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

Clan, Theocracy, and the Hazards of Isolation

The failure of Sheikh Aweys to establish full control over the Hawiye, or even all of the Habir-Gedir, put his Habir-Gedir Ayr sub-clan into an exposed, and potentially dangerous position. The recent clashes between the SCIC and Col. Abdi Awale "Qeybdiid’s" Habir-Gedir Saad militia around Bandiradley served to emphasize this. It also shows that the unpopularity of some warlords in Mogadishu had not destroyed their influence with the elders in their home areas. By successfully resisting the SCIC advance on Galkayo, "Qeybdiid" strengthened his position among the Saad and contributed to weakening the SCIC.

The SCIC militias and particularly their Ayr component also became seriously overstretched, while those absorbed from some of the non-Ayr former warlord militias were often less enthusiastic about fighting what many saw as the Ayr’s battles rather than their own. They were, therefore, less reliable, which proved a serious weakness when the SCIC faced reversals in the field. In such circumstances Somali militias have often been known to change sides at critical points, especially when their elders favor the other side.

To establish sufficient legitimacy, to be able to rule through consent rather than force, Sheikh Aweys needed to gain a wider acceptance of the SCIC’s particular brand of Islamic orthodoxy and its Islamic court, which are considerably at variance with local religious tradition. He also needed the existing public perception of Habir-Gedir Ayr domination of the SCIC hierarchy. But both of these proved difficult to achieve, and Somalis tend to be strongly opposed to the predominance of any single clan, particularly if it is not their own. The SCIC’s influence over the population of the areas it controlled was largely based on intimidation, and therefore, was unlikely to survive the flight or removal of the SCIC.

The prospect of predominance of a single sub clan has often evoked memories of the former dictatorship of General Mohamed Siyaad Barre, widely perceived by other Somalis as based upon and exploited by his Darod/Marehan sub-clan together with two other Darod sub-clans, the Ogaden and Dhulbahante, the so-called “M.O.D.” This perception contributed to the multi-clan insurgency that eventually led to the collapse of the Siyaad Barre regime and the Somali State. The SCIC had hoped that by setting up a theocratic structure it could obscure the reality of its control by the Habir-Gidir Ayr, but this was found to be more easily conceived than achieved.

Clan, Theocracy, and Economic Issues

Sheikh Aweys’ repeated announcements that he planned to take over the ethnic Somali regions of Ethiopia and Kenya to form a "Greater Somalia," was not only intended to threaten Ethiopia and Kenya, it was particularly intended to rally Somali sentiment against a  perceived external enemy and to fire up Somali nationalism in an effort to divert attention of the Hawiye from their internal issue of dealing with increasing Habir-Gidir/Ayr domination through the mechanism of the Islamic Courts. This became a structural problem of the SCIC that it could not easily resolve, as it was not simply a matter of political power sharing, but one of fundamental Habir-Gidir economic interests.

One of the key issues that has always impeded any real progress towards a comprehensive peace in Somalia is that the Habir-Gidir are relative newcomers to Mogadishu and the South. They came in 1991-92 with General Aidiid from the poverty-stricken, drought-devastated pastoral lands of central Somalia to take over South Mogadishu and the agricultural lands of Lower Shabelle and Lower Juba. During 1990-1995, Mogadishu changed from being a multi-clan capital with a non-Hawiye majority to a Hawiye-occupied city—as most of the non-Hawiye population fled. The Habir-Gidir, in particular, took over the most developed part of the city.

This leads to a major problem for any future administration: the issue of land ownership in Mogadishu, particularly South Mogadishu, Lower Shabelle and the Lower Juba Valley. The bottom line is that the former owners of urban property in South Mogadishu, and rural property in Lower Shabelle and Lower Juba, will want their property back. It is unlikely that the Habir-Gidir will be prepared to return it. This has made it difficult for the SCIC to build reliable constituencies in the non-Hawiye regions of southern Somalia. It also makes retaining control of the SCIC or whatever government might arise, an imperative for the effective protection of Habir-Gidir economic interests. The awareness of this was always likely to ensure strong opposition from other clans to Habir-Gidir control of government, even when cloaked in the guise of a supposedly non-clan theocracy.

Clan Issues, Theocracy, and the Return to ‘Greater Somalia’

Sheikh Aweys’ threat to revive Siyaad Barre’s "Greater Somalia" policy to take over the ethnic Somali regions of Ethiopia and Kenya also had very serious implications with respect to the national sovereignty of both countries and to regional peace. As it was always unlikely that either Ethiopia or Kenya would allow this to happen without resistance, Sheikh Aweys appeared to be threatening war, consistent with his earlier declaration of jihad (holy war) against Ethiopia.

In this context, it should be noted that previous Somali regimes have used the same idea to revive weakening support at home, and some have attempted to implement it. For example, between 1964 and 1988, both Kenya and Ethiopia experienced incursions of armed groups trained, armed and funded by successive regimes in Mogadishu. The activities of the SCIC and the foreign states that provided it support, as mentioned in the Report of the Monitoring Group, were clearly aimed to promoting a similar new round of destabilization.

This was part of the “Greater Somalia Policy,” of former Mogadishu governments’ claiming the regions of neighbouring states inhabited by ethnic Somalis. It was a popular crowd-pleasing slogan and source of legitimacy in Mogadishu for successive Somali governments, but was forcibly rejected by the neighbouring states.

This aggressive policy led eventually to the 1977 invasion of the Ethiopian Somali Region (the "Ogaden") by the Somali National Army. The defeat of the Somali National Army in the “Ogaden War” set off the train of events leading to the collapse in 1991 of the Siyaad Barre regime and the Somali State; and the rise of the Mogadishu warlords. This brings us to where we are today. Sheikh Aweys, ex-Colonel Aweys, having participated in these events, and seen their results, must presumably have given them some serious thought. In this context, such threats need to be taken seriously.

