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Islamist Contagion in Somalia

By Nikola Zukalová

After more than two decades of bloody war, Somalia remains teetering on the brink. Its strategic location, across from the Arabian Peninsula, heightens the country’s fragility — rendering it prone to the political crosswinds from the Middle East. Although ethnically diverse, Somalia is among the most religiously homogenous states in the world with some 99% of the population identifying themselves as Sunni Muslim. Traditionally clan-based, Somali society used to rely more on customary law rather than religious rules and the established Sufi groups tended to shy away from politics...until recently. Reacting to the emergence of strands of political Islam, Sufis are now more engaged than ever. As are their religio-political — radical Salafist — opponents.

The proliferation of Islamism in other parts of the Middle East introduced Political Islam to the country. Egyptian scholars from Al-Azhar University founded the first Institute of Islamic Studies in Somalia (1953) and brought with them the Arabic language and the ideology of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. At present, the Muslim Brotherhood is well established, and their influence is growing due to the increasing engagement of Turkey and Qatar. But the story does not end there.

Responding to the Government’s Political Retardation

Islamist movements gained public support due to their opposition to the military regime of Siad Barre — politically oppressive and economically inefficient. Somalia’s ceding of Ogaden in the 1977/8 war against Ethiopia, significantly weakened the military and aggravated popular discontent with the regime. It also helped Somali Islamist movements further organise and recruit. This generated momentum to merge several Islamist groups and create Al-Itihaad Al-Islamiyya (AIAI), a radical Salafist movement opposed to traditional Sufiism and clan structures. AIAI sought to establish an Islamic state in the Horn of Africa. Some of AIAI’s members would later emerge as leading figures in the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) — re: Hassan Dahir Aweys — and Al-Shabaab — re: Ahmed Abdi Godane. Islamists’ popularity was primarily due to pragmatic not religious reasons. The embattled regime adopted suppressive measures to force Islamists underground and abroad, mainly to the Arab Gulf, which intensified the discontent and increased popular support for the Islamists. Somalia’s flirtation with militant Islamism began in earnest towards the end of the 1980s. It would have been a moot point if not for a specific chain of events after the overthrow of Barre in 1991 — the descent to lawlessness and external interventions (notably: the United Nations, United States, Ethiopia).

Islamists and the Civil War

From their Lugh base, adjacent to the Ethiopian border, the AIAI radicalised ethnic Somalis in Ethiopia. This resulted in a spate of terrorist attacks which prompted Ethiopia to intervene in Somalia in 1996 with the objective of targeting and weakening the AIAI. The Islamists then sought support of the population through filling the vacuums left by state collapse — providing security and other, more social, services. Religious orthodoxy gained increased influence as it offered an alternative to traditional power-centres: clans, emergent criminal elements (i.e. warlords) and assisted in streamlining opposition to foreign intervention forces. It was during this period that the Islamic Sharia Courts were popping-up across the country and rapidly-morphing former AIAI militants organised into functioning militias. The Ifka Halane Court in western Mogadishu, led by Aweys (former official of the AIAI) became the base for jihadi Islam. Among the radical wings of the Courts was Hizbul Shabaab led by Aden Hashi Ayro. Both, Aweys and Ayro, were linked to Al-Qaeda and the 1998 US Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. In 2004, some of these Courts formed the ICU, a union of Sharia courts united with Islamists as a rival administration to the Transitional Federal Government (TFG).

From the ICU to Even More Radical Militias

When, in 2006, most of southern Somalia, including Mogadishu, fell to the ICU, Ethiopia — sensing an emergent threat — again intervened; this time to help Somalia’s TFG regain control. Ethiopia’s intervention was seen by many Somalis as an invasion by a non-Muslim country, backed by the US, which supported the warlords to contain extremist groups. However, the US involvement generated the opposite effect. The ICU garnished local support precisely because it defeated the US-supported warlords and brought a semblance of order to Somalia for the first time since 1991. Nevertheless, the ICU was also suspected of harbouring Al-Qaeda operatives, therefore international intervention was necessary.

After relinquishing almost all its territorial gains, the ICU fragmented. Some of its moderate members fled to Eritrea and Djibouti, while more militant ones formed new radical Islamist groups, such as: Harakat Al-Shabaab Al-Mujahideen (Al-Shabaab); Hizbul Islam, led by Aweys (which merged into Al-Shabaab in 2010 and split again in 2012 to renounce violence and continue as a political party) and the Ras Kamboni Brigades, part of which merged into Al-Shabaab, whereas the other faction fights against it. While foreign intervention ended the extremist ICU rule, it also provoked an insurgency led by even more radical groups, waging war against the Federal Government and foreign forces, particularly the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM).

Islamist ideology also penetrated the country’s politics when the TFG formed a unity government with the successor of the ICU—the Alliance for the Re-Liberation of Somalia (2009) and former ICU leader, Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, became President of Somalia. The election of Hassan Sheikh Mohamud (2012) and Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed (2017) as President of the Federal Government of Somalia, was perceived as a step towards a more moderate, although slightly Islamist, leadership.

Al-Shabaab and Al-Qaeda

Al-Shabaab is an East African branch of Al-Qaeda which has been waging jihad against Somalia’s Federal Government and allied international forces for over a decade. Despite advances against the group, driving it from major cities, including Mogadishu, it remains active and relatively strong in rural areas, mainly in the south and central zones.

Al-Shabaab continues to carry out deadly terrorist attacks across Somalia, targeting AMISOM and pro-government forces with civilians often victims of collateral damage. The Mogadishu truck bombing (14 October 2017), the third deadliest attack recorded in history leaving almost 600 dead, is a stark reminder of its potency. Since 2010, Al-Shabaab began operating abroad — mainly in Kenya, Uganda and Ethiopia. Since 2017, Al-Shabaab has stepped up its rhetoric against Kenya and intensified the number of attacks in the neighbouring country, calling on Kenyan jihadists to form an Islamist army. Al-Shabaab seems to be strengthening and has regained control of some of the lost areas in the south. Their attacks in Kenya and Somalia are unlikely to cease.

The group was designated as a terrorist group by the UK, US a