In a new policy supported by President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud’s government, Somalia is endorsing the use of vigilantes to help weed out al Shabaab militia from villages.
It is an additional step to the non-violent dissuasion of al Shabaab sympathisers, including by roping in returnees into formal government.
In July, Prime Minister Hamza Barre named Mukhtar Abu Mansur as Minister for Religion. Mr Mansur is a former al Shabaab leader who fled the group and was detained under house arrest, and later freed.
Officials say local militia can tap into the acrimony of those already harmed by al Shabaab, and go after those who don’t want to surrender.
“We came up with a new strategy that is based on two things - ideological war front and cutting al Shabaab’s economic lifeline,” President Mohamud said, adding the militia had avoided military operations by changing tactics.
President Mohamud was speaking at a public lecture at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies last week, while on a tour of the US.
Later, at a speech to the diaspora, he said authorities are supporting the militia.
“Once they could not tolerate the intimidation, the extortion and the abduction of their children, some local clans say they have started fighting al Shabaab. We want to support our people to live in peace and dignity,” the president said.
The vigilante model has already recorded some successes, and criticism, in equal measure. Some opposition leaders have mounted a campaign against what they warn is an incubation for militia groups who may turn against the government in future.
Some of the vigilante groups were already involved in defending their villages from al Shabaab ambushes and denying the militia new territory.
When al Shabaab fighters attacked settlements in Teedaan and Bukurre, in Mahaas district of Hiraan region, about 320 km north of Mogadishu, a local clan militia referred as Moawisley (militants in wrap-around garments) fought back and defended their home.
Some 20 al Shabaab fighters were killed in the attack, officials said last week.
Now the Moawisley group has teamed up with the Somali National Army (SNA), getting the upper hand, and driving al Shabaab combatants from many strategic areas within Mahaas district in central Somalia.
The resistance was unpredicted, even for al Shabaab. Locals at first refused to pay “tax” to the al Shabaab, who then resorted to torching houses and other amenities. The group did not go far, however.
The encounter is now being used as an example of how villagers can help authorities defeat a common enemy.
Last week, Internal Security Minister Mohamed Ahmed Sheikh Ali lauded the “recent military operations aimed at liberating the areas, guaranteeing security and stabilising the territories regained from the jihadists”, adding that the model would lead to the government delivering much needed assistance.
In central Somalia, al Shabaab is still dangerous. Their operatives sneaked back into Afar-Irdood, a road junction between Mahaas town and Beledweyne town, Hiran’s regional capital.
On Friday, Al-Shabaab loyalists stopped several vehicles plying between the two towns. They killed 18 civilians and burnt food loaded on the vehicles. Officials said some of the burnt cars were carrying relief food from Beledweyne to a drought-stricken population in Mahaas district.
In addition, three civilians were killed when their vehicle hit a landmine near the area where the travellers were massacred.
The Moawisley then attacked an Al-Shabaab stronghold at Gedweyn, near Buloburte, 200 kilometres north of Mogadishu.
Ali Mohamed, a vigilante leader with the Moawisley militia, claimed his group killed senior Al-Shabaab “tax” collector Farow Fanne. He vowed to continue targeting Al-Shabaab bases in Hiran region.
“We will continue aiming at them before they kill us,” Mr Mohamed said.
Within the week, another clan vigilante group organised themselves and confronted Al-Shabaab fighters west of Beledweyne, the capital of Hiran and main commercial town of Hirshabelle Federal State.
Al Shabaab fighters later targeted El-Adde village, about 60 kilometres west of Beledweyne. The clan vigilantes resisted them too.
The El-Adde settlement bears the same name as the town near the border between Kenya and Somalia in Gedo region in Somalia’s Jubbaland State where a deadly al Shabaab attack took place at a base camp of Kenyan peacekeepers in January 2016.
Reports of the Moawisley group’s successes saw Somali government officials visit Hiran region to show solidarity.
Members of the Lower House of parliament, Federal Defence Minister Abdulkadir Mohamed Nur and Prime Minister Hamza Barre visited the region to encourage the Moawisley militias to continue fighting the jihadists.
The President of Hirshabelle State Ali Hussein Gudlawe later visited parts of Hiran. He delivered relief items and initiated repair works of the wells earlier destroyed by al Shabaab.
