Somalia's Second Islamist Threat: A Backgrounder on Hizb al Islam
The Islamist militant group al Shabaab continues to pose the greatest threat to stability in Somalia, and has only strengthened its positions within the country since Ethiopia’s withdrawal in January 2009. The fragile Transitional Federal Government (TFG) has limited territory in most of the country and now controls only a few square kilometers in Mogadishu. The African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) is the only military force preventing the TFG’s collapse, but it has a strictly defensive mandate, and the pro-government Sufi militia Ahlu Sunna wa al Jama’a lacks the military capacity to defeat al Shabaab on its own. Another Islamist militant group, Hizb al Islam, has suffered over the past year from al Shabaab’s rise despite a nominal alliance between the groups.
Hizb al Islam has endured many defections due to the disparate interests of its factions and successive military defeats. Nonetheless, the group still holds and administers several strategic locations in and around Mogadishu, and the coastal town Harardhere in Mudug region. Its militias continue to conduct operations, and it counts some of the nation’s most prominent and influential clan leaders and clerics among its ranks. It may not pose the threat within Somalia and internationally that al Shabaab does, yet it continues to act as a destabilizing force in the country.
Violence has plagued Somalia since the collapse of the Siad Barre regime in 1991. The present conflict that pits Islamists against the Somali TFG and its African Union backers began in 2006. The Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), an East African bloc comprised of Somalia and its neighbors, established the TFG as an interim government in 2004 to bring stability to the war-torn country. The TFG was ineffective, however, and religious factions arose to fill the power-vacuum in Somalia. The Islamic Courts Union (ICU), a coalition of regional Islamist administrations aiming to implement varying interpretations of Islamic law, took control of Mogadishu by June 2006 and expanded its authority throughout most of southern and central Somalia. Fearing the regional implications of an extremist and irredentist government next-door, Ethiopia invaded Somalia with U.S. backing and disbanded the ICU. The group’s primary militia, now known as Harakat al Shabaab al Mujahideen (or “al Shabaab”), stayed in Somalia to fight the Ethiopians, but most ICU leaders fled the country and took refuge in Eritrea.
In September 2007, two of the former ICU leaders, Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed and Sheikh Dahir Aweys, spearheaded the creation of a new opposition group from exile in the Eritrean capital Asmara called the Alliance for the Re-liberation of Somalia (ARS). The ARS was, at the onset, a coalition of both moderate politicians and hard-line ICU clerics and politicians united against reconciliation talks with Ethiopia until its military withdrew from Somalia. The ARS supported guerilla action against Ethiopian military forces in Somalia, while discussing a political solution with foreign negotiators.
In May 2008, the ARS leadership fractured and its coalition collapsed after Ahmed engaged the TFG in reconciliation talks in Djibouti. Aweys denounced the discussion, calling it a “waste of time” that did not represent the ARS as a body. Ahmed responded by publicly deriding Eritrea and Aweys for working against ARS unity and reiterated his support for the UN-backed reconciliation effort. The TFG and Ahmed’s faction within the ARS reached an accord in June 2008, which Aweys immediately rejected as untenable and illegitimate. Aweys’s refusal to participate in the reconciliation talks cemented the divide between him and Ahmed, as well as their respective wings of the ARS.
In January 2009, Ethiopia completed its military withdrawal from Somalia and handed control of the country to the rebranded TFG; however, al Shabaab vowed to continue its campaign of violence. The Somali parliament voted to double its size to 550 members to comply with the Djibouti agreement, with most of the new representation going to the ARS. The restructured Somali parliament elected the moderate Ahmed president as a compromise suitable to both existing parliamentarians and the body’s new Islamist bloc. However, several prominent clan-based factions rejected the compromise as illegitimate following the election and created Hizb al Islam in protest.
The hard-line clerics of the Asmara-based ARS – led at the time by Aweys – joined with the Ras Kamboni Brigade, Anoole, and Jabhatul Islam to form Hizb al Islam in early February 2009 with Sheikh Omar Iman Abubakar at the group’s helm. Iman Abubakar denounced the new Ahmed government as equally undesirable as the previous one. He said, "The so-called government led by Sharif Sheik Ahmed is not different from the one of Abdulahi Yusuf [the previous TFG president]. The country was not freed from the enemy and shari’a law was not imposed, how we can stop Jihad?" Muse Abdi Arale, then Hizb al Islam’s spokesman, threatened to fight any TFG forces that entered neighborhoods under his group’s control.
