Al-Ittihad al-Islamiyya and Political Islam in Somalia

Casket of Former Somali President Flown to Mogadishu
Al-Ittihad al-Islamiyya and Political Islam in Somalia - Lara Loewenstein


This paper analyzes the factors that aided and hampered the growth and popularity of political Islam in Somalia by tracing the history of al-Ittihad al-Islamiyya. After examining the emergence of political Islam in Somalia and the creation of al-Ittihad al-Islamiyya, this paper traces the growth of the group, its association with the Sharia courts in Mogadishu, and finally its subsequent downfall. There are many factors that allowed al-Ittihad al-Islamiyya to become a significant political force in Somalia. These include Somalia’s status as a collapsed state and outside intervention in the country.


1953: Founding of Institute of Islamic Studies in Mogadishu
1960: Independence
1960–1969: Somali Republic
1969–1990: Siad Barre regime
26 January 1991: Siad Barre ousted from power
1991: Somaliland Secedes
1977–1978: Ogaden War with Ethiopia
1996: Death of Aideed
1998: US Embassy Bombings in Nairobi, Kenya and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania
2000: Peace talks in Arta, Djibouti
2000: Initiation of Transitional National Government
11 September 2001: Terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center
December 2002: Bombing of Paradise Hotel in Mobasa, Kenya
2004: Transitional Federal Government established
February 2006: Formation of the Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism
2006: War between Islamists and Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism
Late 2006: Ethiopian offensive against the Council of Islamic Courts



AIAI: al-Ittihad al-Islamiyya
AMISOM: African Union Mission in Somalia
ARPC: Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counterterrorism
CIC: Council of Islamic Courts
IGAD: Inter-Governmental Authority for Development
ONLF: Ogaden National Liberation Front
SACB: Somali Aid Coordinating Body
SNA: Somali National Alliance
SNF: Somali National Front
SSDF: Somali Salvation Democratic Front
SYL: Somali Youth League
TFG: Transitional Federal Government
TNG: Transitional National Government
UNOSOM: United Nations Operation for Somalia
UNOSOM II: Second United Nations Operation for Somalia
USC: United Somali Congress
WSLF: Western Somali Liberation Front


This paper traces the rise and fall of al-Ittihad al-Islamiyya (AIAI), a political Islamic group in Somalia. AIAI’s trajectory illustrates the factors that can aid in the growth and decline of groups dedicated to political Islam. Somali communities were ideologically opposed to much of what political Islam represented, but outside intervention allowed the AIAI to grow despite its anti-Somalia ideology. US and UN interventions in Somalia improved AIAI’s organizational and financial standing. These interactions encouraged the growth of the organization raising questions about the utility of engagement with such groups.

The paper is divided into five chapters. Chapter II presents the role of traditional Islam in Somalia, and illustrates how external forces contributed to the development of political Islam in Somalia. Chapter III traces the growth of AIAI from its origins to the development of the Sharia courts in Mogadishu, and describes how both the United States and the United Nations came to be involved with AIAI. Chapter IV describes the decline of the group from its heyday during the period of the Sharia courts to the present, and addresses the current status of political Islam in Somalia. Lastly, Chapter V draws general conclusions and lists some recommendations for any country concerned with the development of violent political Islamic groups.

II. The Development of Political Islam in Somalia

Somalia is one of the most religiously homogenous countries in the world, despite its significant ethnic diversity. The country is replete with clans and clan conflict, most notably between the Hawiye and the Darood. The ethnically heterogeneous nature of Somalia contributed substantially to its instability. Despite this ethnic diversity, nearly all Somalis are Sunnis and practice Sufism. The homogenous nature of religion in Somalia allowed Islam to become a political force, and is one of the main reasons behind the successes of political Islam groups in the country.[1]

The traditional role of Islam in Somalia did not lend itself easily to the development of political Islamic movements. For Somalis, Islam has traditionally been a “veil lightly worn.” It is a part of everyday life, but does not normally dictate how everyday life is led. Islamic laws are only lightly enforced, if at all. Clan and civil law traditionally supersede Islamic law, which is commonly used only within the family. There is no culture of intense religious fervor and Somalis follow Islamic laws and guidance only when it benefits them. They are proud of this religious independence and consequently often perceive attempts to politicize Islam as an imposition from the Middle East.

