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Somalia’s Islamic Courts Reach a CrossRoads Seteembar 16, 2008

Posted by spiritualphilantropy in Analysis.

By taking control on August 22 of the strategic port city of Kismayo – the nerve center of Somalia’s deep south – the Islamic Courts movement brought its increasingly successful armed resistance against the Ethiopian occupiers of Somalia and the country’s faltering Transitional Federal Government (T.F.G.), which depends on the Ethiopian presence for its very existence, to a higher stage at which it has become the current protagonist in Somalia’s ever more complicated conflicts. Although Kismayo was not occupied by the Ethiopians and its administration was run by Marehan clan militias led by ex-warlord and member of the transitional parliament, Barre Hirale, and was not beholden to the T.F.G., the takeover of the prize of the south confirmed a shift in the balance of power in Somalia.

The turning point in the Courts’ recent surge came in early 2008 when the re-liberation movement advanced from guerilla warfare and brief seizures of towns to the ability to hold and administer territory in alliance with sub-clans that were disaffected from the TFG. Since then, the multi-faceted Courts movement has rooted itself to the point at which it controls and administers several of Somalia’s regions and is an active presence in all of them.The Courts, which controlled most of Somalia south of the sub-state of Puntland during its revolutionary phase in 2006 and was dispersed by Ethiopia’s December 2006 invasion, have now taken back much of what they had surrendered, rendering idle the interminable half-hearted efforts by external actors to pressure the TFG and the diplomatic wing of the resistance to “reconcile.” Most of the Lower and Middle Jubba regions, the Middle Shabelle region and much of the Hiraan region have aligned with the Courts. Kismayo is simply the culmination of a string of victories.

The Courts’ Prudent Strategy

The successes of the Courts movement on the ground are due to a consistent and prudent strategy that is not the product of design, but of convergence of the viewpoints of its components, and that indicates learning from defeat. As is the case with all revolutionary movements, the Courts in their early revolutionary phase over-valued their strength and support, and under-valued the strength and resolve of their external adversaries, Ethiopia and the Western donor powers to Somalia led by the United States.

A utopian mentality grew up in the Courts when, after expelling the warlords from Somalia’s official capital Mogadishu in spring 2006, their movement spread rapidly throughout southern and central Somalia on a wave of popular support. As external resistance to the prospect of an Islamic state grew, the Courts were forced into a militant posture, giving dominance to their military wing. When Western-inspired plans for an African Union peacekeeping force surfaced in the United Nations, the Courts, which saw that move correctly as a means to shore up the T.F.G., launched their first aggressive military action against a town, taking Kismayo, where the projected peacekeeping force would disembark. From then on, the Courts became more assertive and bellicose until Addis Ababa had sufficient cover and U.S. support to invade.

The disaster of December 2006 impelled the elements of the Courts movement to rethink their strategy. A guerilla insurgency centered in Mogadishu began almost immediately and continues unabated into the present. A new strategy began to
emerge in fall 2007, when the resistance shifted its focus to the regions, mounting hit-and-run raids on towns. In 2008, the strategy matured as the Courts began to hold and administer territory, forging alliances with local sub-clans; that is, rather than aspiring to institute an Islamic state based on Shari’a law in one fell swoop, the Courts movement has now dug in at the local level, accommodating to local differences by setting up Courts administrations where it can, mixed administrations as a rule and benevolently neutral administrations where it must. This flexibility and respect for local power structures and sentiment have allowed the movement to take root and gain back a measure of the popular legitimacy that it had lost when revolution came to ruin.

Through its surge in 2008, the Courts movement has remained multi-faceted, representing the major tendencies in contemporary political Islam. The al-Shabaab militia follows an internationalist Salafist-jihadist line, the militant faction of the Alliance for the Re-Liberation of Somalia based in Asmara, Eritrea (A.R.S.-A) subscribes to Islamic nationalism, the conciliatory faction of the A.R.S. based in Djibouti (A.R.S.-D) favors power sharing with non-Islamist tendencies, and the leaders of the movement on the ground, who must implement the evolving strategy, have tended to be pragmatic Islamic nationalists, sensitive to the needs for tactical cooperation, adaptation and
adjustment. In some regions, one of the sectors of the movement is dominant, whereas in others several tendencies are present, including A.R.S.-D, although it has signed a cease fire with the T.F.G.

The Courts at a CrossRoads

Having taken control of Kismayo, the Courts movement has gained confidence and
now envisages a genuine possibility that it will prevail in Somalia. With its success, however, new problems arise for the movement – as its components sense a possible victory, they have begun to think not only of removing the Ethiopian occupation, but also of which of them will dominate the re-liberation process and which vision of the desired future might be actualized.