Tensions between the TFG and Hizb al Islam appeared to be quelled when President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed announced on February 28 that he had accepted a ceasefire with the group mediated by prominent Somali clerics. "I met with religious leaders and elders and accepted their demand for ceasefire and reconciliation with the opposition members, and I call on all opposition parties to halt the unnecessary violence," he said. The principal term of the agreement was an immediate implementation of shari’a (Islamic law) by the TFG, which Ahmed also claimed to have accepted. The supposed truce was short-lived, however, for Arale spoke out against the ceasefire, calling reports of an accord “baseless.” Arale said his group had met with mediators, but said they only discussed a partial withdrawal, not a comprehensive ceasefire.
Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys re-entered the picture several days later from Asmara, criticizing Ahmed and denouncing the TFG as an instrument of Ethiopia’s interests against Islam and Somali nationalism.
"Ethiopia blindly supported and praised Sharif [Ahmed], and that shows the country is still run by Ethiopians and their agents, and that is why we are fighting. They are fighting to stop any group that can employ shari’a law in Somalia, so this is a religious war. When invaders come in and try to force you to leave our religion, reject your nationhood and independence, and take your resources illegally, there is no option left but to fight," he said.
Iman Abubakar echoed Aweys’s sentiments, even adding that AMISOM was a tool of the United States in its war on Islam: "I want to remind the Somali people that the Burundian and Ugandan troops were trained by American forces and were sent to Somalia to fight with the (Mujahidin) holy war fighters and they do not want peace to prevail in Somalia." Instead of political reconciliation with the TFG, Hizb al Islam aligned with al Shabaab in militant opposition to the government. Al Shabaab spokesman Sheikh Mukhtar Robow, also known as Abu Mansur, thanked Hizb al Islam on March 16, 2009 for its collaborative efforts against pro-government forces in the Galgudud region of central Somalia.
Hizb al Islam fuses radical Islam and Somali nationalism; unlike al Shabaab it incorporates clan interests, and has not adopted a global jihadist mission. Although Aweys pledged allegiance to Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda several times, and has welcomed both into Somalia, foreign fighters have not joined the ranks of Hizb al Islam they way they have with al Shabaab.
Hizb al Islam set two conditions for the end of its hostilities against the TFG: the implementation of shari’a as Somali federal law and the withdrawal of all foreign troops from the country. These conditions have not changed despite the adoption of shari’a by the TFG in April 2009 because the version implemented by it was perceived as too weak by the Islamists. Hizb al Islam created its own Islamic administration to govern Somalia on May 22, 2010, although the group held little territory outside southern Mogadishu at the time.
The group had also used shari’a as a justification for many of its actions. In a November 2009 meeting with businessmen in Mogadishu, Aweys justified his mission against the Somali government by saying, “join the war because we are fighting to liberate our people and rule them with the shari’a law.” The group justified its May 2010 seizure of the port town of Harardhere from pirates’ control on the basis of installing shari’a. “Harardhere was experiencing insecurity, and that is why we captured it and implemented shari’a law," the group’s statement read. Likewise, its creation of an administration in Mudug cited installing shari’a as a driving factor. “We have been welcomed by the people in nearly 30 villages and settlements in Mudug region. The Muslim people in this part want our shari’a based rule,” said the group’s spokesman, Sheikh Mohamed Osman Arus.
Hizb al Islam has held non-governmental organizations to an Islamic standard of practices, shutting down those that it claims do not meet its expected level of assistance. In one instance, the group attacked a Doctors Without Borders Clinic in Hawa Abdi, near Mogadishu, and forced it to shut down in May 2010. Aweys also called for Somalis to support those who have been displaced by fighting during the holy month of Ramadan. Like al Shabaab, Aweys banned activities such as watching soccer, forced men to grow beards, and enforced harsh restrictions on journalists and radio stations. On September 19, Hizb al Islam militants raided the Global Broadcasting Corporation (GBC) station in Mogadishu and seized its broadcast equipment. Earlier in 2010, the group issued an order to all radio stations to cease playing music or it would shut them down.
RELATIONSHIP WITH AL SHABAAB
The relationship between Hizb al Islam and al Shabaab has fluctuated between strategic alliance and all-out conflict. On May 7, 2009, Hizb al Islam and al Shabaab commenced a joint offensive against the TFG in Mogadishu. The Islamists initially made significant gains in the city, capturing buildings and roads previously held by the TFG. However, the drive stalled after AMISOM troops intervened and pro-government forces launched a counterattack on May 22. The TFG subsequently regained many strategic locations, and the Islamists’ May offensive ended in stalemate.
On June 3, 2009 Aweys announced he and al Shabaab senior leadership were discussing a comprehensive and imminent merger of the two militant groups. Yet several al Shabaab leaders refuted his claims and said that while the groups shared military goals, they would not fight under the same banner.