Somalis are divided between three Sufi orders: the Qadiriyah, the Ahmadiyah-Idrisiyah, and the Salihiyah. These orders initially played a social role in the lives of Somalis, but this role diminished in the 1950s and 1960s when secular political leaders began providing more educational and legal services.[2] The apolitical nature of Sufism within Somalia can be seen through the relationship between religious and secular leaders:

Traditionally, relations between Sufis and clan-based actors were complementary: secular power lay in the hands of the clan leaders, religious authority in the hands of the Sufis. In turn, the latter were respected by the clan authorities because they had no political agenda of their own.[3]

The introduction of political Islam is thus interesting to trace because it went against the traditional role of religion for Somalis. One of the key elements of the rise of political Islam was the realization by political leaders that Islam was the one unifying force in Somalia..[4]

A Dervish State and a Nationalist Identity

The first prominent political Islam movement in Somalia, Sálihiyyah, developed at the end of the 1800s under Said Mohammed Abdullah Hassan. Hassan came from the tradition of Sheikh Muhammad Abd al-Wahhab, who founded the conservative Sunni movement known as Wahhabism in the 1700s. In 1744, Wahhabism became the doctrinal foundation of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

One of the central concerns of Wahhabism has been to prevent all foreign influences and innovations in Islam. This includes the rejection of the Sufis’ cults of graves and holy men. Hassan initially preached the revival of the religious spirit and the rejection of materialism and consumption [traditional Sufi values], but became increasingly radical toward the end of the 19th century. Finally, in 1899, he began the fight against the British colonial rulers and declared Jihad on all non-Muslims.[5]

Starting in 1901, the British, with the help of the Ethiopians and Italians, took several offensive measures against Hassan and Sálihiyyah. However, for domestic political reasons they were unable to commit themselves fully to the campaign. This gave Hassan room to maneuver diplomatically. In 1905, he signed a peace treaty with Italy that included conditions for the creation of an autonomous Dervish state. Dervish usually refers to Sufi Muslims who have given up most of their material possessions in their attempts to strengthen their personal relationship with God. Hassan ruled his Dervish state as a parallel structure to Italian colonial rule until the end of World War I, when the British bombarded it. Hassan then fled to Ogaden, the Somali-occupied region in south eastern Ethiopia, where he died in 1921. The remaining elements of the Dervish state were crushed, bringing an end to the anti-colonial movement.

Hassan is a national hero in Somalia, a notable accomplishment in such a diverse state. While the Dervish state was not completely devoid of clan conflict, Hassan managed to restrain potential problems with his charismatic persona. Ethiopia and the colonial powers allowed Hassan to use nationalist rhetoric along with Islamic teaching, through which Hassan managed to create a national identity based on Islam.[6]

Influences from the Greater Middle East

Islamic influences in Somalia also came from Egypt. In the 1950s, Egypt’s al-Azhar University introduced an Arabic language curriculum that Somalia used as a basis for the Institute of Islamic Studies, established in 1953 in Mogadishu. Intellectuals from al-Azhar University taught at the Institute, and it became the base for Arabic-speaking Somali scholars of Islamism. Along with the introduction of the Arabic language, the institute taught Somalis about the ideology of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, whose great thinkers Sayyid al-Qutb and Hasan al-Banna strongly influenced Somali Islamists. Somalis took from al-Qutb and al-Banna an emphasis on the importance of activism and sociopolitical change, along with their focus on creating an Islamic state. After Somalia’s independence, Egypt continued setting up secondary schools in the country. During the 1960s and 1970s both Saudi Arabia and Egypt offered scholarships to Somalis to study at their universities. This helped develop a group of trilingual Islamist scholars that were ready to fill the shoes of the departing bureaucracy when the Siad Barre regime eventually fell from power.[7]


When Somalia gained independence from Italy in 1960, leaders of the Somali Youth League (SYL) dominated the political scene. The SYL was a pan-Somali group that had been central in the independence movement. No significant extremist element emerged within the SYL or the Somali Republic, which lasted from 1960 to 1969. The independence of Somalia did, however, coincide with the proliferation of Islamism throughout the Middle East. The Somali elite, influenced by their Egyptian and Saudi educations, came into direct conflict with a Somali government that was looking to Western powers for economic support and technical assistance. Infuriated by this pro-Western attitude, radical religious leaders encouraged the development of Islamist groups despite their traditionally apolitical stance.[8]

Islamists and Siad Barre: 1969 – 1990

Islamist groups developed further under Siad Barre, who ruled from 1969 to 1990. Barre introduced scientific socialism, the social–political–economic theory pioneered by Karl Marx, in an attempt to foster economic development and national unity, but the experiment failed. As a consequence, Islamist groups managed to mobilize disgruntled Somalis. Barre also attempted to create a clan-unifying organization, which inadvertently benefited the Islamist cause by allowing Islamists to mobilize people from a diverse range of clans in a bid to create a pan-clan Islamist movement.[9]

