Historically, in Somalia men were categorized either as “wadaad” (religious) or “waranle” (a warrior). Wadaads mostly stayed above the fray of Somalia’s prevalent tribal conflicts. They transcended tribe and region, pursued religious
learning and teaching, and performed various other religious and social functions such matrimonial services and quran schools. For they sought neither riches nor power they built no discernable organizational structure or highierachy. They often complemented tribal elders in keeping the peace among the clans and the lid on violence. As a non-warrior, the Wadaad carried only the Quran, the ubo or buraashad (a water jar) and a small dagger, not for protection, but as utensil to be used for the next meal of mutton or lamb that maybe donated by a hosting family. Among the Wadaads, there has always been a great diversity; there were the “Timo Wayne” with their bushy, middle-parted hair trademark, ever drifting from one community to another; then there are the dedicated “Xer” or students who study under a prominent sheikh for years; the ubiquitous “Macalin Quran” or the Quran teacher under whose gaze nearly every Somali kid learns to recite the Quran in his/her formative years; and even the average “mohamed-Somali” who simply prays five times a day can be considered a Wadaad. Diverse schools of thought also exist among the Wadaadis; the Qaadiriya, Salaxiya, Ahmedia and others, each with its own nuanced preferences, justifications and reasoning for some slightly different from the next school of thought. Until recently, Sufis were a small subset of the overall Wadaads considered most liberal or outlandish in some of its religious activity. Nowadays, Sufi is used to describe anyone who doesn’t fall under the spell of the newly imported Wahabism. Yet, with seemingly so many differences among the Sufis, albeit no significant theological differences, there has never been religion based violence in Somali history – that’s until recently. At times of distress,Sufis typically retreated to their Kitabs for explanation and guidance.
The emergence of an armed Sufi religious group in Somalia, Ahlu Sunna, is a sign of the times. A sign of how desperate and distorted the situation has became in Somalia, and it is this desperation that transformed these traditional, moderate, non-violent sufis into a full-fledged armed militia. The old days of Sufis turning the other cheek when attacked or mistreated is behind us. The Buraashad has now been replaced or perhaps complemented by AK-47, thanks to the extremist groups like Al-Shabab and its elk. For two decades, since the collapse of the central government, the Sufis kept a low profile, kept to themselves, had taken no part in Somali’s carnage and focused on their familiar territory of worshiping. Despite persecution by successive fanatical religious groups, from Al-Itihad in the 1990’s to today’s Al-shabaab, the sufis maintained their composure, resisted the urge to retaliate and remained faithful to their non-violent ways. For years, they saw the creeping fanaticism of Al-Shabaab and its foreign ideology underpinned by distorted interpretation of Islam that extol self-destructive extremism, hate, and total and absolute submission to them (not to God). Yet the Sufis, true to their tradition of non-violence, continued to turn the other cheek despite increasing attacks directed at them to the pointed where they were no longer safe, even inside their mosques.
THE STRAW THA BROKE THE CAMEL’S BACK
Sufis has a tradition of honoring their religious figures. Throughout Somalia, when a well known religious figure with a large following dies it is common for his disciples to build a shrine and an adjacent masjid in his honor (in fact, this is true for much of the Muslim world, save Saudi Arabia). It’s sort of memorial with the masjid as spiritual anchor. In a sense, the shrine and the mosque institutionalize the sheikh’s work by providing a permanent site that ensures the work of religious learning will continue. In the country side, one may often come across a “Dahar”, a structure without walls designed to provide shade for travelers, next to a grave. The Dahar is a donation for public use in honor of a deceased parent (a beloved father or mother) by a family, in essence a foundation. This practice can come in many forms. For example, some families instead dig a water-well and donate it to the public. For some unfathomable reason, the adherents of the newly imported ideology and imposed on us by Al-Shabaab find such a practice abhorrent and its practitioners deserving of beheading. Even more shocking, this extends to the Mowliid, the yearly memorial in honor of Prophet Mohamed, in which, typically, the Prophet’s life and examples are talked and explored. The praising of Prophet Mohamed and honoring him has become the grounds for tossing a live grenade in mosques full of worshipers! Faced with murderous attacks, in their own mosques and centers of learning, the destruction of toms of their revered teachers by Al-shabaab and their ideological brethren, the Sufis were compelled to face the stark reality of either abandoning their religious beliefs or standing up for themselves, and for the Somali people whose culture and history has also being systematically erased by the fanatics. The Sufis has done what no organized group of significance has in a generation – stand up for their rights and that of others, and opposed evil.
