Al-Shabab, the Taliban of the Horn

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Traffic jam, Kilometre 4.

Part One, the Birth of the Islamic Courts Union

TWO weeks after we’d left Mogadishu, the wall next to which I used to make my satellite broadcasts in our compound was damaged in a bomb blast. A mere block away on Kilometre 4, the city’s most notorious junction, an Al-Shabab suicide bomber had driven an explosive-laden truck into a government building.

The attack was directed at the Ministry of Education, where parents and students had gathered to get news of bursaries offered by Turkey. Its prime minister, Recep Erdogan, had recently visited Transitional Federal Government head, Shaikh Sharif Ahmed, a former Islamic Courts Union member – and now Al-Shabab’s number one enemy.

The explosion had killed 70 and injured at least 100 – all innocent civilians, and the perennial victims of Somalia’s conflict.

Shaikh Ali Mohammad Raghe, Al-Shabab spokesperson, had warned his fellow countrymen to stay away from Transitional Federal Government institutions. He had warned of further attacks. Everybody in Mogadishu knew that he was deadly serious.

For during our brief stay in the capital of 2 million people AMISOM (African Union) troops had defused three IED’s (Independent Explosive Devices) and disarmed a 13 year-old suicide bomber.

The nightly clashes we heard from our compound were also a reminder that the battle for the capital was ongoing, as was the grenade blast near the Medecins Sans Frontieres office down the road.

Madina Hospital, where Gift of the Givers surgeons had worked miracles in a makeshift surgery, was overwhelmed with casualties. This bombing – the latest in a litany of Al-Shabab terror attacks – came after it had been driven out of Mogadishu by AMISOM forces in August.

Somalia is said to be one of the most perilous places to work on earth, with 32 journalists and numerous aid agency workers killed on the job since 1992.

We used to drive past the Ministry of Education, which is also near to the spot where only a week prior to our visit in late September, a Malaysian TV journalist, Noramfaizel Mohd Nor of Bernama TV, had lost his life.

Ironically, he’d not died at the hands of Al-Shabab – renowned for its antipathy towards westerners and its proclivity for killing fellow Somalis – but rather the nervous trigger finger of an AMISOM gunner atop a South African Casspir.

According to eyewitness reports, the journalist’s militia had swerved in front of the Casspir. And in a jittery part of town where questions have to be asked later, the Ugandan soldier had opened fire.

But this is Mogadishu, a dusty seaside city – once known as the “white pearl” of the Indian Ocean – reduced to rubble by 20 years of strife. In its edgy streets where killers do roam free, it’s the AK47 that gets respect. With its ever-ready militias and all sorts of shady gunmen, Mogadishu is like the Wild West on steroids.

But in spite of a lack of effective government, life does go on in Somalia. It is this indomitable spirit that has sustained those Somalis, many of whom have found Islam the most coherent way to endure war, political failure and famine.

Somalia is a clan based society. Siad Barre – who grabbed power in a 1971 coup – was able to ruthlessly exploit the clans, and bring the country to its knees by 1991, leaving a power vacuum filled by warlordism when he was ousted.

However, it has to be remembered that Somalia is an African country, and that its traditional Islam is African. The lingua-franca and culture of Somalia is not Arabic, in spite of its proximity to the Arabian Peninsula.

Traditionally, until Al-Shabab’s Salafi-Wahhabis tore it apart, Somali Islam enjoyed a tolerant status rooted in Sufism via the Qadiriyyah, Salihiyyah and Ahmadiyyah Orders. Kismayo, the southern port city now occupied by Al-Shabab, was known as a Sufi centre.

Clan life then, was a tapestry of tasawwuf, tradition and customary law. Called “Xeer”, Somali customary law is – interestingly – not entirely contradictory to Shari’ah. Totally indigenous, its approach is polycentric, and is based on patriarchal consensus and conciliation.

The major difference is that in a Shari’ah court the victim of murder, for example, will have a choice of the penalty, legal retribution or blood money. Under Xeer, the clan elder – and not the victim – will determine the response. Xeer also entreats just treatment of women and children, and looks at family matters, the handling of resources and the disbursement of charity.

An interesting aspect of Somali clan life is that whilst clan elders might have been swept up into the maelstrom of Somali politics, the clans themselves had internal mechanisms of social order – mechanisms which would not have been political.

This is something that is not understood sufficiently by analysts of the Somali compass. For when the first Islamic Court appeared in northern Mogadishu (a Sufi stronghold) in the 1990’s, the response was not a political one.

Civilians caught in the crossfire of anarchy were merely looking at a non-political solution to what was a social problem. The initial focus of the courts – which then sprung up all over Mogadishu – were primarily aimed at order and harmony.

Another neglected aspect is the role of the ‘ulama, whose attempts at conciliation over the past two decades have not been given fair due. Few remember the efforts of the scholar, Shaikh Muhammad Moallim, in trying to get General Farah Aideed and Ali Mahdi to lay down arms in 1991.

The Islamic Courts of Mogadishu were clan-based, but decided to merge in 2004, their control extending over the city and into the countryside. Tensions rose when the Sufi-orientated movement, Ahl us-Sunnah wa’l Jama’ah, found itself at odds with the hard-line Salafi-Wahhabis.

In the meantime, the rise of Islamic consciousness on the Horn of Africa had started bleeping on the “war on terror” radar in Washington. A throwaway line by Usama Bin Laden to journalist Peter Bergen – that al-Qaedah had been present in Somalia since 1993 – saw the Bush regime creating a new frontier in Somalia.

In 2006 Ethiopia – claiming that it was a besieged Christian nation – invaded Somalia to crush the ICU and ruin the fragile peace. This invasion, backed by Bush, saw 600,000 inhabitants in Mogadishu being displaced. It also saw the creation of yet another Somali power vacuum – a vacuum into which Islamic extremism would rush to become an even bigger player.

AMISOM tank taken out by Al-Shabab, August 2011, northern Mogadishu.

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