By introducing his pan-clan organization, Barre inadvertently helped create both the leadership and member base of AIAI. Salafism garnered a strong following under Barre, and its prominent figures assumed the leadership of the AIAI. One of the most significant centers was Eel Hindi, a suburb of Mogadishu. A number of clerics there became known for their tafsir – commentary on the Koran that they offered after the evening prayer. Their mosques were often full. Due to this success, the most prominent Imams from Eel Hindi became AIAI leaders.[10]

Frustrations with Barre’s policies catalyzed the development of a member base for AIAI. In 1974 the Barre government passed a family law that several religious leaders opposed because it implied gender equality. In response, the government branded these leaders as bad Muslims and executed them on 23 January 1975. This shocked the Islamists in Somalia and they retreated underground. Others disbanded and left the country, some for Arab universities. The increased migration of Somalis to the Gulf States helped usher in a second bout of Muslim revivalism in Somalia. This generation of Islamists became civil servants in the 1980s, and some of them became members of AIAI.[11]

The Fall of Siad Barre: 1990

Both domestic and international forces played a part in the end of the Barre regime. Internationally, the end of the Cold War reduced Somalia’s strategic value to the United States. Human rights abuses gave the US the political mobility to freeze all aid to Barre’s government. Prior to 1988 Somalia had been one of the largest recipients of foreign aid per capita. Barre had used this money to build a patronage network, an excessively large civil service, and one of the largest standing armies in Africa. By 1985, foreign aid was funding 100 percent of Somalia’s development budget and 50 percent of all recurring payments. Once aid was frozen, the entire system collapsed.[12]

Like many other African leaders, Barre had set up a patronage system and siphoned off foreign aid money to his supporters. The beneficiaries of this system were limited to a small coalition of clans. Those outside this coalition faced harsh crackdowns if they dared oppose the regime. Barre was also known to use the power of the state to expropriate land, businesses, and other material goods from Somalis. When opposition movements did form, namely the Somali Democratic Salvation Front (SDSF) and the Somali National Front (SNF), Barre responded to the threats by attacking the clan that represented the opposition’s base support.[13] The opposition was not able to create a pan-clan movement, foreshadowing the difficulty of forming an effective government after Barre’s ousting. Again, the only unifying force in Somalia was Islam, and Barre had helped radicalize it.

III. The Development and Growth of Al-Ittihad Al-Islamiyya

AIAI is one of the most influential Islamist groups in Somalia and many Somali Islamic leaders derive their ideology from its leadership. The AIAI did not start as a militant group, and its eventual embrace of extremist and militant elements proved to be self-destructive. The group formed soon after the Ogaden war of 1977–78, when Somalia fought Ethiopia over the Ogaden region. The AIAI helped reorganize the radical Islamist forces in Somalia.[14] The war increased the recruitment efforts of Islamist groups who supported the war. AIAI formed out of the fusion of two of these groups, Wahdat al-Shabaab al-Islaamiyya and al-Jama’a al-Islamiyya.[15]

Both groups had messages that conflicted with the relaxed Sufism popular in Somalia. Based in the north, Wahdat drew most of its ideology from Wahhabism. Wahhabism’s focus on the oneness of God contradicted Sufi ancestor worship. Wahdat also looked to the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood for inspiration. While the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood does not believe in a secular state government, it is much more modern in its beliefs with respect to women than Khomeinism in Iran or the Saudi version of Wahhabism. Wahdat inherited the Brotherhood’s emphasis on education and promotion of public social roles for women. The other group, Al-Jama’a al-Islamiyya, considered itself a Salafi society and focused mainly on the purification of the Muslim faith. Salafists idealize the time of Muhammad and believe Islam should exactly replicate that time period. However, al-Jama’a had no political aspirations prior to its merger with Wahdat. Its own members did not consider it a political movement.

The two groups merged sometime between 1982 and 1984 under the name al-Ittihad al-Islamiyya. However, despite the shared name, the groups remained relatively independent. AIAI combined the ideologies of Wahdat and al-Jama’a and applied their messages to politics, thus creating a political Islamic group. AIAI challenged both the Barre regime—claiming that politics could not be separated from Islam—and traditional Sufism by ridiculing the Sufis’ emphasis on spirituality and disparaging some of their traditional practices. Sufi religious leaders reacted to the mockery, calling AIAI “al-Saruuriyyina,” meaning “disciples of Sheikh Mohamed Zain al-‘Abidin Saruur,” a man who was expelled from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for his radical teachings. Al-Ittihad took this accusation and ran with it, giving the impression that they were proud of the association. Clashes between the Sufis and al-Ittihad soon escalated, and by the mid-1980s there was fighting on the streets of Mogadishu that involved fatal stabbings and beatings.[16]

