Understanding Somali Islamism

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 10

The security situation in Somalia flared up dramatically in the past few weeks, following a number of acts of provocation between Mogadishu’s newly-formed coalition of warlords, dubbed the Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism, and gunmen allied to the Islamic Courts Union. As these provocations escalated into fierce clashes, hundreds of people have been wounded and some 120 people killed. There is widespread concern that Somalia is rapidly becoming a new proxy battleground between Washington—the warlords’ alleged supporter and benefactor—and what the UN Security Council describes as “Islamic extremists.” The United Nations has warned of the rising influence of Islamic radicals as a “third force” in the country, competing with the transitional government and an alliance of warlord groups that constantly violate the current arms embargo and enrich themselves from selling fishing licenses and exporting charcoal. Rumors abound that the fear of a rising and formidable Islamist threat has pushed Washington to side with the warlords, who have portrayed themselves as capable of defeating the Islamists and their alleged foreign al-Qaeda members.

The challenges ahead are formidable and the threat of jihadi Islamism is real (Terrorism Monitor, January 12). Jihadi Islamism in Somalia has a history and a character of its own. Attempts to lump all Islamic movements in Somalia together as an inherently violent monolith are reductive and fail to take account of the diversity of Islamist movements. There are major differences between Islamists like Jama’at al-Tabligh and the Salafiyya Jadiida, whose motives are non-political and missionary in character, and those that have religious political motives like Harakaat al-Islah and Majma’ ‘Ulimadda Islaamka ee Soomaaliya, whose goal is either the adoption of a Sharia-based system of government or the application of a certain interpretation of Islam within a modern, democratic framework of government. The third group of Islamists in Somalia are Salafi-Jihadists like al-Itihaad al-Islaami and the new al-Qaeda-linked jihadi network of terror led by Aden Hashi ‘Ayro, a protégé of Sheikh Hassan Aweys, the once notorious leader of al-Itihaad’s military wing. Somali Islamism is thus composed of three distinct types of activism: political, missionary and jihadi.

Rise of Somali Islamism

Somali Islamism can be traced to a common source, the Waxda al-Shabaab al-Islaami and the Jama’at al-Ahl al-Islaami (also known as the al-Ahli group). These Muslim Brotherhood-inspired groups developed in the 1960s and strove to be key players in liaising with the state and the setting of its mixed ideological agenda [1]. The rise to power of Mohamed Siad Barre in 1969, however, deprived the Islamists of their status. Al-Ahli was forced to disband and al-Wahdat and other Islamist groups went underground or fled to the oil-rich states of the Gulf to join the Somali diaspora.

By the 1980s, the Somali Islamist movement had grown considerably. Nevertheless, it was the ouster of the Barre dictatorship that gave a major boost to Islamic associations and organizations. This growth has been less linear and more of a hybrid product of multiple intellectual traditions. Artificial constructs of Somali Islamism as a linear descendant of one particular intellectual tradition ignore the internal and historical variations of the Islamic movement in Somalia. Even when looking at political Islam and not the religion, the differences between Islamists in religious views, political conceptions and social orientations should not be overshadowed by lumping all Islamic movements together as an organizing principle in the war on terrorism.

I. Political Islamism

A. Harakat al-Islah

Harakat al-Islah originated in the late 1970s as a loose network of affiliated underground groups [2]. Today, al-Islah publicly professes its commitment to the basic tenets of democracy and cultural pluralism. Its stated commitment to this philosophy of inclusion is enshrined in the organization’s social make-up and mode of action. The organization’s forward-looking views on religion and politics and attempts to reconcile the tenets of Islam with the modern notions of democracy are apparent in its internal structure, where members of its “High Council” are elected by the Majlis al-Shura for a maximum of two terms. Al-Islah’s leading members include the organization’s chairman, Dr. Ali Sheikh, president of Mogadishu University [3]. Prior to the demise of the Barre regime, the organization operated as a clandestine integrated structure of clusters under the leadership of Sheikh Mohamed Garyare, Dr. Ali Sheikh and Dr. Ibrahim Dusuqi.

