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Somalia: Al-Shabaab’s Split and its Absorption of Hizbul Islam [Intelligence Brief]

By: Dr. Michael A. Weinstein

Aweys [left] shares a laugh with Ali Dheere, Al Shabaab spokesman
A closed source in the Horn of Africa provides information on the power struggle in Harakat al-Shabaab Mujahideen (H.S.M.) that preceded its merger with/absorption of Hizbul Islam (H.I.) in December 2010. The absorption of H.I. by H.S.M. left the latter as the only Islamic revolutionary force on the ground in Somalia contending with the country’s Transitional Federal Government (T.F.G.), which is sustained and supported by an international coalition, including Western donor powers (with Washington in the lead), the United Nations, and the African Union.

The significance of the source’s information is that it identifies deep splits within H.S.M. that crystallized around the merger, with one faction led by Sh. Abdi Godane, the (former) amir of H.S.M., opposing it and the other, led by Sh. Mukhtar Robow, Sh. Fu’ad Shongole and Sh. Ali Dhere pressing for it. Behind the headlines reporting the merger is the story of the defeat of Godane and the triumph of the Robow-Shongole-Dhere faction.

From the perspective of political-science-based analysis, H.S.M. is a revolutionary inter-/transnationalist movement evincing the structure of that form.

Internationalist/transnationalist revolutionary movements are characterized, most fundamentally, by a division between factions that place emphasis on transnationalism and doctrinal purity, and factions that temper transnationalism with nationalism adapted to local circumstances and are looser and more pragmatic in their orientation to doctrine. The paradigm case of an international revolutionary movement is Soviet Communism during the period between the two world wars of the twentieth century, when the doctrines of “world revolution” (Trotskyism) and “socialism in one country” (Stalinism) contended, with the latter prevailing.

In the case of H.S.M., the ideological programmatic content of the transnationalist political form is revolutionary Salafist-Wahhabi Islamism committed to establishing emirates in the Muslim world and eventually a caliphate or several caliphates ruled according to the Salifist-Wahhabi interpretations of Shari’a law. The movement is fascist rather than communist in an analytical sense – rather than looking forward to an unrealized future, as Communism does, H.S.M. looks back to a previous golden age, the medieval period, when Islam was a dominant power. The content of H.S.M.’s political ideology-program, however, is not responsible for the current division within it, which reflects, instead, the tensions inherent to modern/postmodern transnationalist movements of any ideological content.

Although one can predict that internationalist revolutionary movements will fall into factions, how that happens depends on particular circumstances – social differences within the movement that pre-exist the advent of the revolutionary ideology (clan and region in Somalia), personal affinities and antipathies among leaders, personal and sub-group ambitions, tactical decisions leading to failure or success, and the rise and fall in the wider balance of power of players in the conflicts. The preceding factors insure that revolutionary movements are never pure and ideal – they are always mired in concrete history. Whether, as in the present case, the more transnationalist or the more nationalist faction gains the upper hand is only partly dependent on interests in policy, and is affected by the power struggle as a whole. The preponderance of factors outside ideological-programmatic disputes pushes the latter in one direction or the other.

The Merger with H.I. as a Function of H.S.M’s Division

The power struggle within H.S.M. began to crystallize around its orientation to H.I., a nationalist-Salafist revolutionary group led by Sh. Hasan Dahir Aweys, a year ago when Aweys began to make overtures to H.S.M. for an alliance. Godane was opposed to any negotiations with Aweys, whom he considered to be someone interested in power for himself who would seek to undermine H.S.M. For Godane, an alliance with H.I. would disadvantage the transnationalist faction in H.S.M. and carried the danger of displacing it. At that time, according to the source, Godane prevailed over H.S.M. elements favoring negotiations by arguing that H.I. was weak and could not contribute to H.S.M.’s struggle. Indeed, Godane said that Aweys should simply admit defeat and fold H.I.

Godane’s victory proved to be short lived when, in February, 2010, the Robow-Shongole-Dhere faction made a tactical exit from H.S.M. and formed a new organization, Militu Ibrahim, in the Karan district of Somalia’s capital Mogadishu. The nationalist-leaning faction accused Godane of “clannism,” favoring his Isaaq clan members over Rahanweyne and Hawiye members, and of rejecting H.I.’s overtures. At that time, a permanent split was avoided when the foreign fighters, who form the third faction within H.S.M., intervened to mediate and convinced the transnationalists and nationalists to rejoin in order to promote their war against the T.F.G. and the A.U. peacekeeping mission (AMISOM) that protects it.

