Al-Shabaab: A Taste of Hell in the Grave

Francis McLoughlin looks at the current situation with Al-Shabaab in Somalia

In my last article on Somalia I gave, together with a general history, instances of the forces which conspired to produce the calamitous backdrop to the country’s devastation in the wake of the Horn of Africa’s present famine. Almost four million Somalis are ‘affected’ by it—which is to say they are dying from hunger, disease, and having to fling themselves across (in some cases) over 200km of torrid terrain in search of assistance at the UN refugee camp at Dadaab, Kenya. If you wish to read about such things, I can only refer you to that article. Presently, I will focus on al-Shabaab, Somalia’s most prominent Islamist militia, which has since reasserted its ban on aid agencies and relief groups (with the notable exception of those from Turkey). What follows will most likely read as a labyrinth of (often recurring) names and bloodshed, but for anyone who desires to develop an understanding of Somalia’s cacophony of competing tyrannies, discerning the relationships between prevailing Somali warlords, Islamists, and politicians is the surest way to go about it.

Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen (Arabic: ‘Movement of Warrior-Youth’), otherwise known simply as the HSM or al-Shabaab (‘The Youth’), is an Islamist militia operating in the south and central provinces of Somalia; its fighters are said to number somewhere between 5,000 and 7,000. Or rather, to be more precise, al-Shabaab is an assortment of militias huddled around the indomitable will of a central command. In late-2010, for instance, after defeating its former ally, Hizbul Islam (‘the Islamic Party’), in a bloody war, al-Shabaab absorbed the remaining militias of its rival Islamist faction (such as the Ras Kamboni Brigades) into itself. Al-Shabaab’s hierarchy of command is comparatively rigid. True, significant power struggles are liable to break out. In December 2010, for instance, Moktar Ali Zubeyr, al-Shabaab’s emir, was replaced by Ibrahim Haji Jama Mee’aad after refusing to grant Hassan Dahir Aweys—the defeated (but evidently still powerful) leader of Hizbul Islam—a higher position al-Shabaab. Nevertheless, for the most part, al-Shabaab has proven itself to be a well-coordinated menace.

Al-Shabaab’s ideology is Sunni Islam; it wishes to impose a relentless regime of Sharia on Somalia’s population, having already banned music and shut down cinemas in the areas under its control. It wages a violent campaign of jihad against infidels and has expressed its admiration for the ‘martyred’ ‘Sheikh’ Osama bin Laden, finding generous patronage in jihadi-sympathisers from Nairobi to Mombasa, not to mention al-Qaeda’s international network of donors. Al-Shabaab also has a penchant for profanity, gleefully desecrating the tombs of Somalia’s Sufi saints. Such barbarism has earned it the ire of the Sufi militia group, Ahl al-Sunna wa’l Jama’ah, which, as of 2008, has had five of its members appointed ministers in Somalia’s UN-backed Transitional Federal Government (TFG), with others holding senior positions in Somalia’s police and intelligence services. Still, Christopher Anzalone, a researcher of Islamist groups at the Institute of Islamic Studies at McGill University, says that ‘in terms of appearance and weaponry, the Sufi militiamen are largely indistinguishable from [al-Shabaab]’.

Ahl al-Sunna wa’l Jama’ah had fought for the late Mohamed Farrah Aidid, a warlord who headed the United Somali Congress (USC) in a clan-based war against Siad Barre’s military dictatorship. Mohamed Farrah Aidid served as a General in Siad Barre’s army during the Ogaden war against Ethiopia in 1977-78 before being appointed his Chief of Intelligence. But Somalis have for centuries been divided into six clan-families: the Dir, Isaq, Hawiye, Darod, Digil, and Rahanweyn; each clan is further stratified into sub-clans, which are themselves fragmented into smaller and smaller units. Siad Barre was born into the Marehan sub-clan of the Darod; Mohamed Farrah Aidid was of the Habar Gidir clique in the Hawiye. When Somalia’s government collapsed in 1991, President Barre fled Mogadishu for the Gedo region in the south, a Marehan stronghold, where he staged a number of ill-fated attempts to regain power. The motor of Somali politics over the last century or so appears to be a veritable cauldron of clan-feuds, gang-fights, imperialism, Islamic heresy, and Soviet-backed ‘Scientific Socialism’; more recently, as we shall see, alternately US- and al-Qaeda-backed militias, partly steered by personal rivalries among their leaders, have assumed the mantle.