The AIAI looked to create not only an Islamic Republic within Somalia, but also a union of all Muslim nationalities in the Horn of Africa. They believed that the remedy to all of Somalia’s problems was Islam. AIAI wanted Somalis to return to Islam, and they condemned tribalism and clan conflict. Ultimately they wanted to create an Islamic army.[17]AIAI gained notoriety and power quickly, especially in the Mogadishu area. It was systematic and persistent in its recruiting efforts, and attracted both students and faculty by engaging them in the hallways of the Somali National University. AIAI’s radical platform was not the reason for its initial success. Rather, it was AIAI’s offer of an alternative to an abusive and strongly disliked regime. As one observer told the International Crisis Group: “Al-Ittihad offered an alternative to democracy, communism, and man-made constitutions. Koran and Sunna would be the basis for the application of all political, social, and other aspects of life.”[18] The leaders of AIAI interpreted the early popularity of the movement as a sign that they were doing what was right in God’s eyes. Some refer to this period as the “Golden Age” of AIAI because the movement gained popularity, but had yet to become militant.[19] This period lasted until the fall of the Barre regime when the group took up arms with the objective of creating an Islamic state.

The Collapsed State

Barre’s fall and the subsequent battle for control over Mogadishu crystallized the transformation of AIAI into a militant group. Barre was ousted from power on 26 January 1991 amidst jubilations and cheer, following an uprising of the United Somali Congress (USC), a Hawiya-dominated armed group. However, the joy soon dissipated as the USC fought among themselves for control and started killing civilians, especially members of the Darood clan.[20]The USC declared the formation of a government headed by Ali Mahdi, a hotelier and businessman, without consulting the other armed groups involved in the struggle, including a core group from within the USC led by General F. Aideed. There was an immediate backlash. Aideed controlled most of the arms left by Barre in Mogadishu. The result was a mass exodus of Darood clan members from Mogadishu to Kismaayo, a strategic southern port and gateway to the fertile Jubba Valley. This incited the Darood members of AIAI to respond militarily, especially once clan leaders in the area declared that Kismaayo could become an Islamic Emirate in return for the Islamist’s support.

The prospect of becoming a militant group divided leaders and members of AIAI. Certain leaders within the group welcomed the idea of an armed jihad. However, more conservative members were wary and tried to convince the more militant-minded to abandon the cause. General Aideed gave them one final chance to avoid a full battle. He sent a delegation led by former army colonel Hassan Dahir Aweys, proposing that if the Islamists stayed in their camp he would leave them untouched on the march to Kismaayo. When AIAI rejected the offer, Aweys decided to desert Aideed and join the Islamists. He would become an important leader for the group, especially during the formation of the Islamic courts.

Aideed easily won the battle in Kismaayo, killing many members and leaders of AIAI. AIAI subsequently left Kismaayo in three separate groups. One group traveled to Bosaaso, a port town near Somalia’s northeastern tip where they attempted to create the first Somali Islamic emirate. Thus, though the battle was a physical defeat for AIAI, it was a victory organizationally. The entire organization was now convinced that military force was necessary not only to achieve AIAI’s goals, but for its very survival.[21]

A regime change in Ethiopia also helped AIAI to extend its influence to the Ogaden region of Eastern Ethiopia. AIAI found the situation in Ogaden much more conducive to setting up a large-scale movement. They extended their organizational network and tried to take control of the institutions in the newly emerging regional council, and agitated in favor of Ethiopian Somali secession. This put Ethiopia on edge, causing the Ethiopian government to take action against the parent AIAI association in southern Somalia. Amidst all of this, AIAI decided it was time to declare themselves as an official organization.

On 22 September 1991, AIAI officially announced its existence with the release of a document titled “The Manifesto of an Islamic Party.” In it, AIAI declared their ultimate goal of creating an Islamic state and rejected the idea of forming political alliances with non-Islamist groups. Thus, AIAI officially emerged as a neo-Salafi group (traditional Salafists do not get involved in politics), combining Wahhabi theology, political creed, and political action.[22] AIAI was now not only officially a political Islamic group, but also dangerous. It advocated military action to defend the beliefs of the organization and a consensus grew among its members that violence was a necessary evil.

The United Nations and Al-Itthad

Many interventionist efforts by the West impacted the Islamists, including the two United Nations operations in Somalia. The first operation (UNOSOM I) was carried out in the early 1990s after the end of the Barre regime. While attempting to stabilize the political situation, the UN pitted itself against Aideed, which caused the Islamists to temporarily join forces with the UN against the General, using the UN’s presence to their advantage to weaken Aideed’s position. Through their intervention against Aideed, UNOSOM I allowed the Islamists to infiltrate areas of the country that had formerly been controlled by Aideed’s regime. This allowed AIAI to induce more local clans to join their cause, leading to the formation of the Somali National Alliance (SNA). The SNA operated mainly as a political force, which left it relatively undetected by the American security and military staff.

