Fourteen peace conferences were held for Somali factions since 1993 to foster clan reconciliation and restore central government in that beleaguered country. None has been successful. The wounds of the bitter clan conflict that ravaged Somalia in the past decade are yet to heal. The last peace conference held in Kenya was concluded in October 2004, producing a new Transitional Federal Government (TFG) after two years long negotiations.
In present-day Somalia, criminal offence and human rights abuse are ordinary occurrences and perpetrators are largely not liable to punishment. Trade in small weapons is booming and light automatic assault guns are easily available for sale throughout the country. The unregulated arms proliferation and traffic is threatening the stability of the entire Horn of Africa region. The country has become a breeding ground for fundamentalist religious groups promoting extremism and intolerance. A number of extremist groups, allegedly having links with international terrorist groups, have taken shelter in southern Somalia, taking advantage of the prevailing anarchy and vacuum in governance. Southern Somalia is increasingly becoming a conduit for drugs, guns, crime, Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism that can undermine the stability of an already volatile Horn of Africa region and beyond.
Islamic extremists have succeeded in filling the vacuum left by the demise of the government. Today, radical Islamic groups provide education, health, welfare, justice, employment and other services to a large number of the disadvantaged Somalis. religious extremists established Islamic schools ranging from Koranic study centers to Islamic universities.
Taking advantage of the prevailing lawlessness and state breakdown, a shadow force is in operation in Somalia today; stealthily working, from behind the scenes, to frustrate international efforts geared towards the restoration of central government in Somalia. This shadow force has played a pivotal role in the failures of successive Somali peace conferences. The Somali people, including prominent warlords in Mogadishu, are indeed hostages to this potent shadow force. Nonetheless, both Somalis and the well-wishing international community have failed to take serious note of the potential menace posed by the ghostly spectre haunting the unsuspected populace and its formidable bearings on social, economic and political life of war-weary Somalis.
II. The Genesis of Al-Ittihad in Somalia (1967 – 1991)
The Somali people are predominantly adherents of the Shafi’ya school of thought of Islam, one of the four main branches followed by Sunni Muslims. Muslims are generally divided into followers of two main sects: Sunni and Shia. The majority of the Muslims, all over the world, follow the Sunni sect. The majority of the Shia followers reside in Iran. The Sunni Sect early on separated into four main schools of thought, i.e., Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi’ya and Hanbali.
Wahabbiya (Wahabbism), a derivative of the Hanbali branch that form the basis of the political and spiritual ideology of the Saudi Monarchy, had been endeavouring to make inroads into many parts of the Muslim world, including the Horn of Africa, for many years. Wahabbism was founded by Abdul Wahab (1703 – 1792) as a religious movement with the aim of cleansing the Arab Bedouin from the influence of Sufism, the mystical trend of Islam. The Saudi government officially sponsors the spread of Wahabbism, also called Salafi, into the Muslim communities around the world. Over the past several decades, Wahabbis have been active in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Kosavo, Philippines and the Horn of Africa.
Wahabbism (Wahabbiya, as is well known locally) was formally brought to Somalia in 1947 by Sheikh Nur Ali Olow (Majertain, Ali Saleebaan). He introduced it to the northeastern and central regions of Somalia and later to Mogadishu. Wahabbiya’s teachings were soon detected to be in contradiction with the widely-held Shafi’ya teachings and tradition. Rejecting the tenets of the Wahabbiya, the traditional clerics issued rulings banning its propagation. It was eventually reduced to a certain belief held by few individuals perceived as heretics.
Subsequent to the independence of Somalia in 1960, the government turned, initially, to the West, and later to the Soviet Union, for economic support and technical assistance. External aid was indeed crucial for the newly-born republic to attain modernization of education and develop human resources potentialities required for the management of public institutions and the infrastructure. However, the initial Westernisation drive of the Somali government infuriated, at once, some of the traditional religious leaders and the more enlightened Islamic scholars trained in Egypt. This has coincided with the early proliferation of Islamic fundamentalism, at the height of popularity of Muslim brotherhood, an Islamic movement that swayed immense influence among the Muslim populations of Asia and Africa.
In southern Somalia, the anti-Western reaction crystallized into the formation of a little known Islamic organization called Al-Ahal in 1967, founded by a certain Abdulqadir Sheikh Mohamed. Al-Ahal broke up into two organizations, subsequently: Attakfir and Assalafiya. In northern-western Somalia, the anti-Western reaction culminated in the creation of Muslim Youth Union (Wahdada) by a group of religious leaders in Hargeisa, in late 1960s. Assalafiya and the Muslim Youth Union merged subsequently in a meeting held in Burao in 1984, and jointly gave birth to a new organization to be known as the Al-Ittihad Al-Islami (Islamic Union/Islamic Unity). Sheikh Ali Warsame (Isaaq, Habarjeclo) assumed the leadership of the newly founded Al-Ittihad Al-Islami.
