Flawed Sheikhs and Failed Strategies: Lessons of the Jihadist Debacle in Somalia
Published on: Feb 20, 2007

The Turbulent South and the SCIC/ICU

When the representatives of the TFG and the SCIC met in Khartoum on 22 June 2006, the ICU agreed that it recognized the TFG as the legal and legitimate government of Somalia. For its part, the TFG recognized that the SCIC represented a political reality in Somalia. Having agreed on these points, the SCIC rejected them immediately on the return of its delegation to Mogadishu. At the same time, they continued their rapid advance to the North—aimed at seizing control of much of the rest of the country and setting up their own regime.

Actually, the peace talks in Khartoum, facilitated by the Arab League, with its own pro-SCIC agenda to push, were never likely to get very far. For the SCIC, this was primarily a means of diverting attention and buying time to occupy as much as possible of the country, while discouraging any potential efforts to reinforce the TFG. At the same time, certain Arab League counties, and others, were using the talks to divert attention from their own intensification of arms supply and training for the SCIC militias.

While the better-known extremists were initially keeping a lower profile, it was quite rational to avoid alarming potential victims or prematurely provoking known adversaries. Having taken the strategic town of Beledweyne, over 300 kms to the northwest of Mogadishu, without a fight but through a show of overwhelming force, this strategy seemed to be working well. But in the wake of inconclusive peace talks in Khartoum the announcement of the transformation of the ICU into a new organization led by Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys left little room for wishful thinking about the “moderate” intentions of the Council of the Islamic Courts (ICU)/Supreme Council of the Islamic Courts (SCIC).

The SCIC leader, ex-Colonel Hassan Dahir Aweys, had long before established his terrorist credentials in the region in the mid-1990’s when his Al-Ittihad group carried out terrorist attacks in Ethiopia from bases in Somalia’s Gedo region. When the bases were eventually destroyed, a number of Arab jihadists were among the casualties. But, Sheikh Aweys, the commander of the Al-Ittihad militia was able to escape to Mogadishu, where he began rebuilding his organization. The Al-Ittihad logistics base at Ras Kamboni, a small dhow port on the coast of the southern-most tip of Somalia near the Kenyan town of Lamu—a key entry-point for Al-Ittihad’s arms supplies and Arab trainers sent by their supporters in the Gulf—was left untouched.   

The Ras Kamboni base may have also been the entry point for some of the arms and terrorists later infiltrated into Kenya’s coast region. It was reportedly abandoned, following the Al-Qaeda attacks on the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, when Ittihad leaders feared retaliation from the Americans and deemed Mogadishu a much safer place to hide. More recently, however, since the ICU takeover in Mogadishu, one of the Ittihad militia leaders, Hassan “Turki,” was reported passing through the Juba Valley from Ras Kamboni with a group of militia, moving towards Mogadishu.

The initially "moderate" stance of the ICU soon gave way to the much harsher reality of hard-core fundamentalists with increasingly visible similarities to Afghanistan’s Taliban, who along with Al-Qaeda, reportedly trained some of them. Their extremist Salafi concepts of Islam tend to clash with the more tolerant Sufi traditions of Somali Muslims. The ICU militias, having spread across most of central Somalia, launched an attack to the south in late September and captured the port city of Kismayo near the border of Kenya.

For some foreign “experts,” the real surprise came after the June 2006 defeat of the Mogadishu warlords, when Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, who served as the moderate face of the ICU and front man for Aweys, was sidelined, and the ICU suddenly transformed into a new “Supreme Council of the Islamic Courts” (SCIC), headed by Hassan Dahir Aweys, the founder of Al-Itihad Al-Islamiya, which carried out a series of terrorist attacks in Ethiopia in the 1990’s.

For Somalis, the implications took longer to materialize, but were, in many ways, less surprising. The conflict in Mogadishu soon turned into an intricate combination of inter-clan and intra-clan conflicts, with fighting between Habr-Gidir and Abgal subclans, and among both. The battle between the SCIS and the Mogadishu warlords was also a battle between two key Hawiye subclans, the Abgal and Habir-Gedir. In the event, the Habir-Gedir won. It also established that the SCIS is essentially a Hawiye clan organization, largely controlled by the Habir-Gidir Ayr sub-clan, and within it, the Ayaanle lineage. The perception of this among the Hawiye and other clans posed an important constraint on the growth of the SCIS beyond the Hawiye clan and reportedly has contributed to tensions between different sub-clans of the Hawiye.

The Strange Concept of the “Moderate” Jihadis

Sheikh Aweys said that he planned to take over the ethnic Somali regions of Ethiopia and Kenya to form a “Greater Somalia.” He was speaking in an interview with Radio Shabelle, a local Somali broadcaster. Meanwhile, the other face of the SCIC, Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, continued his part of the act, which is talking peace and dialogue for the benefit of Western observers and “experts,” and maintaining the fiction of the existence of  “moderate Islamists” within the SCIC for those who still insist on believing in the existence of “moderate” jihadis.

The basic reality however, was that even if such moderates did exist, they could only follow orders. Should they attempt to do otherwise, they would have to face the reality that Sheikh Aweys controlled  the militias, the guns, and access to external resources. Aweys and his Al-Ittihad leadership were in control. They gave the orders, and those who were being portrayed as "moderates," could only follow the orders that they were given. That was the reality that enabled Aweys to sideline Sheikh Sharif, once his function as a "cover" was no longer needed.