With the overthrow of the Barre dictatorship and hence the elimination of the organization’s main enemy, al-Islah came out of the shadows and was operated exclusively for the promotion of social and humanitarian activities. Al-Islah members play prominent roles in the state’s educational apparatuses. Their domination of Mogadishu University and other educational institutions like the Formal Private Education Network in Somalia (FPENS) has prompted fears that the organization is laying the groundwork for the gradual Islamization of society by using education as a tool to propagate its worldview and recruit cadres [4].

Al-Islah has always been suspected by Somali and foreign security services of involvement in radicalism and association with al-Itihaad. There is much evidence, however, of a power struggle between and within al-Islah and al-Itihaad’s competing ideological authorities about the relationship between religion and politics. There are also ideological differences and strong divergences on strategies, tactics and religious interpretations. Al-Islah’s leaders, for example, condemn violence and takfir (declaring as an infidel) as un-Islamic and counterproductive. They have long called for building a shared future that transcends the extremism and bigotry embodied in al-Itihaad’s and Takfir wal-Hijra’s Salafi-Jihadist ideology [5].

B. Ahlu Sunna wal Jama’a

Ahlu Sunna wal Jama’a (ASWJ) is another modern Islamist group created in 1991 as an offshoot from Majma’ to counter the influence of the most radical Islamist trends. The movement brings together politically motivated sheikhs whose primary goal is to unify the Sufi community under one unified leadership capable of consolidating the powers of the three primary Sufi Tariqas—the Qadiriyya, Salihiyya and Ahmadiyya—into one front whose sole mission is the rejuvenation of the “traditionalist” interpretation of Islam and the de-legitimization of the beliefs and political views of al-Ittihad and other radical Islamic movements.

C. Majma’ ‘Ulimadda Islaamka ee Soomaaliya

Majma’ ‘Ulimadda Islaamka ee represents, as its name denotes, an assembly of Islamic scholars who follow the Shafi’i madhhab and whose main goal is the establishment of a Sharia-based government. The organization has been led by Sheikh Ahmed Abdi Dhi’isow since the death of its founding chairman, Sheikh Mohamed Ma’alim Hassan, in 2001 [6].

There are differences of views among Majma’ ‘Ulimadda Islaamka ee, Ahlu Sunna wal Jama’a and Harakat al-Islah about the nature of the state, but a general consensus seems to have developed among the different factions about the need to apply a certain interpretation of Islam within a modern framework of government.

II. Missionary Islamism

Missionary Islamists largely eschew political activism—even if their brand of activism has some political objectives and implications. The movement is represented by Salafiyya Jadiida (the new Salafis) and the most structured movement in Somalia, Jama’at al-Tabligh.

A. Salafiyya Jadiida

The Salafiyya Jadiida current is best exemplified by Sheikh Ali Wajis, an example of a prominent Salafi ideologue who has gone from supporting and briefly leading al-Itihaad to opposing its violent dogmatic theology. Wajis’ qualified repudiation of the irrational jihadi ideology of Salafi-Jihadists and his re-examination of its theoretical position in light of a rational reassessment of Islamic rules of warfare and the prevailing realities on the ground exemplify the fractures rocking the jihadi and Islamist movements. It is also an encouraging sign of the debate occurring within the new Salafis and Salafi-Jihadist circles about the need for contextualized understanding of the issues of jihad and political violence.

B. Jama’at al-Tabligh

The Tabligh movement, launched in India in 1926 by the Jama’at al-Da’wa wal-Tabligh (Group for Preaching and Propagation), as an apolitical, quietist movement constitutes the largest group of religious proselytizers in Somalia. Tablighi missionaries’ aggressive and dedicated peaceful and apolitical preaching tactics are part of the reason for the explosive growth of Tablighi sympathizers and supporters. This notable success in recruitment and significant increase in membership left the movement wide open to infiltration and manipulation by radical groups. Out of the 500 to 700 foreign sheikhs present in Somalia, many are from the Arab world but they also come from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Chechnya and other countries [7]. Given the size and heterogeneity of the movement, its infiltration by jihadi elements should come as no surprise. What is troubling, however, is the denial of the movement’s leadership of any such infiltration despite mounting evidence of the group’s involvement in murdering foreign aid workers in Somaliland. The movement, as the International Crisis Group reported, “lacks any system of screening its members for prior involvement in jihadism and so is poorly equipped to respond to allegations that some may be involved in fomenting extremism and violence” [8].

