Profile: Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys

November 14, 2011

Al Shabaab senior member Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys delivered a speech at a ceremony on the occasion of al Shabaab's unification with Hizb al Islam in December 2010. (SITE Intelligence Group)

This piece is part of a series of al Shabaab leadership profiles.

Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, a former leader of al Shabaab, turned himself in to the Somali government on June 26 following infighting within the group. Aweys was a senior leader in al Shabaab and was on the group’s Shura Council.[1] Previously, Aweys led Hizb al Islam until the group’s merger with al Shabaab in December 2010.[2] Aweys still maintains a large base of support from his influential Hawiye sub-clan and, to some extent, former al Shabaab fighters.[3] The United States Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) added him to its Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT) list on November 7, 2001 under the authority of Executive Order 13224.[4] The United Nations designated Aweys as a terrorist under Security Council Resolution 1267 on November 9, 2001, naming him an “individual associated with al Qaeda.”[5]

Aweys is from the Galgudud region, and is a member of the Ayr, a sub-clan of the Habar Gedir, which in turn is a sub-clan of the Hawiye clan.[6] In the 1990s, he led the military wing of the al Qaeda-linked al Ittihad al Islamiya (the Islamic Union, also known as AIAI).[7] In 1993, al Qaeda operatives allegedly approached Aweys and offered full operational and financial support to AIAI if he would direct attacks against American targets. He reportedly balked at the offer, arguing that “the time is not right to start conducting jihad.”[8] AIAI collapsed in the early 2000s, and the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) replaced it as the principal Somali Islamist group, rising to power in 2006.[9] Aweys served as the spiritual leader within the ICU as the head of the Shura Council, the group’s clerical body.[10] He fled to Asmara, Eritrea when Ethiopian troops drove the ICU out of Mogadishu in January 2007.[11] Aweys subsequently founded the Alliance for the Re-liberation of Somalia (ARS) with Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, but their relationship soured when Ahmed began negotiating a peace deal with Ethiopia in Djibouti.[12] Aweys’s faction of the ARS rejected the Djibouti peace accord in June 2008, and he said he would refuse any negotiations outright “until [Somalia] is liberated from [Ethiopian troops].”[13] He returned to Somalia on April 23, 2009 as the leader of the nascent insurgent Islamist group, Hizb al Islam.[14]

Hizb al Islam suffered a number of military setbacks and defections after the failure of its joint Mogadishu offensive with al Shabaab in May 2009.[15] In July 2010, Aweys began a sustained campaign pressing for unity with al Shabaab, which he had done on and off since June 2009.[16] Aweys vocally supported al Shabaab’s 2010 Ramadan offensive. On September 2, 2010, he said, “The fighting cannot stop and no political breakthrough can be reached while foreign enemies stay in our homeland. We can think about dialogue and reconciliation when the foreigners withdraw.”[17] Aweys held a press conference with several al Shabaab leaders on December 23, 2010 to formally announce a merger between the two groups.[18]

Aweys has stated support for a shari’a-based state in Somalia, and refuses to recognize the current government because foreign powers support it.[19] His relationship with international aid groups has been inconsistent, varying between distrust and open hostility.[20] He has also publicly supported suicide bombings and the desecration of Sufi tombs and shrines.[21] Before Osama bin Laden’s death on May 1, 2011, Aweys pledged allegiance to him on several occasions and invited him and his al Qaeda militants to join the Islamist jihad in Somalia.[22]

Differences between Aweys and Godane emerged publicly in early 2012, following al Qaeda’s recognition of al Shabaab. (For more, see the profile of Godane.) Aweys rejected Godane’s interpretation of jihad in Somalia as limited to those forces led by Godane, and believed in limiting civilian casualties. By September 2012, these differences became irreparable and Hizb al Islam announced a split from al Shabaab on September 24.[23] Disagreements between the two men persisted and in April 2013, Aweys, along with other senior al Shabaab leaders Mukhtar Robow and Ibrahim al Afghani, issued a fatwa against Godane’s attempt to kill foreign fighters, including American fighter Omar Hammami. [24] On June 20 the situation turned violent and Aweys was forced to flee Barawe, Lower Shabelle region after al Shabaab infighting erupted. Aweys turned himself in to the Himan and Heb administration in central Somalia on June 26.[25] Aweys defected to the Somali government shortly after with promises of immunity, but is currently still being held in prison in Mogadishu.[26] The Somali government has not released any statements saying what they plan to do with the former al Shabaab leader.