Al-Shabaab exists today because Somalis brutalized by 20 years of civil war carnage, disillusioned by over a dozen sham “peace conferences”, battered by tribal warlord thugs and brutalized by Ethiopian invasion, simply sought solace in fatalistic indifference. Taking advantage of a society fatigued by decades of unabated violence, successive extremists religious groups starting with A-Itihad dubbed the public by presenting themselves as Islamic groups who will usher in a new dawn of peace when in reality they have being engaged in an active campaign to, in the name of Islam, desecrate and destroy the history, culture and symbols of Somalia. The Somali flag is an outlaw in Al-Shabaab territory today, Somali statues are pulled down, historic burial sites desecrated and razed, the national anthem banned and any cultural expression forbidden! This is the kind of stuff conquerors do to the vanquished in the process of dispossessing them. Yet, ironically, all this is done in the name of our religion turning Islam into a source of violence, pain, oppression and dispossession. Even more remarkable is the toll Al-Shabaab took on freedom, even personal freedoms. Women are being subjected to the double humiliation of being forced, on one hand, to wear burqa, an all enveloping shroud of clothing that is foreign to Somalia, and prohibiting certain pieces of their under garment such as the bra, on the other! Men are punished for not growing their beards or trimming it, for a kempt beard is un-Islamic in the minds of the fanatics. Their overarching theme seems to be associating anything negative, irrational, unjust and inhumane with Islam!
However offensive and distasteful regulating the most personal intimate aspects of an individual’s life may be, it seems rather innocuous in comparison with how Al-Shabaab truly views human life. Al-Shabaab’s cruelties are well documented, but we mainly hear the more sordid cases like the stoning of the little girl in Kismanyo, raped by members of Al-Shabaab’s own militia, and stoned to death half buried as the public were forced to witness the gruesome affair of murdering a little girl in a public arena. Her mortal sin was her audacity to seek justice against her rapists. Dubbed by the false pretentions of Al-shabaab as a force for justice, she thought she might find a redress only to end up enduring the most agonizing slow death a living creature can be subjected to. Imagine the terror in this little girl’s heart as she scanned the faces of the crowd, bewildered and terrified in her half-grave, seeking a glimpse of kindness, a last minute reprieve or maybe a mere familiar face, before hurling stones start tearing up her youthful flesh. Al-Shabaab has no interest in justice or fairness but merely wished that day to orchestrate a lynching spectacle in honor of Al-Shabaab’s official defamation of Islam and its proclamation of the subjugation of Somali women. It was the ultimate display of Al-Shabaab monstrosity that dared the courage of all Somalis. Perhaps, one day, the people of Kismanyo and Somalis in general will redeem themselves by erecting a new Hawo Tako monument for this little girl as a symbol of liberation of Somali women from the travesties of Al-Shabaab and as a rejection of extremist ideologies in its all forms.
While the dramatic horrors visited upon this little girl in Kismanyo symbolizes the overall savagery of Al-Shabaab and its attempts to usurp our religion, the daily mundane violence subjected to the population under its control is often overlooked. Its adoption of assassinations as a routine practice against community notables, elders, businessmen, educator, reporters and the intellectuals alike is astonishing. The mere fact of neutrality, a questioning of their methods or simply not being enthusiastic enough about their organization can marked you as a target for murder, resulting in young assassins lurking outside the victim’s local mosque awaiting to strike him down as he emerges from prayer. Apparently this is an Islamic justice, in the minds of fanatics, and questioning it makes one anti-muslim, meaning, deserve to be gun-down in a broad daylight, preferably in public location, as an example to others who may entertain any ideas of not loving Al-shabaab enough. To name just a few of these victims, Daud Dirir of Kismanyo, a religious elder and a businessman was gun downed just as he left a mosque after the midday prayer. Dusamareeb’s only doctor was paraded in public and beheaded during the few hours Al-Shabaab gained control of the city a mere few weeks ago. Ironically, as they lost control of the city, there was no one to treat the wounded Al-Shabaab left behind. An elderly woman was also murdered for carrying a “tusbax” or a rosary! Two other women were also killed with no apparently cause. In Afgooye, we heard of the man who dared smoked a cigarette and was murdered by the militants because he failed to extinguish it quick enough as ordered. In Mogadishu, a man’s cell phone went off while in a mosque and an Al-Shabaab militant grabbed the phone, threw it on the floor and opened fire on the phone. Pouncing bullets wounded several people. These are merely few examples of the wide spread violence perpetuated against the average Somali on daily basis in the regions under the control of the Al-Shabaab fanatics and its elks.
