A mound of speculation finally appears to have sprouted genuine truth. Following months of divisive rumors between al-Shabaab's nationalist and transnationalist factions, Hizbul Islam chief Hassan Aweys has officially removed his group from al-Shabaab's umbrella after previously merging in December 2010. Spokesman Mohamed Moallim issued the announcement to BBC Somali Service on Monday, explaining that Hizbul Islam "is no longer al-Shabaab's partner as there are political and ideological differences with the group."
Aweys's decision has been interpreted as a near-deathblow to al-Shabaab amid the loss of territory and fighters to the African Union's national offensive, but one can argue that Hizbul Islam never joined al-Shabaab in practice. Moallim specifically told the media that his group "joined forces by mouth only, and now we have decided to withdraw our support." The nationalistic Aweys made his first move under the simultaneous pressure of al-Shabaab and AMISOM assaults, essentially forced into survival mode until a new political strategy could be developed. Later reports indicated that al-Shabaab's transnationalist boss, Moktar Ali Zubeyr "Godane," had directly threatened Aweys with assassination if he didn't join the group. Aweys's opposition to Zubeyr's alliance with al-Qaeda resulted in continuous personal friction between over the last three years, and Zubeyr further insulted Aweys by denying him the position of spiritual leadership.
Political analyst Ali Omar Mohamed told Sabahi Online, "The two groups, al-Shabaab and Hizbul Islam, were already divided from the beginning because al-Shabaab did not appoint any of the Hizbul Islam leaders to senior positions after the merger and al-Shabaab has also not put them on equal footing."
Aweys now feels confident enough to drop his front as al-Shabaab weakens under a prolonged AMISOM campaign, and he may take some of the insurgency's leadership with him. Previous reports claimed that al-Shabaab's nationalist leadership - namely Sheikh Mukhtar Robow "Abu Mansur" and Fuad Mohamed Qalaf "Shangole" - were coordinating a name change with Aweys's faction. Now their plan is being reported in a simpler form; al-Shabaab's clan-based members will "re-brand" themselves as Hizbul Islam. Moallim clarified that his group is "open to negotiations with all groups for the interest of Somalia."
"Hizbul Islam would enter into negotiations with the Somali government with the ultimate outcome of a peace deal that would pave the way for Al Shabaab fighters to join and indeed infiltrate the national security forces, which have been trained over recent years with considerable Western funding and technical assistance, through the AMISOM mission in Mogadishu," says one source involved in the back-channel negotiations.
This plan is allegedly being facilitated by Qatari and Turkish diplomats against the expressed interests of Washington and the Ethiopian government. According to Garowe Online, the same group that helped raise Qatari funds for new President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud is advancing a political settlement with al-Shabaab's rank-and-file. Damul Jadid ("new blood" in Arabic) has positioned itself as a breakaway faction of Al Islah, Somalia's branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, and counts Mohamud and other leaders in his Hawiye clan as associates. Garowe describes Mohamud as operating independently from these Islamist groups while enjoying a wide circle of "friends" within their community.
Aweys has declared war on the new president but challenging his authority won't be easy; political negotiations are the likeliest course of action.
Al-Shabaab has yet to refute Hizbul Islam's decision in public, except for ambiguous Tweets declaring that the "Mujahideen remain united and indivisible." Whether its nationalist core had decided to ditch Zubeyr or merely rebrand itself for another cycle of warfare with the government remains to be seen.