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Al-Shabaab and the Future of Somalia

Al-Shabaab and the Future of Somalia

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Published by David Shinn

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Published by: David Shinn on Dec 10, 2009
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The Growing Strategic Gravity of al-QaedaConference Hosted by the Jamestown Foundation National Press ClubWashington, D.C.9 December 2009Al-Shabaab and the Future of SomaliaRemarks by David H. ShinnAdjunct Professor, Elliott School of International AffairsGeorge Washington UniversityHarakat al-Shabaab Mujahideen (Youth Mujahideen Movement) currently posesthe most serious threat to the Somali Transitional Federal Government (TFG), which isrecognized by the United Nations, African Union, Arab League, Organization of IslamicConference and is supported by most nations of the world, including the United States.Today, al-Shabaab controls much of Somalia south of Mogadishu and certainly muchmore territory than that controlled by the TFG. Al-Shabaab “control,” however, is anever changing patchwork depending on the fortunes of competing organizations such asthe extremist Islamic group, Hizbul Islam, and the Sufi organization known as AhluSunna Wal-jama.Background of Al-ShabaabAl-Shabaab apparently developed as a distinct organization in Somalia in 2004,although some observers date it from 2005. It is a decentralized organization; itsleadership fluctuates and seems to vary by region. The killing in 2008 by the UnitedStates of one of its most senior leaders, Aden Hashi Ayro, does not appear to havediminished its capacity to control Somali territory and challenge the TFG. A Somali,Ahmed Abdi Godane (aka Sheikh Abu Zubeir), is usually cited as the leader of al-Shabaab, although there are unconfirmed reports he was injured in November when asuicide bomb prematurely went off in a safe house.A number of its leaders received training in Afghanistan in the 1980s and 1990s,and they have close historical ties with the Taliban. Its former spokesman claimed in2008 to take orders from al-Qaeda. In 2009, its information minister welcomed supportfrom Osama bin Laden. Al-Shabaab subsequently proclaimed its allegiance to bin Laden.Bin Laden explicitly endorsed al-Shabaab in a 2009 video that called for the overthrow of TFG President Ahmed and described him as a tool of the United States. In fact, directionfrom al-Qaeda may not be as strong as both sides have suggested.At the same time, al-Shabaab reflects Somalia’s own history of political Islam.Some of its members cut their teeth in the now defunct Somali Islamist organization, al-Ittihad al-Islami, which had loose ties with al-Qaeda. The most doctrinaire wing of anearlier Somali Salafi group joined al-Shabaab in late 2004. Salafi groups, including al-Shabaab, benefited from Somali anger in 2006 over U.S. support for an alliance of 
warlords against the Islamic Courts and the subsequent military intervention into Somalia by Ethiopian military forces.The Al-Shabaab ProgramAl-Shabaab’s very name, the Youth, is an important indicator of its program. Theolder generation of Somali clan and political leaders has failed over the past twenty yearsto restore stability and respectability to Somalia. Al-Shabaab is an attempt to rally ayoung generation of Somalis around a new religious organizing concept that it argueswill bring a brighter future to Somalia. It makes the argument that the older generation of Somalis ruined the country and it is up to al-Shabaab to restore it. Al-Shabaab’sinterpretation of religion also provides a different way for young Somalis to confrontglobalization.The leadership is also committed to a global jihadist ideology and a plan for creating a Somali Caliphate. One of its goals is the implementation of a draconianversion of sharia, although actual sharia rulings seem to vary from one al-Shabaabcontrolled part of Somalia to another. These decisions have included beheadings, stoningof adulterers and limb amputations of criminals. At the same time, al-Shabaab engages inactivities that many Somalis deem useful such as clearing roadblocks, repairing roads, building infrastructure, organizing markets and restoring a semblance of law and order according to its strict edicts. Its rhetoric relies heavily on a call for social justice for allSomalis.So far, al-Shabaab’s agenda and attacks have been confined to the wider Somaliregion, although the foiled attack against a military base in Australia by persons linked toal-Shabaab raises a question whether it had any direction