After UNOSOM I left, there was a political vacuum in southern Somalia, especially in Mogadishu. Clan authorities emerged in order to provide some semblance of governance. AIAI was involved in aiding the formation of these authorities and as a consequence, clan leadership began to become Islamized. In order to provide some form of security, there was a general desire for Shari’a courts, which AIAI happily established. The growth and impact of the courts will be discussed in the next section.

Another impact of UNOSOM I was on the development of civil society. Many businessmen, professionals, and former diplomats joined UNOSOM I in order to work on peace building within Somalia, and to solicit aid from foreign sources. Thus, UNOSOM I left behind a network of Somali nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), which turned out to be highly vulnerable to suave Islamist infiltrators. In a similar vein, by creating a basis for a service economy in Mogadishu, UNOSOM was also responsible for the development of a middle class in the area. While businesses flourished under UNOSOM, once the UN departed they were kept afloat with cash inflows from AIAI, putting them at the mercy of the Islamists. UNOSOM II, which was in Somalia from 1993 to 1995, played an even bigger role in helping AIAI infiltrate Somali society. AIAI provided security escorts for the operation, and they received hefty payments in return for their services. The unintended consequences of this were the transformation of AIAI into a mafia-like business syndicate, the development of a thriving AIAI-run trade network, and the proliferation of Islamic oriented business tycoons.[23] In addition to its military and religious power, AIAI was now economically influential in Somalia.

US Anti-Terrorism Policy towards Somalia

Recent US policy toward Somalia has generally been counterproductive and the result of false or exaggerated sources of information. This has strengthened the cause of Islamist groups. However, not all US policy has had a negative impact. During the famine and humanitarian crisis that followed the attack on Mogadishu in 1992, the US supported major food assistance to Somalia from Kenya. However, since this period, the focus of US policy toward Somalia has rarely been humanitarian aid.[24]

Somalia piqued the interest of US intelligence in 1998 after the bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. The bombings were linked to Osama bin Ladin and al-Qaeda and the US suspected that al-Qaeda was based in Somalia and was linked to AIAI.[25] The real change in the US’s approach to Somalia came in 2001 with the initiation of the War on Terror as a reaction to the attacks on the World Trade Center. Renewed US interest in Somalia resulted from a mistaken belief that following the US invasion of Afghanistan, the Taliban would move to Somalia. When this did not happen, non-military interest in Somalia subsided and from 2001 to 2008 Somalia was on the US’s radar mainly as a potential haven for terrorists and not as a country in need of humanitarian aid.[26]

Beyond not supplying aid, the US’s military focus on Somalia had a further negative impact. After the World Trade Center attacks, the US relied on Ethiopian reports on links between Somalia’s Islamist groups and al-Qaeda, which were exaggerated to reflect Ethiopia’s political interests. For instance, while there were demonstrable links between Somali Islamist groups and al-Qaeda, which used Somalia as a place of sojourn and transit, there were no al-Qaeda bases in Somalia. Hypersensitive to potential terrorist attacks, the US nevertheless planned for military intervention in Somalia. It eventually refrained from deploying ground troops and instead tried to isolate Somalia internationally. The Somali passport effectively became obsolete. International travel remained possible only to the few Somalis with foreign passports. Financial institutions and aid groups found their services disrupted. The US also put pressure on Arab organizations in the country. As a consequence, humanitarian groups such as the Saudi Arabian al-Haramayn closed orphanages and left the country.

After September 11th, the US specifically targeted financial institutions in both Somalia and Afghanistan through Operation Green Quest. It is not entirely clear why the US was targeting financial institutions in failed states, which could have been a safe haven for terrorist cells, as opposed to targeting financial institutions in the Gulf states, which had a long and demonstrable history of financing terrorist organizations. In the long run, this may have been a counterproductive activity, especially in Somalia. Within Somalia US operations targeted money transfer agencies known as sharikat hawwalat. The US claimed that there was a clear link between these agencies and al-Qaeda, only to retract this statement five months later. These money transfer agencies are an integral part of the Somali economy—remittances make up about 70 percent of GDP[27]—and by disrupting their ability to function, the US negatively impacted the daily lives of Somalis.[28] These actions benefitted Islamist groups, as public opinion turned against the US.

