Violence in Somalia has spiraled in recent weeks to levels surprising even to Mogadishu’s war-weary residents, with almost daily bombings, mortar attacks or street fighting. Islamist insurgents as well as clan-based militias are increasing attacks, targeting Ethiopian troops sent to support the feeble Somali Transitional Federal Government (TFG). Ethiopian forces have been battling Islamist fighters and militia since the beginning of the year when they backed Somali interim government soldiers to oust the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) from the capital and from south and central Somalia. Yet, fighters say the battle lines are changing. The civil war has shifted into a “liberation war” against Ethiopia, according to opposition forces such as Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, who spoke with this author on August 26.
Inter-clan violence is re-focusing itself toward a common Ethiopian threat, whose heavy-handed retaliatory responses have served to only further inflame the situation. The formation of the Islamist-led Alliance for the Re-Liberation of Somalia (ARS), dedicated to driving Ethiopia out of Somalia by force, is expected to increase unity. Created September 12 following a conference of 350 opposition leaders in the Eritrean capital Asmara, ARS leaders claim “streams of young men” are gathering across Somalia to unite against Ethiopian forces (Agence France-Presse, September 10). According to the Eritrean Ministry of Information, insurgents say that the very visible presence of Ethiopian troops on Mogadishu’s streets is bringing angry fighters closer together against a common target, blurring divisions between once warring factions, with former senior TFG members such as sacked deputy prime minister Hussein Aideed vowing support.
The inclusion of non-Islamists is seen as a key element in boosting the fight, especially to garner cash backing from more moderate Somali diaspora supporters. Delegates debated hard to write out “jihad” from the organization’s aims, choosing instead for the more inclusive “liberation war.” Leaders say they want to create an opposition movement to win international support. Yet, the appearance at the conference of Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys has made critics suggest such rhetoric is merely window dressing to conceal the resurgence of a harder militant Islamic battle. Aweys, head of the ICU’s Shura Council, is accused by both the U.S. and the UN for links to al-Qaeda and had been in hiding since Ethiopia moved into Somalia last December.
At the same time, Arabic broadcaster al-Jazeera on September 13 aired footage from southern Somalia of foreign fighters at a training camp, along with Hassan Abdullah al-Turki, a leading Islamist military commander also accused by the U.S. for links to al-Qaeda. It suggests that within the wide umbrella of alliance forces, foreign fighters will find roles to back the military core of Islamist fighters. Islamist leader and ARS chairman Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed angrily dismissed the report, flatly rejecting any suggestion that the movement is linked to al-Qaeda, and casting the fight as a question of Somali national sovereignty against an illegal occupation by foreign forces (Garowe Online, September 16).
Yet, critics also say the alliance is simply a matter of focusing forces on one target, and that divisions within the alliance remain as deep and as strong—and will resurface when or if Ethiopian forces pull out. Divisions were apparent as soon as the alliance formed, with bickering Islamists and former lawmakers jockeying for remaining leadership positions. On the ground, forces remain disparate and old rivalries and hatreds continue. Ethiopia is providing a common target to focus the fight, but is also helping to drive fighters from varied backgrounds under a dominant Islamist influence. If Ethiopia pulls out of Somalia, the result may not be in inclusive unity, but forces gathered under an Islamist control that is stronger than before.