As the Federal Government of Somalia (FGS) had been preparing to declare victory over al-Shabaab in the Federal State of Galmudug, President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud said that only scattered bands of insurgents remain hiding in rural and remote areas. However, despite this positive assessment, the jihadist group mobilized clan-based forces to support the fight against government troops. As recent events in Galgaduud showed, the militant group largely succeeded.
Galmudug State, SOMALIA. Analysis by Phillip:
As part of supporting the offensive launched in August 2022 by the Somali National Army (SNA) against the jihadist group, the FGS and Galmudug State administration have mobilized the Ma’awisley clan-based militia. In 2011, these forces were initially drawn from among members of the Hawadle-Hawiye clan, which has had a complicated relationship with al-Shabaab, one which has been characterized by conflict, including the assassination of clan leaders and destruction of villages.
From these beginnings, the movement has grown to include pastoralists from other clans and Hawiye sub-clans, motivated by al-Shabaab’s excessive taxation of their livestock, farms and businesses. This includes not only the collection of zakat, which is an obligatory Islamic tax but also infaaq, a form of ’emergency’ taxation that those forced to pay viewed with particular hostility.
The response of al-Shabaab towards the Hawadle clan has been to wage a ‘scorched earth’ campaign of assassinations, kidnappings, and the destruction of villages and water wells. In contrast, the group’s strategy towards other clans, including other Hawiye sub-clans, has often been to either offer concessions or apply coercion to prevent their defection to Somali authorities. Still, it is important to note that alternative strategies to violence are only typically made when al-Shabaab feels that its position is weak or that the group needs to improve its relations with local communities.
Al-Shabaab’s counter-mobilization strategy
An example of this was (last publicly) reported in Galmudug on 23 December 2022, when al-Shabaab released details of an agreement between the militant group and leaders from the Darod-Warsangeli-Reer Haji Saleeban clan. This agreement, which required the community to withdraw political and military support from Federal and Galmudug State authorities, also imposed other conditions, including the imposition of the group’s version of Islamic law (Shariah), possession of weapons, and relations with neighbouring communities.
There have also been two examples of the recent use of coercion by al-Shabaab, which both occurred in the Galgaduud region during August 2023. The first case al-Shabaab-affiliated media organizations reported on 10 August. This involved the mobilization of members of the Hawiye-Karanle-Murusade clan in the Jaar area of El Buur District. The second incident al-Shabaab media reported on 14 August. It involved the mobilization of fighters belonging to the Hawiye-Abgaal-Wa’aysle clan under the leadership of Sultan Daa’uud Hassan Aadan.
Forced mobilization of clan militias
In both cases, the group provided photos of the mostly lightly armed fighters, with the majority not wearing chest rigs for additional magazines or carrying extra ammunition for their rocket-propelled grenade launcher (RPG). They also shared photos of the clan leaders, the majority of whom have likely been appointed by al-Shabaab. Notably, the mobilization of clan fighters on behalf of the group is the responsibility of these elders, who each receive an AKM(S)/Type-56 assault rifle, as well a copy of the Qu’ran and either a car or money from the group on their appointment.
However, according to a local source, al-Shabaab forcibly organized these events in response to earlier successful efforts by Federal and State-level authorities to promote dialogue and reconciliation among local clans in the ‘El Buur Corridor’ area. These events also served the second and equally important function of mobilizing the men of these communities as Ma’awisley to fight alongside the SNA.
Benefits to al-Shabaab
While poorly armed and forcibly mobilized clan militia forces were unlikely to add significantly to the combat strength of al-Shabaab, the exercise provided the jihadist group with several benefits.
The first benefit is that the group could use the news and imagery associated with the mobilization exercise to depict itself as being capable of securing the support of local clans, even in areas where the group is under significant military pressure. This can be useful in helping to convince other clans and sub-clans, especially those who may be wavering, that the group is still actually winning even as it loses control over towns, villages and territory.
The second benefit for al-Shabaab occurs if a forcibly mobilized clan militia suffers casualties at the hands of the SNA or Ma’awisley. As noted in the Berghoff Foundation’s conflict assessment in Galmudug State, “… members of the communities, especially immediate family members such as the sons and the brothers of the victims, bear the responsibility to revenge the family member who was killed. In some clans, it is a shame not to seek blood revenge for victims.”
Poorly-equipped and ill-trained fighters, therefore, serve not only as cannon fodder for the jihadist group but also as a potential trigger for new cycles of violence between clans and sub-clans, further complicating the already complex security environment in Galmudug State.
Challenges facing the Ma’awisley
While forcibly mobilized clan militia are unlikely to turn the tide for al-Shabaab, clan forces mobilized by the FGS and Galmudug State administration also face their own problems.
Some Ma’awisley forces have reasonably solid equipment due to their wealth and political influence at the State and/or Federal level. However, others are less well-armed and not capable of fighting the insurgents. These weaker militia forces, while able to offer their knowledge of the local area and its terrain, can contribute little else to the SNA and Galmudug State Forces as they liberate settlements and territory from al-Shabaab.
Nonetheless, even better-equipped clan-based forces still face the prospect of becoming exhausted by months of protracted counter-insurgency operations and the need to defend their communities from al-Shabaab’s reprisal attacks. Even with logistical support from the FGS and, to a lesser extent, the African Union Transition Mission in Somalia (ATMIS), in the form of food, medical evacuation and (in some cases) ammunition, Ma’awisley could stretch to a breaking point.
At such a time, there is a risk that a clan will end its uprising against al-Shabaab and seek to make a new peace agreement with the group. This is a particular risk for Ma’awisley militias that are no longer on the front lines and do not receive priority support. It concerns those left behind to secure their local areas in the face of insurgents’ attacks.
The way forward
As the FGS failed to reach a decisive point against al-Shabaab in Galmudug, a nuanced approach and reconsidered strategy are vital. Al-Shabaab’s recourse to mobilizing clan-based forces underscores the importance of targeted policies.
To counter al-Shabaab’s narrative, the government must engage clans through dialogue, addressing the root causes of their grievances. This would undercut al-Shabaab’s claims of broad support. Furthermore, international partners should assist in enhancing the capabilities of aligned clan militias, providing training and resources. This would reduce the risk of inter-clan violence and exhaustion among government-aligned forces, ensuring a more effective response. Simultaneously, efforts should focus on defusing revenge-driven cycles by implementing restorative justice mechanisms within communities.
Finally, though military victories hold weight, achieving enduring and sustainable peace in Galmudug State hinges on the adoption of a comprehensive strategy that integrates the success of the battlefield with political, socioeconomic, and reconciliation elements.