In August 2011, soldiers from the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) and Somali militias forced the militant group al-Shabab out of Mogadishu. By mid-2012, al-Shabab had lost control of much of Mogadishu’s hinterland. On March 6, 2013, the UN Security Council partially lifted an arms embargo, allowing Somalia’s government to legally import light weapons to arm its own forces.[1] Somalia’s political situation has improved considerably as well.[2]

Although this progress is real, Somalia’s political logic of kinship (“clan”) based social structures poses serious challenges to a sustainable counterinsurgency strategy. These difficulties appear in other collapsed states with relatively egalitarian, small-scale societies where political decisions involve constant wrangling and discussion. Historically, this behavior has frustrated external efforts to reliably identify and work with permanent leaders.[3] Yet these are not static societies. By the middle of the 20th century, their leaders aspired to construct effective institutions, manage local disputes through policing and state-administered justice, and politically incorporate their communities—an earlier version of the state-building thrust of contemporary counterinsurgency.

The fundamental difficulty for counterinsurgency in such societies lies in the mismatch of the concept and reality of the state. Counterinsurgency rests upon two fundamental principles: 1) there must be a government with the political will and capacity to reform and effectively engage citizens; 2) there must be a cohesive indigenous armed force with the ability to protect the government and provide security to civilians.[4] Both tenets presuppose that local political actors accept the existence of a state, that state collapse is temporary and state restoration is possible and desirable.[5] State-building tasks require clear distinctions between insurgent and government, subversion and support, and legal and illicit, even if it is acknowledged that individuals often act on divided loyalties and multiple motives.[6]

Key elements of politics in Somalia (as in many collapsed states) violate this logic. Local authorities collaborate with the insurgents that they fight. Armed groups unify and then suddenly split. Political authority, personal honor, and social practices of vendetta and protection become wrapped up in what others see as subversion, infiltration and corruption, further blurring externally defined distinctions between licit or illicit activities. Scholars of Somalia heatedly debate the importance of these characteristics.[7] These debates are relevant to counterinsurgency, as reluctance to accept conventional state institutions and policies undermines the viability of the two core tenets: a reformist government, and a cohesive indigenous armed force.

This article examines how the shifting loyalties of clan politics challenge the centrality of the institutions of the state as the drivers of actors’ interests and the real alignments in politics. It finds that in the case of Somalia, there is an enduring resistance to the idea of the state—a fundamental tenet upon which counterinsurgency rests.[8]

Shifting Loyalties
The January 2013 French operation to rescue a security consultant that al-Shabab kidnapped in 2009 illustrates some difficulties facing counterinsurgency in Somalia. The kidnapping of two French security consultants sent to train Somali Transitional Federal Government (TFG) soldiers was allegedly masterminded by a relative of a former minister in the TFG and a deputy leader of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), a predecessor of al-Shabab.[9] The kidnappers had joined the Islamist faction Hisbul Islamiyya and almost all were part of government security forces; when former ICU leaders joined the government, they took many powerful rank-and-file positions in the security and intelligence services.[10] This provided groups within the ICU and others associated with it access points through which to infiltrate their agents, collect intelligence, and operate in government territory.[11] The patterns of alliance and opposition would appear to facilitate this sharing of information and collaborative operations. For example, Hisbul Islamiyya emerged among the factions of the ICU that rejected a December 2008 power sharing deal with the TFG. Hisbul Islamiyya then merged with al-Shabab in December 2010.[12] In 2009, these groups fought together against the TFG in Mogadishu at the same time that they fought against each other in Kismayo.[13] This situation underlines the difficulty of applying rigid political labels to many of these factions as they are prone to collaborate in some areas and on particular issues while fighting one another in other instances, often in the service of clan or other kinship obligations.

