In Somalia, jihad is only half the fight

With opportunities few and far between in the east African country, insurgents have other incentives for fighting the government than religious ideology.

Ismail Mohamed Ishaaq, 21, lost a leg fighting security forces in Mogadishu. He is recovering in a government hospital.
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MOGADISHU // All Ismail Mohamed Ishaaq wanted was to earn some money to pay for school. But in Somalia, which has not had a strong central government for 19 years, opportunities are few and far between. So Mr Ishaaq, 21, signed up with the only organisation around that was hiring - the militant Islamist group known as al Shabab.

The group has been fighting a guerrilla war against the weak transitional federal government for almost three years. Their aim is to topple the government and replace it with one based on a harsh brand of Islam, akin to what the Taliban espoused in Afghanistan. With ties to al Qa'eda and hundreds of foreign fighters in its ranks, al Shabab has been labelled a terrorist organisation by western countries including the United States. But not all of al Shabab's foot soldiers subscribe to the ideology of jihad.

"I joined to get money," Mr Ishaaq said. "I wanted to reach my goals. I wanted to finish my school. I never got financial support from anywhere. That is why I joined al Shabab." For six months, Mr Ishaaq fought alongside other militants in Lower Shabele, a Shabab stronghold in southern Somalia. A month ago, he was called to Mogadishu to bolster insurgents attempting to take the capital. Near Mogadishu's Bakara market, Mr Ishaaq's convoy came under fire from government soldiers. A mortar hit his car, blowing off his leg and killing three fellow militants. Government troops captured him and brought him to an African Union hospital, where his wounds were treated. Now, recovering in the AU facility, Mr Ishaaq is unsure about what to do next.

"For now, I don't have the energy to go back and I can't fight because I am an injured person," he said from his hospital bed. "Those I was fighting have already captured me. Then they saved my life. I don't see why I should go back and fight them again. I don't know what I'm going to do." Since al Shabab hardly ever hosts western journalists - except as hostages - captured or defected militants provide a rare window into the insurgency.

After years of secular, clan-based fighting, Somalia's war has only recently organised around religion. Besides al Shabab, another group, Hizbul Islam, is also fighting the government, but with a more political agenda. It has plans for a government based on the former Islamic Courts Union. Sometimes the groups work together, though lately they have fought each other. There is also Ahlu Sunna Waljamaa is a Sufi militia that is allied with the government.

But it is al Shabab that is the most radical group in Somalia. They are known for publicly meting out harsh justice such as chopping off the hands of thieves or stoning adulterers. Lately, they have begun pulling out people's gold dental fillings because they are deemed un-Islamic and flogging women for wearing bras. Al Shabab controls a large swath of territory from the Kenyan border to parts of Mogadishu. Most Somalis seem to support al Shabab, but largely because they are afraid rather than because they believe the Islamist rhetoric.

"The more extremist groups within al Shabab control a lot of territory and are more militarily powerful," said Rashid Abdi, a Somalia analyst with the International Crisis Group, a think tank based in Brussels. "That doesn't necessarily translate into political support. They are increasingly finding opposition from many quarters within Somalia." Mohamed Sheikh Abdullahi, a former al Shabab commander, defected to the government last month because he did not agree with the group's violent ideology. He said there were about 500 foreigners, mostly from south and central Asia, fighting with al Shabab in Somalia.

The US occupation of Afghanistan and its offensive against al Qa'eda and the Taliban there sent a wave of militants to Somalia. Analysts call this the balloon effect - as you squeeze jihadists out of one region, a new front opens somewhere else. "I was one of the people that they have trusted and I met many of the foreign commanders who are not easy to see," Mr Abdullahi, 25, said in an interview from the government's headquarters in Mogadishu. "Even when I was part of them, I never agreed with the principle of someone killing himself to achieve a goal, so I left them."

He said that in 2007, when the Ethiopians invaded Somalia to overthrow its relatively moderate Islamist leaders, it was easy for al Shabab to rally support against the "common enemy". But since Ethiopia pulled out in January, the group has undergone an identity crisis. The foreign fighters, including at least two Americans, have taught al Shabab members how to use suicide bombs and roadside explosives, Mr Abdullahi said. After a September suicide strike by a Somali-American on an African Union base that killed 21, security was tightened and the militants have resorted to sniper fire on AU positions.

Shuke Abdi Odowa, a former Hizbul Islam commander who defected two months ago, said that if the government was stronger and able to take back rebel-held territory, the militants would lose support. "Only the hardcore will stay behind if the government makes some progress," he said. "If the government makes progress, even only in Mogadishu, a lot of people will come and join the government." Mr Odowa, 35, said al Shabab and Hizbul Islam are fighting over differing interpretations of Islam.

"I don't believe that Hizbul Islam and al Shabab share anything other than only the hatred of this government," he said. "That's why they sometimes fight between themselves." Mr Abdullahi and Mr Odowa are staying at a government demobilisation centre, and both said they did not fear reprisals from the militias they left. They said they were willing to fight for the government if needed. For Mr Ishaaq, the situation is a bit different since he was captured and did not defect voluntarily. He said he would still fight for al Shabab if he had both of his legs and was not being held by AU troops. For now, at least, his fighting days are over.

"I will probably just go back to my house," he said. "Al Shabab believes they are going to capture Somalia and establish an Islamic state, and I support that. But I don't want to go from the fire back into the fire."