It is only to be expected that rifts would appear in the ranks of the Courts movement on the ground, because its components share sufficient confidence to compete for influence among themselves – and that has happened in Middle Shabelle and seems to be occurring in Kismayo. How the Courts movement handles internal competition will in great part determine whether it maintains its role as protagonist and continues to deepen its roots and spread its branches, or whether it breaks down in mutual hostility and cuts itself apart in fragments in the familiar pattern of Somali factionalism: the Courts are at a cross roads.

On September 1, fighting broke out in Middle Shabelle’s capital Jowhar between forces loyal to Sheikh Dahir Adow Alosow, the Courts’ chairman in the region who is affiliated with A.R.S.-A, and the bodyguards of Abdullahi Moalim Mukhtar, who is affiliated with A.R.S.-D. At issue was a plan to deploy a joint A.R.S.-T.F.G. security force in Middle Shabelle that is supported by A.R.S.-D and rejected by A.R.S.-A, which does not recognize the T.F.G. As the first instance of violent internecine conflict in the Courts movement, the incident awakened expectations that the resistance would fragment; a closed source told the U.N.’s IRIN news service that he feared that there might be “so many versions of the Courts that there will be no one to talk to.”

In an attempt to forestall further hostilities, a group of clerics from Mogadishu stepped in to mediate between the two factions. Both sides told IRIN that they were seeking to resolve their differences, and, on September 4, they announced an agreement that was welcomed by local clan elders, and apologized for their dispute. On September 9, the Islamic Courts in Middle Shabelle issued a decree appointing a new administration for Jowhar and organized a demonstration in the town in which the speakers announced that Shari’a law would be applied there.

On September 6, Garoweonline reported that the Courts had set up an administration in Kismayo that allocated the posts of district commissioner, information secretary and police chief to al-Shabaab, and finance secretary, chief justice and head of Islamic protocol to the A.R.S.-A affiliated Islamic Courts Union (I.C.U.), setting aside one seat on the district commission for the clans that had been instrumental in the Courts’ takeover of the town from the Marehan militias. On September 7, Sheikh Ibrahim Shukri, the I.C.U.’s head of political affairs in the Jubba regions, complained that the new Kismayo administration was not sufficiently “inclusive” and that local clans should be better represented.

On September 8, in an interview with the BBC Somali Service, Sheikh Hassan al-Turki, the self-described “elder” of al-Shabaab, endorsed the new administration in Kismayo, particularly the appointment of a mayor from Somaliland, arguing that the administration is founded on “Islam” rather than the clan-based formula of the T.F.G. He added that the local clans in Kismayo “would fight among each other” were clan representation to be applied.

The disagreements among factions in the Courts movement in Jowhar and Kismayo
show that the line, which has been consistently espoused by leaders of the movement on the ground, that the disagreements between factions based outside Somalia and between al-Shabaab and the A.R.S. do not affect operational coordination does not apply when the movement morphs from insurgency into administration. It is too early to tell whether IRIN’s source is correct in saying that it was inevitable that the Courts would “splinter” and that “Jowhar is a precursor of things to come.” What is clear is that the autonomy of re-liberation/jihad on the ground from political and ideological factionalism cannot be sustained when there are tangible resources and proximate possibilities over which to contest.

The Test for the Courts

Can a multi-faceted insurgency streaked by ideological, tactical and clan-based divisions carry over its prudent strategy of accommodation into effective rule? Or will it irretrievably splinter? The road that the Courts movement will travel will be determined in great part by its factions, as an exhausted Ethiopia strives to disengage itself from its occupation and retreat to border security, the T.F.G. continues to stumble and be hobbled by the tensions between its president and prime minister, and the Western powers working through the U.N. continue to administer bare life support to the T.F.G. and to defer decision on a multi-national “stabilization force” to replace the occupation. Through the failure, weakness and ambivalence of its respective adversaries, the Courts have a window of opportunity to show that they can govern.

A collapse into in-fighting by the Courts on the ground will mean yet a further descent into political entropy for Somalia – a fragmenting dynamic to compound the ruptures within the T.F.G. and the A.R.S., persistent clan divisions, and freelancing militias and criminal gangs. That is the most likely scenario if one extrapolates from Somalia’s recent past. Implementation of a pragmatic, flexible and locally adaptive strategy of governance would have the potential of putting into play a counter-dynamic to entropy – an organization of forces that was the Courts’ promise in its early revolutionary moment and that would sustain the movement’s position as the protagonist in Somalia’s conflicts.

It remains to be seen whether the Courts have learned their lesson and whether prudent strategy during the insurgency was more than a response to necessity.

Report Drafted By:
Dr. Michael A. Weinstein, Professor of Political Science, Purdue University



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