In Somalia’s ongoing civil war, the end of last week saw two Islamist rebel groups, al Shabab and Hizbul Islam, facing off in the strategic port city of Kismayo, where al Shabab had recently attempted to replace a power-sharing arrangement with a unilateral administrative structure. In a turn of events that surprised me, though, initial reports that fighters from both sides were “pouring into Kismayo” gave way to reports that al Shabab had withdrawn from the town. It appears al Shabab has regrouped north of Kismayo; the possibility of violence between the Islamist groups remains high, despite the “hundreds of people in Kismayo [who] took to the streets Monday, demanding a peaceful end to [the] political dispute.”
Still, I wonder whether al Shabab’s political base is shrinking. The political tensions in the port city are apparently not the only problems that have arisen recently between al Shabab and Hizbul Islam.
Although Hisbul Islam and al-Shabab share the goal of toppling the government and forcing the withdrawal of 5,000 African Union peacekeeping troops from Somalia, they are believed to have sharply differing religious and political agendas. Recently, those differences have played a role in igniting power struggles in other parts of Somalia.
Last week in Somalia’s Gedo region, local Hisbul Islam officials angered al-Shabab by unilaterally appointing a governor, a security chief, and a treasurer for the region. Hisbul Islam officials said the move was prompted by the defection of several Hisbul Islam officials in Gedo to al-Shabab.
Meanwhile, another set of rivals are battling for control of Beledweyne, a town on the Somali-Ethiopian border. Ethiopian forces briefly seized Beledweyne in late August, driving out al Shabab, and now Somali government troops have taken the town after, apparently, another stretch of Islamist rule. In fact, to make matters all the more complicated, Garowe says that the government forces were primarily doing battle with Hizbul Islam in Beledweyne, and also taking fire from militias associated with local businessmen.
The complexity – and I’m learning as I go, so I cannot claim any expertise – points to a real fragmentation of the civil war. Relations between Islamist groups seem to be deteriorating, and shifting alliances and zones of control make everything uncertain, even the standard portrayal of the war as the government vs. al Shabab. The chaos must affect local peoples terribly, as they cope not only with whatever regime is in power at the moment, but also find themselves having to adjust from month to month – or even day to day – to new rulers and forces, jockeying for control.