Emerging Cracks in Somalia’s Islamist Insurgency

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 5 Issue: 24

Somali soldiers sit atop a pickup truck

Serious cracks have emerged in the alliance of Somali Islamists who have been waging a holy war against Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG) since 2006. In Djibouti, some Islamists regarded as moderates and led by Shaykh Sherif Shaykh Ahmad, chairman of the Alliance for the Re-liberation of Somalia (ARS), signed a truce with the TFG on June 9 with the backing of influential clan leaders. The agreement becomes effective 30 days after signing and can be renewed after an initial 90 days. A UN-chaired Joint Security Committee will oversee the implementation of the truce (AFP, June 9).

Some analysts say the deal signed by Shaykh Ahmad, who headed the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) before its ouster by a combined force of Ethiopian army and TFG soldiers in 2006, will do little to bring peace in the troubled country. The agreement calls for the deployment of United Nations peacekeepers to Somalia—excluding troops from neighboring states—120 days after the truce begins. Ethiopian troops will “withdraw its troops from Somalia after the deployment of a sufficient number of UN Forces” (Shabelle Media Network, June 13). It may prove difficult to have all parties agree to what constitutes a “sufficient number of UN forces.”

In the Eritrean capital of Asmara, Islamists viewed as hardliners challenged the accord. These forces are led by Shaykh Hassan Dahir Aweys, who is designated as a terrorist by the U.S. government for suspected links to Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda network. Aweys said the UN-brokered Djibouti truce agreement was aimed at derailing jihad in Somalia, stressing the insurgency would continue until Somalia is liberated from the enemies of Allah (Hiraan Online, June 10; Daily Nation [Kenya], June 11).

In the middle of the ARS conflict, the militant Islamist youth movement, al-Shabaab, is taking orders neither from Shaykh Ahmad nor Shaykh Aweys and is continuing its insurgency against the TFG. Al-Shabaab’s new leader, Shaykh Hassan Abdullah Hersi al-Turki—another terrorist suspect wanted by the United States—rebuffed the accord while urging his fighters to intensify the war. Sources say the group is treating ARS divisions as a private matter separate from their insurgency (Mareeg.com, May 30).

In rejecting the accord, Shaykh Hersi al-Turki was choosing to strengthen the insurgency. Al-Shabaab’s rejection was followed by the killing of five policemen and one civilian in an attack on Mogadishu (Reuters, June 11). Al-Turki and Aweys have both encouraged insurgents to continue attacks on the transitional government and its Ethiopian military allies (Somali Net, June 11).

Since the killing of al-Shabaab leader Shaykh Aden Hashi Ayro by a U.S. air strike in April, the insurgents have intensified attacks on Ethiopian and TFG bases. Less than a week into the agreement, bloodshed continues unabated in Mogadishu. Five civilians were killed in the shelling of an airport in a June 12 attack that came minutes after TFG President Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmad had taken off to Djibouti (al-Jazeera, June 12). A further five civilians were killed in Mogadishu the next day.

Al-Shabaab and the ARS leaders agree that the most urgent issue at hand is to liberate Somalia, but the former is said to be unhappy with the moderates in the ARS, who they accuse of disregarding their stand on rejecting peace talks until Ethiopian troops are withdrawn (Mareeg.com, May 30).

After their defeat at the hands of Ethiopia and the TFG army, many ICU leaders fled to Asmara, where they formed ARS as part of a new strategy. This, however, alienated them from al-Shabaab, which believes only jihad can drive away the Ethiopians.

Al-Shabaab is keen to sustain jihad and apply it to drive out the Ethiopian army, which they believe is fighting a proxy war funded by the United States. The fighters believe they are adopting jihad as a self defense mechanism, but the moderates do not speak of jihad but rather of “liberation,” which involves talking and negotiating with Ethiopia.

In Asmara, reports say the divisions within the ARS have turned into open conflict with the Shaykh Aweys faction seeking to remove Shaykh Ahmad from the group’s leadership.

Aweys supporters say they are acting because Ahmad agreed to participate in UN efforts to initiate peace talks with Somalia’s Ethiopian-backed interim government. The hardliners in the ARS insist that Ethiopia must withdraw its forces before peace talks can begin (Mareeg.com, May 30).

Some leaders believe the moderates can influence al-Shabaab to stop fighting. A source who spoke to this writer, but did not wish to be named, said the moderates believed the United States is the country that could end the Somalia conflict—the problem is that most American support was going to Ethiopia instead of the TFG.

Shaykh Aweys and Shaykh Ahmad are not known to be friends. When the ICU was still active in southern and central Somalia, the two were known to have had an uneasy relationship. Nevertheless, when the ICU was ousted from Somalia, the two fled together to Eritrea, where they established an opposition movement which eventually became known as the ARS. From the Eritrean capital of Asmara, the ARS led a bloody anti-Ethiopian and anti-government insurgency until these recent cracks in the alliance began to emerge.

Shaykh Ahmad is now believed to have moved with other moderates to Djibouti, while Shaykh Aweys remains in Eritrea. This suggests the emergence of a new pair of rival alliances: One between Eritrea and Aweys and another between Shaykh Ahmad, Ethiopia, Djibouti and possibly the United States.