These are among the indications that the assistance that Sheikh Aweys was receiving from a variety of foreign extremists considerably surpassed that mentioned in a recent UN report focusing on arms shipments. External aid also included considerable cash and technical assistance from Gulf States and  “charities” delivered through a wide variety of foreign mujihadeen. One of the latter, with western public relations expertise, was reportedly the architect of Sheikh Aweys’ admittedly clever propaganda strategy.

Despite its rapidly territorial expansion and its self-portrayal as a non-clan based Islamist force, the SCIC remained a largely Hawiye organization with a leadership dominated by members of Sheik Aweys’ Ayaanle lineage of the Habr-Gidir Ayr subclan. The territories that it controlled were again largely the Hawiye-inhabited regions of Mogadishu and central Somalia, except for the southern regions recently conquered by the Habr-Gidir Ayr militias, which sent thousands of refugees fleeing into Northeastern Kenya. The Habr-Gidir Ayr identity of the SCIC proved to be one of its major weaknesses as it tried to pursue its ambition to rule Somalia through the mechanism of a Habr-Gidir Ayr-dominated Islamist theocracy.   
This also became a constraint to its expansion into Mudug, the northernmost region of Hawiye habitation. The region is divided between the Habr-Gidir/Saad, the traditional rivals of the Ayr for leadership of the Habr-Gidir, and the Darod/Mijerteen of Puntland, whose territory includes the northern parts of Mudug, starting from the northern part of Galkayo, the region’s main town, where the Saad elders proclaimed their opposition to any establishment of SCIC-linked Islamic courts in Saad territory.

The Saad soon began building up their forces around Galkayo, where a former Mogadishu warlord, Col. Abdi Awale “Qeybdiid” found significant support from his Saad clan elders, and prepared to resist a widely perceived attempt by the Ayr to take over the leadership of the Hawiye through setting up an Ayr controlled Salafi theocracy. This enabled Qeybdiid to raise a substantial force of militias and technicals that was soon engaged in clashes with the advancing SCIC militias. This led to a de-facto Saad/Mijerteen alliance aimed at halting the northward advance of the largely Habr-Gidir Ayr SCIC militias.

In the far south of Somalia, the ICU takeover in Kismayo had been accompanied by rising tensions—demonstrations against the occupation of the town by the ICU militias—and a flow of thousands of refugees from Kismayo and other southern towns to neighbouring  Kenya. Meanwhile, encouraged by the demonstrations, the local militia of Juba Valley Alliance (JVA) leader, Col. Abdikadir Aden Shire “Barre Hiraale,” comprising Darod Marehan and Ogaden subclans, which had fled before the Islamist offensive, began preparing a counterattack to try to retake Kismayo. The Islamist militias who had taken over Kismayo were largely from Hawiye Habr-Gedir subclans and seen by the locals as an alien occupation force.

There is often a tendency among Somali intellectuals to be in a state of denial when it comes to clan issues and particularly the clan influence on politics and various other key issues. There appears to be an extreme reluctance in some quarters to accept the reality of the presence and extent of such influence. Nevertheless, this is part of reality; it is there and it is central to Somalis’ perception of their own interests as bundled together with those of their lineage, sub-clan and clan. For example, once the SCIC seized control of Mogadishu, Habir-Gedir politicians who had failed in their attempts to take over the TFG, led a mass exodus from the TFG to seek better opportunities with the Habir-Gedir controlled SCIC.

Taken in the context of these realities, the current conflict was following the normal course of events and explains why the SCIC had little success in extending its base of support beyond the Hawiye regions. There is little Hawiye territory left for it to control, and the non-Hawiye areas that it had occupied had been taken by the use or threat of superior force, and maintained by force. The extent of their support in such areas can be best assessed by the massive flow of refugees across Somalia’s borders.

There was also growing tension between the Habir-Gidir/Ayr and the Abgaal, the other main branch of the Hawiye, who had always considered Mogadishu as their territory and believed that they had the right to control it rather than the Habir-Gedir, who mainly arrived with General Aidid from their central Somalia homeland in 1991. There was significant opposition to the SCIC among the Harti, Daud, Wabudaan and Waesle subclans of the Abgaal. The downgrading of their clansman, Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, in the SCIC leadership, upset the Harti elders. Meanwhile Mohamed “Dheere,” the former “Governor” of the Middle Shabelle region, until forced out from his headquarters in Jowhar—retained considerable support among the Abgal. He had reorganized his militia and joined the opposition to the SCIC. The Prime Minister of the Baidoa-based Transitional Federal Government (TFG), Ali Mohamed Gedi, a Hawiye Abgal, also had his own constituency opposed to the SCIC and to Habir-Gedir hegemony.

Meanwhile, the SCIC leadership was well aware of the tendency of Somali clan coalitions and agreements to collapse. Having failed to gain total Hawiye support, it desperately needed to build influence outside the Hawiye area. But its efforts to set up Islamic courts in Puntland and other areas outside its control had been blocked, and its establishment of Islamic courts in the occupied southern regions, depended on the continued presence of the SCIC militia, a situation that became unsustainable.