From the inception, Al-Ittihad has been created as a compound of a number of entities whose constituent units operate with relative operational freedom although still inter-dependent, financially and organizationally. The units have sufficient contacts between them and, at times, impact on each other’s decisions and actions, though each still acts self-sufficiently as a part of a whole. While an extraordinary umbrella framework has been instituted in the form of Al-Ittihad, a unified command structure has neither been visible nor identified from the start. Empirical observations suggest Al-Ittihad as a highly decentralized movement with no known or identified command and control centre. However, its broader objective of establishing an Islamic state in the Horn of Africa has been, unmistakably, clear from the onset. What has never been clear, though, is the content and substance of its political programme.
Several other groups remained outside the newly-born Al-Ittihad organization. Groups within the Wahdada and Assalafiya declined to join due to misgivings on the likely future ideological direction of the new organization and owing to negative accounts on Assalafiya propagated by the Muslim Brotherhood. Al Islah , another Islamic group that branched off from the Muslim Brotherhood, with large followers in Somalia, opted to exist and operate independently even though it generally espoused similar religious ideology and pursued common objectives with Al-Ittihad. Al-Takfiir, a militant extremist group that virtually detached itself from the society, operated within the Al-Ittihad establishment in complete seclusion. Due to its subtle and discreet activities and physical detachment from the general public, it is sometimes mistakenly regarded as a separate and independent outfit or a sort of a splinter group that branched off from Al-Ittihad. The group was responsible for providing care and livelihoods for the orphans of the deceased Al-Ittihad members. Al-Takfiir is considered to be the closest to al-Qaeda in terms of ideological dispositions and modus operandi, and is widely believed to have sustained operational links and collaborative relationships with Osama Bin Laden.
During the period between 1984 and 1991, Al-Ittihad registered significant organizational growth; its membership swelled through grassroots enrolment alluring the disadvantaged, particularly the downtrodden and less fortunate segments of the society. It managed to penetrate into the civil service, the military and academic institutions, as its peaceful and sophisticated methodology of getting across its Islamic awakening message won popular acceptance, and due to the fact that it, relatively, refrained from meddling into the affairs of the government. In what amounted to a major departure from the religious tradition, it started to lay the foundations for a solid economic base launching a network of interdependent small businesses in major cities and towns, introducing slowly but steadily, bits of Wahabbiya culture and philosophy on the way. All of these programs were consciously executed with subtlety and sophistication, ringing no alarm bells. The intelligence agencies of the then Somali government failed to detect any danger signals.
Due to the magnetism of the oil boom in the 1970s and perhaps lured by the petrodollar, tens of thousands of Somalis flocked to Saudi Arabia for employment opportunities in the 1970s and 1980s. Thousands more were offered scholarships by the government of Saudi Arabia. The majority of the Somali students who turned up in the kingdom found their way into the Islamic University of Medina. Others studied at Um-Alqura University in Mecca and the Imam Saud University in Riyad. The Somali students in these universities were provided with lavish benefits and financial assistances, such as free accommodation and food, generous pocket money or monthly stipends, marriage allowances and yearly round-trip tickets. The large outflow of thousands of manual labourers and young educated males to the Gulf States in the 1970s gave the Arab radical religious groups an opportunity to interact with, cultivate and eventually indoctrinate the fertile minds of essentially non-radical Muslim Somalis. Hence, for the first time, a large number of Somali youth came in contact with political/radical Islam, activist Islamic groups and transnational Islamic issues. Upon their return to Somalia, newly converted Somali Islamists became instrumental in the activation of circles of Islamic study groups linked with Muslim Brotherhood in major urban centres. Closely-knit cells of Muslim Brotherhood composed of educated and professionals became active, especially in Mogadishu, Hargeisa and Burao cities, afterwards.
Throughout this period, it was the policy of the Saudi government to prevent Somalia in pursuing oil explorations in its territory. The Saudi government has also been tacitly supporting Somalia’s relentless efforts aimed at obstructing extraction of oil in the Somali region of Ethiopia. In return, Saudi government provided free oil and substantial financial support to Somalia. With this financial incentive, Saudi government relatively influenced the internal policy of Somalia, especially in the promotion of Arabic language and Islamic culture. Competing with Saudis and certainly interested to stem the growing influence of the Saudi government in Somalia, the Al-Azhar University of Egypt offered scholarships to thousands of Somali students, in the 1970s. These were students who have completed Egyptian secondary schools in Mogadishu, namely, Jamal Abdinasir and Sheikh Suufi. Egypt also constructed and financed primary and intermediate schools in Hargeisa, Burao, Galkayo, Belet Weyne, Mogadishu and Kismayo. Students who have completed these schools were enrolled in the two Egyptian secondary schools in Mogadishu. Hence, thousands of trained professionals who have graduated from Egyptian educational institutions eventually got their way into the rank and file of the civil service and the military.
