By Sudarsan Raghavan
Mogadishu, Somalia, May 29, 2010 – From behind green sandbags, Abdul
Gader fired his rusting AK-47 down a narrow road. A Koran, its pages
open, rested on the earth near his sweat-soaked body. So did a pile of
Before him was territory controlled by radical al-Shabaab fighters.
Behind him was territory Gader and his comrades had taken away from
"They are the enemy of my religion and my culture," Gader, a strapping
17-year-old with a boyish face, declared after pumping another burst of
bullets at his targets lurking among crumbling houses.
Four days earlier, Gader's moderate Islamist militia had accomplished
what the Somali government, backed by tens of millions of dollars in
U.S. assistance, could not do for two years: It pushed al-Shabaab out of
Sigale, a forlorn Mogadishu enclave.
The militia, a Sufi group known as Ahlu Sunna Wal Jamaa, is posing the
strongest challenge yet to al-Shabaab, an al-Qaida-linked organization.
The Sufis potentially offer an alternative strategy for the United
States in the struggle to stem the rising tide of Islamist radicalism in
this failed state.
"There's a gap to be filled, and Ahlu Sunna is filling it," said Ahmed
Haji Hassan, 22, a fighter who swaggered with confidence near the
sandbagged front line.
The rise of Somalia's moderate Muslims often draws comparisons to the
Sunni tribes in Iraq's Anbar province that rose up to fight al-Qaida
extremism in their country.
Like them, the Sufis have wider political ambitions and could bring a
measure of stability and relief from the brutal thuggery of al-Shabaab.
But many skeptical Somalis, jaded by nearly two decades of war, fear
that the Sufis are just the latest jumble of self-interested holy
warriors competing for turf and power.
"They could have a positive impact. Or they could become an obstacle to
Somali reconciliation," said Abduwali Nour Farah, 31, a businessman.
"For now, the people are supporting their gains. But in our history, we
have seen such groups rise up all the time."
For centuries, the Sufis were men of peace. They followed a spiritual
current of Islam that emphasizes moral education, tolerance and a
personal link to God. When Somalia plunged into clan wars after the
collapse of the central government in 1991, Islam's extremist Wahhabi
strain gained strength amid the anarchy.
But the Sufis engaged in neither the conflict nor politics. When
neighboring Ethiopia invaded Somalia in 2006, with covert U.S. backing,
to suppress a hard-line Islamist movement, the Sufis remained on the
The invasion sparked the rise of the ultra-radical al-Shabaab, which
swiftly took control of large patches of southern and central Somalia.
Al-Shabaab fighters soon set their sights on the Sufis, whom they
branded as heretics, assassinating Sufi clerics and burning down Sufi
shrines. They opened Sufi graves and pulled the bodies out.
"In this world, they kill you. And when you die, you still cannot
escape," said Abdullahi Abdurahman Abu Yousef, a senior Sufi commander.
The Sufi uprising began in central Somalia last year. Sufi clans fought
clans that backed al-Shabaab, adding a religious dimension to a conflict
shaped by ideology, power and fears that Somalia will become a haven for
The Sufi forces, widely believed to be backed by Ethiopia, have pushed
the radicals from several key areas. Late last month, they entered the
Somali capital after striking a shaky alliance with the government. They
drive pickup trucks mounted with machine guns adorned with red plastic
roses. Loudspeakers play eclectic Sufi songs, defying the hard-liners'
ban on music.
Sufi leaders try to leverage their moral authority as the only Somali
faction not to have fueled the nation's chaos.
"In 20 years, we did not participate in the civil war," said Adam Maalin
Abuker, a senior leader. "Now, we want to bring back law and order."
In Sigale, they have done just that, at least for now. In Somalia's
turbulent contest, territory is won back as quickly as it is lost.
Residents who fled al-Shabaab's savagery and harsh decrees have trickled
back, if only out of curiosity.
"I haven't seen my neighborhood in two years," said Hawa Ahmed Mohamed,
a stooped 70-year-old who was targeted as a "nonbeliever."
But she is too afraid to visit her house. "It's on the front line," she
The fighters said they were unpaid. Many derided government troops and
an African peacekeeping force as more interested in earning salaries and
chewing khat, a leafy narcotic, than in pushing out al-Shabaab.
"They have 10,000 soldiers, and all they control is 10 kilometers," said
Ahmed Arab Abdi, a fighter from central Somalia. "If they are fighting
for money and khat, they will gain zero ground. "
Source: The Washington Post