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Since their ouster from southern strongholds in Mogadishu, Beledweyne and Baidoa, al-Shabaab's foreign fighters have allegedly fled to Yemen, due to Yemen's proximity with Somalia and with the alleged support of pirate clans, to join al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP); while some of those al-Shabaab's Somali militants who escaped from allied advances in the south have apparently moved to Somaliland and the semi-autonomous region of Puntland, both in northern Somalia. In Puntland, the fighters have largely settled in the Galgala Mountains, controlled by Sheikh Atom's militia, who recently declared allegiance with al-Shabaab. Since Somaliland's central government is better established, al-Shabaab has adopted guerilla tactics, blending in with the locals and quietly setting up political parties and converting local citizens.
There definitely are some al-Shabaab members and sympathizers amongst Somaliland's population and even administration, but how many are there and how strong are they?
Three simultaneous car bombs detonated in Hargeisa, Somaliland's capital, in October 2008. This attack killed 28 people in the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) compound, the Ethiopian consulate and Somaliland's presidential palace. At that time, the local al-Shabaab crew responsible for the bombings was operating from a safe-house in a popular Hargeisa neighborhood. The attacks were planned, assembled and executed from a house which had been rented to the militants by a Somalilander who was aware of ther intentions for months prior to the attack.
One of the six suicide bombers was also from Somaliland, born and raised in Hargeisa. Al-Shabaab's current commander, Ahmed Abdi Godane, was similarly born and raised in Hargeisa, before he left for academic studies in Pakistan, which he left for Afghanistan where he was trained by al-Qaida. Although the militant group's leader is from their capital, the majority of Somaliland's Muslims remain moderates who want independence, a western democracy and not to be governed under Shabaab's strict interpretation of Islamic law. Their constitution is a blend of secular, tribal custom and Islamic laws; and a testimony to Somalilander's moderate leanings is that the last presidential elections had an 80% voter participation rate, despite the western-style democratic process being bitterly and ideologically opposed by al-Shabaab.
While support for al-Shabaab is still in its formative years in Somaliland, what raises eyebrows among locals and neighboring countries like Ethiopia is the trend and pace at which the doctrinal teachings of al-Shabaab-aligned militant Salafis are growing among the population. Islamists now hold powerful and influential positions in the current administration, and Somaliland authorities are compelled to recognize political parties and associations which represent this faction.
The propagation of Salafi teachings in Somaliland become evident when you look the change in dress and behavior, those people whose lifestyles were marked by moderate Islamic influences have clearly embraced stricter cultural and social norms. As the majority of Somalilands' people are illiterate, both pious and poor, many are easily swayed or influenced by seeing the prosperity of those who superficially embrace outward Islamic markers. Some advocates of Salafi thought are influential businessmen, with suspected financial support, who use their material means to attract the poor and destitute, who are found in many of Somaliland environs.
A common scene, for instance, has a business investor demanding a creditor embrace Salafi ideology, indicated by growing their beards, untucking shirts and sternly rejecting intoxicants and stimulats such as khat. Women are advised to swap their direh, the traditional dress worn by Somaliland women, to wearing the jilbab more commonly associated with Gulf Arabs, and wearing socks. Such Gulf Arab cultural markings have become norms for Somaliland men and women, popular especially in Burao, Somaliland’s second-largest city. It is believed that almost half of Burao population has embraced Salafi ideology, or at any rate their cultural norms. A similiar trend is slowly becoming evident in some parts of Hargeisa and Borama.
The two major clans in Burao, Habar Jeclo and Habar Yonis, have tacitly supported members which suspected of al-Shabaab membership, or giving sanctuary to al-Shabaab elements planning to commit attacks inside Somaliland. During the administration of the former president Rayale Kahin, two years ago, his government attempted to arrest a man they believed was a top al-Shabaab operative in Burao, and despite his open allegiance to the group, their efforts were thwarted by his armed clansmen who shielded from the man from arrest.Days before the last presidential election, security forces raided a hideout in Burao where al-Shabaab planners were believed to be assembling bombs and planning to disrupt the election. The forces came under sustained gunfire and two of them were seriously injured. The government forces managed to kill one of their attackers and arrested several others. They also confiscated mines and bomb making materials. Ironically, the suspected al-Shabaab plotters were being housed and supported by the (Habar Jeclo) clan of the current president Silanyo, but he was a clear front runner by then and ultimately won the election.