On 21 October 1969, the Somali army commander, General Mohamed Siad Barre, took power in a bloodless coup. Siad Barre declared Somalia a socialist state and initiated a range of socialist economic programmes. The National Assembly was dissolved and political parties were declared illegal. The military government proclaimed “Scientific Socialism” as the political ideology of the state and set out to build a socialist-oriented system with the help of the Soviet Union. It adopted Latin script as the official script of the Somali language. The proclamation of “Scientific Socialism” and the choice of the Latin script for Somali language, instead of Arabic script, dealt a big blow to the Islamists and enraged the Arab ruling classes.
Underground radical religious movements and organizations supported by the Arab Islamic fundamentalists started ill-timed grassroots campaigns intended to provoke public resentment against the government. In response, the state machinery launched massive campaigns against religious leaders, especially those branded as anti-Socialism. In 1975, Siad Barre executed ten religious leaders for publicly opposing the government’s new Family Law.
Many of the radical religious figures were subsequently sent to detention centres. Those who were not arrested either left the country or went underground. Those who left the country eventually settled in the Gulf Arab states. As a consequence, Islamic fundamentalism failed to regenerate itself throughout Siad Barre’s regime.
III. Proliferation of Al-Ittehad in the aftermath of the demise of Somali government
In the closing days of Barre’s regime, radical religious groups began to unveil their camouflage cover. Taking advantage of the emerging chaos and the breakdown of law and order, radical religious groups got the courage to preach openly and call for the imposition of the Sharia Law and for the establishment of an Islamic State in Somalia. Al-Ittihad, the most militant of the Islamic groups mushrooming in Somalia, capitalized on the power vacuum.
The ground was ripe for Al-Ittihad’s takeover of Somalia in 1991. With high degree of organization and ample financial resources, it has effectively replaced the demised governmental institutions. It quickly took over the business sector, setting up booming and lucrative entrepreneurial trade network in all over Somalia. It established many profitable businesses such as banks, import-export trading companies, bakeries, shopping centers, small industries, telecommunications, credit schemes, transport networks, relief organizations and well-financed religious schools (not traditional Koranic schools), similar to the religious Madrassas in Pakistan. Al-Ittihad supplanting some of the collapsed state functions began to administer Islamic Courts and to enlist its own militia force, buying huge quantities of the weaponry left behind by the disintegrated Somali military. In the absence of a central government in Somalia, Al-Ittihad became the major employment opportunity provider to the largely impoverished ordinary Somalis. Furthermore, taking advantage of the presence of UNISOM in Somalia in early 1990s, Al-Ittihad became a major contractor and supplier for the UN. It has also provided security escort services for the UN, receiving huge revenues, in return.
At the same time, Al-Ittihad has been linked to a number of kidnappings and murder of aid workers that took place in southern Somalia and in Somaliland in 2003 and 2004. The military wing of Al-Ittihad has admitted responsibility for a series of bomb attacks that rocked Addis Ababa in 1996 and 1997. The US government has accused Al-Ittihad of having ties with Al-Qaida .
According to the Centre for Defence Information (CDI), Al-Ittihad “has known ties with other Islamic terrorist organizations, notably al-Qaida, and advocates the spread of Islamic fundamentalism as well as a vehement hatred of the West and secular government”. The report further states that Al-Ittihad “received financial support from terrorist financiers in the Middle East and Diaspora remittances from abroad as well as weapons, funding, recruitment and logistical training from al-Qaida” . Al-Ittihad members have received training in Afghanistan . During the height of the Afghan War, more than 1,000 Somalis fought alongside the Afghan mujahidin fighters. Many of the Somali Afghan war veterans and some of the Somali students who have studied at the International Islamic University in Islamabad, Pakistan, are believed to have joined the rank and file of Al-Ittihad in early 1990s. “A new jihadist network based in Mogadishu – which also has al-Qaida ties – emerged in 2003” , writes Nate Leskovic. “This new group”, Leskovic continues, “led by Afghanistan-trained former al-Ittihad commander Aden Hashi Ayro –has been implicated in the assassination of four foreign aid workers and at least 10 Somali military and police officers”.
