The Balance of Power in Somalia’s Central Regions [Intelligence Update #3] 3 Feb 3, 2010 - 2:18:37 PM
By: Dr. Michael A. Weinstein
From mid-January into early February, the balance of power in the conflict in Somalia’s central regions, specifically Hiiraan and Galgadud, shifted slightly in favor of the armed opposition to Somalia’s internationally recognized Transitional Federal Government (T.F.G.) and its allies of convenience, and against the latter.
The major event was the January 22 recapture of the strategically located capital of Hiiraan, Beledweyne, which is close to Somalia’s border with Ethiopia and sits astride key transportation routes, by the armed opposition composed of the nationalist Islamist Hizbul Islam (H.I.) and the transnationalist revolutionary Islamist Harakat al-Shabaab Mujahideen (H.S.M.). Given its strategic importance, Beledweyne has been continuously contested in recent months by the parties to the conflict, and has changed hands several times. Its current occupation by H.I. and H.S.M. does not spell an end to the armed conflict; H.I. and HS.M. have not eliminated their rivals, but they have gained an edge for the time being.
At present, the conflict in the central regions is the major determinant of the direction that the struggle over control of Somalia’s southern and central regions, including the country’s capital Mogadishu, will take in the near future. The conflict in the central regions involves all the major players in the more general struggle, except for the African Union peacekeeping mission (AMISOM), which is confined to protecting the small enclave of Mogadishu that houses the T.F.G. All the other players are actively engaged – the rivalry over control of Hiiraan and Galgadud is where the action is.
The parties to the conflict in the central regions are H.I. and H.S.M. on one side, and local coalitions of clans opposed to the armed Islamists, regional T.F.G. politicians, ex-warlords, and local politicians – all of which are gathered loosely under the Sufi organization, Ahlu Sunna Wal-Jama’a (A.S.W.J.), which embraced a traditionalist Islamist political ideology after H.S.M desecrated Sufi graves and shrines, and assassinated several Sufi clerics – on the other side.
Both sides are uneasy alliances of convenience. The protagonist is H.S.M., which as reported by this writer in Garoweonline, is pursuing a strategy of encircling the T.F.G. and AMISOM in Mogadishu prior to moving against them in the capital. Having achieved dominance in the southern regions, H.S.M. is now making its move in the central regions, collaborating tactically with the weaker H.I., which had been the dominant Islamist faction in Hiiraan. The alliance of anti-H.S.M. forces is the antagonist, defending against the implementation of the encirclement strategy.
The source who had provided this writer with intelligence on H.S.M.’s encirclement strategy has offered new information about and analysis of the present status of the conflict in the central regions. The following assessment will weave together the source’s new intelligence with data gathered from daily monitoring of open sources.
Assessment of Forces
The recapture of Beledweyne on January 22 by H.I. and H.S.M. confirms the source’s previous analysis that H.I. would have to rely on H.S.M. in its offensive, and that H.S.M. would use the opportunity to gain a foothold in the strategic town as a prelude to dominating H.I. in Hiiraan.
January 14 found Beledweyne split between the rivals, with the A.S.W.J. alliance holding the town’s east side and H.I. holding its west side, and fighting reported at the Liq-Liqato bridge that links east and west. On January 19, IRIN reported that fighting had entered its tenth day, with heavy shelling in Beledweyne’s central district, and quoted a traditional elder as saying that mediation efforts had failed because neither side was willing to “negotiate about its religious beliefs.”
On January 20, the situation altered when Ethiopian troops with heavy weapons were reported to have moved into Beledweyne and H.I. withdrew from the town in order to reorganize. H.I.’s head of information, Ma’alin Hashi, announced that Western spies had infiltrated H.I. and that troops controlled the by the United States Central Intelligence Agency and Federal Bureau of Investigation were “fighting alongside” H.I. forces. Then, in a sharp reversal, on January 22, H.I., fortified by H.S.M. forces, attacked A.S.W.J. positions around Beledweyne and took the town. Local media reported “hundreds” of H.S.M. fighters in the town, patrolling the streets in “armored vehicles.” On January 23, fighting was reported to have ended.
On January 25, H.I.’s administration in Beledweyne met with traditional elders and assured them that H.I. would not “cause problems” for the town’s residents or “victimize” those who had worked with A.S.W.J., but that it would, against the wishes of the elders, continue its campaign against A.S.W.J. On January 26, H.I. and H.S.M. attacked A.S.W.J. bases in El-gal, to the north of Beledweyne, and took control of them. Garoweonline reported that A.S.W.J. mounted a counter-attack, which proved to be unsuccessful. Hashi announced tellingly that H.S.M. and H.I. were in control of El-gal. On January 27, there were reports of continued fighting around El-gal, as H.I. officials met with elders, scholars and residents of Beledweyne to gain their cooperation. Since January 27, monitoring has found no reports of further clashes.
How were H.I. and H.S.M. able to retake Beledweyne so swiftly after the reported incursion of Ethiopian forces and Hashi’s announcement of subversive elements in H.I.’s ranks? The source reports that A.S.W.J. explains its defeat by a move on the part of officials in the T.F.G. from the Hawadle clan to split A.S.W.J. by paying Hawadle militias not to engage in fighting. Those officials were also reported to have departed from Hiiraan on the day that it was retaken by H.I. and H.S.M. If this is true, then it reflects the underlying tensions in the anti-H.S.M alliance of convenience. The T.F.G.’s president, Sh. Sharif Sh. Ahmed, has determined that A.S.W.J. is his rival rather than permanent ally and does not want to strengthen A.S.W.J. The source reasons that Sh.Sharif would prefer that the situation in Hiiraan remain undecided to give him “breathing space.”