While Somalia has being rife with extreme violence since the start of the civil war, Al-Shabaab and Xisbul-Sunna’s violence is particularly treacherous. And it’s not just the casualness with which the violence is practiced. Or even the mass carnage of the suicide bombers. The fact that, all this ugly gruesome business is justified in the name of Islam is particularly insidious and demented. It is a triple blow. We not only lose many lives, often the best and the brightest as was the case in December 3rd,, but they also managed to defile our religion and razed many of what little cultural heritage we have left. Yet we are so slow to realize this disturbing reality of the fanatics wrapping themselves in Islamic head-gear to mask their crimes as they systematically set out to erode the basic tenants of Islamic teaching. Perhaps, being in state of despair we believe no group or faction is capable of standing up to them. After all, we have seen multitude of warlord thugs, big and small, come and go, their only contribution an added misery. Not to mention the numerous TFG regimes, comprising of uncommitted office seekers at best, and certifiable Ethiopian agents at worst, consistently failing to discharge even the most basic of their responsibilities to the public. In fact, we deemed some of these so called TFGs so objectionable and offensive that we, out of anger, cheered on Al-Shabaab against it knowing well that we were choosing between “furuq” and “qanje”! What we have not seen until now is a truly grassroots organization, like Ahlu-Sunna, with a broad support across tribal and provincial lines and with undisputed religious credentials and deep ties to the inner fabrics of the Somali society developed over a millennia. So, it is quite understandable that the Al-Shabaab and Xisbu-Islam fanatics, dabbling their extremist foreign ideology, are far more alarmed by the rise of the Sufis than they are witj Mr. Sharrif’s feeble regime which is on a life support system despite receiving considerable international military and financial support. The strong local support across tribal lines and a built-in family-level relationships with local communities is allowing Ahlu-Sunna to militarily and ideologically challenge and undermine Al-Shabaab and Xisbu-Islamic’s fake religious charade.
And there is a precedent of sorts for this. Al-Itihad, Al-Shabaab’s forerunner, had in the mid 1990’s succeeded in occupying Gedo, after defeating the SNF militia, and promising “Islamic rule”. Initially, the local population welcomed them hoping the “Ikhwans” will bring peace and stability. But even before consolidating power, Al-Itihad embarked on two adventures that ultimately proved its undoing. First, the imposition of harsh rules dubbed as “sharia” leading to the flogging of 65-years old nomadic woman who was accused of not properly wearing hijab and her subsequent death from injuries sustained during her canning. The resulting outcry led to the assassinations of numerous elders, by Al-Itihad’s hand, who dared to speak out against the senseless violence. The episode marked the turning point and precipitated further erosion of Al-Itihad’s support among the Gedo’s populace. Further complicating Al-Itihad’s ability to mollify Reer Gedo’s suspicions was the presence of “shesheeye” or outsiders, Somalis from outside Gedo who monopolized Al-Itihad’s key decision-making positions and who were perceived less concerned about, or responsive to, the locals. Today, the foreign jihadists hosted by Al-shabab are playing a similar role, this time with the most grave national and international ramifications.
The second adventure was Al-Itihad’s careless rhetoric against Ethiopia, whose new regime was, at the time, focused on internal power consolidation, and its support for the ONLF. The Ethiopians not only crushed Al-Itihad in Luuq, just as they have done three years ago near Baydhabo, but also embarked on arming and sponsoring warlords across the country. In time, Gedo descended into a vicious protracted violence with some of the Marehan sub-clans siding with Al-tihad while others aligned themselves with one warlord or another supported or sponsored by Ethiopia. The result was a devastating decade-long mini-civil war which Gedo is yet to recover. The important point is that the extremist groups are and have been instrumental in ensuring Ethiopian’s involvement in Somalia’s affairs and occupation of its territory. It often seems that Al-Itihad/Al-Shabaab and Ethiopia need and feed off each other! Al-Shabaab skillfully capitalizes on the Ethiopian occupation and incursions by appealing to Somali nationalism against Somalia’s historic rival while also working hard its Islamist/jihadist connections to the Middle East. Yet it is the Islamists’ extreme rhetoric, with no ability to back it up, that provides all the pretexts Ethiopia needs to intervene in Somalia putting the country at risk of being overran by Ethiopia at a time when we can’t even muster a united front let alone defend ourselves from external enemies.