Like the Taliban of Afghanistan, Al-Ittihad is a mysterious organization engaged in clandestine operations. Its activities are largely undercover and beyond the legal bounds. Its operations are painstakingly deliberated with maximum care, preparation and in complete secrecy. Like the Taliban, it receives huge financial support from radical Islamic institutions, religiously radical Arab elites in the Gulf States and through complex fund-raising schemes.
Like the Taliban, Al-Ittihad has regional and international links with transnational radical religious movements and is in pursuit of expansionist strategies that could have adverse security implications for the countries of the Horn of Africa and beyond. Like the Taliban, it is hostile to fellow Muslim compatriots who do not espouse similar Islamic ideals and to non-Muslims whom it regards as infidels.
But unlike the Taliban, Al-Ittihad is run by a highly educated, sophisticated and professionally trained leaders and is likely to avoid premature takeover of power in Somalia that could expose its very nature and actual identity. Unlike the Taliban, it is actively engrossed in money making businesses, generating its own funds. Its financial network and resources are expanding, increasing further its capacity to finance terrorist, and insurgency operations. Unlike the Taliban, it has been unable or unwilling to hold territory and retain exclusively control over it. And unlike the Taliban, Al-Ittihad is engaged in trans-state terrorism and keeps professionally trained terrorist cells.
IV. Al-Ittihad’s Areas of Influence in Somalia
Somaliland has been the birthplace and the stronghold of Muslim Youth Union (Wahdada [1968 – 1984]), one of the founding groups of the extremist Islamic organization of Al-Ittihad. The Muslim Youth Union (MYU) was founded by Islamic scholars who have studied in Egypt and some of the traditional religious leaders who were in opposition to the influence of Western culture in Somali society. The architects of the Muslim Youth Union intended to register their rejection to the spread of Western “pop culture” and love, sex and violence-dominated movies. The MYU was founded by:
Omer Abdirahman (Isaaq) commonly known as Eesh, a teacher trained in Egypt in the 1950s.
Sheikh Abdirahman Hashi (Isaaq), a well-known traditional religious leader who later received higher education in Saudi Arabia
Abdiqadir Haji Jama (Isaaq), a teacher who learned Islam through self-effort
Omer Hadraawi (Isaaq), an erstwhile socialist-oriented politician who turned religious, afterwards.
Sheikh Ali Warsame (Isaaq) - the brain-child of both the MYU and the Al-Ittehad Al-Islami – is a mysterious, reclusive ideologue of Islamic fundamentalism who resides in Burao, the capital of Togdheer region.
In early 1970s the Muslim Youth Union, locally known as the Wahdada, widely influenced and appealed to the mainstream of youth in the secondary schools in the cities of Hargeisa and Burao. It was during this period that women in veils and beard-growing men were seen in the streets of these cities, for the first time. The number of religious centers (madaressas) increased exponentially, transforming into “centers of propagations” of the ideals of the Wahdada. The only existing library at the Egyptian cultural center in Hargeisa served the movement as a venue for covert meetings, indoctrination and a propaganda base. As a result, the Somali government closed down the Egyptian cultural center in 1976. Egypt was accused of encouraging and supporting the anti-government activities of the Wahdada movement.
Subsequent to stern government crackdown and public disapproval of their outlandish values and ethics, the movement went underground. Some of their leaders were arrested, some fled to Saudi Arabia, and many others joined the Somali National Movement (SNM), an armed opposition movement dominated by Isaaq clansmen launched in Ethiopia in early 1980s, against Siad Barre’s regime.
Under the charismatic leadership of Sheikh Ali Warsame (Isaaq, Habarje'lo), Al-Ittihad established full-fledged presence in Hargeisa, Burao and Borama cities of Somaliland, soon after the demise of the Somali government. Sheikh Ali Warsame has been successful in enrolling almost all the urban dwelling community of the Habarje'lo clan into the mainstream of the Al-Ittihad organization. Although Sheikh Ali Warsame has been the leader of the Al-Ittihad forces that seized the port city of Bosaaso in 1992, he opposed war, while the military wing under Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aways prevailed and executed the 1992 conflict in Bosaso. Incidentally enough, the Al-Ittihad wing in Somaliland provides solid support base for the KULMIYE opposition political party lead by Ahmed Silanyo (Isaaq, Habarje'lo). Mr. Silanyo himself is not a religious figure in any sense. But the fact the Al-ittihad followers bring into the party clan loyalty, energy and money serves simply to demonstrate how radicals, regardless of their trans-national agenda, are unable to unfetter themselves from the cancerously binding of clan kinship.
