MOGADISHU, Somalia -- There are few success stories here in this tortured country on the eastern coast of Africa. For nearly two decades, this drought-ravaged land and the long-suffering Somali people have been "off the radar" for most Americans. It might still be so if it were not for radical Islamist Somali terrorists -- al-Shabab -- and their financiers, the seagoing pirates who seize merchant vessels plying the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden. All of that is about to change.
Last week, as our two-man Fox News unit was en route, Ayman al-Zawahri, the Egyptian cleric who inherited Osama bin Laden's mantle as leader of al-Qaida, released a videotape declaring that al-Shabab is now formally part of the "global jihad" against the Western world. Zawahri's desperate bid for attention didn't do his Somali allies any favors. The announcement may well presage the demise of al-Shabab.
The brutal Somali terror group is now on the run. Remnants of the organization that once threatened to make Mogadishu its capital have fled west -- driven from the city by well-trained, disciplined Ugandan troops dispatched and supplied by the African Union. We accompanied them over terrain once trodden by U.S. Marines in the early 1990s and stained with the blood of American special operators who set out to capture the notorious warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid in 1993. The heroism and perseverance of those who made that effort were captured in the book and film "Black Hawk Down."
Unlike U.S. troops who fought here almost two decades ago, the African soldiers who freed this city and now provide security for its 2 million residents -- nearly half of whom are refugees displaced by drought, famine and violence -- receive few accolades in the Western media. They deserve better. Many of them are graduates of U.S. military schools and are applying "low-profile" counterinsurgency tactics the way they are meant to be practiced. One of their officers put it bluntly: "In the U.S., we were taught to learn from your mistakes."
From a week on the ground here in Somalia, that appears to be a theme -- one that is proving devastating to al-Shabab. About 160 miles to the northwest of this long-suffering city, Ethiopian troops have liberated Baidoa, a terror stronghold in south-central Somalia. This victory comes on the heels of a political triumph -- a "constitutional assembly" in Garowe, capital of the autonomous state of Puntland, the largest such national gathering ever convened in Africa. There our Fox News team witnessed the signing of an agreement for a new constitutional framework. The document -- drafted by and for Somalis -- specifies a bicameral legislature, ordains an executive branch with enumerated powers, requires an independent judiciary, rejects a foreign-imposed "caretaker government" and offers universal suffrage to every man and woman in Somalia.
Much of the hard work done to achieve the new constitution and a stable government based on the rule of law instead of lawless rulers is being done by Somalis who were once refugees. Prime Minister Abdiweli Mohamed Ali and Puntland President Abdirahman Mohamed Farole were but two of the dozens of U.S.-Somali dual citizens we met at the assembly in Garowe. They all gave up comfortable lives in America to help rebuild this devastated country.
In our interview with Farole, he expressed hope that the U.S. and European governments will support his initiative to establish an effective maritime police force to "eliminate the scourge of piracy" because it "threatens the global economy" and jeopardizes the foreign investment that Somalia so desperately needs. He already has found a reliable partner in this effort. The United Arab Emirates has stepped up to provide funds for recruiting, training and equipping a police force to defeat the pirates on land and at sea -- while respecting the rights of the people it protects.
We seized the opportunity to accompany the fledgling Puntland Maritime Police Force on an aerial reconnaissance of pirate dens along the Somali coast and documented how the PMPF trains for missions on land and conducts near-shore interdiction and inspections of vessels at sea. When the organization is fully manned and outfitted, it will have more than 1,000 police capable of enforcing the law along Somalia's coastline -- the longest in continental Africa.
Creating such a force is no small task in a country that has suffered from more than 40 years of horrendous hardship. The breakdown of civil order and descent into chaos that began here in the 1960s drove away businesses essential to employment, devastated a thriving agricultural economy and wrecked the hopes of exploiting Somalia's resources. A record-breaking drought has added to the misery of millions. Formal education has all but vanished -- yielding an illiteracy rate that exacerbates the economic collapse.
None of these problems will go away overnight. But, as Farole noted during the historic constitutional assembly in Garowe, "we must start with law, order and justice," or "lawless piracy and brutality will continue." Such an outcome is what al-Shabab -- now on its heels -- wants. And that would turn the promise of suffrage for all Somalis into a tragedy for all of us.
Oliver North is a nationally syndicated columnist, the host of War Stories on the Fox News Channel, the author of the new novel Heroes Proved and the co-founder of Freedom Alliance, an organization that provides college scholarships to the children of U.S. military personnel killed or permanently disabled in the line of duty. Join Oliver North in Israel by going to www.olivernorthisrael.com.