How should Galmudug State deal with the resurgence of Sufi militias?
Bayan Research Center – BRC
Is a monthly analysis of major political and security developments in Somalia and the Horn of Africa region
How should Galmudug State deal with the resurgence of Sufi militias?
Recently concluded clashes in Guriel town in Somalia’s Galmudug federal state between Ahlu Sunna Wal Jamaa (ASWJ) militants on one side and the regional administration forces backed by the Somali Security Forces (SSF) on the other have killed and wounded dozens of people and forced thousands of residents to flee the town. Once an ally of the Somali government in the fight against Al-Shabaab, the ASWJ’s relations with Somali government have fractured in recent years due to political differences. While Galmudug State’s move to use force to defeat the group can be seen as its right to defend itself, the move risks pushing the region into a wider conflict that might allow for clannish and ideological violence. Mediation efforts should be intensified to convince the group to drop arms. Trust-building efforts should be pursued by the use of institutionalized agreements that will pave the way for the group to pursue its political ends through legal and peaceful means.
A Sufi militant group, ASWJ was, until 2019, allied with the federal government and had the support of regional and international partners, thanks to its reliability in the fight against Al-Shabaab and its perceived image as a moderate Islamist movement by some global interests. However, following disagreements over power-sharing in the run-up to the 2019 Galmudug elections, the ASWJ was disbanded by the Somali National Army (SNA) after fierce fighting between the two sides.
All towns and villages under the control of ASWJ became subject to the Galmudug administration, the legal entity with the jurisdiction to rule the enclave. However, ASWJ leaders have recently returned from their self-imposed exile, regrouped their fighters, and have marched on to reclaim territories from the government. They accused Galmudug President Ahmed Abdi Karie, also known as “Qoor-qoor”, of failing to protect the citizens from Al-Shabaab and have used that as a justification for taking matters into their hands by seeking to reclaim territories they previously lost to the local administration.
Politicians and analysts alike have disputed the ASWJ claim of defending the people from Al-Shabaab, accusing it of hiding behind fighting the extremist group to gain influence on the ground ahead of federal parliamentary elections in Galmudug State. Prime Minister Mohamed Hussein Roble has denounced the violence and asked ASWJ to respect the legitimate Galmudug state.
Traditionally engaged in mystic practices, ASWJ organized itself into an armed group in the mid-2000s to defend itself against Al-Shabaab abuse, including violations against their religious practices and the razing down of Sufi saints’ tombs ASWJ highly revered. Al-Shabaab and ASWJ loathe each other. While Al-Shabaab considers ASWJ and Sufis in general to be non-believers and heretics, ASWJ, in turn, views Al-Shabaab as Kharijites, an Islamic sect that emerged in the early Islamic era known for their extremist tendencies. Sharing common Sufi beliefs and led by charismatic clerics, the ASWJ was able to recruit fighters and mobilize resources and weapons to fend off the threat of Al-Shabaab. For Al-Shabaab, ASWJ and the Somali government are common adversaries; hence, an alliance to fight the militant group was needed. The coalition, however, fractured once ASWJ’s increasing power encouraged it to demand a share in the 2019 Galmudug parliamentary seats and even presented its leader Sheikh Mohamed Shakir Ali as a presidential candidate. Although President Qoor-Qoor, Villa Somalia’s favorite candidate, was elected as Galmudug’s president, the results were disputed by the Sufi group which instead declared Sheikh Shakir as the regional state’s real president. This marked the final straw for the Somali government, which mobilized troops and attacked the base of the ASWJ leaders, bringing an end to a formidable rival to President Qoor-Qoor’s rule in Galmudug. Upon their defeat, ASWJ leaders, including the group’s spiritual leader Shaykh Mahmud Shaykh Hasan Farah, went into a self-imposed exile.
As long-awaited parliamentary and presidential elections closed in, the Sufi leaders returned to the country and arrived at the Siyaaro – an annual veneration of a saint – of one of their saints, Sheikh Yusuf Dir. ASWJ used the occasion to mobilize fighters on the grounds of protecting the citizens, the group says, have been failed by President Qoor-Qoor’s inability to safeguard them from Al-Shabaab militants. Among those it recruited are former ASWJ fighters who were just incorporated into the Galmudug security forces and the SNA. On October 1, ASWJ took control of Guriel town and some nearby villages. “We answered the citizens’ call by coming to liberate these lands,’’ Sheikh Shakir told the BBC Somali. But then, the areas ASWJ attacked were under government control. Many Somalis wondered from whom they are liberating the citizens?
The Somali National Army and Galmudug State’s security forces initially withdrew from the town only to carry out an offensive to recapture it once reinforcements from Mogadishu in form of troops and armaments landed at Dhusamareb airport. Former Galmudug Internal Security Minister Ahmed Fiqi, who earlier resigned to protest against his administration’s decision to wage war against ASWJ, accused President Qoor-Qoor of preferring war over the possible peaceable ending to the conflict. Reports, however, indicate that ASWJ rejected mediation efforts by clan elders to hand over the town, which paved the way for the military offensive by
SNA-backed Galmudug forces. The situation has been calm since ASWJ withdrew from the city on October 27 following mediation efforts by the local business community. However, the risk of the relapse of conflict is still high.
It is worth noting that ASWJ has political ambitions, as seen in its previous attempts to have its share of parliamentary seats and field its candidate for Galmudug’s presidency. With elections approaching, many believe ASWJ’s resurgence is an attempt by the armed group to return to the political scene. The international community said it was alarmed by the violence in Galmudug as it delays the completion of the electoral process and diverts attention from fighting Al-Shabaab.
