Ma’awisley Vigilantes: The Surge to Oust Al-Shabab

It has already been three months since a motley array of Somali forces have been fighting the extremist group Al-Shabab on several fronts in the southern regions of Somalia. At the center of the surge, the ma’awisley, local self-defense groups, supplemented by the regular army and the police.

However, mixed forces fighting on an equal footing, without clear coordination and uniformity of aim, except to eliminate militants from a particular area, have been decried. President Hassan Sheikh Mahamood’s decision to arm and organize other clan militias, turning his back on the national army, has been even more criticized.

Experts have even gone so far as to claim that the president is playing in a minefield of his own making by promoting ragtag clan militias led by sectarian politicians, hijacking the spontaneous nature of the early Ma’awisley vigilante groups.

Who are the ma’awisley?

The ma’awisley are made up of farmers and herders and have been around for about 15 years. The first ma’awisley were spontaneous and emerged as a reaction to the constant abuses of the scourge that is Al-Shabab in the southern regions of Somalia.

These men could no longer bear to see their daughters being forcibly married off to their bloodthirsty militants, their children forced to fight for them, and their hard-earned livestock and crops being extorted.

In a Somalia where every household has at least one firearm, they had no choice but to join forces and risk their lives defending their family and property together. Their name “ma’awisley” come from their traditional “ma’awis”, known around the world as sarong.

As rural people, most of them had no prior formal training and received no assistance at first from authorities, although the previous federal government commended their efforts and instructed the national army to provide the necessary support to these vigilante groups.

Recent ma’awisley prominence has mainly been attributed to Hiraan’s visionary leadership, especially its governor, Ali Jeyte. The governor has mobilized local ma’awisley, mostly from his own Hawadle sub-clan, which is part of the larger Hawiye clan, to reject Al-Shabab’s extortion and wanton killings.

Ali Jeyte initiative and the Hiraan liberation

Hiraan governor Ali Jeyte initiated this campaign to uproot Al-Shabab from his region with the help of local security forces and the Somali National Army (SNA). Among others, he enlisted Army general Tahlil Bihi and prominent clan elders like the brave Elmi Hagar who later paid with his live leading his clan’s ma’awisley.

Jeyte requested numerous times the federal army to remove the Al-Shabab terror threat from his region and its capital Beledweyne who recently was the theater of major suicide attacks and high profile assassinations. Last March, a particularly deadly attack claimed the lives of more than 50 people, including two MPs, and injured more than one hundred.

Early this year, federal forces were sent to give him and the Hirshabelle Vice-president Yusuf Dabageed a support that raised that ire of the opposition then. Since then the opposition is now in power.

With the new administration appointing Al-Shabab leaders and operatives at sensitive positions and moving the attention away from the fight against the terrorist organization, an emboldened Al-Shabab launched attacks from Hiraan into the Ethiopian border.

On August, taking cues from Mustafe Agjar, the Ethiopian Somali region president, Jeyte decided to take the matter into his own into a “do or die” operation to drive the terror group out his region. Similarly, he threw at the terror any means and forces at his disposal. Since then, he is constantly at the front leading the effort of diverse forces or briefing the nation on their successes.

Hijacking Jeyte legacy

Their recent ma’awisley prominence however has been shrouded with controversies and questionable motives from Mogadishu politicians that impede any lasting successes against Al-Shabab.

While Hiraan governor Ali Jeyte struggles to retake control of his region was genuine and widely applauded as brave and innovative, it attracted a lot of Mogadishu politicians.

We have seen politicians who traded their suits to an army fatigue flocking to Hiraan either for a photo-op or to keep the lead of their own clan. Even ladies, the deputy speaker Sadia Samatar and minister of humanitarian affairs Khadija Dirie, donning well-fit fatigues visited troops in the region in an apparent show of support.

Indeed, faced with the unprecedented offensive and the first unexpected successes, federal politicians, mostly from the region, jumped on the bandwagon. Some of them have joined a clan-based militia they called “ma’awisley” and promote essentially a clan-led anti-Al-Shabab front.

Moreover, for lack of ideas to raise money from the international community, they inserted their story of “popular uprising”. In fact, President Hassan Sheikh, who until the Jeyte offensive found drought and non-existent famine a cash cow, is now using the “war on Al-Shabab” as a convincing means of obtaining additional help.

The end result

The Ma’awisley offensive has cleared a strip of formerly occupied territory of Al-Shabab terror in Hiraan. The all-out war promised by Ali Jeyte suffered at times setbacks with vengeful and untrained armed civilians sometimes taking the law into their own hands, but overall delivered on its promise.

Interestingly, politicians’ interest in the offensive also revealed that a Western-funded war profiteering think tank, in this case Sahan Research, known for perpetuating a divided and unstable Somalia, inserts the narrative of a disunited national army overwhelmed by events.

Sahan’s message is carried by an array of local politicians and “intellectuals” who wholeheartedly support Ma’awisley empowerment as opposed to a comprehensive military-led plan. Proponents of the clan-based plan, former Hirshabelle chairman Abdi Ware in particular, have relentlessly attacked intellectuals who have offered sobering counter-narratives, calling them “al-Shabab sympathizers”.

Ironically, clans and regions, some of which have received weapons, ammunition, money and other support from a federal government unable to articulate a national strategy to fight Al-Shabab, are dragging their feet to open a front against the terrorist network.