The nationalist factions of Somali Islamist group Al-Shabaab have announced the change of their organization name to Imaarah Islamiyah – meaning ‘Islamic Authority’ following several days of meetings in Baidoa.
Except the leader of Al-Shabaab, Ahmed Abdi Godane (Abu Zubeyr), all prominent members like Sheikh Ali Dhere, Sheikh Mukhtar Robow (Abu Mansoor), Fu’ad Shongole and Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys attended the meeting.
In a subsequent statement, the group said the change was not limited to the name but would also involve a change of tactics.
Sheikh Mukhtar Robow explained the name change as: “Al-Shabaab means ‘youth’ but many of us, including the leaders, are very old so we want to change the name to Imaarah Islamiyah”.
Other reasons appear to be that Al-Shabaab, following a number of recent setbacks including the two seemingly separate but most likely coordinated invasions from Ethiopia and Kenya, is feeling the need to try to renew its support and put the continuing and protracted leadership conflicts and bickering behind it.
There has also been growing pressure within Al-Shabaab to rein back the role of foreign fighters arguing that this is necessary in order to try to regain the trust of the population.
Godane has already criticized the conference showing the growing gap between his forces and the nationalists.
It appears from the list of those senior commanders participating in the meeting that the ultra-Salafi element of the Wahabi faction has finally managed to highjack the agenda and leadership of Al-Shabaab, essentially sidelining Godane (Abu-Zubeyr).
A significant element among those attending the meeting included senior members of Hizbul Islam led by Hassan Dahir Aweys and Hassan Turki. Among them was Abdullahi Ali Hashi, former leading financier of Hizbul Islam, and Dr. Omar Iman, chair of Hizbul Islam before Hassan Dahir Aweys took control.
In 2010, before Hizbul Islam was swallowed by Al-Shabaab, its chairman, Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys tried to persuade Al-Shabaab’s leaders to agree to change their name and bring Hizbul Islam and Al-Shabaab together as a single organization.
Al-Shabaab leaders rejected this and insisted on swallowing up Hizbul Islam, forcibly bringing its people under Al-Shabaab control. This meant that long-standing and experienced Hizbul Islam leaders were sidelined, humiliated and undermined by callow and aggressive Al-Shabaab youngsters who saw them as both clannish and corrupt.
The two leading figures in Hizbul Islam, the ailing Hassan Turki and Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys were told to stay in Ras Kamboni and Eelasha Biya areas respectively. Al-Shabaab made a deliberate effort to limit the influence of those Hizbul Islam leaders who had been so significant during the supremacy of the Islamic Courts Union in Mogadishu in 2006 and within the Eritrean-based Alliance for the Re-Liberation of Somalia (ARS) during 2007-2008.
However, recent developments in Somalia including the severe drought on top of Al-Shabaab’s misguided interpretation of Quran and its stricter rule resulted in weakening the popular support and its very internal cohesion that led to the subsequent strategic withdrawal from the capital Mogadishu and other major towns.
This provided the former Hizbul Islam members with a cause and an opportunity to try to reclaim their lost influence. Dahir Awyes quickly created a strong group within Al-Shabaab’s leadership including Sheikh Mukhtar Robow (Abu Mansoor), Fuad Shongole and Sheikh Ali Dhere, all of whom had their own reasons, to stand up against Ahmed Godane (Abu Zubeyr), Ibrahim Afghani, Mahat Karate, Abu-Muscab and Abu Muslim.
The group has now forced Godane to accept the leading role of the former Hizbul Islam leadership, who are seen as better understanding of the dynamics and politics of the region and who might be capable of regaining traditional Somali national and clan support.
Baidoa is the hub for Robow and his supporters from the Rahanweyn clan, who have traditionally supplied the majority of al Shabaab’s nationalist forces.
It is significant that Aweys and Robow could hold a conference in a single location, especially in a city as significant for the group as Baidoa, for five days without being attacked by hostile forces. This is even more impressive considering allegations that Ethiopian forces are increasing their presence in the city. What this means is either that Aweys and Robow command sufficient strength in Baidoa to feel safe enough to hold such a conference, or that their enemies do not currently desire to see an end to the Somalia conflict by no means.
By uniting under the banner of the Somali Islamic Authority, the nationalists hope to attract new recruits from Robow’s youth base in Bay and Bakool as well as from Aweys’ old-guard militant group al-Itihaad al-Islamiya to avoid sharing the fate the internationalist wing seems to have suffered.