NAIROBI, Nov 5 – Somalia’s main Sufi movement, Ahlu Sunna wal Jamaa, on Thursday wrapped up an unprecedented conference in Nairobi to strategise its response to the rise and radicalisation of the Shebab group.
Dozens of the usually quiet religious movement’s leaders have in recent days converged on Nairobi from Somalia and from Western exile to close ranks against what they see as an existential threat.
"The Shebab are misguided people who have misunderstood the true values of Islam," overall chairman Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Muhieddin told AFP before leaving Kenya Thursday.
Sufism is dominant in clannish Somalia, where Muslim saints are often also clan founders, but its leading clerics have voiced concern that hardline Islamist groups such as the Al Qaeda-inspired Shebab were slowly eradicating it.
It emphasises the mystical dimension of Islam and includes practices considered as idolatry by the followers of the Wahhabi sect adopted by the Shebab.
A year ago, Ahlu Sunna wal Jamaa (‘The Companions of the Prophet’) took up arms after the Shebab started hunting down Sufi faithful and desecrating their holy sites, notably in and around the southern Somali city of Kismayo.
"The Ahlu Sunna wal Jamaa fighters are not a regular army who long for power, they are defending themselves and the lives of other Somalis whose way of life is threatened by the Shebab’s madness," Sheikh Sharif said.
The Ahlu Sunna leader, the son of respected Somali cleric Sheikh Muhieddin Eli, explained the current conflict as a continuation of old religious feuds between Muslims touched off by the death of Prophet Mohamed.
"A group of people who were known as the Khawarij (or Kharijite) came to kill other Muslims who did not share their views. Now the Shebab are killing Somalis because they are not with them," he said.
As Ahlu Sunna wal Jamaa gathered in Nairobi for its inaugural "war council", a man sometimes described as the movement’s political face was also in the Kenyan capital to seek support.
Recently appointed president of the semi-autonomous central state of Galmudug with Ahlu Sunna wal Jamaa’s blessing, Mohamed Ahmed Alin argued that his administration can help achieve what the central government in Mogadishu and its Western backers have failed to do.
"With some cooperation, I believe the Shebab could be eliminated from most of the country," he told AFP. "We need infrastructure support, military support, training of our troops but so far, just words and no action."
While the organisation’s military strength remains unclear, its grassroots nature gives it a popular legitimacy and territorial reach that no other movement can boast in fractious Somalia.
"In my region for example, Ahlu Sunna wal Jamaa never used to be a political affiliation. Everybody is Ahlu Sunna, that’s all," said Alin.
And despite the religious movement taking on a new and more political dimension as it seeks to beef up against the Islamist threat, its top leaders are quick to emphasise they have no further ambitions.
"We are not after power, what we we are fighting for is a peaceful Somalia governed by its elected leaders," said Abdulkadir Mohamed Somow, a senior Ahlu Sunna wal Jamaa leader from Mogadishu.
"Our movement is fighting the Shebab forces of anarchy but we will lay down our weapons as soon as they have been eliminated," he said.
Another senior Ahlu Sunna figure based in Garowe, the administrative capital of the northern semi-autonomous state of Puntland, was more circumspect.
"If it is God’s will we may one day have a role to play in running the country, but it is too early to say more, there are consultations going on in Nairobi and elsewhere," Abdullahi Mohamoud Hassan said.