As disunity once again descends upon Somalia, the attention now zeros on the militant group al-Shabab, who’s transitioning through strategic turbulence. Believing themselves past the rift between President Sharif Ahmed and former Prime Minister Omar Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke, Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and African Union (AU) officials claim that infighting has allowed AU troops to seize ground in Mogadishu, including several al-Shabab bases.
Beggars can’t be choosers and the TFG, completely supported by international funds, will take any advantage it can get. But for as many signs that al-Shabab could split, an equal number indicate the less optimistic forecast.
That nationalistic al-Shabab leaders have clashed with those harboring the influx of foreign al-Qaeda fighters is nothing new; the group’s fracturing has been predicted by various analysts since 2008. However, the latest feud burst into light after a still-unidentified helicopter strike on the port town of Marka, roughly 40 miles south of Mogadishu. Presumably sponsored by Washington, the operation would pose some significance if any operatives were actually killed.
al-Shabab denied any casualties and US officials have yet to comment.
Rather than simply eliminate one or more commanders as they plotted their next campaign, the raid disrupted what was ultimately revealed to be a reconciliation between the group’s conflicting members. From here TFG officials and Somali analysts predicted that al-Shabab is headed for a split over al-Qaeda. Rashid Abdi, a Somalia expert with the International Crisis Group, is the key instrument driving the latest reports on al-Shabab’s crisis, calling the group "deeply troubled.”
The danger in this prediction is that it looks truer than it may actually be, and Abdi made sure to qualify himself.
"It is a deeply fragmented movement,” he explains. “But the remarkable thing is that despite that fragmentation al-Shabab has continued to be militarily dominant and it currently - as evidenced by the control of the bulk of Mogadishu - shows that the movement still has the military initiative. The government should renew its commitment towards that strategy of beginning to reach out to figures of al-Shabab who may be disenchanted with the hard-line position being taken by Godane and his foreign jihadist allies.”
Much of the details concerning al-Shabab’s internal division come from Abdi, who says the feud between leader Sheikh Moktar Ali Zubeyr and deputy Sheik Muktar Robow has accumulated over three years. Robow, code-name Abu Mansor, assumed command of the group in 2008 after a US air-strike eliminated Aden Hashi Farah "Ayrow,” only to be replaced by Zubeyr.
Zubeyr, more commonly known as Ahmed Abdi Godane, later relieved Robow’s duty as al-Shabab’s spokesman.
The feud is both political and social in nature. As an Isaaq from Somaliland, Zubeyr envisions a sweeping strategy to establish al-Shabab’s version of Sharia in all of Somalia, including Somaliland and Puntland. Robow, born in the south, appears more concerned with Somalia proper, although he too likely holds regional ambitions. More recently Zubeyr appointed a fellow tribesman to al-Shabab’s treasury secretary, upsetting Robow.
An ideological gulf amplifies these tensions. Robow, the alleged moderate of the group, is open to humanitarian groups and supposedly opposed to the increase in foreign fighters.
For a moment al-Shabab must have actually appeared in disarray. Robow’s fighters reportedly withdrew from areas of Mogadishu, allowing the AU and TFG to capitalize where they could. Somalia’s information minister, Abdirahman Omar Osman, later told reporters that most of al-Shabab’s casualties were from Robow’s clan.
“The Shabab lost hundreds of fighters in the Ramadan offensive mainly from Abu Mansor’s clansmen,” said Osman, leading Robow to challenge Zubeyr.
On top of this, the Ethiopian military and supporting TFG soldiers made another advance into Beledweyne, a border city controlled by al-Shabab. Facing overwhelming odds the group withdrew its fighters to the city’s outskirts and were reported heading west, but reports later claimed that Robow also withdrew his forces from Beledweyne as a show of power.
Now would be an opportune time for the AU and TFG to launch a counteroffensive, which is why Uganda submitted a proposal to deploy another 13,000 troops - if the US, EU, and UN foot the bill. Uganda has also called for a naval blockade. This would be one big proxy war, and the level of funding and coordination may toll the US Special Forces’ bell. Unfortunately any cross-country offensive needs to be mounted immediately, which the AU and TFG aren’t prepared to do. Whatever gash exists in al-Shabab may be sown up soon enough.
First, al-Shabab officials told The New York Times that the real feud is between Robow and a member of his own clan, Muktar Abu Muslim. Considered an ally of Zubeyr, Muslim is believed to have pushed out aid organizations and favors al-Qaeda’s transnational ideology. If true, Zubeyr and Robow may be able to resolve their dispute without either one leaving. Or dying.
That al-Shabab was trying to settle its differences also indicates that a compromise remains probable. Insurgencies naturally compose themselves from multiple parts, leading to inevitable conflict among its leadership. Most insurgencies struggle with maintaining a unified front yet continue to operate with relative efficiency. The nature of insurgency, of network warfare (netwar), allows it to cope with this inevitable clash of ideologies and interests.
It’s why netwar evolved to begin with.
Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) offers the most recent example. A half dozen commanders of Pakistan’s tribal agencies vied for power after a US drone killed Baitullah Mehsud, leading to furious reporting of its collapse as Pakistani’s military prepared to invade South Waziristan. Hakimullah Mehsud eventually assumed leadership. While Wali-ur Rehman, the TTP’s leader in South Waziristan, remains cool to Mehsud and his uncle, TTP suicide chief Qari Hussain, all regional commanders continue to operate in near unity.
Incoming military offensives have a habit of reuniting rather than dividing militants. Speaking on Friday after mosque prayers in Mogadishu, Robow dismissed a rift between al-Shabab leadership as government accusations.
“What, I can tell you, is that we are still united, we are not divided, so I do not like to reply for the TFG and AMISOM. It is not good for me to answer their baseless reports. We still continue our war that we declared in the Ramadan. I am confirming to you and all the Mujahideen that there are no differences between us. We shall continue our latest clashes against AMISOM and the TFG.”
Robow then informed the public that he sent a message to Osama Bin Laden, reaffirming his allegiance and promising that no dispute exists in al-Shabab.
Of course Robow’s latest comments must filter through the appropriate skepticism, but no reason exists to discard the general idea of his rhetoric. Insurgents fall out and reunite during the ebb and flow of long duration of fourth-generation warfare. At least half of Hizbul Islam, a former ally-turned-rival, has switched back to al-Shabab’s side, and the Long War Journal reported one rumor that Robow would merge with Hizbul Islam and assume command. But Robow shot down this rumor too.
al-Shabab and al-Qaeda's leadership realizes that all they have is each other and, pragmatic as insurgents are, understand the power of unity. Despite their failure to seize Mogadishu, al-Shabab likely never expected to do so, instead diverting itself from a northern push to disrupt a new deployment of AU troops. And even if it loses all of the capital, a damaging blow to be sure, the main battles would still occur in al-Shabab territory. Clearing it from Mogadishu is the easy part compared to Somalia’s southern desert.
The quickest way to al-Shabab’s defeat is self-division, not an AU and TFG offensive. While various insurgent factions would still prolong the conflict, they wouldn’t present a threat on a national scale. The TTP knew it, the TFG knows it, and deep down every al-Shabab and al-Qaeda commander knows it too.