from al-Shabaab leadership inSomalia. The al-Shabaab spokesman in Somalia denied any connection. Al-Shabaabalso relies on pan-Somali nationalism to attract support and recruits and may eventuallyresurrect as a major part of its program Somali irredentism in neighboring Kenya,Ethiopia and Djibouti where there are large Somali populations. There may be sometension between its call for pan-Somali nationalism and pan-Islamic goals.Al-Shabaab OperationsAl-Shabaab recruits though a process of de-socialization. It targets children inIslamic educational institutions who are orphans or removed from their families. Theyundergo intensive indoctrination usually in isolated circumstances. This methodologyallows al-Shabaab to blur clan lines in its recruitment. It has attracted leaders andsupporters from Somaliland and Puntland as well as central and southern Somalia. Nosingle clan prevails in the organization but some clans seem more attracted to al-Shabaabthan others.Al-Shabaab has a highly developed media sense, especially the use of the Internetand web sites. It communicates regularly and directly with the huge Somali diaspora.The head of an international organization who has had to deal with low level al-Shabaab personnel on the ground in Somalia described the organization “as nothing more than a2
concept.” He lamented the long time it takes al-Shabaab at the local level to make adecision.Al-Shabaab probably can put several thousand fighters into action in Somalia.They are especially adept at hit-and-run attacks, ambushes and indiscriminate attacks inurban areas such as Mogadishu. Estimates on the number of foreign fighters who have joined al-Shabaab vary widely. TFG President Ahmed recently said the number of foreign fighters totals between 800 and 1,100. Most outside experts who follow al-Shabaab put the number at several hundred. In addition, there are an undeterminednumber of Somalis from the diaspora who have joined the organization, including severaldozen from the United States and Canada.Suicide bombings have become commonplace in Somalia since 2006. Al-Shabaab has taken responsibility for at least a dozen of them and is believed to have perpetrated several others. Most of the al-Shabaab attacks have been aimed at Ethiopiansoldiers, African Union troops and TFG officials and security personnel to achieve astrategic political and/or military advantage. Al-Shabaab denied responsibility for aheinous attack on a graduating university class in Mogadishu early in December that alsokilled three TFG ministers. This attack caused outrage among many Somalis.The al-Shabaab denial is not credible; it is the only organization in Somalia thathas a track record for suicide bombings. No other Somali organization has publishedsuicide videos or claimed responsibility for suicide attacks. Al-Shabaab has published onthe Internet detailed information showing a number of its suicide bombings. Until thearrival of al-Shabaab in Somalia, there was no Somali tradition of suicide bombing.Several of the suicide bombers have been foreigners, including at least one Somali-American.Evaluating Al-ShabaabAl-Shabaab has achieved a surprising degree of success. It is based, however, onthe relative weakness of the TFG and the government’s inability to seize the initiativefollowing leadership changes early in 2009. Perhaps even more important, al-Shabaab’ssuccess is predicated on fear and intimidation. Neither the TFG nor al-Shabaab is currently in a position to win an outrightmilitary victory in Somalia. Al-Shabaab controls more territory; the African Unionforces prop up the TFG in Mogadishu and the international community overwhelminglysupports the TFG against al-Shabaab. Yet, al-Shabaab continues to attract financing andrecruits from the Somali diaspora, South Asia and the Middle East. The TFG isdesperately trying to train a loyal security force to confront al-Shabaab and reestablishauthority in the country.It is difficult to say if time is on the side of al-Shabaab or the TFG. If one side or the other achieves eventual victory, it will probably be determined on the basis of whichgroup (or some yet unknown new organization) is able to convince a critical mass of Somalis that its agenda best suits Somalia.Some experts argue that al-Shabaab has a pragmatic side which should beexploited, and efforts should be made to bring it into the Somali political process. Whilethere may well be practical elements to al-Shabaab’s
modus operandi
, it is difficult to seehow most Somalis can accept an organization that relies on suicide bombings, political3

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