By mid-2007, when the fighting in Somalia was routinely described as an "Iraq-style insurgency," victory seemed likely for the extremist Islamic Courts Union. But rifts within the insurgency that were simmering last year may now have reached a boiling point, providing a strategic opportunity for Somalia's transitional federal government (TFG) and its Ethiopian allies.
The major rift in the insurgency is between the Shabab faction, the insurgency's most militant wing, and the Alliance for the Re-Liberation of Somalia (ARS), which is the name that the former Islamic Courts Union adopted in mid-September 2007. That group assumed its new name following a conference of opposition factions in Eritrea's capital Asmara, which the Shabab boycotted. A communiqué recently issued by Abu Mansoor al-Amriki, an U.S. jihadist aligned with Shabab, explains the split between the two groups.
Entitled, "A Message to the Mujahideen in Particular and the Muslims in General," Amriki's communiqué describes the ARS (which he continues to refer to as "the Islamic Courts") as nationalist in orientation, while Shabab is more religiously motivated. (Shabab leader Aden Hashi 'Ayro, for example, trained at an al-Qaida camp in Afghanistan.) "[W]hile the courts had a goal limited to the boundaries placed by the Taghoot [impure]," Amriki wrote, "the Shabab had a global goal including the establishment of the Islamic Khilafah [caliphate] in all parts of the world."
This represents not only a difference in strategic visions; Amriki also condemns the ARS for their tactical choices. The ARS has been closely aligned with Eritrea, and its leader Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed now lives in Asmara. Amriki claims that "[t]here is no doubt" that Eritrea is "not looking out for what is in our best interest or what is in the best interests of the jihad."
Though not much is publicly known about Amriki, an American intelligence source tells me that he was one of the former U.S. military personnel who fought in Bosnia during the 1990s, is a high-ranking member of al-Qaida's East Africa leadership, and is one of the Somali insurgents' lead trainers. When he once appeared on al-Jazeera wearing a face mask, it was clear that Amriki was Caucasian.
In his critique of the ARS, Amriki writes that the Shabab has adopted the manhaj (religious methodology) "adopted by the Mujahideen in the rest of the blessed lands of jihad," including that of Osama bin Laden, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and "the lion, the genius, the doctor" Ayman al-Zawahiri. According to Nick Grace, who follows the jihadist web for ThreatsWatch, global jihadist forums have taken note of the split, and opinion on them generally runs against ARS.
Amriki's recent attack on the ARS echoes Shabab's condemnation of the September 2007 Asmara conference. One reason Shabab refused to attend was the fact that the conference involved cooperation between disparate elements, including not just Islamists but also former TFG parliamentarians, diaspora Somalis, and even factions that Shabab claimed "believe that the Islamic faith should be banished from the public space in Somalia."
The ARS's formation in fact accelerated the conflict with Shabab by changing the composition of the old Islamic Courts. After Asmara, the ARS featured a broader range of groups opposed to the TFG – including, to Shabab's consternation, "misled women."
Since then, Shabab has been functionally independent from ARS leadership, but has continued its attacks against Ethiopian forces and TFG targets. J. Peter Pham, the director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs at James Madison University (and my colleague at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies), told me that the common enemy that Shabab and the ARS find in the TFG is a unifying factor. "Insofar as they have a common enemy," he said, "their split is not relevant to the current strategic picture."
But Abdiweli Ali, an assistant professor at Niagara University who is close to the TFG, believes that there may be a strategic opening. He told me that a late February skirmish between supporters of the ARS and Shabab in Dhobley killed three or four people.
In mid-February, ARS leaders Ahmed and former Somali parliament speaker Sharif Hassan Sheik Adan traveled to Cairo. The press speculated that they may have been there for talks with the TFG, an assessment with which several of my sources agreed. Ali told me that new TFG Prime Minister Nur Hassan Hussein "has found a back door to moderates within the ARS," and believes that speaking with them is a positive move.
One reason that Ali believes the move is positive is because it has reportedly opened an aid spigot from EU donors who were encouraged by the talks. He believes there may also be propaganda value to Hussein's willingness to talk with the insurgent groups. "It is showing Somalis that the TFG is a force for peace," said Ali, "and that Hussein is different from the previous prime minister."
Beyond that, negotiations may further alienate Shabab from the ARS. Shabab leaders' opposition to negotiation derives from their theological worldview rather than tactical considerations, and they violently oppose even ARS lip service to moderation.
Can this rift be exploited tactically? There are differing views. Pham believes that as long as the ARS and Shabab can unite against the TFG, they will be able to maintain a sufficient alliance. He also believes that the TFG will collapse in the next several months, an assertion that Abdiweli Ali dismisses as "nonsense."
A regional analyst who requested anonymity told me that continued exploration of dialogue may widen the rift between the ARS and Shabab. "If continued exploration of possibilities for dialogue is pursued, at some point that's going to raise the issue of who's leading the talks," he said. "That's where we could see some real sparks fly. Every time the international community talks about bringing in moderate Islamists and opposition members, the Shabab fears they're going to be sold down the river."
Negotiations, discussions, and concessions must always be handled carefully. But the rift between the Shabab and ARS is real. What will ultimately come of it is another question entirely.
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is vice president of research at the Washington, D.C.-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and the author of, "My Year Inside Radical Islam."