With Ethiopian Pullout, Islamists Rise Again in Somalia
Moderates Seeking Power Face Challenges From Radical Militia, Others

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.

After brutally ruling his own fiefdom near Mogadishu for several years, he joined forces with the Islamist movement -- known as the 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 in Somalia."

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 15 years.

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, Saudi Arabia and other nations trying to promote their particular interests.

The most viable political alternative appears to be a 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 ousted.

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 Islamist leader.

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 African Union peacekeepers based in Mogadishu. Last week, Shabab militiamen in Kismaayo executed a politician, accusing him of being anti-Islam.

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.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company