January 10, 2011

al-Shabab Unity Possibly in Sight

Yesterday Sheikh Muktar “Abu-Mansur” Robow took to a mosque in Baidao, the regional capital of Bay. As a landlocked region and one of Somalia’s most populated, Bay is instrumental in al-Shabab’s defense against Ethiopian border raids and African Union (AU) deployments in Mogadishu. Now Robow, al-Shabab’s deputy chief, has called for Somalis in Bay and the neighboring Bakool to redouble al-Shabab’s front in Mogadishu, which has steadily eroded after an inconclusive Ramadan offensive in August.

"I am requesting the Mujahideen of Somalia to reach united stance from the ongoing fighting in Mogadishu against Somali government and AMISOM troops,” Robow told worshipers gathering at the mosque. “So, the people, who live in Al shabaab controlled areas must help Al shabaab fighters to overthrow the government.”

His call is the latest to beckon al-Shabab onward to Mogadishu, where AU troops continue to land with visions of seizing the whole capital.

Except another harbinger may lie beneath Robow’s declaration. If the sources of Michael Weinstein are to be trusted, Robow means exactly what he says when appealing for a “united stance" - not with Hizbul-Islam, Somalia's secondary insurgent group, but within itself. A widely-quoted Somali expert from Purdue University, Weinstein claims to have the full scoop on al-Shabab’s power struggle, which has supposedly climaxed and is potentially manifesting in Robow.

Although the latest strife broke out after Ramadan, with Robow accusing al-Shabab chief Moktar Ali Zubeyr “Godane” of sacrificing his troops, tensions have bubbled since at least 2009. Ali Zubeyr the transnationalist jihadist and Robow a relatively moderate nationalist, the two leaders have clashed over al-Shabab’s objectives, distribution of international aid, and a merger with Hizbul-Islam.

Earlier in 2010, Ali Zubeyr refused to align the two groups despite outreach from Hizbul-Islam chief Hasan Dahir Aweys. Robow’s faction threatened to quit the group, and the crisis was resolved only after mediation from al-Qaeda leadership in the country. Yet Ali Zubeyr, who distrusts Aweys and believes he would usurp him with a nationalistic ideology, could only stall the inevitable. As the AU increased its force from 8,000 to 12,000 and vowed to retake Mogadishu by August’s end, when the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) expires, al-Shabab and Hizbul-Islam formally merged in December 2010.

Already leaning towards each other, the heat of battle finally fused them together.

Ali Zubeyr wasn’t happy about this development. Though holding the upper hand on Robow through his internationalism, which al-Qaeda wields for its own purposes, Ali Zubeyr erred too far into the extreme. Only months ago al-Qaeda had threatened Robow against breaking away into a nationalist movement; Ali-Zubeyr warned al-Qaeda leadership that Robow and his commanders wouldn’t obey foreign instructions.

By December the schism had alienated the majority of al-Shabab past the point of return. When Ali Zubeyr called for Aweys to be publicly executed during a late December council, al-Qaeda abandoned him in favor of Robow. Ibrahim Haji Jama “al-Afghani,” al-Shabab’s governor in Kismayo, was promoted as chief and immediately cast out Ali Zubeyr for "disobeying God’s orders."

Hassan Yaqub Ali, al-Shabab’s spokesman in Kismayo, then summoned fighters for battle in Mogadishu.

Now that Robow has reemerged, it’s safer to say that al-Shabab has fixed its power structure and remains concentrated on its war. More upheaval may await depending on what Ali Zubeyr does next, and Hizbul-Islam's loyalty may prove temporary rather than permanent. However al-Shabab and al-Qaeda appear to have cleared most of the gunk from their system, realizing that they can’t allow the TFG and AU to get any further ahead of them.

With the AU’s main troop supplier, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, promising to raise the force beyond 20,000 if necessary, al-Shabab likely seeks to delay the AU's advances until its mandate expires in September. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon explains the general strategy: 4,000 new troops for Mogadishu, for 12,000 overall, followed by 8,000 for the rest of the country. Never-mind that 20,000 still underestimates Somalia’s demands.

al-Shabab must deny Mogadishu to the AU and blunt its momentum so that it stalls in the capital, rather than gradually expanding into southern Somalia.

That’s the bad news, but the silver lining isn't any better. At first Robow’s victory could appear to be a minuscule positive in Somalia. With Ali Zubeyr out of the way and al-Qaeda deciding, at least for now, that a nationalist agenda favors al-Shabab’s goal of toppling the TFG, perhaps the international threat from Somalia will diminish. This may not be the case though.

Though he has yet to be confirmed as al-Shabab’s new chief, Haji Jama is supposedly a transnationalist. And one of Robow’s main supporters, Fuad Mohamed "Shongole,” recently threatened President Barack Obama to “embrace Islam before we come to his country.”

Whether al-Shabab pulls itself together for good remains to be seen; insurgencies are, as Weinstein obverses, factional by definition. But any potential resolution poses a clear and present danger to the TFG and AU’s mission. While al-Shabab and Hizbul-Islam’s alliance isn’t enough to topple the government outright, joining together has provided the additional benefit of refining al-Shabab’s command and ideology. Meanwhile al-Qaeda may have lost Ali Zubeyr and still gained influence through its mediation.

al-Shabab doesn’t need to directly counter the TFG and AU’s looming offensive, only back it up in Mogadishu and delay the international community’s response. Somalia has started to look more appealing to skeptical Western donors, who believe the TFG’s new cabinet and the AU’s determination offer a chance against al-Shabab.

The group will do everything possible to shatter that perception, starting in Mogadishu.

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