Though protracted by nature, an insurgency’s fluidity remains an alarming property. No sooner had we anticipated new defections from Hizbul Islam did Sheikh Mohammed Ibrahim, commander of the Jabhatul Islamiya militia, defect to al-Shabab. Jabhatul Islamiya is one of four militias that combined to form Hizbul-Islam.
Ibrahim, commander in Yaqbariweyne, Hakaba, Kanbahirig, and Gobanle towns in southern Somalia, could be the beginning of the snowball.
“We warmly want to inform the press that from today henceforth we have joined Al-Shabab and by joining Al-Shabab is not something disgracing,” he announced days ago. “There were several leaders of Hizbul-Islam who have previously joined Al-Shabab and to mention one of them is Sheikh Hassan Turki the founder of the Islamists groups in Somalia, and the reason we have joined Al-Shabab is that we have seen that Hizbul-Islam is not as active as Al-Shabab, but they are instead passive.”
Sheikh Hassan Abdullah Hersi al-Turki, leader of the Ras Kamboni Brigades, became the first of Hizbul-Islam’s militias to re-defect to al-Shabab in 2010 after splitting from the group in 2009. Sheikh Ibrahim gives al-Shabab two of Hizbul-Islam’s arms, the strategic Hiraan province that includes Beledweyne, and numerous ancillary groups in the south.
Ibrahim added that he’s, “very proud of amalgamating their strength to Al-Shabab, and has urged the remaining Hizbul-Islam fighters... to follow their concept.”
Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, leader of Hizbul-Islam, is not amused. His militia crumbling, Aweys criticized al Shabaab for seizing Baladweyne and claimed his fighters withdrew to avoid conflict. Consequently, Aweys has allegedly negotiated with the TFG during the two weeks that saw half of his militia break away.
Deputy Prime Minister Abdirahman Hajji Aden Ibbi told reporters in Mogadishu, “Hizbul Islam promised us that it would hand over the control of their areas before the 50th anniversary of Somalia’s independence, we hope that the Somali flag will be raised in those areas, because this group is not against the sovereignty of our country.”
This sounds promising, but Aweys probably won’t deliver. Garowe remarks on the rash of Hizbul-Islam’s defections, “Aweys has recently lost his officials to Al-Shabaab, leaving him with an empty shell. Other reports also suggest that members from Hizbul Islam group have walked out of the negotiation table for unclear reasons.”
Fearing an al-Shabab takeover, Aweys ended up accelerating al-Shabab’s storming of Hizbul-Islam territory. Garowe reports that al-Shabab is advancing, “to more towns currently controlled by Hizbal Islam in a bid to seize them before the occupiers officially hand over to the government.”
Despite the usual amount of violent infighting that comes with factional splintering, most Hizbul Islam units appear to be joining al-Shabab. Aweys even says, “Al-Shabaab is a jihadist group, we were planning to unite with them but their actions will not allow us now to join them.”
This suggests most factions of Hizbul-Islam will rejoin al-Shabab in a matter of time, with Somalia’s Transition Federal Government (TFG) absorbing the remnants. The combined pressure from al-Shabab, Sunni militia Ahlu Sunna wal-Jamea, Ethiopia, and the TFG has proven too much for Hizbul-Islam. It has been driven into its one natural ally, who now has hundreds more fighters and one less problem to worry about in its rear territory.
Consequently, the news couldn’t be worse for America and the TFG. As al-Shabab assimilates its strongest rival, Ahlu Sunna appears to be pulling away from the TFG. Somali ministers have praised Ahlu Sunna for its positive impact in the country, but their flattery didn’t satisfy Sheikh Omar Abdulkadir, Chief of the Consultative Council of Ahlu Sunna.
Abdulkadir responded by, “outlining that his movement sent a delegation to Mogadishu in order to hold power-sharing talks with the government. The clergyman emphasized that the Ahlu Sunna wal-Jamea submitted all the necessary details from its side including appointees for positions, but he accused the government led by President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed of not responding adequately.”
We noted in prior analysis the mutual distrust between Ahlu Sunna and the TFG, how the TFG suspects Ahlu Sunna is exploiting the government’s crisis to seize power. Given that the deal between them was supposed to transfer ministries to Ahlu Sunna, present discord likely revolves around this unfulfilled promise.
Sheikh Abdulkadir warned that his movement “will strongly retaliate if the government continues to ignore the group's good gesture.”
Few developments could be worse for America or the TFG than a breakdown with Ahlu Sunna, their last and only local line of defense. Were Ahlu Sunna to turn on or simply undermine what’s left of Somalia’s government, Mogadishu will descend into another round of civil war between Somalia’s two major militias - with Villa Somalia as the first prize and the whole state up for grabs.
At this point Ethiopia could intervene directly on Ahlu Sunna’s behalf, provoking new nationalism and military disturbances, ill trained as Ethiopian soldiers are for counterinsurgency. US Special-Ops lurk in the shadows, Reapers control the skies, naval ships ready to launch cruise missiles. Possibly a Marine task force if worst comes to worst.
Or a soldier revolt could tip the balance in favor of al-Shabab.
A large group recently stormed Somalia’s parliament requiring the intervention of President Sheikh Sharif, who promised to pay them their salaries. How he can do so when he finds himself in a new political feud with Prime Minister Omar Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke remains unknown. The threat of defection surrounds the TFG, a classic COIN signal of a collapsing government.
“Thousands of Somali troops, who were trained out of the country, have not received their salaries for several months, prompting some desert and join Al-Shabaab,” Garowe reports.
With so many possibilities, the only impossibility remains stability.
Somalia is often labeled the world’s most invisible conflict, a title that sounded more cliche two days ago than today. Though highly visible, people merely feel helpless about Somalia. But as al-Shabab secures the country’s southern half, where roving al-Qaeda camps dodge Predators, and begins to push north, the conflict has indeed faded into Afghanistan’s oblivion.
General David Petraeus is architect not just of Iraq and Afghanistan’s military campaigns, but Somalia’s too. Yet counter-terrorism is not a substitute for counterinsurgency, and America can barely practice COIN in one failed state let alone two. Now Somalia arguably poses the greatest transnational threat.
Not something President Obama will bring up when sending Petraeus off to defeat al-Qaeda in Afghanistan.