Merger of Islamist Groups Challenges Somali Government’s Pledge to Retake Mogadishu

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 9 Issue: 6

Sheik Hassan Dahir Aweys speaks during a ceremony celebrating the merger of al-Shabaab and Hizb al-Islam in southern Mogadishu's Afgoye district.

Speaking to parliament on November 20, 2010, Somali Prime Minister Muhammad Abdullahi Muhammad vowed to clear the streets of Mogadishu of al-Shabaab fighters during his first 100 days in office if the MPs approved his cabinet. [1]

No less than 92 MPs, including Hawo Abdullahi, Asho Haji Elmi, Abdirahman Afrah, Awad Ahmed, Ali Mohamud Farah and Hared Xasan Ali, immediately described the Prime Minister’s pledge as rhetoric, but Muhammad Abdullah Muhammad said the plan would succeed by giving the Somali army long overdue salary payments. The prime minister, who praised the army for its resilience in defending the country from the internal Islamist enemy, said “the only way to defeat al-Shabaab is to give the troops their salary.” [2]

The new cabinet of 18 members (less than half the size of the previous cabinet) received the endorsement of a majority of the Transitional Federal Government’s parliamentarians a week later, but the prime minister’s plan was complicated by the merger of al-Shabaab and the Hizb al-Islam movement, led by Shaykh Hassan Dahir Aweys. The unification of the two long-feuding movements was announced at a ceremony on November 21, 2010 in the Afghoye district, 30 km south of Mogadishu, making the new formation the only significant militant Islamist group operating in Somalia. [3]

Hizb al-Islam finally decided to join hands with their insurgent rivals after failing to defeat al-Shabaab fighters who had captured most of the territory held by Hizb al-Islam in southern Somalia. The movement’s fighters are now under al-Shabaab commanders after Shaykh Hassan Dahir Aweys was not given a command position in the newly united movement.

A Nairobi-based political analyst suggested the unification was meant to prepare for an expected government offensive and gave al-Shabaab a larger force than that fielded by the Transitional Federal Government (TFG). [4] However, the Somali government said it had prepared 8,000 troops to begin an attack against the “al-Qaeda linked al-Shabaab group.” The prime minister promised that this number would be sufficient to expel Islamist rebels from Mogadishu.

Two months after the approval of the Somali cabinet, the 8,000 government troops were finally paid their salaries and began preparing for attacks against al-Shabaab. This force will eventually include some 1,000 troops who will soon be returning from training in Uganda. Somali Information, Posts and Telecommunications Minister Abdulkareem Jama said the payments had boosted the troops’ morale. [5]

Somali troops fighting one of the most rapidly expanding Islamist groups in the world are rarely paid their monthly dues. The soldiers, who are mostly from poor families, often have wives and children and face a real threat of being shot, blown up or tortured because of their unpaid work. Those who were not paid for long periods include thousands of troops trained with U.S. and EU funds in neighboring countries such as Sudan, Uganda, Ethiopia, Kenya and Djibouti, said former Somali chief-of-staff, Major General Yusuf Hussein Osman, who left the army in 2009. [6] The United States spent $6.8 million to train almost 2,100 Somali soldiers in Djibouti and Uganda in 2009, while the European Union paid €5 million for the training of 2,000 Somali soldiers in Uganda.

The troops’ camps are grisly; they have neither telecommunication nor even military dress in some cases. Some soldiers suffer from malnutrition and the wounded do not receive enough medication. The difficulties of Somali military life lead some of them to routinely sell their arms to the Islamist militias they are supposed to be fighting.

The country’s military was once the fourth most powerful in Africa, behind only South Africa, Egypt and Nigeria.  It collapsed in 1991 after Somali warlords overthrew long-time military dictator Muhammad Si’ad Barre. Since that time, there have been efforts to re-establish a regular armed force by various unsuccessful incarnations of the Somali government. The latest TFG effort to rebuild the national army has focused on recruiting and training new cohorts of soldiers.

Despite this, human rights groups have accused Somali forces of looting civilians in military-controlled areas to cover their needs. Allegations are circulating within Somalia that claim political and military leaders are making huge personal profits from international assistance meant to aid the army. Major General Yusuf Hussein Osman, however, says only the political leaders are lifting military funds. [7] The new cabinet, which has only six months to work before the TFG mandate expires, has promised more efforts to improve the troops’ lives and morale.

Somali Information Minister Abdulkareem Jama says his government is focused on eliminating corruption and has taken measures to prevent embezzlement and properly manage all funds directed for the TFG and its military. The minister said the government has the military’s salaries for the next six months in hand and the troops will now be paid on a regular basis. According to Jama, 4,000 troops will be added to the army in the next few months and the resulting 12,000 man force will begin to establish stability in Mogadishu. The information minister seemed optimistic about achieving the goal of eradicating al-Shabaab from Mogadishu due to the weakened state of the Islamist militia that resulted from their constant internal disagreements and a lack of popular support as civilians continue to flee to TFG-held territories from those areas held by al-Shabaab. According to Jama, government soldiers and African Union peacekeepers now control 50% of the capital of Mogadishu. [8]

A senior military official who sought anonymity said that although the regular payments will give the army self-confidence, it will not be easy to wipe out al-Shabaab in 100 days. The officer claimed that a government offensive would succeed in occupying areas currently held by the Islamists, but that would not be the end of al-Shabaab: “They will last for many years.”

Somali Prime Minister Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed told reporters in New York on January 15 that a recent poll in Mogadishu indicated 80% support for the government and just 7% for opposition groups, though he did not indicate who had carried out the poll. Despite the considerable obstacles to a quick military victory, the prime minister told state-owned radio on February 4 that there was no change to his 100-day plan, assuring listeners that al-Shabaab would be driven out of Mogadishu soon (Radio Mogadishu, February 4).


1. Speech by Muhammad Abdullahi Muhammad at the parliamentary center, Mogadishu, November 20, 2010.
2. MP Abdirahman Afrah talked to local radio stations on November 21, 2010, Mogadishu.
MP Hared Hassan Ali spoke to the Jamestown Foundation on January 20 in Nairobi, Kenya.
MP Ali Mohamoud Farah talked to local radio stations on January 13  in Mogadishu.
MPs Asho Hajji Elmi and Awad Ahmed spoke at a January 10 press conference in Mogadishu.
MP Hawo Abdullahi spoke at a January 13 press conference in Mogadishu.
3. See Andrew McGregor, “A Jihadi in the Horn of Africa: Al-Shabaab’s Ahmad Abdi Godane ‘Abu Zubayr,’” Militant Leadership Monitor, January 2011.
4. Interview with a political analyst who requested anonymity, January 25, Nairobi, Kenya.
5. Interview with Somali Information, Posts and Telecommunications Minister Abdulkareem Jama, January 14, 2011, Nairobi, Kenya.
6. Interview with former Somali Chief-of-Staff, Major General Yusuf Hussein Osman, December 11, 2010, Nairobi, Kenya.
7. Ibid.
8. Interview with Somali Information, Posts and Telecommunications Minister Abdulkareem Jama, January 14, 2011, Nairobi, Kenya.