Somalia's Islamists Are ... Retreating?

On August 5, 3,000 Islamist fighters from al-Shabaab -- the terror group affiliated with al-Qaeda -- fled Somalia’s capital city of Mogadishu for the relative safety of the rural southern regions they still control. Is al-Shabaab on the ropes? And if so, how have heavily armed revolutionary Islamists in Somalia been pushed back, when they are advancing in so many other places?

The embattled Transitional Federal Government’s (TFG) spokesman Abdirahman Omar Osman gleefully declared the event a “golden victory for the Somali people.” In contrast, al-Shabaab’s spokesman Ali Mohamed Rage suggested the withdrawal was merely due to a change in military tactics, insisting that al-Shabaab intends to use guerrilla warfare against TFG forces and the 9,000 African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) troops.

In fact, al-Shabaab is weakening, due to several factors:

Defeat on the battlefield. Starting more than a year ago, al-Shabaab has been under sustained pressure from the AMISOM forces. In January 2010, the under-supplied AMISOM controlled only the airport, the state house (Villa Somalia), and the famous K-4 junction in Mogadishu. Three months later, their control was extended by the establishment of twelve bases. By October, despite an al-Shabaab offensive in August, they had pushed the Islamist fighters even further back. They took control over additional areas, including the Juba Hotel, Bondere, Shakara, the parliament building, Dabka junction, Fishbay, and Singale.

As result of the courageous actions of AMISOM forces, the TFG controlled 60 percent of Mogadishu by October 2010. AMISOM had defeated the Islamist offensive, killed 1000 al-Shabaab fighters, and expanded its positions to 26 bases across Mogadishu. This year, AMISOM continued to push back al-Shabaab fighters further. The recent decision by newly independent South Sudan to send troops to Somalia will further beef up AMISOM’s forces.

Internal conflicts in al-Shabaab. Tensions have been escalating within the organization along a number of fissures: between members of the dominant Hawiye clan within al-Shabaab and non-Hawiye members; between foreign fighters who are often in leadership positions and Somalis who are not; between more nationally minded Islamists and global jihadists; and between the movement’s different regional commands.

Regional famine. There is strife between commanders who want international aid agencies to enter their territory and assist the starving and those opposed to any foreign humanitarian intervention for ideological reasons.

A government amnesty offer. In recent months high-ranking officials and fighters have defected to the TFG, complaining about the extremism of some Islamist ideologues in the movement. Among those changing sides was Muhammad Abdullahi, commander of the Maymana Brigade, and Ali Hassan Gheddi, deputy commander of al-Shabaab forces in the Middle Shabele region. The African Union’s proposal for a dialogue with the more pragmatic, if not moderate, elements within al-Shabaab has split the group.

Drying up of funding. The international community has successfullly squeezed off many of al-Shabaab’s external funding sources. The group has been compelled to rely more on internal sources, largely “taxes” extorted from businesses and herders. But hundreds of thousands of rural people, hit by famine, have gone to Mogadishu seeking foreign aid and have deserted al-Shabaab-controlled areas. The loss of the Bakara market in Mogadishu last August, a prime area for extorting money, was very costly for the group. As a result, al-Shabaab is less able to pay its fighters, support their families, and buy weapons.

Loss of popular support. The movement’s strict Wahhabist interpretation of Sharia law, including stoning, mutilations, and the destruction of Sunni shrines, has antagonized many who consider themselves to be pious Muslims but reject these actions. There have been local demonstrations against the excesses of al-Shabaab, and some have organized Sunni Muslim groups to fight against it. This loss of popular support is reflected in the recent warning by one al-Shabaab leader, Sheikh Mokhtar Abdurrahman Abu Zubeyr, that the excesses of the Islamist fighters must be curbed lest they turn Somalis against Islam altogether as well as against al-Shabaab.

Whilst al-Shabab is far from defeated and can still engage in guerrilla warfare in Mogadishu’s streets, the organization is visibly fragmenting and weakening. This success has been accomplished with minimal Western aid. More help for AMISOM and the TFG might help bring about a bigger victory against the revolutionary Islamists.