The Moawisley clan militia have also been supported by government forces to regain Ada-kibir, a settlement in Galgadud region nearly 500 kilometres north of Mogadishu. Ada-kibir was liberated after heavy fighting.
Galmudug State President Ahmed Abdi Qoorqoor later visited the area.
“I am pleased by what you have done and we will continue supporting you,” Mr Qoorqoor told the joint forces that confronted the Al-Shabaab.
Commander of the Somali National Army General Odowa Yusuf Rage visited Hiran and Galgadud to show his solidarity with the allied forces.
Following the developments, al Shabaab has issued warnings of a bitter battle. On Monday, al Shabaab media outlets broadcast the group’s spokesman Abdulaziz Abu Mus’ab threatening the clans that support the Moawisley militia and government forces.
“We (al Shabaab) are not at war with the clans. But, we know about plans to arm the clans via the clan elders,” said Mr Abu Mus’ab.
“Any clan that picks up arms and fights us will be counterattacked in the same way as the government and the foreign forces in the country,” he added in clear reference to the peacekeepers under the auspices of the African Union Transition Mission in Somalia (Atmis).
Atmis troops contributing countries include Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia, Djibouti and Burundi, supporting the internationally recognised federal government.
Recent reports indicated that al Shabaab has introduced drones to their insurgency, suggesting a possible loophole in the arms importation channels including access to high-tech.
It is believed that the clans fighting against al Shabaab were inspired by remarks by President Mohamud who, after his reelection, said that he will initiate a programme to eliminate al Shabaab. Meanwhile, experts say that measures have to be considered while engaging the Moawisley.
A former director of the National Intelligence and Security Agency, Gen Abdurahman Mohamud Turyare, said inter-clan relations must be harmonised to ensure the militia are not set up to fail. If clans harbour inter-conflict, Al-Shabaab takes advantage to associate themselves with the other clan, he added.
“They (Al-Shabaab) will tell the other clan ‘you have an opportunity to fight your enemy because they are in a useless war and we can support you’,” Gen Turyare told the BBC Somali Service.
He said the leaders of the pro-government clan must be protected.
“Al-Shabaab hitmen target the leaders of the clans or their militia to force the mission to fail,” the general said.
He added that a government related administration must be quickly established in the liberated area. “If a clan militia regain a territory and they are left to reign, it can be very dangerous.”
A member of Somalia’s Lower House of the parliament, Abdirizak Warsame, questioned the long-term benefits of using the clan militia.
He said clan-based rebel groups that fought the previous Somali government in the 1980s eventually drove the nation into chaos it is struggling to recover from.
“Those of you who cannot understand Moawisley should know that they are a disorganised lot that can drive us into chaos,” Mr Warsame said in a video message, circulated on social media.
“The USC [United Somali Congress], the rebel group that fought the government of the late Gen Mohamed Siad Barre in Mogadishu and finally defeated it in January 1991, started as a disorganised rebellion,” said Mr Warsame.
“As long as the Moawisley resemble USC, they will lead into a fresh chaos,” he added, insisting that their benefits of defeating Al-Shabaab could be doomed by the disorder they can create.
Moawisley is composed of nomadic pastoralists, most likely harbouring clan loyalty and supremacy. The legislator said they may not subscribe to government authority even if they are armed to defeat Al-Shabaab.
There are pro-Moawisley supporters too. Ali Jayte, the governor of Hiran region where the most dynamic Moawisley militia operate, responded through a video message, saying, “How can someone call militias fighting terrorists a bunch of ignorant (sic)?” in response to the MP he labelled as ignorant of the militias’ achievements.
Abdikarim Nur Dobyare, a senior advisor to the President of Hirshabelle State, told the media last week that Moawisley must be kept within a governing system.
“If Moawisley are supported blindly, arming them they can reach a certain point that might be uncontrollable,” Mr Dobyare said, mentioning the problem the Somali government faced when it wanted to dissolve the Ahlu Sunna wal-Jamea (ASWJ).
ASWJ, a moderate Islamist group, challenged the same authority that supported its formation and progress. The ASWJ was a significant challenge to Al-Shabaab in Galmudug regions, but later demanded a power-sharing arrangement with the federal state government.
There are those who believe the vigilante model may work in rural areas because clan fighters there are homogeneous. But it may strain government forces in the long run in urban areas, where Al-Shabaab may shift their attacks including using suicide attackers or roadside bombs.