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Somalia’s Salafi Groups and Fatwa Wars: Conflict Between Al-Ictisaam And Al-Shabab Is Dictated By Political Islam


By Hassan M. Abukar

Nov 20, 2012

In July of this year, a group of 22 Somali Salafi scholars met in Nairobi, Kenya, and issued a fatwa (a religious edict) that condemned a young Somali cleric based in Kenya named Shaikh Hassaan Hussein Adam. He is widely known as a spiritual supporter of Al-Shabab. The signatories and attendees of this meeting included a who’s who of the Somali Salafi community: Shaikh Mohamed Abdi Umal, Shaikh Mohamoud Shibli, Shaikh Abdirizak Mohamoud Takar, Shaikh Abdulkhadir Nur Farah, Shaikh Mohamed Idris, Shaikh Abdirahman Shaikh Umar and two former leaders of al-Ittihad al-Islami (AIAI), Shaikh Ali Warsame and Shaikh Mohamoud Issa. The scholars condemned Shaikh Hassaan as a heretic and asked the Somali public not to buy his work or listen to his lectures.

Hassaan Hussein “Abu Salman” Adam, or “Shaikh Hassaan”, as he is popularly known, is on the United Nations’ (UN) sanctions list of persons accused of providing material support to the militant Al-Shabab.  A UN Security Council report in 2011 accused Hassaan of engaging in acts that threatened the “peace, security or stability of Somalia.” He was also accused of recruiting new members for Al-Shabab and raising funds for the group, not to mention issuing Fatwas calling for attacks against the Somali government. Last year, Hassaan was arrested by Kenyan authorities and then released for reasons not bereft of domestic and ethnic politics. Hassaan indeed belongs to a major Somali clan that has a powerful presence in Kenya’s political corridor.  He is 33 years old, soft-spoken, supremely talented, and singularly driven. In spite of his scholarly bent, Hassaan appears to be a preacher with a concealed agenda because there is a subtle call for activism in his prolific lectures. He is blunt with his views and does have a habit of being accusatory.

What is known currently is that Hassaan is popular among young Somali Islamists worldwide because he espouses radical views about jihad. He is more or less Somalia’s version of Anwar al-Awlaki in terms of his youth, vigour, knowledge, and articulateness. Many Salafis from the old school, however, consider him to be extremely dangerous because, by all accounts, Hassaan provides Al Shabab radicals with the religious justification they need for their militant war in Somalia. He is, they say, an apologist for Al-Shabab because even though he does not carry arms, he is still able to articulate the ideology of Al- Shabab from the comfort of his home in Nairobi. Shaikh Hassaan’s lectures are very popular among the militant youth and are widely disseminated in Al-Shabab media outlets which also provide a glowing picture of him. Moreover, his lectures are instantly available as far away as Seattle in the U.S and as close as Mogadishu.

The Salafi movement, according to Quintan Wiktorowicz’s scholarly article, “The Anatomy of the Salafi Movement,” in Studies in Conflict and Terrorism (2006), is an array of trends that all share a “puritanical approach to religion.” Yet this “community is broad enough to include such diverse figures as Osama bin Laden and the Mufti of Saudi Arabia.” Within the Salafis, there are differences in politics and jihad. One Jihadi figure aptly summarized the concept as “The split is not in thought; it is in strategy.” Recently, the Salafi presence in many parts of the world has become palpable. In 2010, a report by Germany’s intelligence service concluded that Salafism was becoming the fastest growing Islamic movement in the world.

Traditional Somali Salafis generally are in congruence with the ideology of al-Ictisaam movement. For starters, the al-Ictisaam is the product of the old al-Ittihad al-Islami group, which was the largest Islamic movement in Somalia in the 1980s and 1990s. In 1997, the group laid aside its arms and dissolved itself, but it does not refrain from politics and activism. Al-Ictisaam is the new version of the al-Ittihad sans arms. It is headed by Shaikh Bashir Ahmed-Salad Warsame, who is also the head of the Council of Ulema in Mogadishu. Prominent scholars like Shaikh Mohamed Abdi Umal, the late Dr. Ahmed Haji Abdirahman (who was assassinated by the Al-Shabab last year), Shaikh Mohamoud Shibli, and Shaikh Abdulkhadir Nur Farah are considered the top figures of al-Ictisaam.

There are three types of Salafis: the traditional−some say the ‘politico’−group as represented by al-Ictisaam, the armed Salafist group – or what French scholar Gilles Kepel would call Salafism Jihadism− manifested by al-Shabab, and the neo-Salafis, better known as Salafiyyah Jadidah(the New Salafis). Shaikh Ali Mohamoud “Ali Wajiis”, Shaikh Mohamed Abdi Dahir, and Shaikh Abdulkhadir Cukaasha, a scholar based in Nairobi, are major symbols of the neo-Salafis. Shaikh Cukaasha is one of the disciples of the late Shaikh Mohamed Moalim Hassan, the father of Somalia’s Islamic resurgence. In the 1980s, he became one of the Salafi scholars of al-Ittihad. His break with AIAI came during the peak of the group’s armed incursions inside Somalia. Cukaasha was opposed to AIAI carrying arms and condemned the jihadist policy of the group’s leaders. He was then upbraided and ostracized by the AIAI leaders including Hassan Dahir Aweys and Abdullahi Ali Hashi who ironically became top figures in Al-Shabab a decade later.