The external and internal conflicts initiated by a succession of Somali governments during the 1960’s, 1970’s and 1980’s, often in the guise of pursuit of a "Greater Somalia" eventually led to the disintegration of Somalia as an effective nation state, and one difficult to reassemble. It also led to the reinvigoration of the most extreme forms of ethnic politics led by a new class of warlords, who were at the center of chronic conflict in Somalia for a decade and a half and have now been displaced by a newly renamed, but no less belligerent, version of the Al-Ittihad terrorist group in the form of the SCIC.

The activities of such groups have seldom been confined within the borders of Somalia but have tended to spread across and destabilize a region that can ill afford such distractions. The countries of the region, therefore, and particularly those that border on Somalia, need to give serious attention to such threats when they occur.

The UN and the Flow of Arms to the SCIC

The UN Security Council Monitoring Group—responsible for monitoring the UN’s ineffective 1992 embargo on supply of arms to Somalia—reported that several countries had been involved in the supply of arms to the SCIC, and through it, to the ONLF and similar groups in Ethiopia. Those mentioned are generally the usual culprits: Egypt, which has long had its particular interest in destabilization in Ethiopia and reportedly in seeking a foothold in Somalia for that purpose, and certain of its Arab League colleagues in support of the Egyptian effort.

As far as Egypt is concerned, this is nothing new. Historically, efforts at destabilizing Ethiopia—to prevent it from using its Nile waters—have always been part of Egypt’s foreign policy. This, in fact, led in 1958 to Egypt’s involvement in the formation of the Eritrean Liberation Front, as part of its destabilization effort.4

Egyptian, and subsequently other external support to the ELF, enabled it to launch and sustain a protracted armed conflict.5 This sufficiently destabilized Ethiopia to reduce its capacity to implement its Blue Nile development plans. In 1977, Egypt provided significant support to Somalia in its invasion of Ethiopia’s Ogaden region (the "Ogaden War"), aimed at destabilization also to deter Ethiopia’s planned development of its Nile Basin water resources.6 President Siyaad Barre may have also intended to take over part of Ethiopia’s eastern highlands, including the headwaters of the Shabelle and Genalle rivers that provide the only major sources of surface water in central and southern Somalia.7   

After Ethiopia announced hydrological studies in the Nile basin in 1977, Egypt threatened military action against Ethiopia.8 During the recent Ethio-Eritrean war, there were reports of Egyptian arms deliveries to the former Baledogle airbase in Somalia to groups engaged in attempts at destabilization in southern Ethiopia.9 The continuing involvement of Egypt and its Arab partners in Somalia would appear to have the same roots in Egypt’s Nile Basin policy.   

The report also refers to Libya, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iran and Djibouti as supplying arms and finance, and specifically refers to the involvement of Eritrea in supplying arms, training and troops to the SCIC, and facilitating collaboration between it and the ONLF. This is likely to further heighten the growing tension in the region. Part of the solution would have been to enforce the arms embargo. But this was always unlikely to happen, as the UN lacked the capacity to make it happen.

According to the report of the Monitoring Group:

“[I]t is the view of the Monitoring Group that the very core of ICU strength and its ability to maintain its position of dominance comes from outside Somalia. The know-how, arms, military materiel and financial support come chiefly from outside Somalia and are essentially arms embargo violations. Without these forms of support, ICU would have the will, but not the means. However, as of the writing of this report, means continue to flow to the ICU.”10  

The UN Monitoring Group’s report also details some of the types of weapons provided to the SCIC:

“The majority of arms provided to the ICU by states—seven of them—arms traders, includes the types that are typically used in Somalia. But ominously, new and more sophisticated types of weapons are also coming into Somalia, including man-portable surface-to-air missiles such as the Strela2 and 2m, also known as SA-7a and 7b 'Grail' and SA-6 'Gainful' low to medium altitude surface-to-air missile. Other new types of arms include multiple rocket launchers and second generation infrared-guided anti-tank weapons.”11

The report said that since April, Eritrea had supplied the ICU with at least 28 consignments of arms, ammunition and military equipment in addition to providing training both within Somalia and in Eritrea. It added that Eritrea had been arming and supporting Ethiopian rebel groups via the SCIC/ICU and gave details of one such shipment that entered Ethiopia through the Abudwak district of Somalia’s Galgadud region escorted by 70 SCIC militia together with 160 armed ONLF members.12   

The Report also draws attention to the participation of Eritrean troops and foreign forces in the SCIC/ICU military operations, stating that, “The ICU military forces that took control of Kismaayo consisted of a coalition of troops from the sharia courts, Eritrea, ONLF and OLF.”13 The report also mentions senior Egyptian military officers as taking part in “providing training to some 3,800 ICU fighters in the Hileweyne military camp located north of Mogadishu.”14

The presence of Eritrean military forces in Somalia engaged in joint military operations with the SCIC, ONLF and OLF, appeared to be intended as a threat to Ethiopia’s security. Eritrea is not itself an Islamist state and has no known interest in becoming one, or generally, anything to gain from the strengthening of jihadist regimes in the region other than its hope of gaining a base for the destabilization of Ethiopia’s southeastern borders in collaboration with the SCIC/ICU and ONLF.

The flow of arms to the SCIC in violation of the international arms embargo, and the onward transmission of those arms to rebel groups or terrorists operating in neighboring countries provided those countries with a legitimate cause of concern for their own security. For example, the delivery of arms by the SCIC to rebel groups and terrorists in a neighboring country was a hostile action that would entitle that country to take unilateral action to defend its security.