Mohamed Sheikh Nor/AP
An armed Islamist raises his fist during a rally in Mogadishu, Somalia, after Sheik Sharif
Sheik Ahmed was declared president.

Moderates Take Up Arms in Fight for Future of Somalia

February 04, 2009 01:28 PM
by Christopher Coats
As stabilizing forces from Ethiopia make their final exit, Somalia has been left divided between militant forces eager for complete control and moderates who feel they have been pushed to desperate measures to keep them at bay.

Countering Al-Shabab’s Consolidation of Power

Faced with what they view as an imminent threat to the future of Somalia, members of the moderate, usually pacifist, Sufi practice of Islam, have organized to mount a defense against more radical forces.

Calling themselves Ahlu Sunna wa Jamaa, the moderates say there is now no other choice but to take up arms to retain control.

Meanwhile, recently elected President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed has set about the task of appointing a new prime minister after the country’s government collapsed.

His process has been hindered by the seizure of the Somali parliamentary building by militant troops in the nation’s legislative capital of Baidoa.

The troops have promised a move toward instituting Sharia, or strict Islamic law.

Furthermore, the new president was once allied with the very militant forces he has pledged to fight, causing nervousness within the government and sharp anger from his opponents, who declared jihad against his government immediately after he was elected.

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Background: A culmination of years of instability

Burdened by a dismal international image thanks to a spike in piracy off its shores over the past year, Somalia has struggled to retain some semblance of order.

But as members of Al-Shabab, a militant Islamic group designated by the United States as a terrorist organization in early 2008, make their way closer to the capital and complete control, tensions have reached a fever pitch.

Although they have lacked an operating government for several years, national forces were able to keep Al-Shabab away from the capital thanks to the aid of Ethiopian forces.

The soldiers were deployed from Somalia’s neighbor in 2006 after members of the Union of Islamic Courts, an influential political party that took power that year, began commenting on a Greater Somali, which would include parts of Ethiopia and Kenya.

Though the party was virtually erased from Somali politics, its armed wing flourished, taking on the name of “The Youth,” or Al-Shabab.

After three years of setbacks and losses, Ethiopia announced its withdrawal late last year, leaving behind military outposts that were almost immediately occupied by members of Al-Shabab.

The well-funded and well-organized group has since continued to extend its reach across the Horn of Africa, consolidating power in regions long fought over by an array of warlords.

Members of a 3,400-strong African Union force remain in the country to help combat the spread of Al-Shabab, but they recently suffered a drop in support after being accused of opening fire on civilians following a bomb attack on one of their convoys.

Representatives of the AU force deny any involvement in the attack, which resulted in the deaths of 31 people in the capital of Mogadishu.

Historical Context: Humanitarian disaster

In addition to creating a general instability that has allowed for a surge in piracy, the ongoing struggle for control of Somalia has created what the United Nations and the Red Cross have called one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world.

In the 18 years since the overthrow of Mohamed Siad Barre, the country’s leader, Somalia has seen thousands killed, 1.1 million displaced and about 3.2 million citizens completely reliant on aid agencies for food and supplies.

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