As for the failure of Ethiopia to protect A.S.W.J., which it supports materially, the source reasons that Addis Ababa is likely to be following a strategy of letting the conflict in Hiiraan intensify to the point at which the Western powers, led by Washington, will feel sufficiently threatened by an H.S.M takeover that they will give the green light for Ethiopia to intervene militarily “without restritions.” The source concludes that only Ethiopian intervention can turn the situation around for the fractured A.S.W.J. alliance.
With Beledweyne’s east side demographically dominated by the Hawadle and its west side the by the Galja’el clan, the situation remains problematic. H.I. has found its base of support in the Galja’el, as has H.S.M. in the town of Buloburde, and has sometimes had tense relations with the Hawadle, some of whose leaders have close ties with Sh.Sharif’s faction in the divided T.F.G. The Hawadle have been divided in their support of the contending factions, with shifts in sentiment often following the fortunes of the various factions on the ground. On February 2, traditional elders from Hiiraan met in Mogadishu. The chair of the Council of Elders for the Galja’el clan, Muhammad Kulmiye Meyle said that “foreign countries together with the Transitional Federal Government” were responsible for the recent fighting in Beledweyne.
On February 1, there were reports that low-flying aircraft were spotted over Beldweyne that were probably on Ethiopian reconnaissance missions.
In Galgadud, which also borders Ethiopia on the west but is less accessible than Hiiraan, and where the conflict is between the A.S.W.J. alliance, which has controlled most of the major towns, and H.S.M., which has some strongholds, the situation tightened through January.
On January 15, A.S.W.J. renewed its offensive against H.S.M. in the villages of Wabho and Warhole, which are gateways to El-bur, where H.S.M. has its major base in Galgadud, and announced that it had gained control. In the succeeding ten days, H.S.M. gathered reinforcements and, on January 25, attempted to consolidate its control over El-bur by forming an administration there that gained the support of traditional elders; the sultan of El-bur urged residents to cooperate with H.S.M. despite A.S.W.J.’s protests.
A.S.W.J. responded by imposing curfews in the town of Guri-el, where it was in the process of forming its own administration for the central regions, and in Galgadud’s capital, Dhusamareb. On January 26, A.S.W.J. announced that it had killed two people who were caught planting a bomb on the outskirts of Dhusamareb.
On January 27, fighting began again in Warhole, with some local media claiming that H.S.M. had attacked A.S.W.J. positions and others that A.S.W.J. had initiated the hostilities; both sides claimed victory. On January 28, H.S.M. spokesman Sh. Ali Dhere, announced that H.S.M. had seized a boat loaded with munitions for A.S.W.J. off the coastal El-der district, indicating H.S.M. intelligence capabilities. Fighting spread to El-der when H.S.M. attacked A.S.W.J. in the village of Ausweyne.
On January 30, the competition to establish administrations in Galgadud continued, with A.S.W.J. completing its process of forming a government by electing Sh. Mohamed Yusuf Hefow as its chief executive in Guri-el. Hefow announced: “We will continue fighting al-Shabaab and Hizbul Islam in all the Somali regions and there is no conflict between us and the government [T.F.G.].” On January 31, H.S.M. formed an administration in El-garas.
On January 30, AllPuntland reported that A.S.W.J. and militia leaders and politicians associated with the T.F.G. were holding talks on plans to open an offensive against H.S.M. A.S.W.J. was reported to have appealed to Puntland and the semi-autonomous Galmudug administration in the central Mudug region, both of which border Galgadud, to lend their support to action against H.S.M., since both would be threatened by an H.S.M. takeover of Galgadud. Meanwhile, H.I. and H.S.M. were reported to be holding talks on resisting Ethiopian incursions.
With both sides appearing to be girding for a confrontation in Galgadud and attempting to consolidate their positions, the source reports that A.S.W.J. is losing morale, due to the loss of a key commander who was killed in a “feigned retreat” from Beledweyne and who had earlier led in a recapture of Dhusamareb from H.S.M. by A.S.W.J. The source expects an Ethiopian intervention only if H.S.M. threatens Galkayo, the strategic capital of the Mudug region that is divided between the Galmudug and Puntland administrations.
A synthesis of the closed source’s intelligence and data from open-source monitoring indicates that momentum remains with H.S.M., which has succeeded in becoming an essential tactical ally of H.I. in Hiiraan and has gained a foothold in Beledweyne; and has maintained and consolidated its position in Galgadud, where A.S.W.J. is still dominant, but is showing signs of vulnerability. The central regions are actively contested and are currently the testing grounds of southern and central Somalia’s conflicts. That situation could change if threats of major offensives by the T.F.G. in Mogadishu and by the A.S.W.J. alliance in the southern regions materialize; and/or if Ethiopia takes decisive action. If the anti-H.S.M. coalition cannot or will not mount major military action, H.S.M. is like to continue to increase its dominance over H.I. and to persist in implementing its encirclement strategy, meeting with incremental success.
Report Drafted By: Dr. Michael A. Weinstein, Professor of Political Science, Purdue University Chicago firstname.lastname@example.org