By Hassan M. Abukar
In 1948, the British colonial government handed over a region overwhelmingly populated by Somalis to the then emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie. When Somalia became independent in 1960, almost every successive government established its cornerstone foreign policy by uniting all Somalis, including those in Ethiopia, under one flag. Over the years, various uprisings occurred and armed groups emerged fighting for the liberation of what Somalis call “Western Somalia” and the Ethiopians call “the Somali region in Ethiopia.”
Among the armed groups was a small religious group of insurgents called the United Western Somali Liberation Front (UWSLF) led by Ibrahim Hussein “Ibrahim Dheere,” a cleric who had graduated from the Islamic University in Medina, Saudi Arabia. Before taking the leadership of the group, Ibrahim was an imam in Seattle in the United States and was instrumental in co-founding of the Islamic Organization for Somali Imams. In 2005, Ibrahim was arrested and indicted by the American authorities for immigration fraud. Putting false statements on his immigration paperwork was not the only reason for his incarceration; he was arrested on suspicion of terrorism activities. He was subsequently deported to Kenya and later left for Mogadishu where he joined the Union of the Islamic Courts (UIC), which was then ruling Mogadishu. After invading Ethiopian forces ousted the UIC, Ibrahim returned to Kenya and became a prominent figure in the United Western Somali Liberation Front.
David Rubincam, a retired American law enforcement agent, told a Seattle TV channel in 2014 that Ibrahim, whose real name he claimed was “Mohamed Ibrahim,” was “an extremist religious zealot of the worst kind” who had been trained in Saudi Arabia as a religious scholar. According to Rubincam, Ibrahim was in the U.S. “to raise money through the Hawala system of money transfer to fund them [terror groups] overseas and to recruit people to their cause to actually go back to Somalia to take up arms.”
Rubincam was elated that the government had used the immigration court to expel Ibrahim rather than charging him with providing material support to terror groups. Many Muslim activists, who were allegedly involved in terrorism, ended up being deported from America due to immigration violations. Rubincam added, “The best thing is to get [Ibrahim] off our soil and get him out of here and never let him come back…I am 100 percent sure [that he is] a national security threat to the United States of America or to any country in which he resides.”
Sleeping with the “enemy”
In 2010, Ibrahim Dheere signed a peace treaty with Ethiopia, which was then led by Meles Zenawi. It was the same government the cleric had excoriated for being a colonial state, the enemy of the Somali people, and a major entity responsible for the destruction of Somalia. Ibrahim’s group was part Islamist in the Salafi persuasion and part nationalist. It was not a secret that the group was a natural extension of Somalia’s old Al-Itihad Islamic group. The UWSLF was small in number and had engaged in bombings and killings in the Somali region under the Ethiopian occupation.
Ibrahim justified his move by his desire to seek a peaceful resolution with Ethiopia and to focus on spreading Islamic teachings in the Somali region. He told an Al Jazeera TV interviewer both parties thought a peaceful resolution was better than armed conflict. In another interview, he boasted about getting hundreds of phone calls from Somali religious clerics congratulating him for signing the treaty.
The Ethiopian Government’s goals were clear: It wanted to disarm the small militant group, co-opt it, and send a message to other liberation movements such as the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) to negotiate and show Somalis the futility of armed struggle in general. When journalists asked PM Zenawi about the treaty, he was quick to denigrate the UWSLF. “They are a small group and they had gotten tired of fighting,” he said. If Zenawi’s putdown of the UWSLF bothered Ibrahim, he did not show it to one BBC interviewer. “Don’t believe what is being said in the press,” he said.
After debriefing Ibrahim and his colleagues, the Ethiopian Government gave them general amnesty, houses for the leaders, and a huge plot of land to farm in the agriculturally rich region of Goday. Taking cues from his bosses in Addis Ababa, the president of the Somali region, Abdi M. Omar “Abdi Iley”, welcomed Ibrahim and his colleagues in Jigjiga to celebrate the signing of the treaty. Ibrahim and his cronies released white doves to signify peace. Men and women sang and danced for the occasion.
That was in 2010.
Nearly seven years later, there is little for Ibrahim to show in terms of his group’s accomplishments. He is currently a graduate student in Malaysia studying languages and is far from Jigjiga, a city to which he may not return. His honeymoon with Abdi Iley turned sour. The Ethiopian Government no longer has any use for Ibrahim, but it did instruct Abdi Iley to reconcile with him. Ibrahim went to Jigjiga and stayed in a hotel. After waiting for a while, Abdi Iley sent two members of the Liyu Police—who were former fighters with the USWLF—to interrogate their former leader. Ibrahim refused to answer any of their questions, and one of them, according to a reliable source, physically attacked him and would have killed him had the other police officer not intervened. Was it the classic case of good cop, bad cop? It is difficult to say, but one thing is clear: Abdi Iley wanted to humiliate Ibrahim and he succeeded. Shortly afterwards, Ibrahim returned to Addis Ababa.
