With Ethiopian Pullout, Islamists Rise Again in Somalia

By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, January 22, 2009

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 ties to al-Qaeda.

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 ousted.

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 southern Somalia.

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 it."

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.

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