The escape of one hostage a few weeks after the kidnapping of the security consultants sheds some light on intricate family and clan networks.[14] Initially, the two hostages in Hisbul Islamiyya’s hands drew al-Shabab onto the scene. A combination of threats and negotiations left one hostage for Hisbul Islamiyya to sell for a ransom and another with al-Shabab.[15] The ransom activated other cleavages, as the original kidnappers and the ultimate recipients of the ransom quarreled over how this act and the distribution of the money it generated would affect the relative power of each faction within the larger collection of armed Islamist groups.[16] The story became more complex after that, but it underscored the difficulties of viewing Somalia’s political scene in terms of rigid labels.[17] These episodes show how family and clan issues shape and influence conflict in Somalia, regardless of the wider political shift to “reconstruction.”

These shifting loyalties continued as internationally-sponsored reforms gathered steam, as seen in the January 2013 French attempt to rescue the remaining hostage. Those rescuers needed intelligence to locate their target. The Somali government’s National Security Agency (NSA),[18] built with U.S. help, was supposed to assist, but given the infiltration of Islamist group agents into the government’s intelligence apparatus,[19] they appeared to lead the French into a trap instead.[20] The rescue attempt encountered heavily armed al-Shabab fighters who battled the French for several hours. An al-Shabab statement claimed that they had captured one of the French soldiers and killed another,[21] while French officials announced that two soldiers were killed in the operation.[22]

The timing of a suicide bomb attack on Somali intelligence chief Khalif Ahmed Ilig’s vehicle on March 18, 2013, also pointed to inside help. A week earlier, a government-allied militia warned Somali security services of a possible attack,[23] but the government did not respond accordingly. This begs the question whether al-Shabab sympathizers in the security services were to blame for the lack of action. A January 29, 2013, suicide bomb attack at the prime minister’s home in the presidential compound by a former intelligence service employee—a compound that required clearance at several checkpoints—also raised the possibility of inside assistance.[24]

Clan Politics
Infiltration points less to ideological commitment than to clan politics. A large element of Somali politics involves heads of clans and sub-clans playing a pragmatic balancing game, seeking protection from stronger groups and then shifting to balance them when one side becomes strong enough to threaten its partner’s autonomy. Leaders in al-Shabab and other groups have used clan politics to their advantage, offering protection to smaller clans that have been targets of other clans that appropriate their lands and marginalize them in continuous and often violent political negotiations. For example, some members of the Warsangali sub-clan, squeezed between Puntland and Somaliland forces in disputes over control of territory and business networks, accepted protection from the al-Shabab-aligned militia commander Mohamed Said Atom.[25] Yet even as al-Shabab (or the government) establishes an alliance, they have to contend with supporters whose loyalties are divided between their partners and the complex obligations of kinship. This was illustrated in Atom’s case, as an offensive on the part of the Puntland Authority resulted in the defection of several hundred of the al-Shabab-aligned fighters to the ranks of the Somali intelligence agency.[26]

A good illustration of the fragmented nature of identity and mobilization appeared in late 2009 as Islamist groups around the port of Kismayo fought foreign-backed TFG and AMISOM forces. Earlier, al-Shabab produced a video professing support for al-Qa`ida in 2008, with declarations of a common cause.[27] Upon closer examination, declaring allegiance to al-Qa`ida could have been a power play of the Ras Kamboni Brigade, which was then still part of al-Shabab, to counter rival commander Hassan Dahir Aweys’ effort to assert personal control over al-Shabab fighters.[28] In any event, Aweys split from al-Shabab in February 2009 and created Hisbul Islamiyya to bring together dissident factions, including parts of the Ras Kamboni Brigade. Then in February 2010, the Ras Kamboni Brigade  joined TFG forces in attacks on al-Shabab, while other elements of the brigade rejoined al-Shabab.[29]

This episode provides lessons to counterinsurgents who propose to bring different groups under a single authority. The dispute was due in part to brigade members’ attachments to the town of Ras Kamboni and its local notables who had personal agendas. Disputes over port revenues among clan lineages in the town of Ras Kamboni also influenced how these Islamist groups fractured, recombined and shifted alliances.[30] To others, this seems like a barely organized chaos, the unpredictability of Somali political behavior. Somalis may seem like they have very limited or tentative buy-in to agreements, and are unreliable and selfish. In fact, leaders, particularly local leaders who are directly responsible to kin and communities, tend to be pragmatic to the extreme.