June 26, 2013: Hassan Dahir Aweys defected to the Himan and Heb administration in Adado, Mudug region following violent al Shabaab infighting. He is transferred to Mogadishu and Somali government custody on July 29. (Bar Kulan)

April 30, 2013: Hassan Dahir Aweys, along with other senior al Shabaab leaders including Mukhtar Robow and Ibrahim al Afghani, issued a fatwa against Godane’s attempt to kill foreign jihadists, including American fighter Omar Hammami. (SITE)

May 17, 2013: Hassan Dahir Aweys released an audio message speaking about the rift between Omar Hammami and al Shabaab leader Ahmed Abdi Godane siding with Hammami and telling Godane’s followers that Godane’s commands must be “disobeyed.” (SITE)

February 2, 2013: Aweys released a message saying Hizb al Islam was not responsible for the February 15 killing of a sheikh in Garowe, Nugaal region and expressed sympathies to the family of the deceased. (Sabahi Online)

September 24, 2013: Hizb al Islam reportedly breaks ties with al Shabaab. (Jihadology)

March 30, 2012: Disagreements between al Shabaab’s leader, Ahmed Abdi Godane, also known as Mukhtar Abu Zubair, and Aweys became public. Godane had declared that no jihadist group, other than al Shabaab, should be established in Somalia. Aweys disagreed, saying, “One cannot limit or make jihad a membership, jihad is open to everyone who is willing to fight.” (Garowe Online)

December 6, 2011: Aweys attended a meeting, along with deputy leader Sheikh Mukhtar Robow (Abu Mansur), spokesman Ali Mohamed Rage (Ali Dhere), senior member Fuad Mohamed Qalaf (Shongole), and clerics in Baidoa in Bay region. After the meeting, a statement announced that the al Shabaab would be changing its name to Imaarah Islamiyah (Islamic Emirate, or Authority). Al Shabaab retracted the name change a short time later. (SONNA, Somalia Report, Hiiraan)

November 6, 2011: Aweys spoke at an Eid al Adha prayer in the Alamada area outside Mogadishu, admitting to the crowd that most of Somalia’s clans are backing the TFG and regional governments over al Shabaab. He also condemned the Ogaden National Liberation Front, an Ethiopian militant group, for signing a peace agreement with the Ethiopian government. (Radio Bar-Kulan)

August 31, 2011: Aweys led prayers at an Eid al Fitr service in Lafole, in the Lower Shabelle region. (SITE)

August 12, 2011: Aweys claimed al Shabaab withdrew from Mogadishu due to divisions among the group’s leadership, and he argued the group’s tactics in the city were flawed. “We don’t have tanks, and it’s wrong to have face to face fighting with troops armed with tanks,” he said. (Mareeg Online)

July 8, 2011: Aweys accused Arab states of neglecting Somalia’s increasingly dire humanitarian crisis, exacerbated by a recent drought. He reversed his previous position against international aid agencies, claiming that donors ceased providing aid over a misunderstanding. “Everyone who intends to deliver humanitarian assistance is very welcome in areas we control,” he said. (All Headline News)

July 3, 2011: Aweys published an opinion piece arguing that the ouster of Transitional Federal Government (TFG) Prime Minister Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed was a corrupt bargain and evidence of a foreign conspiracy against the Somali people. “The fig leaf has fallen and the people realized that the president and the president of his parliament and all of heads of brigades and those who are behind the Burundian and Ugandan tanks don’t work for the good of the Muslim Somali people; rather, they work to please their African and Western masters and to fulfill their needs through looting and selling the religion and the country for a cheap price,” he wrote. (SITE)

May 23, 2011: Aweys told merchants in Mogadishu’s Bakara Market that they should take up arms and defend their businesses against the attacks of government and African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) forces. (Shabelle Media Network)

May 12, 2011: Aweys attended a meeting in Afgoi with other top officials in al Shabaab to discuss the death of Osama bin Laden. They issued joint praise for bin Laden and vowed retaliation for his death. (Mareeg Online)

April 2, 2011: Aweys conceded that government forces and their African Union allies are stronger than al Shabaab’s militias. He also admitted the Islamists have suffered serious territorial losses in recent months throughout Somalia. (Garowe Online)

March 18, 2011: Aweys attended a meeting in Mogadishu with local elders of the Mudulood clan and other senior al Shabaab members. They discussed clan support for al Shabaab’s fight against the TFG and African Union forces. He also addressed a crowd in the Elasha Biyaha camps outside Mogadishu, defending al Shabaab’s use of child soldiers. “We recruit underage children to fight for us, the children are ready to die for their country and religion,” he said. (Garowe Online, Shabelle Media Network)

March 4, 2011: Aweys spoke to a crowd at a mosque in Afgoi and told them he would continue fighting against the TFG and African Union troops until he died. (Shabelle Media Network)

February 24, 2011: Aweys appeared with Ali Mohamed Rage at the public exhibition of a captured Burundian soldier and the dead bodies of other Burundian soldiers in Mogadishu. (SITE)

January 21, 2011: Aweys told Somalis suffering from the recent drought to be wary of foreign aid groups, claiming the groups had a secret Christian agenda. “There are Christian stamps on foreign food packages carrying messages aiming to Christianize our community,” he said. (Mareeg Online)

