- Conflicts - Governance
Somalia: International community condemns Islamists
“Shabaab does not have a Somali agenda,”
Militant Islamists reasserting themselves as the biggest obstacle to peace in Somalia were on Wednesday condemned by foreign powers for attempting to “overthrow the legal, legitimate and internationally recognised” government.
The censure from western, Arab and African governments came at a Rome conference on Somalia, which Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, the Somali president, was forced to miss in order to confront spiralling violence in Mogadishu, the capital.
In spite of its foreign support, his fragile government controls only a fraction of the country and has been unable to quell the lawlessness that has reigned for almost 20 years in the failed state, spawning piracy, human trafficking and terrorism.
In recent weeks, south and central Somalia have experienced some of their worst fighting in two years at the hands of al-Shabaab, a loose coalition of armed Islamist extremists, which is waging a bomb-and-mortar insurgency against a government led by moderate Islamists.
Al-Shabaab was designated a foreign terrorist organisation by the US last year and its strengthening ties with the global jihadist movement led by al-Qaeda have fuelled the recent intensification of violence. Those ties, however, are also harming it politically by undercutting al-Shabaab’s domestic support.
The result is a bloody stalemate in which no one wins and the beleaguered civilians of the failed state remain the losers: 1.3m have been forced from their homes and 3.2m – or 43 per cent – rely on humanitarian assistance to survive, say aid groups.
Al-Shabaab has enough weapons, fighters and territory to stop the government from establishing any authority beyond a few blocks of Mogadishu, the capital, and has killed off hopes that Mr Ahmed, a moderate Islamist elected president in January, would end 20 years of conflict.
But it does not have enough leverage to topple the government or trigger a fundamental shift in Somalia’s military and political dynamics. Things were different in 2006 when al-Shabaab, alongside Mr Ahmed, was part of the Islamic Courts Union, an alliance which ousted a previous incarnation of the government and created six exceptional months of law and order.
Its renewed venom today is explained by several factors. One is that the president has boxed it into a corner by pledging to implement some of its demands, including the introduction of Shariah law. Outsmarted politically, it responded with more violence.
Al-Shabaab’s members are a loose collection of fanatics, forcibly recruited teenagers and guns-for-hire. But it has gained fresh cohesion with the return from exile of Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, a unifying figure for extremists, who jointly led the ICU alongside the current president until it was toppled by Ethiopia in early 2007.
Its ranks have been boosted in recent weeks by an influx of several hundred trained foreign jihadists whose main purpose, Mr Ahmed has said, is “to turn the country into an Afghanistan or an Iraq”.
But al-Shabaab’s enrolment in al-Qaeda’s ideological war is also a source of weakness, which explains why, even if it did topple the government, it could probably not establish ICU-style control.
“Shabaab does not have a Somali agenda,” said Ali Said Omar, chief executive of the Center for Peace and Democracy, a think-tank. “They’re doing other people’s business with Somalia in the background. For that reason they don’t have popular support.”
A more immediate barrier to al-Shabaab is the African Union’s 4,000 peacekeeping troops, which have been more aggressive in defending the government in recent weeks.