Somalia's uneasy peace
by Glen Johnson
Abdullahi walked slowly past makeshift stalls in a crowded Mogadishu market,
dragging his right leg. He's in his fifties and unemployed, and relies on
overseas remittances sent by his daughter to survive. In 2007 he was shot by
Somalia's increasingly powerful Islamist militia, al-Shabab (Youth). The
bullet blew a hole through his right leg, just below his groin.
Like many Somalis, Abdullahi is a casualty of the conflict between Somalia's
Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and al-Shabab. He says he supports the
TFG but doesn't know whether it can succeed. "But it has to," he said. "Look
at the roads, look at the rubbish: this is what 20 years of no government
does. We cannot have another 20 years of war."
With renewed violence in October, the uneasy peace that has hung over
Mogadishu since al-Shabab withdrew in early August may be over. Most
analysts explain the withdrawal from the capital city by pointing to rifts
that emerged within the organisation when it attempted to define who it
should be fighting. Should it fight the 'near enemy' or the 'far enemy'?
Should it be national in its focus, or international? Part of the global
jihad or not? Pressure from other militia notably the Sufi-oriented Ahlu
Sunna Wal Jamaa compounded the organisation's problems; so did the drying up
of remittances from the Somali diaspora.
According to William Reno, of Northwestern University in the US, al-Shabab
placed emphasis on ideology at the expense of political pragmatism, and
fought on too many fronts at once. "They've overplayed their ideological
hand and annoyed enough people so that, in the end, the communities they
control are turning against them and starting to look to other people."
Reno, who has extensive experience throughout Africa, thinks that in some
ways al-Shabab has pursued the sensible alternative when trying to figure
out how to unite communities to use religion. "But," he added, "in trying to
articulate a religious idea they are too ideological. So they are
insensitive to the political calculations and compromises they have to
make." (Al-Shabab's ideological persuasion is Takfiri, an ultra-conservative
interpretation in which the killing of apostates forms the core conceptual
basis. Un-Islamic cultural practice is banned and a strict version of sharia
In 2008, for example, a 13-year-old girl, Asho Duhulow, was raped by three
militiamen. She took her case to a Kismayo court administered by al-Shabab
and identified her assailants. The men were released, but Asho was charged
with adultery ( <http://mondediplo.com/2011/11/13somalia#nb1
> 1). She was
taken to a local sports ground, buried up to her neck and stoned to death.
According to reports, al-Shabab militiamen opened fire on people who
attempted to intervene, killing one.
Path to Islamisation
Yet, Somalia does not have a history dominated by Islamic extremism and most
analysts note that al-Shabab's ideology is an odd fit for Somalis. Political
Islam emerged in the 1960s as Muslim Brotherhood ideology spread through the
Horn of Africa and Egypt's al-Azhar University funded religious schools in
In the mid-1970s former president Siad Barre introduced a new family law,
ostensibly promoting gender equality as part of his agenda of "Scientific
Socialism"; this granted women equal rights in the area of inheritance.
Abdurahman M Abdullahi wrote in an essay entitled Women, Islamists and the
Military Regime in Somalia, that the law enraged Somalia's religious leaders
who saw it as a secular assault on Islam at the level of the family. An
Islamist movement began to crystallise.
Saudi Arabian Wahabbism was imported into Somalia in the 1980s, via Saudi
charities. By 1984 al-Ittihad al-Islamiya had emerged as a composite of two
other radical groups. It morphed into a militant group in 1991, but suffered
a series of stinging defeats in the mid-1990s.
The Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) was formed in the early 2000s; its basis
is an ad hoc collection of Islamic courts that had administered justice in
Somalia following the collapse of Siad Barre's regime. By 2006 the UIC was
seriously challenging Mogadishu's warlords and took control of the capital
in June, bringing stability but enforcing a strict form of sharia. The UIC
was unacceptable to both Ethiopia and the United States, for geopolitical
reasons. In December 2006 Ethiopia, acting as a crude proxy for the US,
formally launched strikes against the movement and quickly overwhelmed it.
Al-Shabab, the UIC's youth wing, emerged. Led by Sheikh Aden Hashi Ayro, who
is said to have received training in insurgency tactics and explosives in
Afghanistan in the 1990s, the organisation began waging war against the TFG
and soon controlled much of south and central Somalia (
The view from Bakara market
Some of the people perched behind temporary stalls were from Bakara market,
which was closed by the TFG as it sought to secure Mogadishu after
al-Shabab's withdrawal. One storekeeper said he felt as if he was on
holiday, but did not think the peace would last long. "Shabab was making
problems for the people. It was better they leave us. [But] these people are
from Bakara. By day they come here and sell, at night they fight with the
Others claim al-Shabab cannot regroup, but express concerns about whether
the TFG will act responsibly: the TFG is known to be corrupt and there are
doubts over whether a western-style centralised system of governance is
relevant or can be effective in a clan-based Somalia. But everyone agrees
that further US involvement in the country would shatter the temporary
peace. As Abdullahi put it: "We need help now, but then they [the
international community] should leave."
But recent reports that the US is expanding its capabilities throughout the
Horn of Africa, while unsurprising, do not bode well, and could threaten
Mogadishu's shaky peace, while strengthening al-Shabab's international
It is clear the US is at war in both Yemen and Somalia. How it manages those
wars will determine the damage to the region. Washington's Somalia and Yemen
strategy seems similar to its Pakistan strategy: by targeting leadership
figures normally with drone strikes operational inefficiencies emerge over
time and hinder the ability of jihad networks to carry out attacks. The
networks then fragment as disagreements over how to counter US tactics
emerge, amid an overall environment of rotating leadership, probably
characterised by competition between potential leadership figures. Efficacy
is lowered and the threat becomes localised, rather than global.
But this strategy lacks an end game. As the civilian casualties mount, the
likelihood of ordinary people aligning themselves with the US's targets
increase. And so the US gets stuck in a pointless rut. Expanded US
engagement in Somalia gives al-Shabab's international factions a propaganda
boost and could swing the balance in its favour while healing basic rifts
within the group.
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Received on Sat Nov 05 2011 - 20:14:21 EDT