Saturday, November 27, 2010

ANALYSIS – Is Al-Shabab loosing its grip on Somalia?

By Marian Yarisow.
Mogadishu, November 26 – Mogadishu witnessed one of its heaviest clashes in 2010 during the holy month of Ramadan after Al-Shabab militants ferociously attacked Somali government and African Union peacekeepers with all the manpower and firepower they could harness in a desperate attempt to take over Mogadishu.

The above offensive not only backfired on Al-Shabab but it also badly denting its image causing serious ramification to its unity. Even though they still do attack the government and their AU backers to date, Al-Shabab seems to have lost its clout and vigour in Somalia and Mogadishu in particular.

Its top leadership is facing a serious split likely to affect its future operations. For the ordinary Somali living in parts of the capital Mogadishu and elsewhere in the country controlled by Al-Shabab. This latest news is a really positive development simply because Al-Shabab has managed to stay in power largely due to its brutal nature by coercing the public into submission.

However, the latest development in both military and the political infighting within Al-Shabab sends one clear message: That Al-Shabab can be beaten and that they are not mortals as they often try to depict themselves.

Credible intelligence sources indicate that Al-Shabab lost around 500 to 700 fighters and approximately 2000 others were wounded in the month-long pitched battles in Mogadishu where at some stage the militants came close to a touching distance of the hilltop presidential palace protected by AMISOM peacekeepers only to be pushed back by the AU peacekeeping force.

Majority if these casualties were illiterate youths conscripted from across Somalia.

A 20 year old young man who only gave his name Mahamed was among the unlucky youths. He was lured into the war by money wielding bearded men in the thick jungles of Bakol region.

“I was herding goats in the bush when one day some men approached me and gave me $50. They told me I could get more if I joined them. That is how I became Al-Shabab fighter. I had never been to Mogadishu before. When we came they showed as a huge building and said it was the Presidential palace. We were made to believe that Al-Shabab was going to take over the country. I feel stupid and used but at least I have known the truth. I will never re-join them. I better die than go back to be their slave,” he said, a month after he was caught in combat.

His story is both fascinating and saddening. It’s the reality on the ground in Somalia where Al-Shabab has managed to hold into power using all possible means. They simply do not care how many of our young brothers die in the unpopular war.

As a result of the botched attacks, Al-Shabab lost hundreds of mostly youthful fighters forcing the group back to the drawing board amid finger pointing by its top leadership forcing Al-Qaeda to step into the raw to try and reunite them.

Hizbul Islam which is led by Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys is the other opposition force fighting the Somali government which also does not enjoy good relations with Al-Shabab. The two groups are only united in fighting the government and AMISOM peacekeepers in a bid to win Al-Qaeda’s support but have serious differences within themselves that often end up in armed conflict.

Sheikh Aweys is a long time Islamist leader in Somalia who believes he is the most senior Islamist and therefore does not understand why young men in the name of Al-Shabab should take the mantle of the so called holly war in Somalia.

A high powered meeting was convened in Baidoa after Ramadan where a visiting Al-Qaeda leader sought to reunite the fractious Somali Al-Shabab commanders in vain as well as tried to reconcile Hizbul Islam and Al-Shabab.

Sources say that the Al-Qaeda leader urged the two Islamists groups to continue fighting the Somali government and the African Union peacekeepers and that Al-Qaeda will only recognize the party that emerges victorious in the ongoing battles in Somalia.

Within Al-Shabab the rift is mainly between Ahmed Abdi Godane aka Abu Zubeyr, the group’s top commander who enjoys close ties with foreign jihadists in Somalia. Godane hails from Somaliland and he has been at odds with another senior commander Sheikh Mukhtar Robow aka Abu Mansur who is also a former Al-Shabab spokesman. Robow hails from the Rahaweyn clan in Bay and Bakol regions of southern Somalia which apparently lost most fighters in the botched Ramadan offensive.

Godane has usurped power using a well funded hit squad within Al-Shabab known as Amniyad and comprised of mainly under aged youths. The hit squad is responsible for all the executions, assassination and any other dirty tasks ordered by Godane. This unit has created fear among the group giving him an absolute grip on power and more importantly keeping him put as the supreme leader.

It is believed that Godane -- who is reportedly trained in Afghanistan just like most Al-Shabab commanders -- orchestrated the dismissal of Robow from Al-Shabab’s Executive Committee, the militant group’s most powerful entity who make final decisions.