December 29, 2010: Aweys told Uganda and Burundi to withdraw their troops fighting in Somalia with AMISOM. "Pull out your troops or they will return to you dead,” he said. (Garowe Online)

December 28, 2010: Aweys called on al Shabaab to collect funds for the support of drought victims throughout south and central Somalia. (Mareeg Online)

December 27, 2010: Aweys publicly discussed the merger of Hizb al Islam and al Shabaab, confirming that he and his group would fight under the al Shabaab name against AMISOM. “We have united for the sake of our ideology and we are going to redouble our efforts to remove the government and the African Union from the country," he said. (AP)  

Breuk Bass updated this profile on August 19, 2013

Jared Sorhaindo updated this profile on August 3, 2012.


[1] “Somalia: The Transitional Government on Life Support,” International Crisis Group, February 21. 2011. p. 29. Available: http://www.crisisgroup.org/~/media/Files/africa/horn-of-africa/somalia/170%20Somalia%20The%20Transitional%20Government%20on%20Life%20Support.ashx
[2] For further information on Hizb al Islam, please see Nathaniel Horadam’s “Somalia’s Second Islamist Threat: A Backgrounder on Hizb al Islam,” AEI’s Critical Threats Project, October 8, 2010. Available: http://www.criticalthreats.org/somalia/somalias-second-islamist-threat-backgrounder-hizb-al-islam
[3] Michelle Shephard, “Somalia’s Shabab Shakeup and the Importance of Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys,” Toronto Star, July 7, 2013. Available: http://www.thestar.com/news/world/2013/07/07/somalias_shabab_shakeup_and_the_importance_of_sheikh_hassan_dahir_aweys.html
“Sheikh Aweys Captured as He Takes Flight from al Shabaab,” Daily Ethiopia, June 28, 2013. Available: http://www.dailyethiopia.com/index.php?aid=1440
“Former Islamic Court Leader Hassan Dahir Aweys Escapes from Barawe on Boat,” Mareeg, June 24, 2013. Available: http://www.mareeg.com/fidsan.php?sid=29378&tirsan=3
[4] “What You Need to Know About U.S. Sanctions,” U.S. Department of Treasury Office of Foreign Assets Control, January 20, 2011. p. 97. Available; http://www.treasury.gov/resource-center/sanctions/Programs/Documents/terror.pdf
In April 2010 an executive order concerning Somalia confirmed his SDGT status and provided additional aliases for Aweys. See “Additional Identifying Information Associated With Persons Whose Property and Interests in Property Are Blocked Pursuant to the Executive Order of April 12, 2010.” Available: http://www.federalregister.gov/articles/2010/04/20/2010-9009/additional-identifying-information-associated-with-persons-whose-property-and-interests-in-property#p-3
[5] “Consolidated List,” United Nations Security Council Committee established pursuant to resolution 1267 (1999) concerning Al-Qaida and the Taliban and Associated Individuals and Entities, January 24, 2011. Available: http://www.un.org/sc/committees/1267/consolidatedlist.htm#alqaedaind
[6] Clint Watts, Jacob Shapiro and Vahid Brown, “Al-Qaida’s (Mis)Adventures in the Horn of Africa,” Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, July 2, 2007. Available: http://www.ctc.usma.edu/wp-content/uploads/2010/06/Al-Qaidas-MisAdventures-in-the-Horn-of-Africa.pdf
[7] Al Ittihad al Islamiya (AIAI) was an Islamist militant group founded by Somali Salafis in the 1980s. Many of its fighters trained with al Qaeda in Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation, and returned to Somalia after the war. The group emerged as a prominent actor following the collapse of Siad Barre’s regime in 1991 and sought to create an Islamic state in Somalia. Although the exact start and extent of the relationship is unclear, al Qaeda began providing AIAI with direct financial and tactical support in the early 1990s. The group was designated as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO) under Executive Order 13224 on September 23, 2001. Available: http://www.state.gov/s/ct/rls/other/des/122570.htm
[8] Clint Watts, Jacob Shapiro and Vahid Brown, “Al-Qaida’s (Mis)Adventures in the Horn of Africa,” Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, July 2, 2007. Available: http://www.ctc.usma.edu/wp-content/uploads/2010/06/Al-Qaidas-MisAdventures-in-the-Horn-of-Africa.pdf
