African Union peacekeepers. (Photo by Abdurrahman Warsameh, ISN Security Watch. Available at Flickr.)

June 01, 2010

The Partitioning of Somalia: Islamists Strengthened Against Western-Backed Government

Key Points:
  • A partitioning of southern and central Somalia between al Shabaab and Hizb al Islam has weakened the opposition to al Shabaab and increased the Islamist threat to the Transitional Federal Government.
  • Hizb al Islam has become increasingly similar to al Shabaab in character and cannot be seen as a “moderate” alternative to al Shabaab.
  • Ahlu Sunna wa al Jama’a is the only real challenger to radical Islamist domination outside of Mogadishu, but its acceptance of Ethiopian aid may taint its victories in the eyes of the general Somali population due to historical tensions between Ethiopia and Somalia.
Current State of Play

Recent developments in Somalia indicate that the challenges to the survival of the UN-supported Transitional Federal Government (TFG) continue to increase. The TFG has never controlled much more than a few strategic locations in the country’s capital, Mogadishu, and key cities in southern and central Somalia. Currently, government forces do not have the strength to challenge the Islamist insurgent threat and rely heavily on support from the African Union mission to Somalia (AMISOM) peacekeeping force to maintain a weak perimeter around the presidential palace and the Mogadishu seaport and airport. Moreover, al Shabaab, the dominant Islamist group in Mogadishu, declared on May 24 that the next target would be the presidential palace, the Villa Somalia, after having successfully taken control of the north of the capital.[1] Outside of the capital, al Shabaab has solidified its control over southern Somalia; Hizb al Islam forces no longer challenge al Shabaab’s authority. Instead, Hizb al Islam forces have pushed northwards – they maintain a strong presence in the Afgoi district, but are also now a significant presence in the Galgudud region. This partitioning of Somalia between the two Islamist insurgencies has permitted each to concentrate on establishing Islamic administrations and redoubling their efforts against the TFG and pro-government forces.

The Islamist Partitioning of Southern and Central Somalia

Al Shabaab’s military dominance forced Hizb al Islam militias out of southern Somalia. The two Islamist insurgencies cooperated loosely against the TFG throughout the summer of 2009, but clashed over resources after having established control over southern Somalia. On October 1, 2009, Hizb al Islam and al Shabaab militants clashed over control of the lucrative southern port-city of Kismayo.[2] The city had been jointly administered until late September, when al Shabaab declared an independent government, which Hizb al Islam leaders refused to recognize. Hassan Turki, the leader of the Ras Kamboni Brigade, the most powerful militia of the four allied under Hizb al Islam, led the drive against al Shabaab. Al Shabaab beat the Ras Kamboni militia, however, and proceeded to conduct a series of attacks throughout the Lower Jubba Valley, taking control of Ras Kamboni’s strongholds in the major towns of Afmadow, Jilib, and Dhobley.[3] On December 23, 2009, an al Shabaab spokesman, Sheikh Hassan Yaqub Ali, declared that al Shabaab had control over the entire Lower Jubba region.[4] Al Shabaab continued its offensive in southern Somalia and has effective control over the entire region.

Al Shabaab’s sweep through southern Somalia laid the groundwork for a de facto, geographic division between the two groups. Al Shabaab now controls all of southern Somalia and Hizb al Islam has refocused its efforts on territorial gains in central Somalia. The partitioning of southern and central Somalia decreased the level of infighting between the Islamist groups and also provided Hizb al Islam with the geographic space that would allow it to develop beyond loose, clan-based alliances.

Increasing Similarities between Hizb al Islam and al Shabaab

Starting at the end of 2009, Hizb al Islam increasingly began to parallel al Shabaab in its adoption of a radical form of Salafist Islam, its stated goal to establish an Islamist state, and even its tactics. Hizb al Islam carried out its first execution by stoning for adultery on December 13, 2009.[5] On April 7, 2010, Hizb al Islam pledged its allegiance to al Qaeda; seven months earlier, on September 20, 2009, al Shabaab released a video entitled, “Labaik, Ya Osama,” (At Your Service, O Osama).[6] Moreover, on May 12, 2010, Sheikh Mohamed Osman Arus, a Hizb al Islam leader, announced that Hizb al Islam would establish an administration in the Mudug region in central Somalia, showing that the group seeks to oust the existing administrations in that region, and on May 22, 2010, Hizb al Islam Foreign Affairs Secretary, Sheikh Mohamed Moallim, announced plans to form an Islamic government in Somalia.[7] Al Shabaab operates a radical Islamist quasi-state in southern Somalia constructed through similar steps.

