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Defuse tensions in key Somali region
Defuse tensions in key Somali region
Briefing 74 / Africa

Somalia’s Divided Islamists

Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG) must engage dissidents among the country’s insurgent groups in order to strengthen its authority and combat al-Qaeda inspired extremists.

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Overview

The growing internal schisms and factionalism within Somalia’s Islamist movement risk plunging the country even deeper into violence and bloodshed, with dangerous implications for the wider region and beyond. These divisions are also aggravating the political crisis by polarising groups further along ideological, theological and clan lines. However, a limited opportunity may now exist for Somalia’s political actors and the international community to capitalise on these divisions and re-alignments to reach out to the increasing numbers of domestic militants disenchanted with the growing influence of foreign jihadis and extremist elements bent on pursuing a global agenda.

The divisions have always existed, but remained hidden, largely because of the unifying factor of Ethiopia’s in-country military presence since December 2006. The Ethiopian pullout in early 2009; the formation of a coalition government led by a prominent Islamist, Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed; and the adoption of Sharia (Islamic law) caught hard-line insurgents and groups, especially Harakat Al-Shabaab al-Mujahedeen (Al-Shabaab, Mujahidin Youth Movement), off guard. Thereafter, they had to justify their existence and continued armed opposition to the Sharif government. Personality and policy frictions escalated within the movement, and the gulf widened between those amenable to some form of a political settlement and those wedded to al-Qaeda inspired notions of a permanent global jihad.

The failure of the major offensive by a combined Al-Shabaab and Hizb al-Islam (Islamic Party) force against the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) in May 2009, attributable, in large measure, to the decision by the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) to mount a robust defence of the government, catalysed internal dissent and fragmentation. The insurgents’ mistakes were their failure to anticipate AMISOM’s reaction and, more crucially, their misjudgement of the international community’s resolve to come to the TFG’s defence. The rise and military gains of a TFG ally, Ahlu Sunnah Wal Jama’a (ASWJ, the Followers of the Prophetic Way and Consensus), composed of groups opposed to Al-Shabaab’s fundamentalism, have put significant pressure on the hard-line insurgency.

Although Al-Shabaab has regained Kismaayo and key towns and villages in the south by routing its rival (and erstwhile ally) Hizb al-Islam, it is now on the defensive and feels beleaguered. The movement is forced to fight on many fronts and to disperse its assets and combatants through broad swathes of hostile territory, far from its Jubba and Shabeelle strongholds in the south. But unless TFG forces perform significantly better, the balance of power will not be much altered.

Al-Shabaab’s military troubles have been compounded by the steady erosion of its popularity and credibility. The attempt to forcefully homogenise Islam and zealously enforce a harsh interpretation of Sharia, as well as the general climate of fear and claustrophobia fostered by an authoritarian administrative style, has deeply alienated large segments of society, even in areas once regarded as solid insurgent territory. Adding to the public disquiet has been the movement’s increasing radicalisation and the internal coup that has consolidated the influence of extremists allied to foreign jihadis. The suicide bomb attack in Mogadishu in December 2009, in which over two dozen civilians and officials were killed, caused an unprecedented public backlash. The widely-held perception that it was ordered by foreign jihadis prompted high-level defections and seriously undermined Al-Shabaab’s standing. Many feel it has irreparably harmed the movement’s political prospects.

However, Al-Shabaab and Hizb al-Islam are far from spent forces. They continue to radicalise Somalis at home, in the region and in the diaspora and remain a threat to the TFG and neighbouring states. Concern especially for their links to al-Qaeda extends to the U.S. and other leading Western states. Consequently, the TFG and its international partners should:

- pay more attention to, and try to counter-act, the increasingly extremist ideological evolution of the Islamist movement;

- step up the battle for the hearts and minds of the Somali people, including by articulating an argument that the radicalisation is largely driven by a unique set of beliefs that are alien to Somalis and an extremist and literal interpretation of holy texts; and by presenting a strategy to de-radicalise Somalia’s youth; and

- place much greater emphasis on reconciliation. The TFG should exploit divisions within Al-Shabaab and Hizb al-Islam by reaching out to less extreme elements in both organizations. Bans of those organisations or their designation as terrorist should not preclude efforts to talk with and reach understandings with individuals and factions amenable to political settlement; the international community should insist the TFG do more in this endeavour.