History indeed repeats itself. The town of Burao, the original birthplace of the Al-Ittihad became the true bastion of the organization, after the demise of the Somali government. Burao has another strategic advantage for Al-Ittihad. It is the biggest livestock market in the Horn of Africa. Through peaceful and non-violent ventures, Al-Ittihad took command of the entire business sector in Somaliland. To avoid regional authority’s supervision and regulations, a new marketplace has been set up by Al-Ittihad in a place called Yarowe, southeast of Burao, in early 1990s. Yarowe soon became the most important business hub in the territory of Somaliland.
From Burao and Yarowe, Al-Ittihad quickly expanded its coverage into Hargeisa and Borama. It eventually established a military training center in Amoud in the outskirts of Borama in early 1990s. It established direct flight links with the Arab Gulf States through a number of unmanned airstrips in Somaliland, such as the one at Kalabaydh, close to the Ethiopian border.
Al-Ittihad has been attributed to a number of mysterious, targeted killings that took place in Somaliland between 2003 and 2004. A Swiss businessman was killed in Hargeisa in January 2003, after unknown assailant shot him at the head from a close range in front of a busy supermarket. On October 5, 2003, an Italian veteran aid worker was shot dead in Borama where she has established a local hospital that provides treatment to TB and HIV/AIDS patients. On October 19, 2003, a British couple, a teacher and his wife, were killed in the town of Sheikh, where they were teaching at an SOS school. In another unpleasant incident, on April 19, 2004, unknown assailants ambushed a vehicle belonging to a German NGO, GTZ, on the highway linking Hargeisa to Berbera, killing a Kenyan expatriate woman and wounding a German staff member of the organization.
The motives behind these targeted assassinations are not known and no one claimed responsibility for these cruel and horrifying assassinations. In light of the above historical background to the strength of Al-Ittihad, the Somaliland authority’s claim to shift the blame on Al-Ittihad’s Mogadishu branch is not plausible. It is entirely possible that the perpetrators of the above mentioned crimes are home-grown terrorists. Political pundits observing developments in Somaliland are of the opinion that these attacks are highly organized, interconnected and premeditated.
These targeted assassinations against international expatriates are believed to be the work of professional killers. All of these slain expatriates were hit right on the forehead. According to local sources, the guns used by the assailants were fitted with silencers. Hence, those close to the site of the crime have not heard the blast of the gunshots. The degree of proficiency displayed in the execution of this mysterious assassinations and the lip-sealing silence that ensued bear testimony to the involvement of an externally motivated terrorist organization.
Currently, although not engaged in violence, Al-Ittihad fully dominates the booming business sector in Somaliland. It manages a network of social organizations that provide employment and livelihoods to tens of thousands of ordinary Somalis. In a nutshell, it symbolizes a government in waiting, and seems to comfortably co-exist with the authority in Hargaisa.
Though stable and at peace, a serious power vacuum evolved in Puntland soon after the downfall of Siad Barre’s government in 1991. A perilous gap in administration that has been in the making in the closing days of Barre’s rule began to widen, as local community leaders and politicians were caught off guard by the sudden collapse of the government. The Somali Salvation Democratic Front (SSDF), a majertain dominated armed opposition movement that has been fighting against Barre’s government for nearly a decade was virtually in disarray at the time. Its leader has been in prison in Addis Ababa since early 1980s, after he fell out with his erstwhile benefactor, Mengistu Haile Mariam, Ethiopia’s military dictator. Disoriented, many members of its military wing have joined Siad Barre’s regime, subsequently. Most of the ex-SSDF forces were later inducted into the military and deployed in the northwestern region to fight the SNM, in late 1980s.
The downfall of the government and the end of the rule of a central authority has given tremendous opportunities to Al-Ittihad. Geographically perched on a conveniently accessible region, Puntland has a long coastline with both the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean and is situated in a close proximity to the Arabian Peninsula. It provided strategic advantage to Al-Ittihad’s militaristic trust. Wasting no time, with the consent and the blessings of the unsuspecting public, it quickly seized the overall control of the northeastern regions of Somalia, formerly knows as Majertainia. Al-Ittihad ruled the region during the period between March 1991 and June 1992.
To counter-balance the influence of the Hawiye-dominated USC, which has taken control of Galkayo city in central Somalia, former SSDF leaders initiated the revival of the now defunct SSDF. Gen. Mohamed Abshir Muse, a former police commander, has been appointed to lead the reformed movement. Upon his release and return to the area, Col. Abdillahi Yusuf reclaimed his chairmanship of the SSDF, in 1991. In order to avoid internal conflict that could potentially distract their forces from challenging the USC, the clan leaders wisely formulated a power-sharing formula acceptable to both of the contenders. Gen. Muse has been appointed to remain the political chairman of the SSDF, while Col. Yusuf has been assigned to lead the military wing of the movement.