Sympathy From Officials
Concerns have been raised by neighboring countries, particularly Ethiopia, about the composition of Somaliland's current government. Ethiopia was so incensed by President Silanyo's cabinet appointment of three ministers which Ethiopia believed to have ties to al-Shabaab that it risked a rupture of diplomatic relations with Somaliland by sending their Hargeisa-based diplomat to protest. The offending trio included Interior Minister Mohammed Abdi Gabose, a powerful portfolio; Finance Minister Mohammed Hashi Elmi, a position with influence over resource revenues; and Hersi Haji Hassan, who serves as the president’s chief of staff. Gabose has since resigned from the cabinet and formed his own political organization, Ummada; and Elmi, who is known for his straight-talking, was sacked three weeks ago and immediately replaced by Abdiaziz Samaale, considered an Islamist hardliner, who previously served as deputy parliament speaker.
Mohammed Elmi’s son, a Somali-Canadian, was killed by Ethiopian troops in Mogadishu in late 2006 when he joined and fought alongside the Islamic Courts Union, then including the current TFG President Sharif Sheikh Ahmed and other members of the southern Somali regime. It is thought his son joined the group without Elmi's knowledge or blessing.
Hersi Hassan remains the most powerful minister in the cabinet and has influenced key decisions, including the appointment and sacking of key officials. Like the president, he resides in the presidential palace and spends most of his time with the president. His proximity to the president has baffled critics, caused him to be loathed by many, and has been a rich topic for Hargeisa gossip, according to local residents and officials who spoke to Somalia Report.
Use of Political Organization
Al-Shabaab thrives in chaos and has been forced to rework its tactics to gain a foothold given the relative stability of Somaliland, with its centralized Western-style government. Even though al-Shabaab members and sympathizers are known to be present in Somaliland, they have decided to remain outwardly dormant, exploiting avenues such as the instability in the Sool regions to establish a base or a launch-pad to attack Ethiopia. Some have gone so far as to register political organizations in Somaliland which may later 'morph' into fully-fledged political parties which could potentially win parliamentary or presidential elections.
Their inspiration comes from from Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, which via their Freedom and Justice party dominate both houses of parliament through their numerical advantage, and are well-placed to influence the constitutional review process, and the introduction of Shariah law.
The Somaliland government has allowed the registration of Badhbaadho, a political party whose name loosely translates to 'Salvation'. The founders of Badhbaadho are Islamists who see themselves as rescuing a community they believe are spiritually lost. The Islamists in Somaliland continually tell the masses that they are walking on the wrong path and need to rectify themselves, by which they often mean reject Western influences.
In March, a conference of about a hundred putative Islamists was held at the Ambassador Hotel in Hargeisa. Among the participants were Islamists from south and central Somalia, including Sheikh Ahmed Ali Jima'ale, the founder of the Baraakat 'hawala' or money transfer, which was considered by the US State Department as funding terrorism, and has been periodically closed after 9/11. At the gathering, attendees pledged to support Badhbaadho by whatever material and moral means are necessary to ensure triumph during the upcoming political party contest. (Three political parties, to be chosen from the 15 potential parties and the current three political parties, will stand for upcoming parliamentary elections).
Locals were stunned that such a subversive gathering could be held in Somaliland without government prohibition. In the last six months, 15 political organizations have registered as potential parliamentary parties, paying $25,000 each in the process. The potential parties include Ummada, Midnimo, Nasiye and Gurmad. Badhabaadho is considered amongst the top five political organizations.
Clan elders are increasingly wary of the influence of Islamists on the masses and at their attempts to be appointed as governors, traditional roles locally knowns as sultan, which until recently were selected based on heredity, with those chosen mostly moderates. Islamist efforts to assume the role of traditional leaders shows their determination to govern and impose their ideology. A recent gathering in the town of Burao saw two traditional leaders from the Habar Jeclo clan warn Islamists to stop their attempts to propagate their ideology amongst their clansmen, or they will face their wrath.
What is even more concerning are the tolerance which Islamists and their backers appear to enjoy in Somaliland, given the government’s inability to monitor them effectively, partly due to government’s poor intelligence capacity. Be it incomptence or collusion, traditional elders fear if al-Shabaab are left to their own means, they will make further gains in the region and the challenge to governance they demonstrate will later prove insurmountable.
(*Editor's note: Salafism, also known as 'Wahabism', is an Islamic doctrine which considers itself to be purifying and returning Muslims to the traditional teachings of the early Muslims)