Dr. Michael A. Weinstein
The unfolding conflict between Harakat al-Shabaab Mujahideen (H.S.M.) and the clan militias fighting under the banner of Ahlu Sunna Wal-Jama'a (A.S.W.J.) for control of Somalia's central regions entered a new phase on January 10 and 11, when A.S.W.J. took major military action against Hizbul Islam (H.I.), which is tactically allied with H.S.M. in the central regions, in Beledweyne, the capital and strategic transit junction of the Hiiraan region; and against H.S.M in the villages of Wabho and Warhole in the Galgadud region that lie close to the town of El-Bur, where H.S.M. has its largest military base in the central regions.
A.S.W.J.'s action came ten days after H.S.M. had briefly captured Dhusamareb, the capital of Galgadud, in which A.S.W.J. is dominant. Although A.S.W.J. retook Dhusamareb a day later, it was forced to postpone the conclusion of a conference it was holding in the town of Abudwaq on forming a permanent administration for Galgadud. A.S.W.J. had previously stated that its aim was to eliminate H.S.M. from the central regions; the attack on Dhusamareb forced A.S.W.J.'s hand.
Run-Up to A.S.W.J.'s Counter-Offensive
On January 4, the day after it had retreated from Dhusamareb, H.S.M. opened a conference in Somalia's capital Mogadishu for 100 traditional clan elders from the country's southern and central regions for the purposes of training the elders in how to apply H.S.M.'s rigorous Salafist version of Shari'a law and how to support its present and planned regional administrations. At the training sessions, Sh. Mukhtar Robow, who has recently re-emerged as a power figure in H.S.M., said that H.S.M. would not permit the formation of rival administrations, such as the one being formed by A.S.W.J. in Galgadud. H.S.M. spokesman Sh. Ali Dhere said that the intent of H.S.M.'s attack on Dhusamareb was not to take the town, but to break up A.S.W.J.'s conference in Abudwaq, which it had succeeded in doing. A.S.W.J.'s chair for the central regions, Sh. Mohamed Farah, responded that the conference had been successfully concluded before H.S.M.'s attack, which contradicted A.S.W.J.'s earlier postponement of the conference's conclusion (key executive and advisory committees had not yet been chosen).
As H.S.M. laid down its line, Radio Gaalkayco reported that newly trained H.S.M. fighters with 50 armored vehicles were crossing from the Middle Shabelle region, where H.S.M is dominant, into the Hiiraan region, adding that H.S.M. was holding secret talks with H.I. in Hiiraan on a joint offensive against A.S.W.J. Also on January 4, Ethiopia, which backs A.S.W.J., sent forces into Hiiraan and re-established a base at the Kalabeyr junction near Beledweyne, conducted vehicle searches, and arrested eight suspected members of H.S.M.
On January 7, Sh. Ali Dhere announced that H.S.M had completed strategy talks and, "within a matter of days," would "capture some central regions." On the same day, A.S.W.J. and H.I. fought outside Beledweyne while Ethiopian forces remained at their base.
The rhetorical dimension of the conflict heated up on January 10, when Robow reiterated the claim that H.S.M. was ready to mount attacks and restated its aim of "extending Shari'a to the whole country" and establishing an "emirate." He said that H.S.M. would move north into the semi-autonomous state of Puntland and the self-declared independent republic of Somaliland, charging that both of them "answer to Ethiopia" and have "thrown away Shari'a." Robow accused the "Western powers" of trying to control Somalia by dividing it into regions and of working hand in glove with Ethiopia. In response, A.S.W.J. appealed to Puntland and Somaliland for support, arguing that if H.S.M. were to succeed in "moving past Galgadud," it would first move against the Mudug region to the east; then against Mudug's capital Galkayo, which is split between central Somalia and Puntland; and finally against Puntland and Somaliland. Emphasizing its determination to resist H.S.M., A.S.W.J. executed an H.S.M. commander whom it had captured after the January 3 battle in Dhusamareb. A.S.W.J. spokesman Sh. Abdullahi Sh. Abu Yusuf explained the group's first reported execution, stating that the H.S.M. commander had refused to recant his position "that all people were infidels except his group."According to a Reuters report, Sh. Abu Yusuf concluded: "What else are we supposed to do to those who believe they will go to paradise for killing us and the whole human race?"
