Street FIGHT:Conflict
Ahlu Sunnah Split Threatens Grip on Galgadud
Al-Shabaab Could Benefit From Weakened Group
ASWJ fighters train in Ethiopian-run camp near Beled Hawo
ASWJ fighters train in Ethiopian-run camp near Beled Hawo

A growing rift between the leadership of Ahlu Sunna wal Jamaa, and clan mistrust, which caused a significant group of fighters to break off, looks set to weaken the moderate Sufi-led militia and boost militant Islamist group al-Shabaab in the Galgadud region.

The split over the allocation of weapons and senior leadership roles was highlighted by the ongoing UN-sponsored peace conference in the Kenyan capital Nairobi, which some ASWJ members opposed – in line with the stance of much of the Transitional Federal Government – and others said they would attend.

Last week, militia from the Sade/Marehan, a subclan of the Darod, took their fighters back to their home district of Abudwaq in Galgadud. These fighters, around 30 per cent of ASWJ's estimated total force of about 2,000 (1,500 in central regions and just short of 500 in Gedo, according to ASWJ commanders and locals), were key in pushing back al-Shabaab in Galgadud and Hiran districts and helping the TFG gain control of key towns in the Gedo region.

The breakaway group was angered by what they saw as an inequitable distribution of weapons Ethiopia handed out amongst clan militia in February. Daud Farah Bile, a member of the ASWJ administration in Abudwaq, told Somalia Report that a growing rift sparked by the domination of senior ASWJ posts by the Ayr, a subclan of the Hawiye, and the Dir was worsened when his clan got fewer weapons than deserved

“The suspicion is how ASWJ delegates to go abroad are chosen, we are all Ahlu Sunna and need transparency within the leadership,” he said.

Split gives boost to al-Shabaab

Abdi Rashid, Horn of Africa analyst at the International Crisis Group, told Somalia Report that this split would boost al-Shabaab's chances of gaining ground in ASWJ areas.

“Definitely in the last two years we have seen serious fragmentation within ASWJ ... they are no longer able to fight as a cohesive force. If there is more evidence of more fragmentation, that will compound that problem,” he said. “Al-Shabaab is a very formidable force and any weakening (of ASWJ) is definitely a good strategic gain for them.”

ASWJ controls Guri-El, Dusamareb, Abudwaq, Balanbale and Herale, but al-Shabaab has built up its forces in nearby towns such as Elbur, Galhariri, Wabho, Warholo, Mahaas and Elgaras, all of which lie in the Galgadud and Hiran regions, giving it a platform to launch attacks against splintered ASWJ forces.

ASWJ leadership downplays rift

However, ASWJ head Moalim Mohamud Sheikh Hassan played down the split, saying all the fighters still shared the same ideology and enemy, which superseded clan interest.

“There can be people with self interests exaggerating the rift as their wishes are being met, but what I can tell you now is that ... different opinions can arise but it is not a rift – it is one of the issues we are going to resolve at our consultative meeting,” he told Somalia Report.

The leader said that the planned meeting would take place Friday, and that all of the problems would be thrashed out.

“I don’t expect that all these developments within the group can endanger Ahlu Sunna unity, I hope it will be sorted out soon,” ASWJ's Gedo spokesman Shariff Abduwahid, also one of the group's seven-member executive council, told Somalia Report.

Abduwahid also denied that fights over leadership were causing tensions, saying that nobody in the organization had any political aspirations.

“We are fighting for a peaceful Somalia governed by its people, I don’t think there is someone in Ahlu Sunna with ambition to be president," he said. “What we are fighting for is to be able to study our religious scriptures unmolested.”

Ethiopian links, split long time coming

The moderate Sufi group, which renounced its non-violent creed and entered the conflict after militant Islamist group al-Shabaab desecrated Sufi graves, is often accused of serving as a proxy for Ethiopia, which withdrew from Somalia in early 2009 after a two-year occupation that sparked the ongoing insurgency. As well as handing out weapons, Ethiopia has trained at least 500 ASWJ fighters on its own soil before sending them back into Somalia.

Somalia Report also visited a training camp for ASWJ fighters run by three Ethiopian officials on the outskirts of Beled Hawo, Gedo region, near the border with Ethiopia and Kenya (see photographs). An official said 300 fighters were being trained, but our correspondent saw only around 90.

ASWJ recruits pile into a vehicle during training
©Somalia Report
ASWJ recruits pile into a vehicle during training

Despite lingering associations with the unpopular Ethiopians, ASWJ still draws a lot of public support as it is seen as grassroots movement that encompassed all groups.

“The main motto shared by the tribal clans was when you are divided and you see your enemy, unity comes within you,” Adan Timajilic a local tribal leader, told Somalia Report.

However, this unifying force of hatred for al-Shabaab no longer seems enough to keep the group together. Many felt such a split was a long time coming, as when the group began their armed struggle in late 2008 following the desecration of Sufi graves by al-Shabaab, the collective of clan militias had many rivalries to draw on.

“This was an alliance that was probably not cohesive from the beginning,” said Rashid. “ASWJ was a shorthand for all the groups in central Somalia opposed to al-Shabaab. The Sufi aspect is often overplayed.”

Rashid said that Ethiopia's support for certain clans within ASWJ, as evidenced with the arms distribution, has only helped the fragmentation.