More recently, the 2006 war between Mogadishu’s Islamists and the Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counterterrorism (ARPC) was at least partially caused by US anti-terrorist intervention in Mogadishu, and has put Somalia on a worrisome political trajectory. Worried that the state of lawlessness in Somalia would lead to its use as safe haven for international terrorist organizations, the US developed relationships with local warlords and businessmen in Mogadishu, in an attempt to monitor the situation and create an anti-terrorism network. These relations rarely succeeded in providing useful information as the neighborhoods that the US believed were housing terrorists could not be infiltrated. To make matters worse, many of these US emissaries were rivals, whose personal militias would often clash. However, the US pushed them to work together and in February 2006 a group formed the ARPC. Islamists in Mogadishu, including AIAI, viewed this as a direct attack. Armed clashes began within weeks between the two groups, the outcome of which was the formation of the Council of Islamic Courts (CIC). By June 2007 the Islamists had clearly won and taken control of the entire capital. This was the first time Mogadishu had been under unified rule in 16 years.[29]

IV. Al-Ittihad and the Rise and Fall of the Islamic Courts

The first Islamic courts appeared in Somali in the early 1990s after the fall of Siad Barre. They were originally meant to impose some law and order among the chaos. But in 1998 courts with a militant focus appeared. Aweys, the former vice chairman and military commander of AIAI, led the court in Ifka Halane in western Mogadishu, which became the base for Jihadi Islam. Aweys was later accused of involvement in the 1995 and 1996 bombings in Ethiopia because of this. Al-Qaeda testimony from the 1998 bombings of the US embassies in Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam also pinpointed Aweys as a central figure in its terrorist network, and identified a link between him and Osama bin Ladin.

Aweys was not the only prominent Somali with links to the terrorist network. Others were trained as fighters in Afghanistan. The most notable, Hashi Ayro—a military commander for the Ifka Halane court—desecrated an Italian cemetery in 2005 and was linked to multiple murders including those of four foreign aid workers, a Somali peace activist, and a British journalist. Ayro’s militia also reportedly provided protection to al-Qaeda operatives during the US embassy bombings, the bombing of a Kenyan hotel, and the attempted shooting of an Italian charter plane.

The group used the courts as a structure around which to build militias and organize their constituents. Yet not all the courts were in al-Ittihad’s control, as they were fairly heterogeneous. Some were controlled by clan leaders and continued to be autonomous. The typical court was organized around three elements: a shura or council that included political, traditional, religious, and business leaders from the clan; a chairman who was usually appointed by the shura; and a militia leader appointed by the chairman, but subject to the shura’s approval. The courts were accepted in communities because of a general lack of political ambition, and because their militias were well-organized and provided a needed service: protection.[30] Financing came from member contributions and militia checkpoints, which were relatively unobtrusive.

Not long before the establishment of the Transitional National Government (TNG) in Djibouti in 2000, Aweys initiated the formation of the Sharia Implementation Council in Somalia. It was meant to unify the courts and to provide a political platform from which they could interact with the TNG. However, the council fell apart when it failed to convince the TNG that its members should be the main representatives of the permanent Somali judiciary. Aweys then left the council to set up courts in other locations in Somalia.

A second attempt to unify the courts was made four years later in 2004, and the Supreme Council of Sharia Courts of Somalia was formed in Mogadishu. Aweys was again involved, but was no longer the initiator. The council was led by Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, a Sufi who had been trained in Libya and who was unrelated to AIAI. The courts quickly became aligned under the Supreme council, though some were still linked to AIAI. Members formed a militia, which included Somalis from many different clans and with different religious leanings: a significant and important achievement for the Islamist unification in Somalia.[31]

These courts were further radicalized during the war between the Islamists and the ARPC. During the war another coalition of courts was formed, known simply as the Council of Islamic Courts (CIC), and it quickly gained power during its first few months of existence. It earned broad, passionate support from local Somalis and the Somali diaspora, accumulating vast sums of money and weapons. There was a strong sense within the country that the Islamists’ time had come.

By far the CIC’s most impressive success was their widespread support. This support may seem out of place considering the traditional Somali attitude toward religion, but it must be understood in context. It stemmed from the order and stability the CIC brought to Mogadishu. Many embraced the CIC because it rid Mogadishu of warlords and militia gangs. Others saw how powerful the CIC had become and joined them to be on the winning side. The pan-clan rhetoric and anti-Ethiopian attitude of the CIC also aided their popularity. In short, support for the CIC did not arise from religious fervor, but from pragmatism.