The first major public confrontation between Hizb al Islam and al Shabaab erupted in July 2009 after Hizb al Islam militants captured two French security advisers in Mogadishu. Al Shabaab demanded Hizb al Islam turn both over to its custody, however, the latter initially refused. In order to “avert bloodshed,” Aweys said he ordered the Frenchmen’s captors to hand both men over to al Shabaab, although Hizb al Islam ultimately retained one of them.
Aweys continued to insist that unity talks between the groups were underway; he said on July 24, 2009 that they must merge in order to successfully administer an Islamist Somalia. One month later, on August 24, he attempted to quell rumors that he was negotiating a settlement with the TFG and reiterated his commitment to Islamist unity. "I have never dreamed of joining [the TFG]...but there are direct talks between us [Hizb al Islam] and our brothers, Al Shabaab," he said. Nonetheless, the merger never materialized, and increasing tensions sparked open conflict in October. Hizb al Islam and al Shabaab had agreed to the shared governance of Kismayo, a lucrative port town in southern Somalia, whereby the two would rotate administrations every six months. However, al Shabaab refused to surrender control of the town to Hizb al Islam after its term expired, and Hizb al Islam began to protest in late August.
By late September both sides were preparing for conflict, which erupted on October 1. Al Shabaab’s forces quickly and decisively routed Hizb al Islam from the town. Despite a truce agreement recognizing Kismayo as al Shabaab’s, the sides continued to fight throughout southern Somalia. Ultimately, al Shabaab neutralized and assimilated the principal Hizb al Islam opposition faction in the south, the Ras Kamboni Brigade. After losing its southern holdings, Hizb al Islam’s fighters moved north and concentrated in central Somalia where they could reconsolidate power. However, this attempt largely failed. Hizb al Islam was unable to wrest control of the strategic town Dhusa Mareb from Ahlu Sunna wa al Jama’a, and lost Beledweyne to al Shabaab.
In June 2010, Hizb al Islam’s Hiraan administration withdrew from Beledweyne, a strategic central town, and defected to al Shabaab. Since then, the groups have continued to fight each other sporadically in Mogadishu for control of key positions in the city’s northern districts, but most recently launched a joint attack against AMISOM troops. On July 10, sources from both militant groups reported unity talks between Aweys and al Shabaab leader Abdi Mohamud Godane, also known as Abu Zubair, which were allegedly mediated by foreign al Qaeda militants. Various media reports later that month, citing unnamed sources from both groups, claimed the discussions broke down. Both Hizb al Islam and al Shabaab publicly rejected those allegations as false and maintained that unity talks were still underway.
Hizb al Islam currently holds limited territory. The last major offensive operation it conducted independently of al Shabaab was on May 2, 2010 when militants seized the port city of Harardhere in the Mudug region for “security” purposes and drove out the city’s pirates. On May 12, Sheikh Mohamed Osman Arus announced that Hizb al Islam was establishing a new Mudug administration in Harardhere. The group still holds the city and maintains a nominal Mudug administration, but has not made further gains in the region since that announcement.
Hizb al Islam still holds several strategic districts in and around Mogadishu, and it continues to carry out smaller-scale operations in the city. Its principal stronghold is Afgoi, a strategic town 25 kilometers west of Mogadishu. On September 13, its militants raided Lafole, a town roughly halfway between Afgoi and Mogadishu, desecrating graves and destroying IDP camps. The group also holds several positions in Mogadishu’s northern districts. The Yaqshid district police station was the site of some particularly deadly clashes between Hizb al Islam and al Shabaab during their infighting. Since the Islamists launched their joint Ramadan offensive in August, Hizb al Islam has been very active against TFG and its allied forces, particularly in the Hodan and Hawl Wadag districts. The GBC radio station Hizb al Islam attacked in September is in the Heliwa district, suggesting a presence for the group there as well.
Despite its struggles over the past year, Hizb al Islam remains a threat to pro-government forces and contributes to instability in Somalia. Its commitment to a radical Islamist ideology and connections to prominent clans in the country make it an appealing compromise for Somalis who reject the TFG but distrust the foreign elements within al Shabaab. Hizb al Islam’s battle with al Shabaab in Kismayo in October 2009 sparked a period of decline for the group, whereby it lost all influence in Somali’s southern regions. The defections of its Hiraan administration and Ras Kamboni to al Shabaab further weakened Hizb al Islam. As a result, the Asmara wing of the ARS is now the undisputed force behind Hizb al Islam with control of Harardhere, Afgoi, and several northern districts in Mogadishu. Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys ultimately controls the fate of Hizb al Islam, and any formal shift in allegiance to al Shabaab is dependent upon him.