[9] “Profile: Somalia’s Islamic Courts,” BBC, June 6, 2006. Available: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/5051588.stm
Clint Watts, Jacob Shapiro and Vahid Brown, “Al-Qaida’s (Mis)adventures in the Horn of Africa,“ Combating Terrorism Center, July 2, 2007. Available: http://www.ctc.usma.edu/wp-content/uploads/2010/06/Al-Qaidas-MisAdventures-in-the-Horn-of-Africa.pdf
[10] “Majlis Al-Shura Council,” AfDevInfo, July 20, 2007. Available: http://www.afdevinfo.com/htmlreports/org/org_35074.html
[11] “Sheikh Aweys returns to Somalia to ‘reconcile Islamist factions’” Garowe, April 23, 2009. Available: http://www.garoweonline.com/artman2/publish/Somalia_27/Sheikh_Aweys_returns_to_Somalia_to_reconcile_Islamist_factions.shtml
[12] Abdiaziz Hassan, “INTERVIEW- Somali opposition leader vows to fight on,” Reuters, March 5, 2009. Available: http://uk.reuters.com/article/2009/03/05/idUKL4915892._CH_.2420
[13] “Cautious welcome for UN-brokered peace deal in Somalia,” Garowe, June 10, 2008. Available: http://www.garoweonline.com/artman2/publish/Somalia_27/Cautious_welcome_for_UN-brokered_peace_deal_in_Somalia.shtml
[14] “Somali Islamist leader ends exile,” Al Jazeera, April 23, 2009. Available: http://english.aljazeera.net/news/africa/2009/04/200942311829188736.html
[15] “Somalia’s Divided Islamists,” International Crisis Group, May 18, 2010. p. 10. Available: http://www.crisisgroup.org/~/media/Files/africa/horn-of-africa/somalia/B74%20Somalias%20Divided%20Islamists.ashx
[16] “Somalia’s top Islamist leaders in unity talks,” AFP, July 10, 2010. Available: http://www.google.com/hostednews/afp/article/ALeqM5irS90-on69foc2Og6GR7484RocCA
“Somalia: Al Shabaab rejects Aweys ‘unity’ proposal,” Garowe, June 3, 2010. Available: http://www.garoweonline.com/artman2/publish/Somalia_27/Somalia_Al_Shabaab_reject_Aweys_unity_proposal.shtml
[17] Richard Lough, “Somalia Showing Signs of Progress: UN Official,” Reuters, September 2, 2010. Available: http://af.reuters.com/article/topNews/idAFJOE6810K220100902
[18] “Shabaab and Hizb al-Islam in Somalia Unite,” SITE Intel Group, December 23, 2010. Available on SITE.
[19] “Somalia: Sheikh Aweys says he is alive, vows to continue insurgency,” Garowe Online, June 8, 2009. Available: http://www.garoweonline.com/artman2/publish/Somalia_27/Somalia_Sh_Aweys_says_he_is_alive_vows_to_continue_insurgency.shtml
[20] Alisha Ryu, “Doctors Without Borders Clinic Attacked in Somalia,” VOA, May 6, 2010. Available: http://www.voanews.com/english/news/africa/east/Doctors-Without-Borders-Clinic-Attacked-in-Somalia-92988739.html
[21] Abdi Guled, “Islamist rebels face off in southern port,” Reuters, September 24, 2009. Available: http://uk.reuters.com/article/2009/09/24/idUKLO59830._CH_.2420
 “Somalia: Aweys supports desecration of famous clerics tombs,” Garowe Online, April 1, 2010. Available: http://www.garoweonline.com/artman2/publish/Somalia_27/Somalia_Aweys_supports_desecretion_of_famous_clerics_tombs.shtml
[22] “Somalia: Islamist group invites Al Qaeda boss, bans music,” Mareeg, April 3, 2010. Available: http://mareeg.com/fidsan.php?sid=15650&tirsan=3
[23] “New press release from Ḥarakat al-Shabāb al-Mujāhidīn’s Shaykh Abū Muṣ’ab ‘Abd al ‘Azīz: “About the Allegations of the Split of Ḥizb al-Islām From al-Shabāb,” Jihadology, September 27, 2013. Available: http://jihadology.net/2012/09/27/new-press-release-from-%E1%B8%A5arakat-al-shabab-al-mujahidins-shaykh-abu-mu%E1%B9%A3ab-abd-al-aziz-about-the-allegations-of-the-split-of-%E1%B8%A5izb-al-islam-from-al-shabab
“Hizbul Islam’s Split From al Shabaab Further Isolates Militant Group,” Sabahi Online, September 27, 2013. Available: http://sabahionline.com/en_GB/articles/hoa/articles/features/2012/09/27/feature-01
[24] “Officials in Shabaab Faction Give Fatwa Against Targeting Hammami,” SITE Intel Group, April 30, 2013. Available at SITE.
[25] “Himan and Heb Held a Key al Shabaab Figure,” Bar Kulan. July 26, 2013. Available: http://www.bar-kulan.com/2013/06/26/himan-and-heb-held-a-key-al-shabaab-figure
[26] Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys: Al Shabaab Leader Questioned,” BBC, June 30, 2013. Available: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-23120468