a threat to Somaliland? Some in Somalia's fragile transitional federal government, which still lays claim to Somaliland, privately say the raid was contrived. They are probably wrong. The timing may have owed something to Somaliland politics, where voters are softened up with gifts of narcotic qat leaves, and people's votes are divided along clan lines. But western worries about al-Qaeda's penetration into the Horn of Africa are nonetheless genuine.
American counter-terrorism work, mostly in collaboration with local militias and the Ethiopian secret service, has gone some way to identifying extreme Islamists inside Somalia. Catching them is harder. A few operational figures are thought to be hiding in and around lawless Mogadishu, which is mostly off-limits to diplomats, UN types and aid-workers. Though a transitional government for the whole of Somalia was set up last year in Kenya, it has failed to establish an effective presence in any part of the country, and has already broken into factions. One lot has been trying in vain to run the show from Jowhar, north of Mogadishu. To complicate matters further between north and south, a self-proclaimed breakaway government of Puntland, with its capital at Bossaso, has been demanding autonomy within a federal Somalia. And the Puntlanders claim bits of eastern Somaliland.
Some of the Islamists scattered around Somalia's various parts have roots in the Egyptian bit of Islamic Jihad, others are closer to al-Qaeda. Those caught in Hargeisa may have been connected to al-Itihaad al-Islami, a group that wants to create an emirate of Somalia along the lines of Saudi Arabia's austere Wahhabi sect. They sound particularly hostile to Ethiopia, with which Somaliland's fledgling government has been cultivating friendlier relations. In July, the Ethiopians agreed to ship some of their goods through the Somaliland port of Berbera, on a road improved with European Union funds.
Even if magnified for political effect, the arrests are a powerful signal to Islamist radicals that Somaliland is no longer a completely safe haven for them—a fact underlined by the expulsion of some foreign mullahs after the raid. That is especially notable since the Saudi government's own crackdown on radical preachers means that more of them had been looking to Somaliland as a handy refuge.
The efficiency of the locally organised swoop and the steady march of democracy in breakaway Somaliland have impressed the Americans, who have a regional military hub next door in less democratic Djibouti. Expect them to give a puff to Somaliland's chances of attaining statehood proper.