31 Jul 2009
Somalia’s New Religious War
The nature of the intractable civil war in Somalia is undergoing a change, with Sufi groups taking up arms against Al-Shabaab, adding an ideological, sectarian dynamic to the conflict, Georg-Sebastian Holzer writes for ISN Security Watch.
By Georg-Sebastian Holzer for ISN
For the first time ever, Sufi groups under attack are taking up arms and are effectively fighting Al-Shabaab with popular support on the rural plains of central Somalia. This new axis of conflict, where Islamist fighters are battling one another along religious lines, has the potential of changing the conflict dynamics in the long run.
Somalis are generally moderate Sufi Muslims, embracing music, dancing and mediation. They do not share the strict, Saudi-inspired Wahhabi interpretation of Islam of the hard-line Al-Shabaab group.
Over the last two decades of civil war, characterized by a lack of central government, Sufi leaders had managed to steer clear of clan and political wars, but this pragmatic and moderate approach came to an end when Al-Shabaab fighters began desecrating their religious shrines in the south of the country late last year.
An impressive example is Al-Shabaab’s policy in the port city of Kismayo. The group not only tore down an abandoned 60-year-old Roman Catholic Church to replace it with a mosque, but they targeted Sufi sites, among them ancient graves of cleric sand other prominent Sufis – sites Al-Shabaab deemed un-Islamic. These attacks hit hard at local religious sentiments.
As moderate Sufi scholars increasingly felt discriminated against and targeted for ascriptive reasons, they found themselves engulfed in what they perceived as a religious, zero-sum identity conflict. Hence, they decided to take up arms and thereby changed the dynamics of the Somali conflict.
Rashid Abdi, a Somalia analyst at the International Crisis Group (ICG) in Nairobi, tells ISN Security Watch that this development comprises a “terra incognita [as] we are now seeing contours of an ideological, sectarian war for the first time” in Somalia.
A clear, but limited challenge
On 7 May, Al-Shabaab fighters were able to launch an attack on the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) in the capital Mogadishu only a few blocks away from Villa Somalia, the presidential palace. However, this is only part of the story, as in a fragmented country like Somalia political developments often vary drastically from region to region.
Ahlu Sunnah Wal Jama’a, a well-organized Sufi resistance group, is militarily active only in the central Somali region of Galgaduud. In January, the group openly engaged Al-Shabaab militias in intense fighting, reportedly killing at least 35 people and injuring more than 60 others in Dhusamareeb. Subsequently, Ahlu Sunnah Wal Jama’a succeeded in driving Al-Shabaab insurgents out of several towns of the region. In their place, the Sufi movement has established its own incipient local administration, liaising with UN officials and patrolling the locality. Grassroots support and local clan-backing has allowed this new movement to transform rapidly from a civil to a military force.
Roland Marchal, a senior research fellow at the National Center of Scientific Research in Paris, tells ISN Security Watch that Ahlu Sunnah Wal Jama’a “represents clearly a challenge to Al-Shabaab but eventually also the TFG. [However,] it is limited at this stage.”
It appears that the accomplishments of Ahlu Sunnah Wal Jama’a imply two realities.
First, the severe Wahhabi governing methods of Al-Shabaab, which echo those on view in Pakistan’s Swat Valley and include stonings and amputations, elicit little local support. In fact, the same could be observed of all radical Islamic groups in Somalia since the 1990s.
Today, popular resistance to the insurgency is reported more frequently and conducted more openly. For example, on 26 March, hundreds of demonstrators took to the streets in protest against a ban on the sale of the narcotic khat. In reaction, Al-Shabaab further intensified its strategy of coercion and intimidation of the Somali population by carefully selected assassinations and arrests of clan elders, several of whom have been murdered. In the latest high profile assassination, Omar Hashi Aden, the Minister of National Security, was killed along with 30 other people in a large-scale suicide car bomb in Beletwyne on 19 June, which led to a strong condemnation by a broad cross-section of Somali society.
Second, the wide territorial dominance of the jihadists is perhaps more a function of the lack of any countervailing force than an indicator of any innate strength. Actually, the movement should be weakened considerably, since two of its political pillars have been removed by the withdrawal of Ethiopian troops and the introduction of Sharia law by the new government.
According to Roland Marchal, “Al-Shabaab is benefiting first of all [from] the weaknesses of the other groups. The TFG is highly dysfunctional for political reasons which the UN and the West do not want to assess, as this would need a change of strategy (if there exists any today). […] Al-Shabaab may not be so powerful militarily speaking, but it is the smartest to keep the warfare in conditions that are suitable for its low membership and its lack of popular support.”
Asked by ISN Security Watch if outside actors to the conflict see the Sufi awakening as an opportunity to counterbalance Al-Shabaab, Marchal says that indeed “there seems to be a growing trend among western countries to narrow gaps and make sure that gains in Galgaduud may consolidate and provide the TFG supporters with hope which they need today.”
However, he says, this would be a serious cause for concern if Ethiopia and the US wanted to help Ahlu Sunnah Wal Jama’a, as this may provoke also new problems: “[on the one hand] between this group and the TFG, as their relations are already poor; [on the other hand] between this group and the Somali people as [western] support may undermine their legitimacy.”
In any case, the TFG already is already attempting to take matters into their own hands. On 21 June it signed an agreement with Ahlu Sunnah Wal Jama’a in which they agreed to cooperate in the political, security, humanitarian and development areas. At the same time, the TFG appointed a former official of the Hizbul Islam insurgent group, which fights alongside Al-Shabaab, Sheikh Yusuf Mohamed Siad Inda’ade, as state defense minister.
For now however, none of these attempts and changes in the dynamics of Somalia’s civil war has been able to fundamentally change the current stalemate between the TFG and the insurgent groups, prolonging the ongoing war.
Georg-Sebastian Holzer is an analyst and free-lance journalist. He focuses in particular on conflict dynamics in the wider Horn of Africa.
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