Activities commonly labeled as corruption also reflect shifting clan politics and obligations to clan or family lineage. A World Bank report in 2012 found that 68% of government revenues went missing.[31] An unpublished UN report told of government ministers transferring government assets, often cash, to associates.[32] This activity, however, is integral to building and sustaining political alliances. Officials are under great pressure to protect kin and allies. If they chose to follow proper administrative practice, they would lose authority among people that they supposedly serve and powerful notables would shift support to other groups, much as infiltrating the security services can be a way to hedge bets.

Life is difficult for state-builders and violent Islamists alike since both can be deeply threatening to the social networks around them. The insistence on a distinct sphere of political life separate or superior to personal and family agendas forces individuals to decide whether to risk violating social obligations to pursue an abstract political vision. This makes it difficult for foreigners to find reliable local partners. Ultimately, foreigners in Somalia’s conflict who are connected to big political projects almost always subordinate themselves to shifting interests of Somali leaders to survive for any length of time.

Foreign guests, whether military trainers, administrative experts or radical Islamists, are tolerated in Somalia when they spend money and are useful in local power struggles. Yet those who try to spread radical visions too vigorously (whether jihad or upholding UN Security Council resolutions) encounter what many of them regard as grasping and conniving local behavior. Local notables complain that the state-builders mimic the radical Islamists, provoking rounds of assassinations and factional violence among those who fear that new arrangements will be less flexible and will need to be counter-balanced.[33] Pragmatic local leaders constantly play multiple sides, creating an exceptionally difficult social terrain for insurgents and counterinsurgent state-builders. Many locals focus their ire on “Americans and other devils,” blaming all of their problems on foreign influence.[34]

Alex de Waal argues that trying to change systems of conflict and social relations in states such as Somalia is futile. He suggests playing to existing patronage networks embedded in local clan relations. The shifting constellation of alliances and factional splits can be harnessed for limited goals, much as NATO forces in Afghanistan assembled an alliance to topple the Taliban in October 2001.[35] Playing clan politics is a well-known technique in the region, and Ethiopian officials practice it to prevent the consolidation of Somali groups that might pursue irredentist agendas among Ethiopia’s ethnic Somali population. Through this strategy, Ethiopian forces supported Hawiye sub-clan Islamist militias that splintered from al-Shabab and other groups to ally with the TFG.[36]

This approach argues for an extremely light footprint, focusing on local islands of stability maintained with indigenous forces. Empowering a particular faction with a foreign-supported intelligence service like the NSA and a national army will generate subversion and infiltration as other clan groups hedge their bets and assemble new alliances, possibly in coordination with more violent Islamists, to oppose the new concentration of power. Private security contractors may be especially destabilizing in local politics, as strongmen appear adept at incorporating them into local power struggles between political rivals and family disputes.[37]

In collapsed states, a counterterrorism component that includes alliances of convenience to target dangerous individuals is about “as good as it gets.” As a former Ethiopian official noted, pragmatism may include supporting “the good al-Qa`ida against the bad al-Qa`ida.”[38] Drones are not especially welcome in Somalia, but their effects are registered much like other foreign action, evaluated in terms of impact on local politics and the risks they pose in supporting a concentration of power. In this and other ways, the United States is very influential in Somalia. Its influence is contingent on this capacity to affect short-term outcomes without becoming influential enough to cause commanders and politicians to collaborate to oppose U.S. power. This requires working within this system of politics that produces groups that ally one day and then oppose each other the next, and that will work with the United States and within the Somali government at the same time that they subvert the institutions of that state. This will disappoint committed state-builders who envision a government that provides for and protects all civilians with the help of a cohesive national army and police.

Dr. William Reno is a Professor of Political Science and Director of the Program of African Studies at Northwestern University. He is the author of Corruption and State Politics in Sierra Leone (Cambridge University Press, 1995), Warlord Politics and African States (Lynne Rienner, 1999) and Warfare in Independent Africa (Cambridge University Press, 2011).  His current research investigates choices among armed group leaders as they confront social diversity (“clan” and ethnic politics) in their efforts to build cohesive organizations.