Unlike H.S.M.'s January 2 attack on Dhusamareb, which appeared to take its rivals by surprise and had not been anticipated in local media, it came as no surprise when, on January 10, A.S.W.J. forces, led by the former governor of Hiiraan's Mahas district, Aden Abdulle Awale, mounted a full-scale attack on Beledweyne and succeeded in capturing the east side of the town from its H.I. administration. Over the next two days of fighting, the east side changed hands twice, after which A.S.W.J. forces attempted to attack the west side and were met with resistance at the bridge that connects east and west Beledweyne. As armed conflict continued on January 12, H.S.M. forces were reported to be mobilizing in the town of Bulo Burde to back up H.I. Somalia's internationally recognized but ineffectual Transitional Federal Government (T.F.G.), which is nominally and reservedly supported by A.S.W.J., declared that H.S.M. was supporting H.I. in Beledweyne. Fighting continued for a fourth day on January 13, with reports that the former T.F.G. governor of Hiiraan, Yusuf Dabaged, was involved on the side of A.S.W.J. Shabelle Media Network reported that H.S.M. forces had joined the H.I. militias. On January 14, Shabelle reported that fighting had ceased for the moment in Beledweyne, with H.I. and H.S.M. holding the west side of town and A.S.W.J. the east side.
On January 12, A.S.W.J. opened a second front in Galgadud, engaging H.S.M. between the villages of Wabho and Warhole, which, if taken from H.S.M., would open the way for an A.S.W.J. attack on the town of El-Bur, the site of H.S.M.'s largest military base in the central regions. Sh. Abu Yusuf announced that A.S.W.J. would "remove" H.S.M. from El-Bur: "We are prepared to do everything." Press TV reported that thousands of H.S.M. forces were moving into Galgadud to protect El-Bur.
Also, on January 12, the chair of A.S.W.J.'s council, Sh. Omar Abdikadir, announced that the three governing councils of the incipient A.S.W.J. administration would be elected in Dhusamareb. He continued to insist, however, that the Abudwaq meetings had been successfully completed before H.S.M.'s January 2 attack on Dhusamareb.
As reported by this writer in Garoweonline on December 8, 2009 and January 3, 2010, a knowledgeable source in the Horn of Africa disclosed that H.S.M.'s actions in the central regions have the wider aim of encircling Mogadishu in order to isolate completely the T.F.G. in the small enclave in the capital that it holds with the essential support of an African Union peacekeeping mission (AMISOM) - to strangle and suffocate the T.F.G. on its way to establishing an "emirate."
A.S.W.J., on the other hand, was an umbrella organization of traditional Sufi clerics that had held itself aloof from politics until a year ago, when it reacted to H.S.M.'s desecration of Sufi graves and shrines, and assassinations of Sufi clerics, by becoming the front for local and regional clan militias, politicians, and T.F.G. officials who had been displaced by H.S.M. and H.I., which has a Salafist-nationalist ideology. The alliances between clan warlords and politicians, and A.S.W.J. have worked to the advantage of both by providing the variegated anti-H.S.M. clan factions with a religious veneer and a possible political formula and alternative vehicle should the T.F.G. collapse entirely (as they seem to think it will); and by providing A.S.W.J. with muscle, the possibility of political power, and the opportunity to implement its own version of Shari'a.
The same source who disclosed H.S.M.'s encirclement strategy has provided explanatory intelligence on the current phase of the conflict in the central regions. The source reports that H.I. has been "heavily infiltrated" by H.S.M., which will take advantage of H.I.'s "precarious position" to get a foothold in Beledweyne should H.I. retake the town with its aid. The source goes on to underscore the expedient character of A.S.W.J.'s alliances with clan factions, noting in particular how the anti-H.S.M. Hawadle sub-clan (******) elements led by Abdulle Awale have simply exchanged the T.F.G. nameplate for the A.S.W.J. brand. The source reports intelligence that he cannot substantiate that clan factions fronted by A.S.W.J. are disputing over allocation of weapons provided by Ethiopia.
In assessing the balance of forces in the central regions, the source provides an analysis that need not be amended or enhanced. Arguing that the conflict in the central regions is a war of attrition imposed by H.S.M., the source points out "a major structural defect within A.S.W.J." that puts it at a disadvantaged position in confronting H.S.M. As a transclan movement, the source observes, H.S.M.'s battle casualties are shared among all clans and - it may be added - are relatively distant from them. In contrast, the sub-clans associated with A.S.W.J. bear the full brunt of battle casualties. Therefore, the source explains, it will be difficult for the sub-clans to sustain "heavy losses for long" when they "look at the Shabaab onslaught facing them," giving H.S.M. the edge.
That A.S.W.J. would counter attack was to be expected. The struggle for control of the central regions is now well underway, and there is no political brake to apply to decelerate it.
Report Drafted By: Dr. Michael A. Weinstein, Professor of Political Science, Purdue University firstname.lastname@example.org