In Somalia's war, a new challenger is pushing back radical al-Shabab militia

A moderate Sufi Islamist militia in Somalia could offer an alternative strategy for the United States in the fight to stem a rising tide of Islamic radicalism in the failed state on Africa's east coast.
By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 27, 2010

MOGADISHU, SOMALIA -- From behind green sandbags, Abdul Gader fired his rusting AK-47 down a narrow road. A Koran, its pages open, rested on the earth near his sweat-soaked body. So did a pile of bullets. Before him was territory controlled by radical al-Shabab fighters. Behind him was territory Gader and his comrades had taken away from them.

"They are the enemy of my religion and my culture," Gader, a strapping 17-year-old with a boyish face, declared after pumping another burst of bullets at his targets lurking among crumbling houses.

Four days earlier, Gader's moderate Islamist militia had accomplished what the Somali government, backed by tens of millions of dollars in U.S. assistance, could not do for two years: It pushed al-Shabab out of Sigale, a forlorn Mogadishu enclave.

The militia, a Sufi group known as Ahlu Sunna Wal Jamaa, is posing the strongest challenge yet to al-Shabab, an al-Qaeda-linked organization. The Sufis potentially offer an alternative strategy for the United States and its allies in the struggle to stem the rising tide of Islamist radicalism in this failed state on Africa's east coast.

"There's a gap to be filled, and Ahlu Sunna is filling it," said Ahmed Haji Hassan, 22, a fighter who swaggered with confidence near the sandbagged front line of Somalia's brutal civil conflict.

The rise of Somalia's moderate Muslims often draws comparisons to the Sunni tribes in Iraq's Anbar province that rose up to fight al-Qaeda extremism in their country.

Like them, the Sufis have wider political ambitions and could bring a measure of stability and relief from the brutal thuggery of al-Shabab. But many skeptical Somalis, jaded by nearly two decades of war, fear that the Sufis are just the latest jumble of self-interested holy warriors competing for turf and power.

"They could have a positive impact. Or they could become an obstacle to Somali reconciliation," said Abduwali Nour Farah, 31, a businessman. "For now, the people are supporting their gains. But in our history, we have seen such groups rise up all the time."

For centuries, the Sufis were men of peace. They followed a spiritual current of Islam that emphasizes moral education, tolerance and a personal link to God. When Somalia plunged into clan wars after the collapse of the central government in 1991, Islam's extremist Wahhabi strain gained strength amid the anarchy.

But the Sufis engaged in neither the conflict nor politics. When neighboring Ethiopia invaded Somalia in 2006, with covert U.S. backing, to suppress a hard-line Islamist movement, the Sufis remained on the sidelines.

The invasion sparked the rise of the ultra-radical al-Shabab, which swiftly took control of large patches of southern and central Somalia. Al-Shabab fighters soon set their sights on the Sufis, whom they branded as heretics, assassinating Sufi clerics and burning down Sufi shrines. They opened Sufi graves and pulled the bodies out.

"In this world, they kill you. And when you die, you still cannot escape," said Abdullahi Abdurahman Abu Yousef, a senior Sufi commander.

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