At that juncture, Col. Yusuf’s first priority was to dislodge the USC from Galkayo and to stem its territorial conquest. He started to mobilize the youth, former fighters of the SSDF and ex-military personnel to form operational force capable of confronting the USC and to ensure the security of the regions under the nominal jurisdiction of the SSDF (Al-Ittihad kept sway of the real authority). However, his mission has been quickly constrained by Al-Ittihad, which prompted an economic embargo on Col. Yusuf, bringing to halt commercial goods and other supplies coming out of the port city of Bosaso, which remained under the sway of the militant Islamic group.
Since the bulk of the Al-Ittihad forces operating in Puntland were of Hawiye origin, the predominantly Majertain population of the region reacted with anger against the measures taken by the radical Islamic organization. The measures were also interpreted as a concerted anti-Darood effort aimed at imposing a Hawiye-dominated rule on Somalia. Hence, the majertain public rallied behind Col. Yusuf, rejecting the conciliatory tone adopted by the political chairman of the SSDF, Gen. Muse, who was strongly disinclined to support any move that could result in bloody confrontation between Al-Ittihad and the SSDF.
The public entirely behind him, Abdillahi Yusuf fought against Al-Ittihad in almost all the main towns of the region, including Garowe, Bosaso, Laskoray, and Las Anod, in June 1992. Facing their baptism of fire, Al-Ittihad organized reinforcements from their strongholds in Somaliland and southern Somalia and as far as the Somali region of Ethiopia. This was the bloodiest of all the battles fought by Al-Ittihad in its entire history. According to eyewitness accounts, thousands of combatants have perished from both sides, as the fighting degenerated into an all-out public uprising. Although at a very high cost, Al-Ittihad eventually received a shattering blow. It was militarily defeated; its forces disarmed and routed out of the region. It was forced to retreat from the towns and other strategic locations occupied and its influence contained, if not fully curtailed.
IV.3 Gedo Region
The Gedo region in southwestern Somalia has been the first area in Somalia in which an Islamic administration has been set up by Al-Ittihad. In the early years of 1990s, the region has been notoriously identified as a formidable bastion of International Islamic extremists, as militants hailing from many Muslim countries congregated there. Religious extremists from Sudan, Iraq, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and Pakistan convened and coalesced in Gedo to train Al-Ittihad fighters, establish forward logistic bases for terrorist activities particularly directed at Ethiopia and to provide professional security protection to top Al-Ittihad leaders.
For many years, Gedo served as a rear logistics base for Al-Ittihad’s forces fighting against Ethiopia, within the Somali region of Ethiopia. As a stronghold of Al-Ittihad, it prompted brief but recurrent incursions of Ethiopian defense forces into the region, since 1996. Ethiopian troops raided Gedo on several occasions to disable Al-Ittihad, which claimed responsibility for a number of terrorist attacks in Ethiopia.
Al-Ittihad took over the control of Gedo region soon after the downfall of the Somali government in 1991, under the command of Mohamed Haji Yusuf (Mareehan), a former Judge of the Higher Court of Somalia. The town of Luuq became the seat of Al-Ittihad’s administration in Gedo. In a stretch of several years, it established a police force, Islamic courts, Islamic education centers, and health centers, all intricately linked to the principles of Islamic Sharia laws. It outlawed the chewing of Qat (khat), reduced the stature and importance of traditional Islamic leaders, and built special mosques that served, exclusively, as communal centers for Islamists.
The grand strategy of Al-Ittihad in its seizure of Gedo region was to forge inland linkages between Al-Ittihad in Somalia and those in Northeastern Frontier District (NFD) of Kenya. Al-Ittihad maintained strong presence in NFD even prior to the collapse of the Somali government. It dominated the transportation business in both Kenya and Uganda and established and operated a number of Islamic schools.
After the defeat of Al-Ittihad in Gedo region by Ethiopian defense forces, Mohamed Haji Yusuf fled to Mandera town in Kenya to join his wife who was residing there already. The rest of the Al-Ittihad leaders, including Hasan Daahir Aways (Habargidir, Ayr), retreated to Mogadishu. Hassan Daahir Aways, one of the top leaders of Al-Ittihad, settled in Merca after his flight from Gedo, where he established the first Islamic court in Lower Shabelle region. (Hassan Dahir Aways, a former colonel in the Somali army, was the head of the military-wing of Al-Ittehad Al-Islami in Somalia. He is based in Mogadishu)). In 1999, he became in-charge of the southern Mogadishu Islamic court, while his associate Sheikh Ali Dheere (Abgaal) presided over the northern Mogadishu Islamic court.
Although Al-Ittihad has been defeated militarily in Gedo, their socio-economic infrastructure is still in tact. The remnants of Al-Ittihad fighters have finally regrouped around the towns of Elwaq and Buulo Hawo, near the Kenyan border.