Jihadi Islamism

The jihadi tendency is the third type of Islamic activism. Unlike the political and missionary current, jihadi activists are committed to violence and armed resistance against what they perceive as the continuing onslaught of the enemies of Islam. This form of Islamic activism has very few sympathizers, although it is actively involved in trying to recruit or infiltrate missionary organizations like Salafiyya Jadiida and the Tabligh movement. The Jihadi movement has had its fortunes ebb and flow during the last decade [9].


Since the collapse of the government in 1991, the Islamic activist movement has expanded throughout Somalia. Islamic organizations like Harakat al-Islah are entrenched at both Somali universities and major educational centers; popular sympathy for the movements appears strong. It would be a grave oversimplification, however, to paint Islamism as a fixed ideological monolith and a dangerous and destabilizing force. There is still a disposition among some observers of Somali Islamism to identify Islamic activism with extremism or terrorism. This mistaken belief derives, in large part, from a failure to recognize the clear distinctions between different forms of Islamisms and appreciate not only the opposition of the majority of Somalis toward terrorism as a form of political action, but the fragmentation that plagues the jihadi and Islamist movements.

By far, the most dangerous militant groups are those composed of jihadi Islamists, such as the now-defunct al-Itihaad al-Islaami and the new, elusive independent jihadi network headed by Aden Hashi ‘Ayro. Other Islamist entities like the Islamic Courts Union, whose gunmen are involved in the current fighting with the alliance of warlords, “have more complex agendas,” and “appear to exist for chiefly pragmatic purposes.” The danger remains, however, that as the courts grow in influence and strength, they may begin “to advocate an increasingly ideological agenda—one that jihadi Islamist elements in the court system will no doubt attempt to define” [10].

The best way for the United States to fight jihadi Islamism in the horn of Africa and sway the hearts and minds of Somalis is to recalibrate its approach. Without public support, the United States would fail to make more than a modest dent in jihadi forces. The threat of terrorism from Somalia remains a major concern for the United States and its East African allies. This danger, however, can only be effectively tackled through the establishment of a legitimate and functional government in Somalia. The temptation to empower one faction over another or deploy foreign troops in the country might only exacerbate the true source of the problem.


1. Roland Marchal, “Islamic political dynamics in the Somali civil war,” in Alex de Waal (ed.), Islamism and Its Enemies in the Horn of Africa (Indiana University Press, 2004), p. 119.

2. Andre Le Sage, “Al-Islah in Somalia: An analysis of modern political Islam,” unpublished manuscript, pp. 7-8.

3. Alain Charret, “Mouvements islamiques somaliens soupçonnés d’être liés au terrorisme international,” Les nouvelles d’Addis 8ème année—bimestriel—n°51—

January 15-March 15, 2006.

4. Mogadishu University “instructs several thousand students in seven faculties—four taught mainly in English and three in Arabic. A significant proportion of the student body is female.” ICG Report “Somalia’s Islamists,” Africa Report N. 100—December 12, 2005, p. 16.

5. Abdurahman M. Abdullahi, “Recovering Somali state: The Islamist factor,” unpublished draft.

6. Marc-Antoine Pérouse de Montclos, “Des ONG sans gouvernement: mouvements islamiques et velléités de substitution à l’État dans la Somalie en guerre,” Colloque organisé dans le cadre du programme MOST (UNESCO), en partenariat avec l’IRD, le CEDEJ, le CEPS d’Al Ahram. March 29-31, 2000 au Caire.

7. ICG Report “Somalia’s Islamists,” p. 19.

8. Ibid.

9. Anouar Boukhars, “Somalia: Africa’s Horn of Anarchy,” Terrorism Monitor, Volume 4, Issue 1 (January 12, 2006).

10. ICG Report “Somalia’s Islamists,” p. 22.