Somalia Resorts to Clan Militias to Battle Al Shabaab, Questions Remain

Somali forces in central regions. (PHOTO CREDIT: SONNA)

Somalia has heightened its war against the militant group, the Al Shabaab, using clan-based militias fighting alongside the federal security forces.

Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud has rallied the government, religious leaders, communities, financial institutions and the international community to support a plan to defeat the terror group.

The President has since taking over for a new term of office this year consolidated his forces and begun to pursue an all-out strategy against the militants.

In August, the government forces and allied clan militias launched an operation in Central Somalia to liberate more villages and towns under the control of the militants.

The success of the military operation in capturing dozens of villages previously controlled by the armed militants emboldened the Federal forces to heighten their armed pursuit. 

The clan militia, also known as Ma’awisley, have long engaged the Al Shabaab militants in a fight to control villages and swathes of territory.

But the successes of their latest uprising against the Al Shabaab precipitated the continued militant attack on civilians and the looting of livestock of communities who lost their livelihood to the worst drought in nearly half a century.

“The recent operations in many parts of Somalia have shown how keen the Somali community is in fighting Al Shabaab and we need to capitalize on this current momentum,” said Kamal Gutale, the Security Advisor to the Somali Prime Minister.

While the renewed war against the Al Shabaab enjoys popular backing, Gutale said the Al-Shabab poses an even greater threat not only to Somalia.

The ongoing siege against the Al Shabaab has finally got the entire Somali populace talking, all across the national media, the social media and the prospect of victory against the militants has excited the society.

Gutale recently joined a Twitter chat convened by a non-governmental organization, Feynuus International on 11 October, 2022.

The popular resort to clan militias is not something new in Somalia since the al-Shabab’s rise to prominence over the past 15 years.

Somalia’s history is punctuated by the recurrence of military uprisings. 

The clan-based militias have a history of similar uprising against warlords who abused the population for years. The insurgent group, the Al Shabaab, rallied the population after an Ethiopian military invasion of Somalia in 2006 and has remained a force.

Vanda Felbab-Brown, Brooking Scholar for Crime, Conflict and Non-Traditional security threats, said the violent behavior of the militant fighters is pushing communities to take arms and defend themselves.

“While certainly the scale of what we are seeing today has not been seen recently, there are both lessons and similar instances. I don’t think it’s a toll accidental that the uprisings are taking place now because Shabaab in its rule makes a consistent mistake when revenues decline, such as because of drought or other economic pressure it tends to raise taxes. It also taxes communities and clans and this is also what was happening this summer and the case the economic squeeze was such that clans have rebelled,” said Felbab-Brown.

In the past year, the militant group raised taxes at water points for house and animal use, farm produce and taking livestock as a religious tax known as Zakah.

Somali government mobilize troops to support clan militias in central regions. (PHOTO CREDIT: SONNA)

Since August, the government troops and clan militias have been able to liberate more land in central Somalia. But al-Shabab continues to fight and carry out guerilla attacks against government positions.

The US ambassador to Somalia Larry Andre said his government is reaching out to Somali politicians and leaders to solidly support the government’s unified action and plan.

Andre says his government is supporting the people of the liberated areas.  

“A lot of development aid has recently been turned towards the stabilization effort. Remember that as Al Shabaab abandons these communities they are fleeing in front of the government offensive before they leave these communities they burn buildings, tear down cellphone towers, poison or otherwise destroy wells,” he said. “So there is a need immediately to truck in water to provide immediate other benefits of humanitarian assistance to the people. This is being done primarily by state and federal authorities. We play our role in assistance.”

Felbab-Brown says Al Shabaab has taken some defeats, but it would be a mistake to interpret that they cannot respond and can insert themselves into the conflict when clans turn on each other.

Over the years, the militants have ruled the population, accumulating wealth through extortion, manipulation and power and using its wealth to wage war.

Al-Shabaab carries out religiously and politically motivated attacks on civilians affiliated with or working for the government, as well as on humanitarian organizations. 

The group continues to carry out attacks on high security targets such as hotels and restaurants in Mogadishu killing unarmed people.

In Somalia’s Hiran region, the Somali government forces and militias secured more than 15 villages and in recent days Al Shabaab continued attacks against government positions in Yasoman and Bera Yabal in the region.

Former Education Minister Godah Barre, from the Hiran region, which has been the epicenter of fierce fighting and community mobilization, said the al-Shabab commanders sent more fighters to the region in an attempt to defend their positions while the local community failed to put up a defence.

“To be honest, this is an issue that is worrisome to us. It is not right for one clan to fight Al Shabaab and the rest to pretend to fight. This is not acceptable. If people want to live in this country together, to be citizens and to be brothers, this behavior of leaving the battle and the war to one community needs to change,” Barre said in a video posted on Facebook.

Barre suspected some clans have a secret deal with the al Shabaab and may have been reluctant to fight them.

Ambassador Andre says the offensive against Al Shabaab will put Somali clans to the test. 

“Are Somalis going to act in unison? Are they going to show their unity? Are they going to show that they are a Somali nation or are they going to show that Somalia is a collection of clans and by that, I mean as one clan in Hiran is exhausting itself fighting while a rival community sit back and watch them get weak and not enter the fight themselves and see the advantage to them in that or is the rival community to put their rivalry and say we have an interest all of us as members of one Somali nation to rise up together forget our past issues,” Andre said.

The ambassador urged on clans to work together to eradicate the scourge of terrorism that has hampered the nation’s revival.  

In the country’s recent history, clan militias have been a source of security in areas where the government lacked presence. The presence of clan militias has also come with its own share of abuses, human rights violations and inter-clan conflict.

“In the short term, they might be greatly improving even human security, not just the overall security picture but in the medium term, they carry significant risks of becoming major sources of danger themselves,” Felbab said.

Some clan militias are aligned with powerful politicians, some who have connections with foreign governments.

Gutale admits they have seen the dangers of the clan militias, but they are learning to manage them.

“Now, we have seen so many command confusions when fighting alongside the army. We have seen difficulties in planning, and we have seen many unilateral decisions by the community defense forces. This battle is a learning lesson to that kind of challenge. They are as good as fighting Al Shabaab; they are also learning how to adapt to government agencies.”

The current Somali government has prioritized the fight against terrorist groups especially Al Shabaab and eradicate them from the country after the group has become an obstacle to the peace and stability of the horn of the African nation for decades.

Thousands of Somali national forces have been trained by dozens of countries and bringing the troops under one functioning command has challenged the Somali state.

On the frontline clans and their fighters are calling for more support to maintain the momentum and hold the liberated territories.

Felbab-Brown says continued support is needed to keep the momentum going.

“There is often a frequent problem, there is often exhaustion that kicks in and if there are no backup, refreshment, sustain the flow of weapons, some of the sorts of money financing, I say that carefully because there are tremendous issues regarding how both money and weapons provided to the militias can be misused and of course, there is inconsistent the militias tend to run out of steam and they become vulnerable to reprisals from Al Shabaab,” She said.