January 29, 2011

al-Shabab Leaders Duel for “Hearts and Minds”

Several days ago Fu’ad Shongole, al-Shabab’s third in command and overseer of Puntland, used his platform at a Bakaara mosque to broadcast the group’s new narrative.

“I warn you against condemning people as infidels and hurriedly killing them for visiting government help positions or spying,” he said angrily. “These acts will be questioned during the Day of Judgment. I therefore urge you to stop these genocidal killings against the Somali Muslim population.”

Though he had issued others in the past, Shongole’s call still surprised many Somalis in light of al-Shabab’s treatment of them. Disbelief was another prominent reaction, and perhaps al-Shabab will never fulfill Shongole’s tall order. But his emergence also suggested a repair in al-Shabab’s command structure.

The group’s leader and deputy, Moktar “Godane” Ali Zubeyr and Mukhtar “Abu Mansur” Robow, had clashed since at least 2009 over a wide range of issues, notably whether to accept humanitarian aid and absorb the rival militia Hizbul Islam. At one point Robow threatened to break off and form his own militia, but al-Qaeda leadership in the country managed to cool his head.

With their power-struggle ripping open after a failed attempt to topple Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG), the feud culminated in December’s merger with Hizbul Islam. Zubeyr’s persistent hostility towards its chief, Hassan Aweys, alienated the majority of al-Shabab fighters. In late December, al-Qaeda leadership within the country agreed to oust a man that had pledged allegiance to Osama bin Laden.

Ibrahim "al-Afghani," al-Shabab’s administrator in Kismayo and an ally of Robow, assumed Zubeyr’s position.

Having forced Zubeyr out of the picture, the nationalistic Robow and Shongole began to consolidate their hold on al-Shabab’s ranks, with Robow summoning new fighters in his Bay region and Shongole ordering them to respect Somalis. The plan appears obvious: scapegoat Zubeyr for al-Shabab’s previous behavior. Recruiting with the message of “returning al-Shabab to Somalis,” Robow and his allies hope to restore the movement’s common bond - Sharia law - to “rise above” clan politics and counter negative opinion.

Even if that means subtly blaming those foreign fighters that helped remove Zubeyr from power.

Furthermore, the TFG has achieved some recent success in politically reorganizing itself and seizing Mogadishu districts adjacent to Hamar Weyne, the site of Villa Somalia. Bondhere has allegedly come under AU control, while its troops also challenge al-Shabab in Hodan and Hawl Wadag, home of the Bakaara market. Sunni militia Ahlu Sunna has assisted the TFG and AU in many battles. But with al-Shabab still holding onto a chunk of Mogadishu and nearly half of the country, the TFG’s main victory has come in the information sphere.

Manipulating al-Shabab’s turmoil to portray a lost grip on Mogadishu is key to convincing the international community of reinvesting in the TFG.

This has led al-Shabab to aim for every target: prove unity, strength, and benevolence. Contradictory as the equation may be, al-Shabab would likely settle for the first two. Yet as absurd as improved governance seems, it would be unwise to totally discount al-Shabab’s rhetoric. Small improvements are improvements nonetheless, especially when al-Shabab’s approval hovers near 8% (according to the latest TFG poll).

Odder still, Robow’s new message appears to be Zubeyr’s plan too. The former chief recently released a tape to local radio stations in which Zubeyr “called his fighters for justice,” and “not to inspire people’s hatred.”

“You should deal people with in accordance with Sharia," he said, "but not let them flee from your administration."

Though few concrete details have surfaced to illuminate Zubeyr’s dismissal, his removal presumably wouldn’t occur overnight. Connected throughout Somalia and Somaliland, Zubeyr has resisted exile and holds the option of starting his own unit - possibly franchised by al-Qaeda - if he isn’t killed first. But after watching the actions of Robow and Shongole, Zubeyr appears to have chosen the bizarre twist of competing for “hearts and minds.”

So now both of al-Shabab’s “kings” are calling for better treatment of Somalis.

Their gamesmanship may be just that, rhetorical warfare to up the highest bid. Whether anyone can cash the check is irrelevant. And with Zubeyr refusing to go quietly, it's anyone's guess when he resorts to drastic action. But it’s also been reported that, “a group of al Shabab commanders have asked the Shura Council, al Shabab's ultimate decision making council to accept the return of aid agencies in al Shabab controlled areas. Although the foreigners and the other hardcore Somali Jihadis accepted, they perceived the operations of aid agencies disruptive, accusing them of being spies for Western countries.”

With al-Shabab now fighting over how well to treat Somalis, this could be one battle that actually benefits them.

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