Somali Islamists gain ground and strength

Sanders is a Times staff writer.

Two years after being routed from Somalia’s capital, an anti-Western Islamic movement is poised for a comeback in the besieged Horn of Africa nation.

Although the movement is divided by competing ideologies and goals, it has nonetheless made many gains recently through a combination of brutal force and political dialogue.

The militant wing, Shabab, which claims affiliation to Al Qaeda, now controls 90% of southern Somalia, including parts of the capital, Mogadishu. The moderate faction signed a peace deal with Somalia’s transitional government that could hand it half the seats in parliament.


Islamists who fled two years ago after their defeat by Ethiopian troops who had crossed the border to prop up Somalia’s government are reemerging to assert their authority in several cities, often imposing strict Islamic laws against dancing, drinking or conducting business during prayer time. They’re even starting to flex their muscles again to halt piracy offshore.

“They’re back with a bang,” said Rashid Abdi, Somalia analyst at International Crisis Group, a conflict-resolution think tank. “They actually control more territory now than they did in 2006.”

With Ethiopia’s recent threat to withdraw its troops, Islamist militias are positioned at Mogadishu’s outskirts. They vow to take over if, as many predict, the U.N.-recognized transitional government collapses once the Ethiopians leave.

“We are preparing to handle our freedom, and once the enemy leaves the country we will quickly stabilize the country,” Islamist spokesman Abdirahim Isse Adow said.

The only question is whether the Islamist movement can resolve the internal power struggles and conflicting visions that helped lead to its downfall two years ago.

Far from the Islamic Courts Union that defeated U.S.-backed warlords in early 2006, today’s Islamists have splintered into three groups.

Shabab remains the muscle of the movement. The militia always attracted hard-liners, but two years of fighting against Ethiopians and enduring U.S. missile strikes have further radicalized members.

As they have recaptured southern cities, some Shabab leaders have imposed Taliban-style rules, killed humanitarian workers and terrorized women. In Kismayo, a 13-year-old rape victim was stoned to death after being accused of adultery.

The other main faction, led by former Islamic Courts chairman Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed, is working to reconcile with the transitional government in a power-sharing agreement. Ahmed is viewed as a possible new prime minister, but Shabab commanders accused him of betrayal.

A third Islamist faction falls somewhere between the other two. Rivalries are so bitter that fighting among groups recently broke out south of Mogadishu.

“They are embracing radically different policies,” said Ken Menkhaus, a Somalia expert and professor at North Carolina’s Davidson College. “The next fight in Somalia is going to be between the Islamists.”

It’s a familiar struggle. When the Islamic Courts Union took control of Mogadishu in June 2006, factions pushed competing ideologies. Some closed cinemas and conducted public executions; others wanted a more modern interpretation of Islam. Differing views on how to deal with Ethiopian troops led the Islamists to fragment after a brief war in December 2006.

Lingering divisions may still prevent Islamists from regaining control, experts say. Government officials acknowledge that they are pursuing a “divide and conquer” strategy to lure moderates into the parliament while isolating hard-liners.

“The splintering helps because now the extremists are all together,” said Awad Ahmed Ashareh, a member of Somalia’s parliament.

But Islamist leaders know the key to their return to power may rest with reunification.

“We are working on mediation,” said Ibrahim Hassan Adou, a former foreign affairs minister under the Islamic Courts. “These groups were once one.”

Abdi, the analyst, said Shabab would have the upper hand in any initial power struggle. “They have the military clout and the power has gone to their heads,” Abdi said. “They think they can do anything.”

But he predicted that public resistance to Shabab’s harsh policies would make it realize that it needs its former allies to help run the country. “The burden of governing is different from the burden of fighting,” he said. “They will have to reach out and mellow their ways.”

Meanwhile, beleaguered Somalis are bracing for another change in power.

As in 2006, many expressed mixed feelings. The Islamists’ six-month reign earned praise for restoring security. But the price was personal freedom and rights. There were bans against Western haircuts, movies and chewing khat, a leafy stimulant.

After Shabab seized the port city of Kismayo this year, crime and looting ceased.

“We had no peace, but now the situation is calm,” said one Kismayo resident. “The problem is they impose rules that are too strict. . . . Many people, including me, hate them.

“But I’m going to see where the game ends.”



Special correspondent Lutfi Sheriff Mohammed in Mogadishu contributed to this report.