The rift between the al-Ictisaam scholars and the young Shaikh Hassaan, while ideological in nature, can also be explained as an interplay of power and ideology. Until recently, Al-Shabab has been in power in many areas of the south whereas the defunct AIAI, now al-Ictisaam, lost its power base after it demilitarized. Many of the Al-Shabab leaders including Ahmed Abdi Godane, Ibrahim Afghani, and Mukhtar Robow, were once AIAI members, but became disenchanted after that group disbanded its armed militias. The constant in the Al-Shabab leadership is its demonization of al-Ictisaam as a spineless group that has shamelessly abandoned its jihadi mission and ideology. Al-Shabab, on the other hand, appears to those who listen to Hassaan’s lectures, to be the ones who are offering a far more muscular stance on dealing with the Somali government.

 It was in the midst of this political backdrop that Shaikh Hassaan issued a fatwa last year where he enunciated the “devious” nature of al-Ictisaam as an Islamic movement. This young cleric then rendered a verdict, accusing the group of being apostates, “Dhaa’ifa Murta’dah.” Furthermore, Shaikh Hassaan declared that it is religiously permissible to kill the scholars of al-Ictisaam as long as the goal is stopping their “fasaad” (transgression). The fatwa generated stinking rebukes from al-Ictisaam members and sympathizers. The crime of al-Ictissam, according to Shaikh Hassaan, is that it issued a fatwa that allowed participation in the country’s political process spearheaded by the Transitional Federal Government (TFG). The Somali government, Somaliland, and Puntland are seen by A-Shabab radicals as infidels that should be fought and eliminated.

Shaikh’s Hassaan’s fatwa on al-Ictisaam has, for the last few weeks, generated new interest after the Puntland security forces apprehended some of Dr. Ahmed Haji Abdirahman’s killers. The young defendants, who allegedly carried out this heinous crime, spilled the beans and had a tangle of a story to tell. They accused Shaikh Hassaan of being a secret member of Al-Shabab and of issuing the fatwa to kill Dr. Ahmed Haji. In essence, the young defendants are saying that they were inspired by Hassaan’s edict to carry out their targeted assassination. The public confessions of these perpetrators has become, to al-Ictisaam members and sympathizers, a clear rallying point to expose what they perceive as Hassaan’s deleterious influence on the minds of many young Somalis.

The Salafis and the U.S

Immediately following the 9-11 tragedy, the American government went through a period of panic and confusion about dealing with Muslims, in general, and Islamic groups, in particular. In the last few years, however, there has been a clear policy to differentiate, for instance, between the Salafi jihadists and the neo-Salafis. In 2010, the U.S Department of State issued a visa to Shaikh Abdulkhadir Mohamed “Cukaasha” in Nairobi to visit America and attend an Islamic conference in Atlanta. The state department even offered protection for the cleric, according to a person close to Cukaasha, during his tour in the U.S. but the cleric politely declined. The goal of the American government was to have Cukaasha, who is opposed to Al-Shabab’s violence, speak to young Somali Islamists in Atlanta and Minneapolis about the danger of joining Al-Shabab’s armed struggle. What was not known to Cukaasha and his American sponsors, however, was the cool way that the cleric would be received in the Somali communities that he visited and by the Salafi establishment.

Many Salafi imams and leaders in the U.S, who are also inimical to Al-Shabab tactics, simply saw Cukaasha’s trip as an attempt to strengthen the small number of Somali neo-Salafis in North America. Cukaasha, according to people he talked to, was flummoxed and felt frozen out by his former colleagues in the Salafi community. Thus the visit, in essence, aggravated the already frayed relationship between the Salafis and the neo-Salafis. To Washington, which has become weary of the radicalization of Somali youth, the neo-Salafis are a counter force to ward off Jihadi elements in America.

On the other hand, in early October of this year, the U.S Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) took an unprecedented move by terminating the American citizenship of a prominent Somali Salafi scholar based on errors in his original citizenship application already filed and approved more than a decade earlier. This technicality, while seemingly small, might portend something larger, such as perhaps curtailing the influence of certain Salafi scholars in the U.S. Because the case is still under appeal, this scholar’s name will not be divulged here.

Another incident involved the renowned Shaikh Mohamed Abdi Umal.  Several months ago, he generated a media sensation when he said that it was “Halal” (permissible) to eat the meat of hyena. Umal was also denied an entry visa to the U.S to attend an Islamic conference in Minneapolis on July 27, 2012, that was organized by the Abu-Bakr Islamic Centre, the same institution widely investigated by the FBI—but later cleared of any wrongdoing−regarding the missing Somali youths. Umal’s visa was also denied on a technicality, namely, there was not sufficient time to process his visa application. However, it was clear to the Somali religious establishment in Minneapolis that the cleric, a prominent figure of al-Ictissam, was not welcome in the U.S. It was also not the first time that Shaikh Umal has been denied entry to America.

In July 2009, the U.S government barred the famous Somali preacher from Norway, Shaikh Mustafe Haji Ismail Harun, from entering the country. Shaikh Mustafe is a Salafi who hails from Somaliland but, instead, an independent Islamic scholar and is well-liked by Somalis from all walks of life. He was supposed to be the keynote speaker at an Islamic convention in Minneapolis and had checked with the U.S Embassy in Oslo. At that time, he was told there were no problems preventing him from attending the conference.  Norway, incidentally, has a visa waiver with the United States. After arriving at Newark International Airport after a nine-hour flight from Norway, Shaikh Mustafe was questioned by U.S federal agents for three hours and informed that his name had been cleared, but he was still sent back to Oslo.

In a nutshell, the conflict between al-Ictisaam scholars and Shaikh Hassaan’s al-Shabab is at least partly dictated by the nature of political Islam. Each Islamic group has a phalanx of scholars who readily offer religious justification for their own actions and policies. Both groups wrangle and tangle as the spiralling saga of fatwa issuing intensifies. The views of Shaikh Hassaan, although radical and dangerous and not in the mainstream even among the Salafis, still offer a spiritual and ideological grounding for those Somali militants who are waging what they consider a “legitimate jihad” against the Somali government.