Politicians from Galmudug have differed on how the administration should handle ASWJ but agreed that the group is seeking to make a political come-back. In addition, even those sympathetic with ASWJ insist that the group should pursue its political goals through peaceful and legal means. MP Mahad Salad, a staunch member of the opposition, praised the Galmudug administration for liberating Guriel from “religious pirates,” in reference to ASWJ while asserting that “the unity of Galmudug is sacred.” Meanwhile, MP Abdihakim Malin accused ASWJ of carrying out a provocative war on stable territories and exploiting young men to achieve political goals. For his part, MP Mohamed Ahmed Abtidoon welcomed ASWJ’s display of maturity to accept calls to withdraw from Guriel and urged president Qoor-Qoor to take the opportunity to engage the Sufi group in dialogue for the betterment of Galmudug. As for the presidential aspirant and leader of the Wadajir Party, Abdirahman Abdishakur, “the mediation efforts came late”. He called on ASWJ to respect Galmudug statehood. ASWJ seems to be cornered as it is increasingly viewed as a rebel challenging the legitimate local authorities rather than ‘liberating’ residents from Al-Shabaab.
In a speech, President Qoor-Qoor slammed ASWJ for being against the development of Galmudug and called on the group to address its grievances within the legal framework and by respecting the statehood and unity of Galmudug. The leader said his state will not tolerate anyone who “illegally possess arms, let alone attacking a town.”
While it cannot be disputed that the State should be the only entity with the sole authority to defend and take up arms, Galmudug’s leadership should do more towards ensuring that locals are not easily enticed by calls to take up arms to defend themselves against Al-Shabaab attacks. Armed with its appealing Sufi beliefs and diehard followers, ASWJ has been able to regroup similarly to how it initially emerged as an armed group in the mid-2000s. Reminiscing years of relative peace during ASWJ’s control of the area, residents quickly responded to the militia’s call to take up arms once again. President Qoor-Qoor, therefore, must know that ensuring Galmudug’s security should be his number one priority if he is to draw local residents towards accepting the state’s legitimacy and its monopoly to bear arms.
Besides the religious factor, the current conflict, like all Somali conflicts, has a clan dimension. Galmudug leaders should know that using violence risks triggering clan emotions, making the approach less sustainable in the long term. If utilized well, ASWJ can play a significant role in the federal state’s security and stability. An institutionalized agreement that will convince the Sufi militia to give up arms and participate in the region’s politics should be reached. It is worthy to note that the group accepted, in 2019, to sign up about 5,000 fighters to join the SNA.
With its appealing ideology among the locals, making a pact with the group can help the Galmudug administration sign new recruits to its military ranks as well as mobilize funds. While the source of ASWJ’s funding and weapons in its recent fight with the government remains unclear, President Qoor-Qoor said upon reclaiming Guriel that he was “dismayed” that Somali and international entities he did not name were supporting the group. But MP Fiqi said in an interview that the group’s resources are collected from locals sympathetic to the group and ruled out any foreign support. With Somalis known for their resonation to religious and clan calls, the MP’s claim is not as futile. By engaging ASWJ in local politics, President Qoor Qoor can use the Sufi leadership to advance the state’s interests.
The militias have withdrawn from Guriel town following mediation efforts led by the business community. While the government forces are now in complete control of the city, the fighting is not officially over. President Qoor-Qoor has signaled readiness to engage the group but insists they should give up fighting. While the Galmudug leader’s position is understandable, he should also address the security concerns of Galmudug residents if he seeks to win public support. His critics have accused President Qoor-Qoor of spending most of his time in Mogadishu and neglecting his mandate to propel Galmudug to greater heights. Under his tenure, there has also been a rise in Al-Shabaab attacks. Such concerns, in a society where loyalty to individuals and groups often surpass commitment to the state, risk being exploited in a way that can harm the state-building project.
Nonetheless, the State faces a bigger security threat in Al-Shabaab and cannot afford to antagonize ASWJ. The resources and soldiers being used in the fight against ASWJ are needed to counter the threat of Al-Shabaab. The ASWJ has a proven record of its reliability in the fight against Al-Shabaab militants. The Galmudug leadership will be wise to address the Sufi group’s concerns and recruit soldiers from their ranks to secure the region. The Sufi militia acquiesced in 2019 to enlist hundreds of its fighters in the SNA, a sign that they were willing to cooperate with the government. Their disputing of Galmudug elections that brought Qoor-Qoor to power saw skirmishes between them and the newly elected administration which supported by the FGS. As a result, ASWJ’s base was attacked hence the movement’s dissolution. While some may justify President Qoor-Qoor’s move, dialogue should have been intensified and prioritized for the common good.
Lastly, the Galmudug administration should work on rebuilding trust with ASWJ and do more to avoid using force, which risks pushing the group to adopt guerrilla tactics once it can no longer engage Galmudug forces directly in combat. Engaging the group in dialogue should be prioritized to avoid the above mentioned risks. The government should support the business community, politicians, and clan elders to intensify mediation efforts to see ASWJ surrender their weapons, respect the legitimate Galmudug administration, and use legal and peaceful means to address their concerns. Other Sufi scholars and leaders who enjoy the trust of both the government and ASWJ should lead mediation efforts.
Ibrahim Mukhtar: Researcher and Horn of Africa analyst; PhD candidate in international relations at Ankara Yildirim Beyazit University.
M. S. Ahmed: Researcher, PhD candidate in political science, Ankara Yildirim Beyazit University.