Al-Ittihad never fought a war in Hawiye-dominated areas. Its war forays were purposely confined to Darod-dominated areas, i.e., Puntland, Somali Region of Ethiopia and Gedo. They have been exceptionally successful in quickly winning the hearts and minds of the local people and in forging alliances with the Hawiye faction leaders. They have never opposed any of the Hawiye faction leaders, so far. Al-Ittihad never took administrative control of any of the Hawiye-dominated regions of Somalia. It flourished and proliferated under the umbrella of the USC-Aided’s wing and under the auspices of Abdiqassim Salad Hassan and his Transitional National Government (TNG) formed in Arta, Djibouti, in 2000. In collaboration with the USC, it established a base in Merca, the capital of the Lower Shabelle region in 1992, taking over the control of the port and setting up an Islamic court.
Mogadishu, the Capital city of Somalia, which is now divided into a number of fragmented portions run by rival militias, is the nerve center of Al-Ittihad. It is the only place in the Somali inhabited regions where demonstrations in support of Osama Bin Laden have been held, after the September 11 terrorist attacks in the US.
Al-Ittihad maintains Islamic courts and its own militia force in Mogadishu. They also run various madarassa schools, relief organizations and almost all the business activities in the city, including export-import trading, transportation, telecommunication, storage facilities and banking systems. Al-Ittihad regulates daily currency exchange rates for southern Somalia, including Puntland. It maintains strong commercial ties with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) where Al-Ittihad retains commercial centers, offices and residential premises, and hideouts for its top leaders who mostly are in possession of UAE resident permits and bank accounts.
The higher-ranking Al-Ittihad leaders based in Mogadishu include, Mohamud Esse (Abgal), Sheikh Omer Faaruuq (Reer Aw Hassan), Hassan Daahir Aways (Habargidir, Ayr), Sheikh Ibrahim Suulay (Hawiye), Aden Hashi Ayro (Hawiye, Ayr) and Haji Addani (perhaps the most influential of Al-Ittihad leaders in southern Somalia).
Sheikh Ali Dheere (Abgal), who follows a different version of religious radicalism in Mogadishu, was instrumental in the establishment of the first Islamic court in North Mogadishu. Officials of another extremist Islamic organization, the Altakfiir Wal Hijra, headed by Abdiqadir Haji Mohamud (Majertain), which is believed to be the most intimate and closest to Al-Qaeda, in terms of ideological outlook, are residing in the Hawiye-dominated southern Somalia.
Doing things governments do, Al-Ittihad provides employment opportunities, maintains order, establishes justice, collects taxes, forges alliances, fights wars and influences the socioeconomic and political life of an entire population, who have not seen a semblance of government for more than a decade.
Al-Ittihad has always maintained significant presence in the Lower Juba region, although it declined to take control of the entire region or to dominate the political life of the conflict-ridden Kismayo City. It, however, maintained strong presence in the coastal areas, particularly in Ras Kambooni. It has never taken sides or participated in the numerous factional fighting that took place between forces loyal to Gen. Mohamed Farah Aidid and Gen. Mohamed Saeed Morgan or the USC and the SPM factions. The majority of the Al-Ittihad forces based in the Jubaland region were from the Darood clans. These groups were led by Sheikh Hassan Turki (Ogaden, Reer Abdille).
The port city of Kismayo in the southern Somalia is currently run by a group known as the Juba Alliance, a group allied to Abdiqassim Salad Hassan, President of the former Transitional National Government of Somalia who has links to Al-Ittihad. The Juba Alliance comprises elements from the Mareehan clan as well as from Habargidir (Ayr), the clan of Abdulqassim Salad Hassan and Hassan Dahir Aways.
IV.5 Somali Region of Ethiopia
Al-Ittihad made swift inroads into the Somali region of Ethiopia after it had embraced a devastating defeat in the hands of Col. Abdillahi Yusuf’s forces in Puntland. Al-Ittihad’s appearance in the Somali region of Ethiopia coincided at a time when massive influx of Somali refugees fleeing from the civil war in their country has turned up in the region. It also coincided at a time when the new Ethiopian government (that came to power in 1991) has not fully taken control of the region. For that reason, Al-Ittihad managed to establish full-fledged presence in the region, occupying large areas in Fiiq, Qorahey and Godey zones.
