Clan militias are rising up against the al-Qa’ida linked terror group – but many are concerned about what might happen next.
The ‘Maacawisely’ – the ‘c’ is silent in Somali, like the letter ‘ayn’ in Arabic, so the name is pronounced ‘ma-ah-weez-lee’ – are clan militiamen who take their title from the hunting kilt or sarong worn by Somali men. (Fighting whilst sporting a skirt is not exclusive to the Somalis and has many proud parallels, notably in the Scottish infantry regiments of which the author was once a proud member.) Lightly armed and dressed, they are natural skirmishers who swarm enemy positions using speed, elan and sometimes suicidal aggression, instead of the ponderous, over planned, overly cautious tactics that so many military forces have fallen into of late. These groups have a natural advantage of knowing the areas and the communities they operate in instinctively (‘the sea in which we insurgents swim,’ as Mao said when describing the population during China’s insurgency of the 1930s).
Maacawisely commanders do not even carry a weapon, opting instead for a cane to direct their followers. The approach is part of a long tradition that has brought powerful empires to their knees, typified by the dervishes/darwish of a century ago. While Somalia does not have grand paintings of famous battles (‘military pornography’) and esoteric names and traditions, it is a martial nation through and through, and the Maacawisely are the current manifestation of that tradition. (Sadly the darwish as a concept are now a kind of paramilitary police force like the AP or GSU in Kenya, and have lost much of their original dash during the process of pernicious professionalisation.)
Old Tactics in a New Conflict
The Maacawisely approach remains remarkably effective, though, even in these times of night vision devices, drones and digitised fire control systems that make war seem at times to be little more than a computer game.
Over the past few weeks the Maacawisely have been harrying al-Qa’ida’s local franchise in Somalia, al-Shabaab. The reason? Not the terror group’s brutality: the parts of the population who are unfortunate enough to live in the areas under al-Shabaab’s control have learned to live under that yoke and work around it. The trigger for what appears to be a wave of local outbreaks of resistance that was now become a general rebellion against the nationalist Islamist group’s reign of terror is its increase in taxation of the people, conducted under the guise of the Islamic tax, zakat. This comes at a time of drought following five failed rainy seasons in Somalia. The forced recruitment of younger and younger boys to act as cannon fodder and younger and younger girls to be fighter’s ‘wives’ (read: ‘sex slaves’) has also prompted others to take up arms.
So What’s the Problem?
A good thing, surely? A popular uprising, a rejection of al-Shabaab’s narrative of a medieval Somalia-for-the-Somalis, punctuated with random acts of hideous, large scale violence. The government and the international community should be behind this, shouldn’t they? It might be the silver bullet that the African Union forces in Somalia, now celebrating their 15th year of ineffectiveness, has failed to deliver into the heart of al-Shabaab. (How would the African Union mission ever have succeeded anyway, being drawn from predominantly black, Christian African countries, in Somalia, whose people often view themselves as Muslim, non-black and with a natural bond with the people of the Gulf?)
Not really. As many have noted, al-Shabaab performs a function in providing a single point of focus for all of Somalia’s underlying problems (clan-ism, corruption, a lack of security, stability and, therefore, progress). If the Maacawisely defeat al-Shabaab, will they stop there, and simply go back home to their camels or their crops? Of course they won’t: the loosely fitting lid that al-Shabaab provides on the Pandora’s Box of Somalia’s ills will be off, and Somalia could potentially find itself racing back to the early 1990s, when a similar stopper, the authoritarian rule of President Siad Barre, was removed.
But Does the Lid Still Fit?
Al-Shabaab knows this and, in a press statement, it reminded the population of what happens when clan militias are unleashed, in response to which many Somalis silently nodded in agreement. The Maacawisely have already committed atrocities against the al-Shabaab fighters they have captured, beheading many and displaying their corpses in a gross violation of Islamic funeral rites – and basic human rights. Some Maacawisely are already shifting their fire from al-Shabaab to other clans, settling ancient scores with their government-supplied arms and ammunition. Hopefully the lid can be screwed back on.