See also:
» 11.02.2011 - Somali pirates to be returned from Seychelles
» 07.02.2011 - Seychelles negotiates pirate returns with Somalia, Somaliland
» 27.09.2010 - US near de-facto recognition of Somaliland
» 01.03.2010 - Somalia’s TFG hailed after one year in power
» 08.02.2010 - Kenya dismiss reports on Somali army training
» 30.09.2009 - Somalis need more support to talk, UN envoy
» 12.08.2009 - AI calls for safeguards on arms transfers to Somalia
» 10.07.2009 - Somalia could fall to opposition hands

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Politics | Society

Somalia's Islamists "deeply divided"

Somalia's transitional President Sharif Sheikh Ahmed

© EU/afrol News
afrol News, 18 May
- The armed Islamist groups of Somalia are now deeply divided, according to a new report. While one group is quickly drifting towards al-Qaeda, most Somali Islamist insurgents could be recruited to join government, the report holds.

According to a new report by the Brussels-based think-tank International Crisis Group (ICG), titled "Somalia's Divided Islamists", there could now be a historic chance to split the powerful Somali Islamist insurgents. "Somalia's Transitional Federal Government must engage dissidents among the country's insurgent groups in order to strengthen its authority and combat al-Qaeda inspired extremists," the report concludes.

The report reviews the religious, ideological and clan rifts that have developed between the country's main Islamist factions since the election of Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed as leader of Somalia's transitional government.

It concludes that the government must reach out to elements of the youth league Harakat Al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen that are disenchanted with the influence of foreign jihadists in the group and the al-Qaeda sympathies among its leadership. It also suggests that many in the Somali nationalist Hizb al-Islam, the Islamic Party, could be more receptive to government overtures.

"The mounting internal divisions within the insurgency have given the Transitional Federal Government, the UN and donors many opportunities to reach out to less hard-line elements," says ICG analyst Rashid Abdi. "The best opportunities may have already been wasted, but with the right approach and incentives, some might accept a peaceful settlement."

Somalis have historically accepted many interpretations of Islam, most of them moderate. But starting in the 1960s and fuelled by the country's instability and poverty, as well as cash from Saudi Wahhabist groups, extremists began to gain ground.

Islamist briefly seized power in 2006 but were defeated by invading Ethiopian troops. When the Ethiopians withdrew in early 2009, a moderate Islamist coalition took power and committed to implementing shari'a. The jihadists, caught off guard by the move, denounced the regime as a puppet of the West, but cracks have since formed in the Islamist insurgency.

"Al-Shabaab leadership's disregard for Somali nationalism and clan loyalties have put it at odds with Hizb al-Islam's commanders," according to the ICG report. Open hostilities have broken out between the two movements.

"To use this division to its advantage, Somalia's government needs to both improve its military capabilities and win the hearts and minds of clan leaders and impressionable young Somalis," the ICG recommends. "The UN and donor countries also must realise that the failure to reach out to dissident Islamists only empowers the hardliners to continue their recruitment and attacks on the feeble government," the analysts add.

"If the foreign jihadists fend off their local challengers, Al-Shabaab's rapid transformation into a wholly al-Qaeda franchise might become irreversible," says ICG analyst Francois Grignon. "That could cause havoc even well beyond Somalia's borders, and the TFG and the international community cannot choose to be bystanders."

But currently, Al-Shabaab is in a difficult situation, which the transitional government could take advantage of, the analysts hold. Although Al-Shabaab recently regained Kismaayo and key towns and villages in the south by routing its rival - and erstwhile ally - Hizb al-Islam, it is now on the defensive and feels beleaguered.

The rise and military gains of a new government moderate Islamist ally, Ahlu Sunnah Wal Jama'a, composed of groups opposed to Al-Shabaab's fundamentalism, further have put significant pressure on the hard-line insurgency.

Al-Shabaab's military troubles had been compounded by "the steady erosion of its popularity and credibility," ICG notes. "The attempt to forcefully homogenise Islam and zealously enforce a harsh interpretation of shari'a, as well as the general climate of fear and claustrophobia fostered by an authoritarian administrative style, has deeply alienated large segments of society, even in areas once regarded as solid insurgent territory," the report adds.

The suicide bomb attack in Mogadishu in December 2009, in which over 20 civilians and officials were killed, caused an unprecedented public backlash. The widely-held perception that it was ordered by foreign jihadists prompted high-level defections and seriously undermined Al-Shabaab's standing. Many feel it has irreparably harmed the movement's political prospects.

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