January 26, 2011

Can al-Shabab Deliver On Its Promise?

Fu'ad Shongole faces the same problem that hounds Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG). After years of poor performance, few Somalis are willing to give the TFG or al-Shabab’s rhetoric a precious second of their lives.

Seeing is believing, a motto the TFG’s new cabinet has attempted to instill by cleaning house and auditioning for a new lease on its mandate, which expires after August. Prime Minister Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, earnest in his political efforts and well versed in public relations, has promised to regain control of Mogadishu by August. Yet TFG and African Union (AU) officials have longed promise a counteroffensive in Mogadishu that has yet to materialize.

And while AU reinforcements from Uganda stand ready for deployment, green-lit by the UN, America and the EU's private doubts in the TFG have left the AU’s trust fund at its lowest point.

Few will believe Shongole, al-Shabab’s third in command and Puntland overseer, when he extends a hand to the TFG and offers to govern together according to Sharia law. Or when he preaches from a Bakara mosque in Mogadishu, “I call on the Shabab militia to stop killing innocent people. We should especially stop killing people that we have condemned of spying for the government.”

So Shongole is also working on his credibility. But his message might carry a deeper meaning.

The war isn’t over yet between Moktar Ali Zubeyr “Godane” and Sheikh Mukhtar “Abu Mansur” Robow, al-Shabab’s chief and deputy. The transnationally-minded Zubeyr and nationalistic Robow had clashed since 2009 over clan rivalries, government negotiations, humanitarian aid, and the integration of Hizbul Islam. While Zubeyr viewed Hizbul Islam leader Hassan Aweys as a threat to his position, going so far as to call for his execution, Robow and Shongole considered Hizbul Islam as a useful placeholder and tool in northern Somalia.

With the merger with Hizbul Islam completed in early December, al-Qaeda leadership allegedly replaced Zubeyr in late December after a three-month power dispute with Robow and Shongole. Of course Zubeyr won’t be easy to get rid of, and sources close to Shongole told Somaliweyn that he’s still conflicting with his former ally.

However al-Shabab’s recent activity suggests that it has doused its fire for the time being, and its decision-making could begin to tail away from Zubeyr’s thinking. UN relief continues to reach most Somalis in al-Shabab territory despite its constant threats against aid agencies, and Robow has spoken approvingly of foreign aid, albeit with inconclusive results. Beyond ideological and political differences, problems arise from the fact al-Shabab lacks absolute control of its territory and fighters, many of which are between 12 and 20.

Robow and Shongole won’t deliver on all of their rhetoric. With al-Shabab’s activity increasing again, both in Mogadishu and the central and northern regions, Robow only seems to be fulfilling his promise to storm the capital. And Zubeyr’s ouster hasn’t stopped al-Shabab from declaring handshakes off limits, suppressing local media, and ignoring a historic drought.

Yet Robow has extended feelers to the TFG in the past, and with Aweys spending parts of 2010 under President Sharif Ahmed’s protection, the two may share a private willingness to at least hear out the TFG’s new government. Shongole even claimed he reversed his policy of cooperation with the government because of the fallout with Zubeyr, and denounced al-Shabab's treatment of civilians soon after his removal. Now he’s addressing the war in pure insurgency terms, acknowledging that they’ve lost the people’s support (what support they had, anyway) and vowing to win them back.

This appears a conscious shift by al-Shabab’s more nationalistic actors to relate with Somalis, to prove they have reorganized and have regained control of the movement from foreigners (even though al-Qaeda chose Ibrahim Haji Jama Mee'aad "al-Afghani,” an ally of Robow, over Zubeyr).

And thus to counter the TFG’s reorganization and information campaign.

One can never be sure of al-Shabab’s rhetoric, and Shongole’s “new policy” may be a feeble attempt to keep pace with the TFG’s propaganda. But the surfacing unity of command suggests that a change in al-Shabab’s platform is possible. Though its “reform” won’t overwhelm Somalis, gradual improvements could reduce friction just at the moment the TFG is trying to exploit these divisions.

Whatever al-Shabab is thinking, it’s clearly aware of its shortfalls - and has nowhere to go except up.

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