By Bill Roggio
Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, the leader of Hizbul Islam, has merged his forces with Shabaab, al Qaeda’s affiliate in Somalia, after suffering a string of military defeats at the hands of the rival Islamist terror group.
Aweys, who is also linked to al Qaeda, joined Shabaab today and turned over Hizbul Islam’s bases in Mogadishu and areas south of the capital, Mareeg Online reported. It is unclear if Aweys will take a senior leadership position in Shabaab’s increasingly foreign-dominated leadership cadre.
Shabaab’s takeover of Hizbul Islam will allow the terror group to put aside the intra-Islamist fighting, and will free up fighters and resources to battle the weak Somali government and African Union forces struggling to retake control of Mogadishu.
Since it was formed in January 2009, Hizbul Islam has been fighting a losing battle against Shabaab, its Islamist rival in Somalia. Throughout 2009, relations between Shabaab and Hizbul Islam worsened after the groups began to battle in Kismayo over control of the southern port city. In February 2010, the Ras Kamboni Brigade, once a Hizbul Islam faction, broke ties with Hizbul Islam and merged with Shabaab. Hizbul Islam has been losing ground to Shabaab in central and southern Somalia ever since the Ras Kamboni Brigade defected.
Hizbul Islam’s demise came to a head on Dec. 13, when Shabaab seized the vital city of Burhakaba and threatened to behead 20 Hizbul Islam commanders. Hizbul Islam abandoned several villages south of Mogadishu on Dec. 14. Despite the loss of Burhakaba and towns south of Mogadishu, and an increasingly poor tactical and strategic position, Aweys vowed on Dec. 15 to fight to the death defending Afgoi, its last remaining bastion south of Mogadishu. And yesterday, Hizbul Islam commanders in Luk broke ranks and joined Shabaab.
Background on Hizbul Islam’s ties to al Qaeda
While many counterterrorism analysts and African experts consider Hizbul Islam a domestic, nationalist insurgency with no links to foreign terror groups, its top leader has close ties to al Qaeda. Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys is wanted by the US for his links to al Qaeda. He is also on the United Nations’ terrorist sanctions list, again for his ties to al Qaeda.
Aweys co-led the Islamic Courts in 2006 until the group was ousted from power during the Ethiopian invasion in December 2006.
Under the leadership of Aweys the Islamic Courts Union implemented sharia law throughout southern Somalia. Islamic Courts suicide bombers attacked the weak Transitional Federal government, while the Islamic Courts ran terror training camps, courted foreign fighters, and released videos through al Qaeda’s propaganda arm. Aweys, confident in his victory, called for the creation of a “greater Somalia” in the Horn of Africa. This is a goal shared by al Qaeda’s central leadership.
We will leave no stone unturned to integrate our Somali brothers in Kenya and Ethiopia and restore their freedom to live with their ancestors in Somalia,” Aweys said in November 2006.
In September 2009, Aweys advocated for more suicide attacks in the country, just days after suicide bombers struck an African Union base in Mogadishu.
Other Hizbul Islam leaders have expressed their support for al Qaeda. In April 2010, Moallim Hashi Mohamed Farah, then the top leader for Hizbul Islam in Banadir province, welcomed Osama bin Laden and other foreign fighters to visit Somalia and fight alongside his forces.
Shabaab and Hizbul Islam sought to merge forces during the summer of 2009, and have been in constant talks since then. But local disputes between factions of the two terror groups prevented the merger from taking place.
Hizbul Islam was created in January 2009 with the merger of four separate Islamist groups: Aweys’ Alliance for the Re-Liberation of Somalia (E), a wing of the Islamic Courts Union; the Ras Kamboni Brigade; Jabhatul Islamiya (the Islamic Front); and Anole.
The Ras Kamboni Brigade hosts al Qaeda camps in the south, and its leader, Sheikh Hassan Turki, was targeted by the US in a cruise missile strike in March 2008. Turki is known to train suicide bombers in camps that are dotted along Somalia’s southern border with Kenya.