Hizb al Islam may be able to more closely mirror Shabaab’s actions through increased strength and more operations due to new sources of revenue. On May 2, 2010, Hizb al Islam took control over the pirate town of Harardheere, which will provide income through taxation, and has also begun attacking aid agencies, a second manner through which the group will gain resources. On May 5, 2010, Hizb al Islam took over the Hawa Abdi clinic in Afgoi. The clinic reopened to aid workers on May 9, but equipment and supplies were destroyed or missing.[8]

Challengers to Hizb al Islam and al Shabaab

Ahlu Sunna wa al Jama’a, a Sufi Islamist group that serves as an umbrella group for pro-government militias, is the sole challenger to al Shabaab’s and Hizb al Islam’s hegemony over south and central Somalia. The TFG and Ahlu Sunna most recently formalized their relationship in a March 15, 2010 power-sharing agreement that gave Ahlu Sunna five ministerial seats, diplomatic posts, and senior positions in the police services. The agreement also defined terms for military cooperation.[9] Ahlu Sunna leaders did not universally accept the agreement and some warned that joining forces with the government would divide the group.[10] Despite these reservations, Ahlu Sunna militias have continued to fight against al Shabaab and Hizb al Islam throughout central Somalia while the TFG and AMISOM forces have fought to uphold the government in Mogadishu. On May 25, 2010, Ahlu Sunna announced that it had flown its fighters into the capital from throughout Somalia – the same day that the TFG Defense Minister, Yusuf Indho Adde, admitted that the TFG forces in Mogadishu were essentially defeated.[11] Though Ahlu Sunna is a Somali group united by an aversion to the form of radical Islam embraced by al Shabaab and Hizb al Islam, Ethiopia’s support of the group brands it as a foreign-supported actor, much like the AMISOM troops and the UN-supported TFG.

A November 30, 2009 cooperation agreement between the TFG and Ahlu Sunna wa al Jama’a sought official materiel support from Ethiopia for the Ahlu Sunna, though Ahlu Sunna had been receiving Ethiopian aid since December 2008.[12] Ethiopian involvement in Somalia rekindles historical grievances. Somalis perceived Ethiopian troops, when they ousted the Islamic Courts Union in the 2006-2009 war, as an invading force. Since the Ethiopian withdrawal, Ethiopian troops have primarily remained on their side of the border, fighting occasionally in minor skirmishes along Ethiopia’s southern border with Somalia against al Shabaab and Hizb al Islam militants. A recent clash in northwestern Somalia further tarnished Ethiopia’s image, complicating the general perception of Ethiopian materiel support for pro-government groups. On May 22, 2010, Ethiopian troops seized public transport vehicles in the Buhoodle district of Somaliland and clashed with local residents. Thirteen people died in the ensuing firefight.[13] Somaliland, the most stable region in Somalia, has declared its independence from Somalia, will be holding elections on June 26, 2010, and has taken security actions against violent Islamism. Ethiopia’s incursion into Somaliland could spike resentment against Somalia’s western neighbor and against the groups that it supports.

Al Shabaab announced that it has militants “just 0.5 km” from Villa Somalia, the presidential palace.[14] Ahlu Sunna wa al Jama’a has pulled militias from around the country to prevent the complete takeover of Mogadishu by Islamists, leaving south and central Somalia in the undisputed control of al Shabaab and Hizb al Islam, respectively. Additionally, the partitioning of Somalia between al Shabaab and Hizb al Islam has ended the conflict between the two – the Ras Kamboni Brigade recently announced that it would be independent of Hizb al Islam in order to continue to fight against al Shabaab.[15] Despite the efforts of the TFG-AMISOM-Ahlu Sunna wa al Jama’a alliance, al Shabaab will be able to pursue its own objectives in southern Somalia and will continue to directly threaten the survival of the TFG.

[1] “Al Shabaab Vows It Is the Right Time to Seize Presidents Palace,” Mareeg Online, May 24, 2010. Available:
[2] “Somali Rebel Groups Fight in Southern Port,” Reuters, October 1, 2009. Available:
[3] “Somalia’s Divided Islamists,” International Crisis Group, Africa Briefing No. 74, May 18, 2010. Available:
[4] “Al-Shabaab Official – We Took Over Several Districts and Villages Near Country,” Shabelle Media Network, December 23, 2009. Accessed via LexisNexis on May 25, 2010.
[5] “Somali Rebels Execute Two Men for Adultery, Murder,” AFP, December 13, 2009. Available:
[6] “Al Qaeda Members Land in Somalia from Yemen-govt,” Reuters, April 7, 2010. Available:
“Shabaab Responds to bin Laden Call in Video,” SITE Intel Group, September 20, 2009.
[7] “Radical Group to Set Up New Somalia Administration,” The Nation, May 12, 2010. Available:
“Rebels to Form an Islamic Government,” Mareeg Online, May 22, 2010. Available:
[9] “Somalia’s Divided Islamists,” International Crisis Group, Africa Briefing No. 74, May 18, 2010. Available:
[10] “Somalia’s Divided Islamists,” International Crisis Group, Africa Briefing No. 74, May 18, 2010. Available:
[11] “Somalia: Al-Shabaab Insurgents Vow to Seize Presidential Palace,” Garowe Online, May 25, 2010. Available:
“Fighters Reach Mogadishu,” Mareeg Online, May 25, 2010. Available:
[12] “Somalia’s Divided Islamists,” International Crisis Group, Africa Briefing No. 74, May 18, 2010. Available:
[13] “Somaliland-Ethiopia Border Clash ‘Kills 13,’” BBC, May 22, 2010. Available:
[14] “Somalia: Al-Shabaab Insurgents Vow to Seize Presidential Palace,” Garowe Online, May 25, 2010. Available:
[15] “Somalia’s Powerful Hizbul Islam Insurgent Group Splits,” VOA, May 13, 2010. Available:
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