Nairobi/Brussels, 18 May 2010

Op-Ed / Africa

Defuse tensions in key Somali region

Originally published in Daily Nation

Only a border post and a few hundred metres of dirt road stand between Mandera in northernmost Kenya and the town of Beled Hawo, in Somalia’s Gedo region, where clashes erupted on March 2 between forces loyal to the Somali federal government and those answering to the Jubaland administration. It claimed six civilian lives and displaced 56,000 people.

This latest violence in Gedo, which was preceded by other skirmishes in February, is yet another manifestation of the centre-periphery tensions that have plagued Somali politics for more than a decade.

It was the worst incident yet in an ongoing dispute between Mogadishu and Jubaland triggered by an August 2019 regional vote that saw Ahmed Mohamed Islam “Madobe” win a second term as Jubaland president. The federal government argues the election was flawed.

Kenya and Ethiopia, both lying a stone’s throw from Beled Hawo, are not passive observers: Nairobi supports Madobe while Addis Ababa backs the federal government of Somali President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed “Farmajo”. Ethiopian and Kenyan troops, who are in Jubaland as part of the African Union mission (Amisom) fighting Al-Shabaab’s Islamist insurgency, have thus far not been drawn in.

Layer of Complexity

Still, the two regional powerhouses’ involvement adds another layer of complexity to the Gedo tensions and could set off a wider regional crisis.

The Gedo violence and rift between Nairobi and Addis Ababa harm both Kenya’s and Ethiopia’s interests.

The infighting undermines the main goal of their presence in Somalia: tackling Al-Shabaab’s long-running insurgency that threatens regional security.

Kenya, in particular, has an interest in fostering stability in Gedo given how instability in Jubaland spills over into northern Kenya. As Crisis Group details in a recent briefing, Nairobi and Addis Ababa should act quickly to resolve the dispute.

Kenya has long seen Jubaland as a buffer protecting it from increased incursions from Al-Shabaab.

The Gedo violence and rift between Nairobi and Addis Ababa harm both Kenya’s and Ethiopia’s interests.

Porous Buffer

In reality, that buffer has proven porous; for years militants have mounted attacks and put down roots in northern Kenya. Still, Madobe remains Nairobi’s partner of choice, especially as relations with Mogadishu nosedived following renewed disagreement in 2019 over the maritime border.

For Ethiopia, however, Farmajo is an ally. Since Abiy Ahmed assumed Ethiopia’s premiership in April 2018, Addis Ababa has moved from supporting Jubaland to tightening relations with the Somali government, believing that a stronger central administration can better help stabilise the country.

Both Nairobi and Addis Ababa are keen to avoid direct fighting between their forces.

Still, their discord came uncomfortably close to blows on 22 August 2019, the day of the Jubaland election, when a plane carrying Ethiopian forces attempted to land at the airport in Kismayo, the Jubaland capital, but was prevented from doing so by Jubaland and Kenyan troops.

The unambiguous beneficiary is Al-Shabaab. With forces from both sides pinned down facing each other and unlikely to commit to counter-insurgency efforts for fear of weakening their positions, the militants are finding more space to operate. Gedo residents already report an increased Al Shabaab presence and an uptick in attacks.

Pro-Jubaland Forces in Mandera

The standoff is especially detrimental to Nairobi’s “buffer” strategy, which suffers from the fact that attention is distracted from fighting Al-Shabaab. The conflict spills over in other ways too; Mandera governor Ali Roba openly complains that the presence of pro-Jubaland forces in his county is destabilising.

As for Amisom, its effectiveness is further eroded by the tensions between Ethiopia and Kenya, two of its largest troop contributors.

Ending the tensions in the Gedo region entails solving rifts at several levels. For now, the priority is for Kenya and Ethiopia to reconcile, thus opening space to address local dynamics.

After Beled Hawo, Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia rightly scheduled a tripartite summit on 16 March. The meeting between Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, Abiy Ahmed and Farmajo was, however, postponed indefinitely because of the Covid-19 pandemic. They should resurrect it.

Nairobi and Addis Ababa should urge Madobe and Farmajo to embrace dialogue and make difficult compromises. Mogadishu might, for example, recognise Madobe’s full term in office in return for Madobe pledging to cooperate with Farmajo.

Otherwise, the political infighting will continue playing into Al-Shabaab’s hands, helping it to entrench itself on Kenya’s doorstep.