Ethiopia, on its side, deftly uses the presence extremist organizations in Somalia as a tool to divert its people’s attention from its domestic shortcomings by exaggerating the danger posted by the Islamist ragtag militia and stirring up domestic fear and nationalism which are, in turn, leveraged to crackdown its opposition and institute draconian repressive measures against some nationalities, such as Somalis and Oromas, by pinning down a terrorist sign on them. Indeed, the extremists in Somalia proved exceedingly valuable for Addis Ababa because it allowed Ethiopia to effectively depict itself, to the world and more importantly to West, as an indispensible bulwark against Islamic extremism in the Horn African earning the Bush administration’s recognition and the designation of Addis Ababa as a strategic partner in the global war against terrorism with reward of a large package of economic and military assistance. The highlight of this very successful diplomatic footwork can be seen how Ethiopia, in effect, engineered a “Somali government” of its liking in Nairobi and ensured an invitation to invade and occupy the country with the full understanding and active support of the world’s powers to be, namely the US and EU.
Ethiopia’s diplomatic work was essential done for it by the extremists. For a small, poor country ravaged by civil war for twenty years with a third of its population scattered around the globe and the rest facing constant violence and starvation, to be in the eye of a terror war or on a military focus of the world’s super power is a feat that can only be accomplished by the recklessness and negligence of Al-Shabaab and attests to its lack of concern for the safety and the well being of the Somali people. The impact of this reality was felt by Somalis on both sides of border. In 2007, after the ONLF over ran a Chinese oil exploration site killing Ethiopia soldiers Addis expelled International NGO’s from the Ogaden region and undertook a mini terror campaign against the Ogadenis. When the US undersecretary for African affairs, Ms. Frazier, visited Jigjig, the regional capital of the Somali region of Ethiopia, after an outcry by several NGOs including the Red Cross regarding Addis Abab’s refusal to let food aid get through to the Ogaden region at the height of the drought season, Ethiopian troops burned down twelve villages between the towns of Shilavo and Wardhere killing many civilians in that week. In a press conference, Ms. Frazier blamed Somalis, as Ethiopia troops committed atrocities under her noise, for engaging contraband activities across the border. The fact that the Addis regime was starving the Somali population in Ogaden was, in eyes of the US, negated by the Ethiopia’s military actions in taming extremists in Somali proper, which allowed Addis to brutalize Somalis on both sides of the border and have the West largely pay for it in the form of military and economic assistance. Such was the magnitude of the diplomatic gift the Islamists bestowed on Ethiopia – something Addis would have been hard pressed to achieve on its own.
Al-Shabaab is in reality a recarnation of Al-Itihad of the 1990’s therefore the parallels and similarities between them are no coincidence. Clearly the scope of the conflict is much broader today than in the 1990’s and stakes much higher but the road to disaster seems airily familiar. In the 1990’s the conflict was largely localized, the only outside involvement been Ethiopia. Today there are layers of external influences and possible interventionists. On one hand, there is Al-Shabaab, its extremist brethren and their global jihadist alliances. On the other hand, there is Ethiopia, the AU, and a concerted Western effort behind and in support of a nominal Somali TFG body.
Unfortunately, Gedo, along with Kismayo and Baydhabo, is, once again, the epic center of Somalia’s extremist groups setting the stage for yet another intervention, not just by Ethiopia, directly or indirectly, this time, but possibly Kenya as well which has increasingly being drawn of lately to Somali’s quack-mire with reports of thousands of Somalis, both of Kenyan and Somali nationals, being trained across the border for eventual intervention in Somalia, specifically in Gedo and Kismayo regions. It’s a matter of time before Gedo convulses in another round of gruesome violence as Al-Shabaab’s reign becomes no longer viable. It may now be an opportune time for Reer Gedo, Kismayo and Baydhabo to take stock of their situation before the reckoning day finally beckons. Far from bringing peace and stability, Al-Shabaab has not only plunged the country into yet another round of more destructive fighting but its presence ensures dimensions of external interventions and influences in Somalia’s domestic affairs with the collateral damage of making peaceful settlement and long-term stability even more remote.