When Ethiopia’s US-backed dictatorship sent troops to invade Somalia in December 2006 and wrest the country from the clutches of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), al-Shabaab violently resisted their occupation of Mogadishu. The ICU was a coalition of Sharia courts founded earlier that year in the south, with al-Shabaab its militant youth-wing—led by the late Aden Ayro. Three weeks before the ICU’s ultimate collapse, Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, the ICU’s founder and Commander in Chief, surrendered to Kenyan security forces. By September 2007, Sharif had made his way to Eritrea, where he launched a political party, the Alliance for the Re-liberation of Somalia (ARS). Hassan Dahir Aweys was appointed chairman, having previously led the al-Qaeda-backed Islamist terrorist group, Al-Itihaad al-Islamiya (AIAI), throughout the 1990s, after which he served as the ICU’s chairman; he would later come to head the party’s armed wing, the ARS-A.

On January 31, 2009, Sharif Sheikh Ahmed became Somalia’s nominal President, supported by the UN; four months later, a UN envoy accused Hassan Dahir Aweys of being behind a failed coup d’etat. Hassan, who by this stage had become leader of Hizbul Islam, explained that his insurgency against the TFG was ‘personal’. Hizbul Islam was an amalgamation of the ARS-A and three other Islamist militias—Jabhatul Islamiya (Arabic: ‘Islamic Front’), the Ras Kamboni Brigades, and Muaskar Anole—with a former high-ranking ARS official, Omar Iman Abubakar, as its chairman. Omar Iman was later opposed by the warlord Yusuf Mohammed Siad—perhaps better known by his alias, Indha Adde (‘White Eyes’)—which had the effect of splitting Hizbul Islam in two. Indha Adde seized control of one faction; Hassan Aweys remained de facto leader of the rest. Of course, whatever was left of Hizbul Islam in December 2010 (including Hassan himself) was absorbed into al-Shabaab.

Indha Adde’s career, on the other hand, took a different route.

After having sheltered al-Qaeda’s envoy to East Africa, the late Fazul Abdullah Mohammed—the man behind the 1998 bombings of Kenya and Tanzania’s US Embassies—from the CIA, Indha Adde was appointed the TFG’s Minister of Defence. In July 2010, however, he resigned from this exalted position, publicly despairing over the futility of engaging in Somali politics. Now, as a prominent warlord in Mogadishu, that self-same gloomy patriot rents his militia to the TFG, which has in turn conferred upon him the shaky legitimacy of a General in its official military. I suppose Gen. Indha Adde felt this to be the more lucrative arrangement; it certainly shows where his priorities lie. Speaking of the TFG’s impotence, however, the latest report has it that a row between President Sharif Sheikh Ahmed and the parliament speaker, Sharif Hasan Sheikh Adan, is once again hampering its ability to coordinate relief efforts.

Since mid-2008, al-Shabaab had occupied the majority of Mogadishu’s districts. Its militiamen established a tyranny over the city and were to be seen regularly patrolling the Bakara Market, apparently levying a tax on local merchants. As of mid-February this year, however, 9,000 US-backed African Union (AU) troops, cobbled together from the Ugandan and Burundian armies, have purged the militia from the city. Until now, the TFG, with over 6,000 AU troops at its disposal, has barely been able to retain its hold over a handful of blocks. Now, from the vantage-point of al-Shabaab’s former headquarters, the National Stadium, AU troops are able to control most of the roads leading into the city. Whereas al-Shabaab’s tactic had previously been to invade towns, murder TFG soldiers, and plunder whatever they needed (weapons) before withdrawing, al-Shabaab ‘martyrs’ would run directly into AU gunfire in what proved to be a desperate bid to recover Mogadishu. Demoralised and defeated (for now), al-Shabaab retreated to Baidoa, 250km southwest of the capital.

Perhaps there is some hope. It is unclear how long al-Shabaab’s retreat—which it insists is ‘tactical’—will last, but it is worth noting that setbacks for the militia loom on the horizon, to the north and south. Earlier this year, for example, Sheikh Ahmed Madobe, a southern warlord, succeeded in recapturing Doblei, a small town straddling the Kenyan border, when his militia (known as the Raskamboni movement) teamed up with the TFG and the Kenyan air force in an offence against al-Shabaab. The Ras Kamboni Brigades, you will recall, was one of the four militias that comprised Hizbul Islam; its leader was the Islamist warlord Hassan Abdullah Hersi al-Turki. In late 2009, a power-struggle in Somalia’s southern port-town, Kismayo, apparently saw the militia—have we not heard all this before?—bifurcate into Madobe’s ‘moderate’ wing (supportive of the TFG—I wonder why?) and al-Turki’s Islamist wing—now aligned with you-know-who.


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