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Report 100 / Africa

Somalia’s Islamists

Somalia’s long civil conflict and lack of central governing institutions present an international security challenge. Terrorists have taken advantage of the state’s collapse to attack neighbouring countries and transit agents and materiel.

Executive Summary

Somalia’s long civil conflict and lack of central governing institutions present an international security challenge. Terrorists have taken advantage of the state’s collapse to attack neighbouring countries and transit agents and materiel. The country is a refuge for the al-Qaeda team that bombed a Kenyan resort in 2002 and tried to down an Israeli aircraft. Since 2003, Islamist extremists have been linked to murders of Somalis and foreigners. If governments are to counter the limited but real threat of terrorism in or from Somalia, they need to align closer with Somali priorities – the restoration of peace, legitimate and broad-based government, and essential services – and make clear that their counter-terrorism efforts are aimed at a small number of criminals, many of them foreigners, not the Somali population at large.

Somalis in general show little interest in jihadi Islamism; most are deeply opposed. Somali militant movements have failed to gain broad popular support, encountering instead widespread hostility. The most remarkable feature is that Islamist militancy has not become more firmly rooted in what should, by most conventional assessments, be fertile ground.

Nevertheless, since the collapse of the government in 1991, a variety of Islamist reformist movements have sprung up inside the country – some inspired or sponsored by foreign interests. The vast majority are non-violent and opposed to ideological extremism. The largest groups, notably Jama’at al-Tabligh and the Salafiyya Jadiida, practise missionary activism aimed at steering lax Muslims back towards the true path of their faith. A much smaller proportion, including Harakaat al-Islah and Majma’ ‘Ulimadda Islaamka ee Soomaaliya, are politically active but not extremist, struggling rather to influence the future of the Somali state and its political system. By far the smallest reformist groups are those composed of jihadis, such as the now-defunct al-Itihaad al-Islaami and the new, nameless one fronted by Aden Hashi ‘Ayro.

Other, ostensibly Islamist entities have more complex origins and agendas. The Shari’a (Islamic law) courts that have sprung up across southern Somalia over the past decade began as essentially clan-based institutions intended to restore security and order in a stateless society. Attempts to unify and coordinate the court system, however, have been in large part politically motivated, and some courts have been hijacked by jihadi leaders. This kind of cooperation, combined with independent sources of funding, has allowed some courts to exercise greater independence from their clans, and since early 2005, the Shari’a court system in Mogadishu has been pursuing an aggressive political and social agenda.

The growth of courts, charities and businesses with an apparently Islamist character has sparked fears in some circles of a conspiracy to transform Somalia into an Islamic state. In reality, the Islamist activists are a diverse community, characterised more by competition and contradiction than cooperation, making a broad-based conspiracy implausible.

Islamist extremism has failed to take a broader hold in Somalia because of Somali resistance – not foreign counter-terrorism efforts. The vast majority of Somalis desire a government – democratic, broadly-based and responsive – that reflects the Islamic faith as they have practised it for centuries: with tolerance, moderation and respect for variation in religious observance. Ultimately, there is no better way to confront jihadism than to assist Somalis in realising such a government.

That is, of course, more easily said than done. Repeated attempts over the past fifteen years to rebuild the Somali state have ended in failure, and the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) formed in October 2004 seems determined to repeat past mistakes. Somalia’s international partners must resist the temptation to back one faction of the divided TFG and struggle instead to breathe life into the transitional federal charter, revive the defunct parliament and establish a broadly inclusive government of national unity. Unless they are prepared to take up this complex challenge, they may continue to score victories in their battles against terrorism in the Horn while losing the wider war.

Nairobi/Brussels, 12 December 2005

Special Coverage / Africa

CrisisWatch Digest Somalia

The CrisisWatch Digest Somalia offers a monthly one-page snapshot of conflict-related country trends in a clear, accessible format, using a map of the region to pinpoint developments.

CrisisWatch Digest - October

What happened? Progress toward indirect elections inched forward as the power struggle between President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed “Farmajo” and Prime Minister Mohamed Hussein Roble quietened. The Ahlu Sunnah Wal Jama’a (ASWJ) militia re-emerged, capturing towns in Somalia’s centre, and Al-Shabaab violence continued.

Why does it matter? Although tensions between the country’s top two political leaders eased, the slow-moving electoral cycle continues to suffer from myriad political and technical issues that create delays while armed actors like Al-Shabaab seek to benefit from the public’s frustration.

Download the Somalia CrisisWatch Digest - October here.

CrisisWatch Digest Somalia Archive

September 2021 CrisisWatch Digest on Somalia is available here.