Internal Disputes Plague al-Shabaab Leadership After Mogadishu Withdrawal

Andrew McGregor

August 19, 2011

Al-Shabaab’s sudden withdrawal from Mogadishu on August 6 in the face of a concentrated offensive by Ugandan and Burundian troops of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) appears to have been followed by a major internal dispute over the movement’s leadership, possibly resulting in the appointment of a new leader.

AMISOM Armor in Mogadishu

Al-Shabaab has tried to cover up the problems and issues that led to the withdrawal by maintaining it was a “tactical” move (Hiraan Online, August 12; AllPuntland, August 10). One al-Shabaab leader, Shaykh Hassan Dahir Aweys (former leader of Hizb al-Islam, now absorbed into al-Shabaab) admitted in an interview that the movement was forced to turn to a new strategy because it could no longer match the military strength of AMISOM and Transitional Federal Government (TFG) forces in Mogadishu’s intense urban warfare  (Somali Channel TV [London], August 12).

However, there are signs that al-Shabaab’s withdrawal was not as planned as the movement would like to let on; AMISOM troops and Somali police discovered a store of 137 155 mm artillery shells left behind in a deserted house in a part of Mogadishu’s Bakara Market recently occupied by al-Shabaab. As the movement does not possess 155 mm artillery, it is likely the shells were being cannibalized for explosives needed in the manufacture of improvised explosive devices (Horseed Media, August 13; AFP, August 13).

Al-Shabaab has claimed a certain number of fighters were left behind, explaining the resistance that AMISOM forces continue to encounter (especially in the north of the city) as they continue their cautious occupation of the neighborhoods newly vacated by al-Shabaab. The TFG has attempted to capitalize on al-Shabaab’s difficulties by offering an amnesty to those fighters still active in Mogadishu who are prepared to renounce violence (AFP, August 10). In some places, the retreating Islamists have been replaced by local clan militias under the command of powerful businessmen who have no desire to come under TFG rule. Many other of these fighters are reported to be veterans of Hizb al-Islam still under the direct command of Hassan Dahir Aweys ( [Mogadishu], August 9).

According to the Ugandan commander of AMISOM, Major General Fred Mugisha, the African Union peacekeepers “now have to cover a much larger area of the city and we risk being overstretched” (AFP, August 10).  Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni has recently pledged to send another 2,000 soldiers from the Uganda People’s Defense Force (UPDF) to Mogadishu to consolidate AMISOM’s gains after repeated pleas for military support from other African Union nations to AMISOM’s Ugandan and Burundian contingents failed to win any positive response (Daily Monitor [Kampala], August 13).

Though his TFG fighters played only a small part in driving al-Shabaab out of the national capital, Somali president Shaykh Sharif Shaykh Ahmad is now talking tough regarding his determination to defeat his former Islamist allies: “Al-Shabaab is a threat to Somalia as well as to the stability of the wider region and the world. We will not stop pursuing them. Our determination is to clear them from the territory of Somalia” (PANA Online [Dakar], August 11). However, many Somalis fear the expulsion of al-Shabaab will mean a return of the warlords who devastated Mogadishu for nearly two decades. Their fears were not allayed by the president’s appointment of former warlord (and serial opportunist) General Yusuf Muhammad Si’ad “Indha Adde” (Dayniile Online, August 9).

Faced with the consequences of its inability or unwillingness to deal with the growing famine in central and southern Somalia, al-Shabaab has resorted to ever more desperate efforts to prevent the total depopulation of its “Emirate.” Among their more fantastic theories is Shaykh Ali Mahmud Raage’s explanation of the flight of many Somalis from Shabaab-controlled regions to refugee camps in Kenya or Ethiopia to receive the international aid that al-Shabaab forbids in most of its territory. According to the Shabaab spokesman, the non-Muslim enemy has devised a new strategy to “transport [Somalis] abroad, especially to Christian countries like Ethiopia and Kenya, so that their faith can be destroyed and [so] that they could be staff and soldiers for the Christians” (AFP, July 30).

It is very likely that the Islamist movement’s ineffectual response to the massive drought and famine (“pray for rain”) has irreparably damaged the movement’s credibility as a political movement in Somalia. However, al-Shabaab has displayed a remarkable resiliency for an often divided movement that seems to excel at disappointing old friends and making new enemies. Given its temporarily diminished capacity for direct military confrontation, it can be expected that the movement will pursue other highly familiar tactics, such as kidnappings, bombings and assassinations.

Some Somali sources report that Shaykh Ahmad Abdi Godane “Abu Zubayr’s” controversial leadership of al-Shabaab has come to an end with his replacement by Shaykh Ibrahim Haji Jama “al-Afghani,” a former al-Shabaab chief in Kismayo, deputy to Godane and veteran of fighting in Kashmir and Afghanistan. His activities since his return to Somalia, including the murder of several foreigners in 2003-2004, have earned him a 25-year prison sentence issued in absentia in his native Somaliland. Like Abdi Godane, Ibrahim Haji is a member of the Isaaq clan of northern Somalia. Abdi Godane inserted many Isaaq into senior leadership positions in al-Shabaab even though most of the movement’s fighters hail from southern Somali clans. Somali sources say the appointment was supported by senior al-Shabaab members Mukhtar Robow “Abu Mansur,” Shaykh Fu’ad Shongole and Shaykh Hassan Dahir Aweys (Somali Broadcasting Corporation Online [Puntland], August 9).   

Shaykh Mukhtar Robow, who commands the largest contingent in al-Shabaab, has sought Godane’s replacement for nearly a year now, following the failed “Ramadan Offensive” that was repelled with heavy losses to Mukhtar Robow’s southern Somali Rahanweyn fighters, who were pushed into the frontlines and then denied medical treatment for their wounds by order of Abdi Godane (see Terrorism Monitor Brief, October 21, 2010). Nonethelss, al-Shabaab’s spokesman, Shaykh Ali Mahmud Raage “Ali Dheere,” has asserted that reports of a leadership struggle within the movement were nothing but “enemy propaganda” (BBC Somali Service, August 13).

This article was originally published in the August 19, 2011 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor