/ 14 July 2009

What would al Shabaab win mean for Somalia?

An al Shabaab victory over Somali government troops in Mogadishu would lift the morale of Islamist militants everywhere and underline al Qaeda’s ambition to create a regional safe haven in the Horn of Africa nation.

But the repercussions on the ground might not be uniformly favourable to the group’s fighters, who already control much of south and central Somalia and all but a few blocks of the capital.

Here are possible scenarios in the event of a takeover.

Somalia’s government has been unable to beat back al Shabaab militants who have made gains this year in guerrilla-style attacks on Somali troops and an African Union force there.

A decisive al Shabaab win could signal the demise of a new government formed this year and supported by most governments in the region and Western powers.

In Mogadishu, a victorious al Shabaab might seek to copy aspects of the behaviour of a predecessor Islamist force called the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), which in 2006 captured the city and gave it a period of stability.

The ICU won initial support by setting up clan-based sharia courts which provided security, education and basic services to residents who had suffered violence from warlords for years.

Any similarities would probably end there.

While the union sought to calm fears they were harbouring al Qaeda, al-Shabaab plays up its link to the transnational network.

It has also drawn parallels between itself and the Taliban in Afghanistan and insurgencies in Algeria and Chechnya.

It has said it will impose its version of strict sharia law, which in areas it controls has entailed beheadings, stonings, chopping off limbs and banning some TV programmes.

In logistical terms, control of the few additional blocks of Mogadishu that it does not already hold, including the main port and airport, may not change very much, since the militia already holds sway in many parts of southern Somalia.

”The reality is that, ‘bragging rights’ aside, whether or not al Shabaab and other insurgents sweep aside the TFG [government] altogether does not fundamentally alter the strategic landscape,” says U.S. analyst J. Peter Pham.

But in domestic political terms, gaining full control of the city may be problematic, since this would entail the spread of al Shabaab’s harsh version of sharia law — a development unlikely to win the approval of ordinary Somalis repelled by Islamist excesses.

Al Shabaab, which means ”Youth” in Arabic, has vowed to rule the majority Muslim nation by a hardline interpretation of Islamic law. The group has dug up Sufi graves, forced women to wear veils, closed down movie halls and cut off limbs for theft.

In the town of Baidoa on Friday, witnesses described how al Shabaab rebels beheaded seven people for being ”Christians” and ”spies” in its latest implementation of strict sharia law.

Nor are its links with foreign fighters a winning political strategy: Somalis resent outside interference in their affairs.

International condemnation of a takeover would not trigger an influx of anti-Shabaab foreign troops, since outside powers would fear getting bogged down in a quagmire. But government would not be a comfortable experience for al-Shabaab.

”It’s possible the government may lose, but that doesn’t mean the Shabaab would govern unchallenged,” said Ted Dagne, an Africa specialist at the U.S. Congressional Research Service.

Its transformation from underground guerrilla group to a government would mean its officials would have a ”more visible” role in public administration, he said, adding: ”It would make them a lot more vulnerable to attack.”

Horn of Africa specialist David Shinn said foreign concern about al Shabaab and its recruitment of foreign fighters would translate into outside support for the domestic opposition, especially the moderate Islamist Ahlu Sunna Waljamaca group.

The United Nations and the AU say hundreds of foreigners have flocked to join al Shabaab.

Some analysts say these accounts appear exaggerated. But Western powers fear that if the government is overthrown, the militants will try to destabilise parts of Ethiopia, Djibouti, Kenya and Yemen as well as central and northern Somali regions.

”I don’t see large troop movements into Somalia,” said Shinn. ”Opposition would be something not as visible to the naked eye, and it would begin rather slowly. But it would build over time if Shabaab seemed to have staying power.”

Other analysts say outside powers would do their best to open up rifts in an al Shabaab government, especially between al Shabaab and an allied militant group, Hizbul Islam.

Concerns are increasing about living conditions inside the country, where aid agencies are struggling to reach needy people including more than 200,000 who have fled the capital.

Would al Shabaab help or hinder such efforts?

Back in 2006, the ICU was seen by aid experts as a relatively accountable partner in handling the practicalities of aid flows, at least in contrast to a chaotic and corrupt situation under the warlords who held sway before them.

Analysts say it is possible the militia may want to emulate the Union in its handling of humanitarian shipments. But whatever approach it takes to aid, al Shabaab’s harsh justice may make some donors think twice before funding aid purchases.

”It would be a real dilemma for the donors,” said Shinn. — Reuters