Despite this success, the CIC ran into problems both internally and externally. There was a divide within the CIC between Islamic moderates and radicals. AIAI members, including Aweys, fell in the latter group. The moderates were unable to control them and this eventually led to disillusionment with the CIC. The CIC also fell prey to clanism. Some thought that the CIC was really a Hawiye group trying to pass as a pan-clan organization. This latter problem may have been dealt with if the CIC had transitioned to a more neighborhood-based system, but it was never allowed to evolve because of external problems, specifically Ethiopia.[32] Ethiopia was very concerned with the developments in Somalia for fear that it would lead to the radicalization of its own sizable Muslim community. Ethiopia invaded Somalia in March 2007, and marched to Mogadishu virtually unopposed. Most of the casualties on the Somali side were not Islamists but pious volunteers from local clans. The majority of the Islamist forces, including the hard-line Shabaab militia, stayed hidden.

The battle marked the end of the power of the Sharia courts in Mogadishu, and forced the Islamists, including AIAI, to once again retreat underground.[33] It is not clear at all why they put up almost no fight against Ethiopia when they had the chance to launch a successful retaliation. AIAI’s future agenda is unclear but it is rumored that the group is now defunct. The radical Islamists lost much of their credibility and public support with the fall of the courts.

Al-Ittihad Outside of Somalia

AIAI had a presence in many countries with a Somali diaspora, including Kenya, Ethiopia, and Djibouti, and spread as far as Canada, the UK, and Sweden. It raised funds and popular support by publicizing itself in Arabic language newspapers, and distributing videos taken by its fighters. Within Kenya especially, the movement managed to have a significant impact. AIAI formed a base in the Kenyan Somali diaspora and voiced the same ideals as its counterpart in Somalia: a form of radical Islam based on Wahhabist teachings. However, in recent years it appears that they have lost strength. Some attribute this to disappointment, but the exact status of the AIAI cells in Kenya is unknown. International Crisis Group informants claim that they are defunct. In the words of one informant: “People have become disappointed by them. They’re not as strong as they were….The term [al-Itihaad al-Islamiyya] now carries a kind of stigma”.[34]

The New Jihadists

Since 2003 there has been a new Jihadi network in Somalia. Its most visible figure is Aden Hashi Farah Ayro, a supposed protégé of Aweys, who probably inherited Aweys’ links to al-Qaeda. The unnamed group is based in Mogadishu. As of 2005, its membership was in the tens as opposed to the hundreds or thousands. Despite a small membership, they have been linked to the murders of four foreign aid workers. The group in many ways resembles Jihadi groups such as al-Qaeda. Its use of completely fluid organizational structures and terrorist tactics make it a worrisome menace for security in the region despite its small size.[35] Al-Qaeda, after all, may only have a few hundred members.[36] There is always the possibility that in the future the group could profit from a crisis and gather enough support to upset a stabile regime.

V. Looking Forward

There are a number of reasons why it is important to understand Islamism in Somalia. First, US fears of international terrorist organizations using the country as a safe haven are not unfounded. US attempts thus far at reducing the attraction of Somalia as a destination for groups such as al-Qaeda have been counterproductive and based on a complete misunderstanding of the situation in the country. However, developing methods for counteracting groups that use ungoverned spaces, like Somalia, is an important goal for any country that believes it is at risk of a terrorist attack. Second, Somalia is in close proximity to Yemen, a known refuge for terrorism. Between Yemen and Somalia lies the Gulf of Aden, a major trade route for ships carrying oil and other goods from the Gulf and Asia. Recently Somali pirates have been in the news for attempting to disrupt this trade route.[37] An Islamist takeover in either Yemen or Somalia would be of serious concern to countries dependent on this trade route. Third, the stability of Somalia is important for the stability of the entire Horn of Africa. This region is one of the major conflict zones in Africa and, as we have seen, the existence of political Islamic groups only increases the risk of war.

For these reasons, the history of AIAI is interesting because it gives us a succinct story of the birth and death of a militant Islamist group. It consequently provides lessons of what did and did not work in attempts to thwart its growth. There are a number of aspects of AIAI’s history that should be noted, especially with regard to interventions by the US and the UN, the most alarming being the collaboration between the two UN operations and AIAI. This allowed AIAI to directly infiltrate the developing government and gain power in the Mogadishu area. How this was allowed to happen is not obvious, but future peacekeeping operations should move with caution when empowering certain groups within a collapsed and ethnically diverse nation. US support of warlords in Mogadishu is another incident that should be reassessed. While each political Islamic group is case-specific, the results of US and UN action in Somalia illuminates why experts should be involved in the planning of any interference in a country that is home to militant Islamists.

AIAI’s growth and decline also highlights how international terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda use collapsed states to their advantage. As far as we know al-Qaeda never set up a base in Somalia, although AIAI did have links with the group. It obviously did not need a base in Somalia to use the AIAI network to its advantage. The bigger problem is the possibility of the growth of secondary groups with links to international terrorist groups. This is why Ayro’s unnamed group is a serious concern. While this new group is distinct from AIAI, certain parallels can be drawn between the two, which could help anti-terror efforts.

