From: Berhane Habtemariam (Berhane.Habtemariam@gmx.de)
Date: Thu Jan 22 2009 - 07:07:43 EST
With Ethiopian Pullout, Islamists Rise Again in Somalia
Moderates Seeking Power Face Challenges From Radical Militia, Others
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Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, January 22, 2009; Page A10
NAIROBI -- The departure of the last Ethiopian tanks from Somalia's capital
is ushering in a new phase of conflict in a nation known for clan warfare: a
battle for power among militias flying Islamist banners.
In some ways, the situation in Somalia, where people have long practiced a
moderate and mostly apolitical form of Islam, has circled back to where it
was when the Ethiopians invaded two years ago. The U.S.-supported operation
was intended to oust a popular movement of moderate and radical Islamists
that had taken over the capital and that the United States accused of having
But the operation drove the more radical Islamist fighters, known as
al-Shabab, into a brutal insurgency against the Ethiopian occupiers and the
secular, transitional government their invasion installed. After the deaths
of at least 10,000 people and the displacement of 1 million, Ethiopia and
the United States are now supporting a political compromise that stands to
return to power some of the same moderate Islamist leaders they originally
Those leaders, in turn, face an even worse version of the same problem they
had when they first tried to govern: how to control the Shabab, which the
United States has labeled a terrorist group. After fighting a two-year-long
insurgency, the Shabab has split off from the core movement and become more
radical and battle-hardened, with various factions controlling much of
Militarily, the Shabab is now the biggest threat to the fragile transitional
government and the moderate Islamists seeking to become part of it.
At the same time, the Shabab is showing signs of internal divisions. And
with the Ethiopians' exit, it is facing an array of new challengers,
including local militias and warlords with such nicknames as White-Eyed and
Greasy who are restyling themselves as Islamists.
"A lot of militia groups and warlords are now trying to adapt to this new
Islamist fashion, to reorganize themselves under the Islamist banner and
crush the Shabab," said Ali Said, director of the Center for Peace and
Democracy, which operates in exile in Nairobi. ". . . I think they are just
taking the label as a political opportunity, but it has a long-term impact
-- the risk is that it can push Somalia into a long-lasting religious war."
In the south, for instance, a group known as the Juba Valley Resistance
Movement is marketing itself as an anti-Shabab militia allied with moderate
Islamists. "The international community needs to support us," said Mohamed
Amin Abdullahi Osman, its leader. "We are against Shabab and want to defeat
In the same region, a warlord named Barre Hiiraale who was ousted by the
Shabab in October is attempting to revamp his image by associating himself
with an old and widely respected moderate Muslim group, al-Sunna wal Gama'a.
Hiiraale's militia has successfully fought the Shabab in several towns in
southern Somalia in recent weeks.
The traditional leaders of al-Sunna have held news conferences and lectures
in an attempt to disassociate themselves from Hiiraale's rhetoric.
"Every day there's a new group in the name of Islam," said Abdi Abdullahi
Osman, a young Somali who fled to Kenya in recent months and said he is
sympathetic to Shabab and al-Sunna. Hiiraale "is not al-Sunna. He's a
warlord who's just changed his shirt."
The political journey of Yusuf Mohamed Siad Inda-Ade, a.k.a. White-Eyed,
illustrates how fluid allegiances can be in Somalia.
After brutally ruling his own fiefdom near Mogadishu for several years, he
joined forces with the Islamist movement -- known as the
=informline> Islamic Courts Union -- as it took power in Mogadishu 2 1/2
years ago. Siad, a former military man who once declared war against
Ethiopia saying he would "pray in Addis Ababa," was rewarded with the post
of defense minister in the movement. But after the Ethiopian invasion, he
fled the country.
Suffering a reputation as a deserter on his return, Siad briefly cooperated
with the Shabab, which by then had split off to fight the Ethiopians. But
the Shabab kicked him out, according to Somalia analysts.
These days, the ill-educated but powerful Siad, who has close ties to
Ethiopia's archenemy, Eritrea, dubiously refers to himself as a sheik, a
term Somalis usually reserve for Islamic scholars.
Siad has taken over two emptied Ethiopian bases in Mogadishu. And though he
now supplies militias supporting the agenda of the aging Islamist leader
Hassan Dahir Aweys -- a perennial figure in Somali politics who is
considered less radical than the Shabab -- observers say his allegiances are
less than certain.
"He's sort of casting around for other allies and friends and hedging his
bets at the moment," said a Nairobi-based analyst, who spoke on the
condition of anonymity because of security concerns. "This is quite normal
Though Somalia's fundamental social structure is based on clan, Islamic
scholars and charities representing a spectrum of beliefs have long played a
respected and, until recently, apolitical role in society.
A more political version of Islam began to take hold after Somalia's last
central government collapsed in 1991 and peaked with the Islamic Courts'
brief takeover of Mogadishu.
The movement's leaders never settled on what version of Islam they
represented -- some militiamen shut cinemas and frowned on music, for
instance -- but the group still managed to open ports and get business going
and to establish a measure of security in the capital for the first time in
It also accomplished the minor miracle of uniting clans under a shared
religious order, an idea that endures.
But the Ethiopian invasion fragmented the movement, scattering its leaders
to Djibouti and Eritrea. The Shabab remained, gaining a kind of popularity
by default among Somalis who did not necessarily care for its radical
ideology but were glad someone was fighting Ethiopia.
"The Shabab has been successful conflating an anti-Ethiopian and nationalist
agenda with an Islamist agenda," said Ken Menkhaus, a Somali expert and
political science professor at Davidson College in North Carolina. "But now
they no longer have anything to be against. And a lot of Somalis are in a
panic to find an alternative."
Enter the moderate Islamists, their militias and various hangers-on, some
with backing from Eritrea, Ethiopia,
l> Saudi Arabia and other nations trying to promote their particular
The most viable political alternative appears to be a
ne> U.N.- and U.S.-backed agreement between Somalia's transitional
government -- whose highly unpopular president resigned last month -- and a
coalition that includes some of the Islamic Courts leaders the Ethiopians
The group is expected to select a new president in the coming weeks, and one
possible candidate is Sharif Ahmed, the Islamic Courts' respected moderate
The Shabab, meanwhile, is showing signs of fragmentation. With the
Ethiopians' departure, the group has been searching for a new enemy: It has
cast Ahmed as an infidel and has vowed to attack 2,400
e> African Union peacekeepers based in Mogadishu. Last week, Shabab
militiamen in Kismaayo executed a politician, accusing him of being
Despite the potential in Somalia for a brutal power struggle, observers say
some version of political Islam will likely be a feature of Somalia for
years to come.
"Politically, leaders are increasingly required to present themselves in
some fashion as Islamist -- whether progressive or conservative, that
depends," Menkhaus said. "The ascent of political Islam in Somalia is just a
fact and not at all a bad thing. Some of the best, most effective social
services have come under private Islamist charities. For the international
community, the key is where to draw the line."
Special correspondent Mohamed Ibrahim contributed to this report.
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