Godane is also accused by Robow of ordering the execution of his close ally called Sheikh Ayub a commander of Eastern Bay region after he sustained injuries during the Ramadan offensive.

This assassination as well as the fact that Robow lost 183 fighters in the battle, the highest figure from a single entity meant that he was getting a raw deal from Al-Shabab forcing him to withdraw hundreds of his troops from the capital Mogadishu prompting his clansmen, the Rahanweyn to also quit Al-Shabab in Kismayu and the central region returning back to their Baidoa backyard where it is believed they would seek to govern their home regions Bay and Bakool separately from Al-Shabab.

Sheikh Mukhtar Robow’s exit from Al-Shabab is a major blow to the group. This means that the group will loose support and funds from Bay and Bakool regions, which have unanimously been very supportive of Al-Shabab.

It’s also believed that some Al-Shabab financiers and sympathizers are not happy with the rift and more importantly Al-Shabab’s unclear motivation to continue fighting a war whose victims still remain to be ordinary Somalis. For the financiers, business has not been good largely due the seemingly endless war led by Al-Kadab, a name the group has been brandished in Mogadishu simply meaning the liar!

For the war weary ordinary Somalis who have had to live with the sustained Al-Shabab’s brutality since mid 2006, the latest infighting within the group come as a big relief. Many residents accuse Al-Shabab of being the biggest obstacle to finding permanent peace in the troubled Horn of African country.

“I greet you Major. Try to attack every place Al-Shabab is staying. They are our enemy and the enemy of Somalia. The Somali people are happy for your progress by Allah’s will. Win, win win, Ameen,” read an SMS from a Somali man living in Al-Shabab controlled area in Mogadishu to AMISOM Spokesman Major Barigye Ba-Hoku.

Somalia’s myriad clans have always stood against any mighty force. They have again proved a hard ball to crack for the global jihadist group Al-Qaeda and their Somalia henchmen Al-Shabab.

Clan chiefs who previously supported Al-Shabab for fear of being hacked to death have now started asking questions following the botched attempt at taking over Mogadishu which Al-Shabab leaders made it look so easy to the elders when they went round the villages conscripting innocent youths who have no religious knowledge nor wisdom to challenge their sinister motives.

“Certain Somali clans are not happy after loosing hundreds of their young men in the so called holly war which also claimed many more civilian lives. Some clans are asking whether paradise which Al-Shabab promised is only meant for certain clans. I think it’s the start of their end,” a clan elder in Baidoa said asking not to be named.

Few years ago such an outcry against Al-Shabab was never publicly uttered in Somalia largely due to Al-Shabab’s ruthless response to anyone seen defying their exported foreign ideologies.

This leads to the big question which I believe many Somalis and every other peace loving sane person would gladly want to hear in favour of Somalia, a country ravaged by almost 20 years of fighting. Is Al-Shabab loosing its grip in Somalia?

Experts on Somalia believe the group is slowly loosing its grip on Somalia largely due to their own ruthless treatment of the Somali public. They kill anyone seen defying their foreign ideology sometimes even inside a mosque something that has never been witnessed any where else, they lash people in public for any misdemeanour offenses and as if that is not enough have even gone to the point of slitting throats of people accused of spying for their opponents without any concrete evidence.

Their inhuman nature has earned them many nicknames among the local population like “Rer Burburshe” or the destructive clan, Al-Shaydan, or the devil and Al-Kadab, the liar.

Their acts of terror are contrary to the Somali culture and the true teachings of Islam.

As if to prove their unpopularity Al-Shabab is now forcefully conscripting youngsters to join them as they massively did across southern Somalia prior to the botched Ramadan offensive, they have also ordered business owners, farmers and even pastoralists to pay tax by force and worse of all their ragtag militia is reportedly engaging in wicked acts like gang raping girls reminiscent of the warlord era in Somalia.

All the above facts point to only one conclusion. Al-Shabab days in Somalia are numbered. But how can we make sure when they finally fall which is very imminent given the above facts, they will never rise again.

This is a golden opportunity for the interim government to put their house in order and stop wasting time on enriching themselves but turn Al-Shabab’s loss into victory for the majority of the Somali people who simply wish to live in peace.

The writer is a freelance journalist working in Somalia.