At the end of 1992, Al-Ittihad, launched surprise attacks in the Somali region of Ethiopia. It also took credit for a number of terrorist attacks and explosions that rocked Addis Ababa between 1993 and 1996. Subsequent to a number of bloody combats with Ethiopian defence forces, Al-Ittihad has been routed out of the Somali region of Ethiopia. Most of their leaders including, Sheikh Abdillahi Yare (Ogaden, Reer Abdille), Sheikh Dhaweed (Abskul), Sheikh Bade (Abskul) and Abdillahi Muhumad Irad (Ogaden, Reer Sa’ad) were killed in action. The remaining leading figures of the organization retreated to Mogadishu, subsequently. Those still at large include: Sheikh Abdillahi Omer (Ogaden, Tolomoge), Abdisalan (Ogaden, Makaahiil), Abdiqadir Haji Mahamed (Ogaden, Auliyahan), Ahmed Asoowe (Ogaden, Reer Abdille), and Ali Dhuux Dheere (Abskul).
At present, Al-Ittihad is certainly not a force to be reckoned with in the Somali region of Ethiopia. Its fighting force in the region has been successfully smashed and dispersed. Its top leaders are either killed or forced to flee from Ethiopia. Some of its former fighters have laid down their arms and returned to their villages of origin to resume normal, peaceful living. Others have submitted themselves to the government of Ethiopia, providing inside information on Al-Ittihad’s operations. Although Al-Ittihad is not presently a force to reckon with in the Somali region of Ethiopia, it is neither a spent force. In actual fact, Al-Ittihad is akin to a volcano that stopped spewing its blistering lava but is likely to resume eruption any time.
IV.6 The North-eastern Frontier District of Kenya
The North-eastern Frontier District of Kenya (NFD) has been one of strongholds of Al-Ittihad, even prior to the collapse of the Somali government. Highly organized Al-Ittihad units have been actively operational in both Kenya and Uganda for many years running lucrative transportation businesses and trans-state Khat (Chat) export activities. Al-Ittihad business tycoons have over the years acquired their own small aircrafts that could simply land in any unpaved airstrip. These aircrafts have been used mainly for transporting Khat and wealthy individuals who could afford to charter such planes. During the height of the refugee exodus that ensued the downfall of Somali government in 1991, these aircrafts efficiently served the wealthy and higher-ranking officials of Siad Barre’s government who were trying to enter Kenya without documentations and valid visas. These aircrafts are also used for many unlawful activities, such as money laundering, human and drug trafficking and smuggling of goods. The possibility of these aircrafts being used by those Islamic terrorists who carried out the bombing of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania cannot be ruled out.
Surprisingly, Al-Ittihad has largely restrained itself from launching military strikes against targets and assets within Kenya. Likewise, the government of Kenya has largely glimpsed on blind eye (perhaps squinting on blurred images) to Al-Ittihad’s extensive network of businesses and unscrupulous and secretive operations in Kenya. Ultimately, the uncharacteristic tendency of closing eyes to Al-Ittihad’s dangerous maneuvers and subversive activities could have far-reaching consequences for the region.
V. Concluding Remarks
In the aftermath of the demise of the Somali government and the ensuing disintegration, Somalia has degenerated into a state of lawlessness. The country has fragmented into a disparate fiefdoms run by a bunch of rival and unruly warlords that selfishly capitalize on the suffering of the beleaguered Somali people.
From the white sandy coast of Ras Kamboni to the grazing savanna land of Togdher, from the dangerous alleys of Mogadishu to the forbidding aridity of Qabridahare’s Qorahay, from the bustling bazaars of Hargeisa and Bosaso to the war-torn shorelines of Kismayo and Barbera, Al-Ittihad’s presence is felt one way or another. It maintains a highly secretive network of business and political organizations that dominate the economic and political affairs of Somalis in the Horn of Africa region.
The disintegration of the former Somali Democratic Republic and the absence of a unified and centralized power in Somalia is a major factor in the resilience and growing muscle of this radical religious movement. Massive unemployment and soul-devouring abject poverty and pervasive sense of hopelessness are also the underlying factors that increasingly contribute to the growing influence of radical politico religious movements. Having supplanted the collapsed state institutions, radical religious organizations enjoy popular grassroots support of the large impoverished Somali people.
In the 1990s, the Barre government was successful in uprooting major cells of Al-Ittihad in their shaping, formative stage. Today, unless a functioning government is reestablished in Somalia, Al-Ittihad forces could mushroom in all parts of Somalia and possibly spread to Ethiopia, Kenya, Djibouti and countries within the Greater Horn of Africa. And that could in the long run destabilize the entire northeast African region. The low profile, or state of near-absence of western powers in the affairs of Somalia has further encouraged radical religious leaders to seek the demise of any effort of reconciliation in the country. It is therefore plausible to conclude that without major effort both by local secular leaders and the international community, Al-Ittihad radicals may dictate the architecture of future form of governments in Somalia.
A. Duale Sii'arag E-Mail:email@example.com
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