The conflict between rival Somali Islamist groups al Shabab and Hizbul Islam, who were formerly allies in the fight against the Transitional Federal Government, turned ugly in the port city of Kismayo back in late September/early October. Both sides, and especially Hizbul Islam, have sometimes downplayed the seriousness of the conflict, and judging from variation across southern Somalia it seems that the degree of hostility between the groups varies from locale to locale. With headlines yesterday proclaiming that major fighting is spreading into areas outside of Kismayo, though, I am wondering whether the chances of reconciliation are shrinking to zero.
As I understand the chronology, fighting around Kismayo started this weekend.
There were no reliable reports on casualties, but local sources said Al Shabaab guerrillas carried out attacks on Hizbul Islam fighters based in the area, leading to heavy gun battle.
Sheikh Hassan Yaqub, Al-Shabaab’s spokesman in Kismayo confirmed that his forces carried out attacks on their rivals after learning that they are regrouping in the village to launch attack on the Islamic administration in the region.
I had read before that Hizbul Islam still controlled villages around Kismayo. Perhaps we can infer then that Hizbul Islam tried to retake Kismayo, and al Shabab not only launched a pre-emptive strike but also kept pushing into Hizbul Islam’s territory.
Shebab fighters attacked the Hezb al-Islam militants and took control of the town located some 100 kilometres (60 miles) north of Kismayo […]
“The Shebab invaded and the Hezb al-Islam tried to defend themselves but they were overrun after the city was attacked from three different directions,” said Iman Abdi, an Afmadow resident.
Another resident, Ahmed Ali, said the Shebab came in large numbers and seemed well prepared for the assault.
“There could be renewed fighting because the Hezb al-Islam fighters are regrouping to recapture the town,” Ali told AFP by phone.
Many of the dead were fighters, other residents said, indicating civilians had been among the casualties.
The fighting follows last week’s attempts by […] Hezb al-Islam militia to re-take Kismayo over which they have fought with the Shebab.
According to the BBC, there was fighting on the outskirts of Afmadow by Saturday, which could fit with my theory that after al Shabab attacked they just kept pushing Hizbul Islam back until they got to Afmadow.
Also over the weekend, Hizbul Islam fought TFG/AU forces in Mogadishu. Thinking about that (does Hizbul Islam have a country-wide strategy?) and reading that dissension within Hizbul Islam’s ranks expedited their decision to withdraw from Afmadow makes me wonder how centralized command is in either Islamist militia. Are local commanders operating largely autonomously? How much unit cohesion is there? Reports of talks between Hassan Dahir Aweys, a top Hizbul Islam leader, and leaders within al Shabab adds to my suspicion that Hizbul Islam, especially as the (apparently) militarily weaker of the two groups, has some deep fissures if not an outright fragmented structure.
That does not mean that this civil-war-within-a-civil-war will end any time soon, but it does suggest that what sometimes look like big conflicts (Islamists vs. TFG, al Shabab vs. Hizbul Islam) might be better described as a patchwork of interlocking conflicts, some local, some regional, some both. Finally, if al Shabab does possess greater cohesion – and firepower – than its rival, that suggests that time is ultimately on their side in this fight.