Meddling in regional politics
What happened between Ibrahim and Abdi Iley?
Some prominent members of the Ethiopian Government, including Prime Minister Desalgam Mariam, tried to replace Abdi Iley, but failed. Ibrahim and his colleagues were reportedly involved in the plot, especially his deputy, Ahmed Nashad. Abdi Iley’s attempted demotion failed because some of the leading Tigrey leaders—among them Aseb Misfin, the widow of the late PM Zenawi, lobbied hard to retain Abdi Iley.
Sources close to Ibrahim Dheere adamantly deny that the cleric was personally involved in the conspiracy. If that is the case, critics say, being oblivious to what his colleagues were doing shows poor leadership skills. Some of his supporters told this writer of their disappointment with Ibrahim for several reasons. First, he continued living in Kuwait after signing the treaty with the government. Second, he has been absent from the political scene for the past few years even though the country is going through major political upheavals. Third, Ibrahim and his group failed to capitalize on the political and economic opportunities given to them. One supporter said it was mindboggling that the group failed to farm the big plot they were granted until the land fell into disrepute. Fourth, Ibrahim failed to articulate his vision after signing the treaty. It is not clear what the group wanted to accomplish or how. Fifth, Ibrahim’s proclamations of spreading Islamic teachings in the region backfired after his fallout with Abdi Iley.
Today, the group has almost no presence in the region. Moreover, Abdi Iley courted Ibrahim’s rivals among the Sufis when he appointed the son of famous “saint” Nur Kaldhayare as chief of the courts in that region. The appointment was a slap in the face to Ibrahim and his followers. The Sufis, one source told me, “are returning to the political scene after many years in the periphery.”
Ibrahim is more interested in political activism and fundraising than one typically finds in a Salafi cleric. To him, money is crucial for achieving political objectives. Most Salafis focus on speaking about issues of faith, and many have an aversion to all things political. Not Ibrahim, who is politically oriented. Interestingly, he has a unique perspective in combining religious sermons in mosques with spearheading comprehensive educational and health services as part of change. He is critical of clerics who spend all their time teaching religion and pay no attention to establishing schools and clinics.
Ibrahim was popular in the Salafi-controlled Islamic centers in the U.S. for his religious and political lectures, especially his presentations on the history of the Horn of Africa. These lectures, some of which are available on YouTube, are hair-raising. He had a penchant for making unsubstantiated generalizations. He would summarize an entire decade of Somali history in one word. The Somali civilian government’s era (1960-1969) was a time of “democracy,” the military regime that followed (1969-1991) was the age of “communism,” and the period thereafter was one of “tribalism.”
Ibrahim’s political views are as hollow as his solutions for rebuilding the Somali nation. For instance, the Somali Youth League (SYL), which fought for and led the independence movement, was “merely a product of European colonialism.” These nationalist leaders, Ibrahim argued, introduced Somalia to new Westernized concepts that are utterly “anti-Islamic,” such as “gobonimodoon” (freedom fighting), “waddani” (nationalist), “loyalty to the country,” democracy, and even the concept of “paying taxes.” The 1960 Somali constitution, he said, planted seeds for the secularism from which the country is still reeling. Ibrahim’s solution is for Somalis in the diaspora to elect a committee and hold a “national conference for salvaging Somalia” led by none other than the “ulema” (clerics).
An aborted interview
In a nutshell, I tried to interview Ibrahim and was able to talk to him briefly twice over the phone. He was not pleased when I asked him if he was indeed a student in Malaysia, a fact he had shared with an Al Jazeera TV anchorwoman. “Move on,” he said. Then, he grilled me to establish whether I favored the treaty he had signed with Ethiopia or was against it. He also wanted to know if WardheerNews, the website I write for, is for or against the treaty. I was surprised by his paranoid line of questioning and told him I only wanted his side of the story regarding the treaty. Then he asked me to send him all of my questions in writing, which I did the same day. That was November 4, 2016, and he has yet to respond to my inquiries. My goal was to know what his treaty with Ethiopia has accomplished after seven years and what the challenges were. Unfortunately, Ibrahim chose not to answer. History will tell.
Hassan M. Abukar
Mr. Abukar is a political analyst, a regular contributor to Wardheernews, and the author of Mogadishu Memoir. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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