INtroductionThe Islamist militant group al Shabaab continues to pose the greatest threat to stability in Somalia, and has only strengthened its positions within the country since Ethiopia’s withdrawal in January 2009. The fragile Transitional Federal Government (TFG) has limited territory in most of the country and now controls only a few square kilometers in Mogadishu. The African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) is the only military force preventing the TFG’s collapse, but it has a strictly defensive mandate, and the pro-government Sufi militia Ahlu Sunna wa al Jama’a lacks the military capacity to defeat al Shabaab on its own. Another Islamist militant group, Hizb al Islam, has suffered over the past year from al Shabaab’s rise despite a nominal alliance between the groups.
Hizb al Islam has endured many defections due to the disparate interests of its factions and successive military defeats. Nonetheless, the group still holds and administers several strategic locations in and around Mogadishu, and the coastal town Harardhere in Mudug region. Its militias continue to conduct operations, and it counts some of the nation’s most prominent and influential clan leaders and clerics among its ranks. It may not pose the threat within Somalia and internationally that al Shabaab does, yet it continues to act as a destabilizing force in the country.
HISTORYViolence has plagued Somalia since the collapse of the Siad Barre regime in 1991. The present conflict that pits Islamists against the Somali TFG and its African Union backers began in 2006. The Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), an East African bloc comprised of Somalia and its neighbors, established the TFG as an interim government in 2004 to bring stability to the war-torn country. The TFG was ineffective, however, and religious factions arose to fill the power-vacuum in Somalia. The Islamic Courts Union (ICU), a coalition of regional Islamist administrations aiming to implement varying interpretations of Islamic law, took control of Mogadishu by June 2006 and expanded its authority throughout most of southern and central Somalia. Fearing the regional implications of an extremist and irredentist government next-door, Ethiopia invaded Somalia with U.S. backing and disbanded the ICU. The group’s primary militia, now known as Harakat al Shabaab al Mujahideen (or “al Shabaab”), stayed in Somalia to fight the Ethiopians, but most ICU leaders fled the country and took refuge in Eritrea.
In September 2007, two of the former ICU leaders, Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed and Sheikh Dahir Aweis, spearheaded the creation of a new opposition group from exile in the Eritrean capital Asmara called the Alliance for the Re-liberation of Somalia (ARS). The ARS was, at the onset, a coalition of both moderate politicians and hard-line ICU clerics and politicians united against reconciliation talks with Ethiopia until its military withdrew from Somalia. The ARS supported guerilla action against Ethiopian military forces in Somalia, while discussing a political solution with foreign negotiators.