[1] Rick Gladstone, “Security Council Loosens Somalian Arms Embargo,” New York Times, March 6, 2013.

[2] The February 2012 London Conference brought together representatives of dozens of governments and most major Somali groups to create a new national government, reconstruct Somalia’s justice and security sectors, and sustain funding for AMISOM. International backers denounced “spoilers” and pressed Somali leaders to appoint a legislature and write a new constitution. On August 20, 2012, a parliament was sworn in, and on September 10 it elected a president, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud. On January 17, 2013, the United States officially recognized Somalia’s government. See “London Conference on Somalia: Communique,” UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office, February 23, 2012; “UN and Partners Issue Warning Against Somali Peace Process Spoilers,” United Nations News Center, May 1, 2012.

[3] Meyer Fortes, The Dynamics of Clanship among the Tallensi (London: Oxford University Press, 1945).

[4] A classic formulation of combined political-military strategy appeared in Robert Thompson, Defeating Communist Insurgency: Experiences from Malaya and Vietnam (New York: Praeger, 1966). These principles also appeared in David Kilcullen, “The Three Pillars of Counterinsurgency,” U.S. Government Counterinsurgency Conference, Washington, D.C., September 28, 2006, available at The U.S. Army’s Counterinsurgency Field Manual (FM 3-24) devoted considerable attention to “public diplomacy,” which presupposes a political strategy that includes an incumbent government acceptable to civilians. David Galula, Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice (New York: Praeger, 1964), noted the centrality of institutionally cohesive and coordinated “political action” to counter insurgents.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Catherine Besteman, “Representing Violence and ‘Othering’ Somalia,” Cultural Anthropology 11:1 (1996): pp. 120-133; I.M. Lewis, “Doing Violence to Ethnography: A Response to Catherine Besteman’s ‘Representing Violence and ‘Othering’ Somalia,’” American Ethnologist 13:1 (1998): pp. 100-108.

[8] Much of the data for this article is based on the author’s visits to Somalia since 2006.

[9] This is a perspective expressed in the author’s discussions with a Somali government official on July 4, 2012, and in “Somalia: the Abduction of French Agents Well Planned, Sources,” Mareeg, April 15, 2013.

[10] ICU forces suffered defeat at the hands of the Ethiopian-backed TFG after December 2006. In December 2008, ICU head Shaykh Sharif Shaykh Ahmad signed a power-sharing agreement with the TFG and became TFG president in January 2009, a position that he held until August 2012. This agreement signaled the split of the ICU and TFG into several new factions, with the ICU rejectionists continuing their armed opposition.

[11] Several TFG officials and militia leaders revealed in discussions with the author, which took place in Mogadishu in June and July 2012, that they had personal concerns about security due to perceived al-Shabab infiltration into the security services. Infiltration is also discussed in Mohamed Mubarak, “Spying Game: Shabab’s Double Agents in Somali Intelligence,” Jane’s Intelligence Review, March 2012.

[12] “Somali Islamists al-Shabab and Hizbul Islam ‘to Merge,’” BBC, December 20, 2010.

[13] Jean-Pierre Filiu, “Lesson from Kismayo,”, October 6, 2009.

[14] “Somalia Hostage Tells of Escape,” BBC, August 26, 2009.

[15] “Gunmen Snatch French Agents from Mogadishu Hotel,” Agence France-Presse, July 14, 2009; “Somalia Moves to Free French Agents,” al-Jazira, July 15, 2009.

[16] Jean-Philippe Rémy, “Denis Allex, l’agent français otage en Somalie,” Le Monde, May 10, 2012.