Lastly, despite the impact of UNOSOM I and II and US intervention attempts with AIAI, the real reason for AIAI’s downfall was not state collapse; rather, it was a return to the traditionally apolitical role of Islam in Somalia, the lack of ethnic unity within Somalia, and the radical nature of AIAI’s ideology. Despite Somalia being religiously homogenous, clan cleavages never allowed AIAI to create a truly national movement. The closest the Islamists came to success was with the CIC in 2006, and this failed precisely because moderate Islamists were not able to control the more radical factions such as AIAI. There may be a way to create a greater sense of unity in Somali culture, but it is unlikely that it could be done directly by the US, as Somalis are adverse to interference. It is possible that a third party, preferably African and which wants to reduce the role of radical Islam in the area could be involved. Much more thought and energy needs to be put into exploring this option, because as this paper has demonstrated, without adequate planning, interfering almost inevitably causes more harm than good.

Notes & References

  1. Ken Menkhaus, “Political Islam in Somalia,” Middle East Policy, Vol. 9, No. 1 (March 2002): p. 111.
  2. Abdelkérim Ousman, “The Potential of Islamist Terrorism in Sub-Saharan Africa,” International Journal of Politics, Culture and Society Vol. 18, No. 1 (Fall 2004), p. 84.
  3. Spilker, op. cit., p. 13.
  4. Spilker, op. cit., pp. 14–15.
  5. Spilker, op. cit., p. 14.
  6. Spilker, op. cit., p. 15.
  7. Medhand, Tadesse, Al-Ittihad: Political Islam and Black Economy in Somalia (Addis Ababa: 2002).
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid.
  10. International Crisis Group, “Somalia’s Islamists,” Africa Report, No. 100 (2005): p.3.
  11. Tadesse, op. cit.
  12. Ken, Menkhaus. “Understanding State Failure in Somalia: Internal and External Dimensions,” Somalia, Current Conflicts and New Chances for State Building 6. (Heinrich Böll Foundation: 2008), p. 32. Accessed on January 2010 from
  13. Menkhaus, op. cit., pp. 31–32.
  14. Tadesse, op. cit.
  15. International Crisis Group (2005), op. cit., pp. 3–4.
  16. Ibid, p. 4.
  17. Tadesse, op. cit.
  18. International Crisis Group (2005), op. cit., p. 4.
  19. Ibid.
  20. Tadesse, op. cit.
  21. International Crisis Group (2005), op. cit., pp. 4–5.
  22. Tadesse, op. cit.
  23. Tadesse, op. cit.
  24. David H. Shinn, “An Evaluation of U.S. Policy toward Somalia,” New York Center for Conflict Dialogue (21 May 2009),
  25. Andrew Buncombe, “Sighting of prime suspect in US embassy bombings sparks ban on British flights,” The Independent (16 May 2003).
  26. Shinn, op. cit.
  27. Jack Kimball, “Interview – Goats and remittance keep Somali economy afloat,” Reuters, 5 September 2007,
  28. Khaled M. Medan, “Financing Terrorism or Survival? Informal Finance, and State Collapse in Somalia, and the US War on Terrorism,” Middle East Report (Summer 2002), p. 3.
  29. Ken Menkhaus, “The Crisis in Somalia: Tragedy in Five Acts,” African Affairs Vol. 106, No. 204 (2007): pp. 357–390.
  30. International Crisis Group, “Can the Somali Crisis be Contained?” Africa Report, No. 116 (2006): pp. 13–15.
  31. International Crisis Group (2006), op. cit., pp. 12–13.
  32. International Crisis Group (2006), op. cit., pp. 13–26.
  33. Cedric Barnes and Harun Hassan, “The Rise and Fall of Mogadishu’s Islamic Courts,” Journal of Eastern African Studies Vol. 1, No. 2 (2007): pp. 151–160.
  34. International Crisis Group (2005), op. cit., p. 8.
  35. International Crisis Group (2005), op. cit., pp. 41–42.
  36. John Mueller, “How Dangerous Are the Taliban?” Foreign Affairs (15 April 2009),
  37. “Somali pirates risk choking key world trade route,” Reuters (15 April 2009), http://www.reuters. com/ article/idUSTRE53E2JR20090415.
Lara Loewenstein is a student at the Johns Hopkins University SAIS Bologna Center. She graduated from UCLA in 2007 with a degree in mathematics and has written for a variety of publications including Robb Report and Good magazine. She plans to pursue a PhD in International Economics at Brandeis University after graduation from the SAIS Bologna Center.