Over the weekend the Somali government attacked a moderate Islamic group called Ahla Sunna Wa’Jama’a in Guriel town in central Somalia. (Ahla Sunna Wa Jama’a means ‘the followers of Sunni’ in Arabic, the Sunnis being the largest branch within Islam: the name is usually shortened to ‘ASWJ’.) So far the Somali security forces have suffered at least 25 killed and over 150 injured, with the figures likely to increase. Casualty figures are not available for ASWJ because all communications with Guriel – internet, cellphones, radio – are currently down.
But aren’t ASWJ ‘good guys’ who fight al-Shabaab?
Within the Sunnis, ASWJ follow the Sufist tradition and are fierce opponents of the al-Qa’ida linked terrorist group, al-Shabaab – so why is the Somali government fighting them? Some commentators find it absurd that a Sufist group should be attacked, perhaps influenced by romantic images of whirling dervishes, whipping themselves into a state of elation through dance, and the poetry of Rumi. Many news channels in Somalia are emphasising the ‘moderate’ nature of the group.
Is this really about different forms of Islam?
However, things are seldom that simple in Somalia. ASWJ, while Sufist and a very effective opponent against al-Shabaab, is also a heavily armed non-state actor which has used force to further its own interests on many occasions. At a deeper level, it should also be noted that Sufism is anathema to the more conservative form of Islam that predominates in Somalia these days. For example, al-Shabaab has made a point of destroying the tombs of Sufist sheikhs, viewing the practice of the veneration of the dead, even in the form of a tomb and no matter how holy they were, as idolatrous and heretical.
Many in Somalia probably agree with al-Shabaab’s posture. There are many in government and in the wider Somali society whose view of Islam is not that far from al-Shabaab’s doctrine, known as Salafism, although they obviously stop short of embracing the terror group’s espousal of violence, its fealty to al-Qa’ida and so on.
Or is this, as always in Somalia, really about clans?
Furthermore, there is also a dangerous clan dynamic at play amongst one of the most powerful clan blocks in Somalia, the Hawiye/Habr Gidir: there are sub- and sub-sub-clans that now find themselves split between the government and ASWJ, adding to the volatility of the situation. There is a similar split in sub- and sub-sub clans of the second largest clan block, the Darod. As if Somalia doesn’t have enough societal fault-lines, ASWJ adds a few more.
Finally, it is also worth noting that conflict sometimes makes for odd bedfellows: there is a very good chance that some elements may support ASWJ not because of any religious affinity or common interest, but simply as a chance to attack the Somali government in the midst of a sprawling, faltering national election process. This is not to say that the view of some, that ASWJ should be annihilated, is reasonable, but there numerous complexities that is going to make the resolution of this situation likely extremely challenging and very lengthy.