Sunday, January 9, 2011

A Somali Union

There's news from Somalia that two of the rival factions struggling for control of the county have decided to set aside their differences and unite. Unfortunately it's two of the really bad factions that have decided to unite – the rival Islamist militias of al-Shabaab and Hizbul Islam. Previously, the two groups had been battling for control of the capital, Mogadishu, as well as for a few port cities along the long, and lawless, Somali coast. But the two groups decided to set aside their differences and unite to fight what they see as their common enemy – Somalia's Transitional Federal Government (the TFG) and the 20,000 troops from the African Union that are helping the TFG to keep their tenuous toehold in Mogadishu. While the AU troops aren't a particularly strong fighting force, they have been enough to keep al-Shabaab and Hizbul Islam from overrunning the capital – especially since al-Shabaab and Hizbul Islam have spent more time fighting each other than they have the AU forces.

One factor behind the linkage of the two insurgent groups could be the fact that lately, Hizbul has been getting the worst of the battle with al-Shabaab and there are signs that Hizbul itself could split in two. That's the result of a failed offensive Hizbul launched recently against al-Shabaab troops in Mogadishu. Members of Hizbul from southern Somalia were angered that Hizbul's commanders – who come from clans based in the northern part of Somalia – decided to let Hizbul's southern Somalis make up the majority of the attacking force, and to thus take the bulk of the casualties. But for the moment, the two groups seem to be satisfied to let bygones be bygones; they handled their new union the way that two rival corporations would – with a press conference to announce the merger and explanations of who would serve in what leadership roles and that the new group would continue to do business under the al-Shabaab name – after all, why mess with a successful brand?

Joking aside, the militant merger could make things worse in Somalia. With the two groups not fighting against each other, they may in fact do a better job of battling the AU troops, a situation that won't be good for the Somali TFG. And at the press conference, the new al-Shabaab threatened stepped-up terror attacks outside of Somalia, even promising attacks in the United States if President Obama didn't lead the nation to a mass conversion to Islam (apparently word of the “Birthers” and the other fringe groups who think that Obama already is a Muslim haven't reached Somalia yet). It may be a mistake though to dismiss these claims as mere bluster. In July an al-Shabaab terror bombing killed more than 70 people who gathered outside the Ugandan capital, Kampala, to watch the World Cup; Kenyan authorities are pointing at al-Shabaab as the force behind a December 21 bombing that killed one (the bomber) and wounded 40 others on a Uganda-bound bus. Al-Shabaab has vowed to attack Uganda and Ugandans particularly because troops from that country make up the bulk of the African Union forces operating in Mogadishu.

Meanwhile a mysterious private security firm has been hired by the TFG to provide security in Mogadishu. Saracen International is the same private militia recently hired by the northern Somali region of Puntland to head up “anti-piracy operations”, a mission they will somehow do without boats (as I speculated in this earlier post, Saracen's real mission in Puntland is more likely to protect prospective oil and gas fields ashore rather than hunting pirates at-sea). Saracen is being funded by an unnamed Persian Gulf state, though neither Puntland nor the TFG are willing to disclose exactly who; international observers are concerned about who is supporting Saracen along with believing that the group's operations could be in violation of various arms embargoes against Somalia.
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