[17] Allegedly, an Islamist faction with members in the TFG president’s security force took the hostages and gave them to Shaykh Hassan Dahir Aweys’ faction of Hisbul Islamiyya which was not part of the power sharing agreement with the TFG. Yet even though al-Shabab also opposed the TFG, the al-Shabab confrontation with their supposed allies possibly indicated that local al-Shabab commanders were concerned that their Hisbul Islamiyya “allies” would use the kidnapping to their political and financial benefit. An al-Shabab spokesman told a reporter that “we shared the two men to avoid clashes between Islamists,” which is also a plausible assertion in line with local custom to manage conflicts. See “Qaeda Linked Somali Group Takes One of French Hostages,” Reuters, July 16, 2009. This episode shows the ease with which groups can intermingle and collaborate at the same time that they are in conflict over other issues.

[18] Some Somalis alternately refer to this as NSSA and others as NSS.

[19] “French Somalia Raid ‘Was a Trap,’” Africa Confidential 54:2 (2013).

[20] This report cited the French defense minister’s allegation that al-Shabab fighters were forewarned of the French attack in the moments before the incident as local residents detected the approaching French force. See “France Defends Failed Somali Raid as Toll Mounts,” Agence France-Presse, January 13, 2013.

[21] “Second French Soldier Dies after Somalia Raid – Rebels,” BBC, January 14, 2013; “Soldat français tué en Somalie; les islamistes publient des photos,” Le Monde, January 14, 2013.

[22] Peter Beaumont, “French Secret Service Hostage and Soldiers Killed in Somali Rescue Mission,” Guardian, January 12, 2013.

[23] Glen Johnson, “Mogadishu Calms, but the Line in the Sand Blurs,” The Courier, April 6, 2013.

[24] These details are based on the author’s personal observation of the compound several months earlier. The author counted five checkpoints, including ones that appeared to search Somali government officials. See “Suicide Blast by Offices of Somalia President and PM,” BBC, January 19, 2013.

[25] “Security Council Committee on Somalia and Eritrea Issues List of Individuals Identified Pursuant to Paragraph 8 of Resolution 1844 (2008),” United Nations Security Council, April 12, 2010.

[26] “Galaga Militia Prepares to Fight Puntland,” Somalia Report, April 2, 2012; personal interview, Puntland ministry of security official, July 8, 2012. Those conversations indicated that Puntland security forces are abundantly aware of the importance of kinship relations in shifting political allegiances.

[27] Nick Grace, “Shabaab Leader Sanctioned as Zawahiri Responds to Group’s Oath of Loyalty,” The Long War Journal, November 21, 2008. Usama bin Ladin also called for Somali cooperation. See Usama bin Ladin, “Fight On, Champions of Somalia,” March 2009.

[28] “Islamist Ally Turns on Somalia’s al-Shabaab,” Voice of America, December 2, 2009; personal interviews, political actors, Mogadishu, Somalia, July 2012.

[29] “The Smiling Warlord Who Controls Ras Kamboni,” Daily Nation, June 12, 2012.

[30] “Somalia’s Divided Islamists,” International Crisis Group, May 18, 2010.

[31] “Somalia Government Money Goes ‘Missing,’” BBC, June 1, 2012; “Summary of Financial Diagnostic Assessment of  ‘Audit Investigative Financial Report 2009-10,’” World Bank, May 30, 2012.

[32] “Advanced Copy – Report of the Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea pursuant to Security Council resolution 2002 (2011),” United Nations Security Council, June 2012.

[33] Personal interview, minor warlord, Mogadishu, Somalia, July 1, 2012.

[34] Personal interview, major warlord, Mogadishu, Somalia, July 4, 2012, who otherwise helps Americans.

[35] Alex de Waal, “Dollarised,” London Review of Books 32:12 (2010): pp. 38-41.

[36] “Somalia’s Divided Islamists”; personal interview, former Ethiopian official who was stationed in Mogadishu in conjunction with the Ethiopian intervention, April 14, 2013.

[37]  This information is based on the author’s personal observations in Bossasso and Garowe, as well as personal interviews, TFG officials, Mogadishu, Somalia, 2012; “Somalia: New Guns on the Block,” Africa Confidential 51:25 (2010); Mark Mazzetti, “Private Army Formed to Fight Somali Pirates Leaves Troubled Legacy,” New York Times, October 4, 2012.

[38]  Personal interview, former Ethiopian official, Garowe, Somalia, 2012.

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