Al-Shabab and Somalia’s ‘far enemy’

Al-Shabab has withdrawn from Mogadishu, but the country is shattered from years of civil war and US military actions.

Somalis have lived for 20 years without a functioning government and the services it would supply [GALLO/GETTY]

Abdullahi walks slowly past makeshift stalls in a crowded Mogadishu market, dragging his right leg as he does so. He is in his 50s and unemployed, reliant on overseas remittances sent by his daughter to survive. In 2007, he was shot by al-Shabab (Youth movement). 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 does not know whether it can succeed. “But it has to,” he says. “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.”

An uneasy sense of peace has hung over Mogadishu since al-Shabab’s withdrawal from the capital on August 6.

Most analysts explain the withdrawal by pointing to rifts that emerged within the organisation when attempting to articulate who it should be fighting: Should it fight the ‘near enemy’ or the ‘far enemy’ – should it be national or international in its focus, part of the global jihad or not?

Compounding the organisation’s problems was pressure from other armed groups – notably the Sufi-oriented Ahlu Sunna Wal Jamaa – and a drying up of remittances from the Somali diaspora.

Nearby a man organises second-hand clothes into piles, laid out in heaps on the street. Men tinker away at old watches and clocks, while trying to sell parts from cellular phones.

According to William Reno, of Northwestern University, al-Shabab placed emphasis on ideology at the expense of political pragmatism, while fighting on too many fronts at once.

“They’ve overplayed the ideological hand and annoyed enough people so that, in the end, the communities they control turn against them and start to look to other people,” Reno said.

“They’ve overplayed the ideological hand and annoyed enough people so that, in the end, the communities they control turn against them.

– Williem Reno, Northwestern University

Reno, who has extensive experience throughout Africa, thinks that in some ways al-Shabab pursued the sensible alternative when trying to figure out how to unite communities, which was to use religion. “But”, he adds, “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 of scripture in which the killing of apostates or the Kafr (unbeliever) forms the core conceptual basis. Additionally, un-Islamic cultural practice is banned and a strict version of Sharia enforced.

In 2008, for example, Asho Duhulow, a 13-year-old girl, was raped by three armed men. She took her case to a Kismayo court administered by al-Shabab and identified her assailants. The men were released but Asho charged with adultery.

She was taken to a local sports ground, buried up to her neck and stoned to death. According to reports, al-Shabab armed men opened fire on persons who attempted to intervene, killing one.

Everyday jihad?

However, Somalia does not have a history dominated by Islamic extremism.

Political Islam emerged in the 1960s as the Muslim Brotherhood ideology spread through the Horn of Africa, while Egypt’s famous al-Azhar University funded religious schools in Mogadishu.

In the mid-1970s, former President Siyad Barre introduced a new family law, ostensibly promoting gender equality as part of his agenda of ‘Scientific Socialism’ – through granting women equal rights in the area of inheritance.

According to Abdurahman M Abdullahi, in an essay titled Women, Islamists and the Military Regime in Somalia, the law enraged Somalia’s religious leaders who saw it as a secular assault on Islam at the level of the family.

In 1984, al-Ittihad al-Islamiyya emerged as a composite of two other groups and morphed into a armed group in 1991, but suffered a series of stinging defeats in the mid-to-late 1990s.

In the early 2000s, the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) formed – its basis being an ad hoc collection of Islamic courts that had administered justice in Somalia following the collapse of Siyad 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 law.

The UIC was unacceptable to both Ethiopia and the US. 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, the organisation began waging war against the TFG and soon controlled much of south and central Somalia.

A shaky peace

Some of the people perched behind temporary stalls are from Bakara market, which had been closed by the TFG as it sought to secure Mogadishu after al-Shabab’s withdrawal. One storekeeper says he feels like he is on holiday, but does not think the peace will last long.

“Shabab was making problems for the people. It was better they leave us … [but] these people are from Bakara. At day they come here and sell, at night they fight with the government.”

Others claim that al-Shabab cannot regroup, while expressing concerns about whether the TFG will act responsibly – the TFG is notoriously corrupt and there are doubts over whether a western-style centralised system of governance is relevant, or can be effective, in the context of a clan-based Somalia.

“We need help now, but then they [the international community] should leave.

– Abdullahi

Everyone agrees, however, that further US involvement in the country would shatter the temporary peace.

As Abdullahi puts it: “We need help now, but then they [the international community] should leave.”

However, 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 factions.

It is clear that the US is at war in both Yemen and Somalia. How it manages those wars will determine the damage to the region.

The US’ Somalia and Yemen strategy seems similar to its Pakistan strategy: By targeting leadership figures, operational inefficiencies emerge over time and hinder the ability of jihad networks to carry out attacks.

The networks then potentially fragment as disagreements over how to counter 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.

The thing about that is it really lacks an end game.

As the civilian casualties mount – and they do – the likelihood of normal people aligning themselves with America’s targets increase.

And so in the end, expanded US engagement gives al-Shabab’s international factions a propaganda boost and could swing the balance in its favour when healing basic rifts within the group.

Because the proof is there for everyone to see: We should have focused on the ‘far enemy’.

Source : Al Jazeera

More from Features
Most Read