We Somalis can no longer afford the mounting cost of Al-Shabaab and other extremist organizations in our midst. Al-Shabaab will prolong our agony and kill whatever little chance that may still exist of stabilizing the South and bringing the country back together. Al-Shabaad’s deceitful appeal to religious purity and to Somali nationalism notwithstanding, it posts the gravest threat to us today! Al-Shabaab is not, by and large, a Somali organization ideologically, politically or religiously. It is not a Somali organization by its tradition, outlook, political goals or agenda, or even religious faith! It doesn’t even recognize Somalia as a nation and state. It can oppress the Somali people, launch gruesome suicide attacks across the country, mutilate the innocent, assassinate prominent individuals, threaten neighbors, antagonize the world, attract drone and cruise missile attacks, but it neither defend nor protect a single Somali city or town from an outside force. It even seems to understand that it is transient in nature. It’s made up of masked gun men who wreak havoc on us now but keep their faces and identity hidden for the post Al-Shabaab life. Al-Shabaab seeks to disinherit us by defiling and defaming our religion and destroying any cultural heritage, from destroying graves, statues and monuments to renaming of venues and streets to non-Somali names. It’s high time to rid them of our lives. And Ahlu-Sunna may just be the group to facilitate it.
As mentioned earlier, the cumulative effect of Al-Shabaab’s conduct led to the sudden rise of Ahlu-Sunna in central Somalia and ensuing clashes between Ahlu-Sunna, on one side, and Al-Shabaab/Xisbu-Islam on the other, with Al-Shabaab steadily losing ground to Ahlu-Sunna. As Ahlu-Sunna pushes southward Al-Shabaab and Xisbu-Islam’s key bases in central Somalia are threatened. Ahlu-Sunna, it seems, is the only organization in the country today capable of standing up to the extremists and able to go toe-to-toe with them owing to the fact that it is a volunteer force largely drawn from the very local communities it is protecting. And though it is too early to know whether this represents a temporary situation, the benefits of Alhu-Sunna’s battlefield successes are already tangible. Much of Galgaduud is breathing easier. Beled Weyne may soon be able to throw the yoke of extremist off their backs. Mr. Sharrif’s regime is able to borrow more time as Al-Shabaab/Xisbu-Islam divert large number of their forces to central Somalia and deploy against Ahlu-Sunna. Puntland’s security would have been even more precarious today if Al-Shabaab’s forces were massed at the gates of Galkacyo. Yet the TFG’s attitude towards Ahlu-Sunna is perplexing. Mr. Sharrif’s stance on Ahlu-Sunna seems to swing from thinly disguised hostility to a complete disregard of their existence as his regime, at times, claimed Ahlu-Sunna’s own victories as his own. Thought the caustic exchanges between them seem to have subsided, there is no cooperation between the two despite continuous offers from Ahlu-Sunna to work with the TFG and against the extremists. The TFG howls for support from the “international community” on daily basis but is unwilling to cultivate and work with domestic allies, like Ahlu-Sunna, at a time when its very existence is in question and it is so heavily reliant on foreign troops for its day by day survival. This only reinforces the profound concerns Somalis already harbor about the competency and the commitment of the TFG and Mr. Sharrif’s leadership, which makes Ahlu-Sunna that much more important for it is the only defense Somalis have against the ravages of the extremist groups.
Ahlu-Sunna does not seek to supplant or replace the TFG. In fact, politics is not high on its agenda. Its primary goal is to ensure the freedom to worship in peace. But it knows this is not possible without defeating and disarming extremists. The TFG may be losing a golden opportunity by not supporting domestic groups that could help its cause and that the Somalia. No amount of foreign assistance can compensate for the necessity of a strong domestic support base (this has been the folly of all so called TFG including this one) and Ahlu-Sunna is uniquely positioned to provide it given there is a willing partner.
By Shabeel Keynan