Conditions in H.S.M. appeared to stabilize until the split broke out again in late-summer and fall, 2010, after H.S.M mounted a failed offensive to take control of Mogadishu during the month of Ramadan.  As analyst Abdikarim Buh notes, the factional conflict divided H.S.M.’s executive council, which met in the town of Merka in the Lower Shabelle region in late September to resolve the dispute.  The Robow-Shongole-Dhere faction blamed the Godane faction for the failure, in which Robow’s Rahanweyne forces suffered losses. Robow then withdrew his loyalists to their homeland in the Bay region and then, in November, met with Aweys in order to form a new movement called al-Islamiya combining H.SM.’s nationalist wing and H.I. Again, the foreign fighters intervened, telling Robow not to engineer the break-up of H.S.M. and threatening him with punishment if he did. Godane reacted against Robow’s meetings with Aweys by accusing the latter of attempting to disrupt H.S.M.

The foreign fighters, who number approximately 200 and represent transnational Islamic revolution, are important to H.S.M. through their military expertise, links to funding sources and affiliation with the global revolutionary movement, including al-Qaeda. Their natural affiliation within H.S.M. is with the transnationalist Godane faction, since their interest is to direct H.S.M. into the global Islamic revolution. However, the source reports that the strains in H.S.M. became so great that the foreign fighters switched sides in December, 2010 and abandoned Godane for the more nationalist Robow-Shongole-Dhere faction.

According to the source, the foreign fighters had reached the conclusion that Godane had been resorting to clannism, had disaffected the majority of H.S.M. thereby, had made strategic mistakes, and had become the greatest liability to H.S.M. and threat to its integrity. As a consequence, they gave their support to the nationalists’ campaign to oust Godane. On December 24, Ibrahim Haji Jama al-Afghani, also a transnationalist and member of the Isaap clan family, was named the new amir of H.S.M.

Godane meanwhile made a last-ditch effort to resist the Robow-Shongole-Dhere faction’s gain in power by pressing for a postponement of a scheduled December 25 meeting of H.S.M.’s Shura Council, which was to discuss the composition of an Islamic state that the organization was planning to declare. Godane went so far as to urge that Aweys be publically executed. In response, the Shura Council met, scrapping its plans to discuss the Islamic state in favor of considering Godane’s fate.

Infuriated by the Shura Council meeting, Godane attempted to turn the foreign fighters around by arguing that commanders in the nationalist faction would never work in concert with them and that the establishment of an Islamic state would spell the end of H.S.M.’s efforts in the global struggle. The arguments were not persuasive; al-Afghani told Godane, according to the source, that the latter’s loss of power was a judgment from Allah that he had failed the mujahideen.

The path was cleared for the absorption of H.I. into H.S.M.


If the source’s account is correct, the merger/absorption of H.I. into H.S.M. was the culmination of a power struggle between the transnationalist and more nationalist wings within H.S.M. that shifted the balance of power in favor of the nationalists. The ascendency of the advocates of Islamism in one country over world Islamic revolution was made possible by the foreign fighters and their backers, who were constrained to abandon their natural ally because he was incapable of prevailing over his opponents due to his personal and tactical inadequacies.

Seen in terms of the source’s account, the merger/absorption marks a loss for the transnational elements in H.S.M. and for global revolutionary interests, which were forced to league with the nationalists in order to keep H.S.M. intact, impeding, in the process, their move to channel H.S.M. into global revolution.

Godane’s argument to the foreign fighters that his opponents will turn away from global revolution to focus on national consolidation of the revolution is plausible. Over time, the external Islamist actors within H.S.M. might lose interest, depending on how much of a purchase transnational global revolution still has in H.S.M.

From the source’s account, the merger/absorption is not a capitulation of H.I. to a dominant and unified H.S.M., but, rather, a boost to the nationalist faction of H.S.M. and an indicator of its enhanced power position. There was nothing inevitable about that outcome in terms of a “dialectic of ideas;” it resulted from an interplay of clan, personality, tactical and strategic failure, perceived threat, and, also ideological-programmatic differences.

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

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