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Al-Qaeda, Al-Shabaab and Somalia

Al-Qaeda, Al-Shabaab and Somalia

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Published by David Shinn
Remarks by David H. Shinn, adjunct professor, Elliott School of International Affairs, George Washington University, and former U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia and Burkina Faso on at Selfridge Air National Guard Base Community Council in Mount Clemens, Michigan, on Feb. 15, 2011. More info on Amb. Shinn can be found at http://davidshinn.blogspot.com.
Remarks by David H. Shinn, adjunct professor, Elliott School of International Affairs, George Washington University, and former U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia and Burkina Faso on at Selfridge Air National Guard Base Community Council in Mount Clemens, Michigan, on Feb. 15, 2011. More info on Amb. Shinn can be found at http://davidshinn.blogspot.com.

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Published by: David Shinn on Feb 16, 2011
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Al-Qaeda, Al-Shabaab and SomaliaSelfridge Air National GuardBase Community Council Monthly Speakers EventMount Clemens, Michigan15 February 2011Remarks by David H. ShinnAdjunct Professor, Elliott School of International AffairsGeorge Washington UniversityIntroduction
The Somali Republic became independent in 1960 following the merger of former BritishSomaliland in the northwestern part of the country and the former Italian Somalia locatedto the east and south of Somaliland. Somalia’s first government had a well-deservedreputation for observing democratic rule. In 1969, however, the military seized power and a dictatorial military regime remained in place until its overthrow in 1991. At this point, Somalia became a failed state and has never subsequently been governed by anational government. Also in 1991, the former British Somaliland declared itsindependence from Somalia and established its own government. It has become the mostdemocratic government in the Horn of Africa although it has not obtained anyinternational diplomatic recognition.After the Somali state failed in 1991, a variety of forces took advantage of the politicalvacuum in the former Italian Somalia, now known as Somalia. Initially, Somali warlordswere the most influential political force in Somalia. They held, for example, most of the power during the U.S.-led humanitarian intervention in Somalia in late 1992 known asthe Unified Task Force or UNITAF. Perhaps a few of you took part in that operation. If you did, you deserve congratulations for helping to end a terrible famine in Somalia byensuring the delivery of food aid to insecure parts of Somalia. UNITAF kept manySomalis alive. At the time, I was the deputy director of the State Department Task Forcefor Somalia and subsequently State Department coordinator for Somalia. As a result, Imade a number of visits to Somalia in the mid-1990s. There was little understanding thenabout the growing Islamist influence in the region and even less appreciation for the roleof al-Qaeda and a like-minded group in Somalia known as al-Ittihad al-Islamiyya, whichwent by the acronym AIAI.There were subsequently many conferences aimed at reestablishing a nationalgovernment in Somalia. The Somali participants at most of the conferences never reachedagreement on how to construct a new government. One initiative based in Djibouti didagree on a government that managed to control part of Mogadishu, Somalia’s capital, before its mandate ended. Following a lengthy reconciliation process in Kenya, thisgovernment was replaced by the Transitional Federal Government or TFG that isrecognized today by the African Union, Arab League and international community butcontrols very little territory in Somalia. Some 8,000 troops from Uganda and Burundiunder the auspices of the African Union protect the TFG, which occupies about half of 
 
Mogadishu, from extremist Islamist forces that occupy most of south and central Somaliaand the other half of Mogadishu. The TFG is ineffective and has not been able to attract broad-based support in Somalia. It remains in power through the presence of the AfricanUnion force in Mogadishu and financing from the international community. Its mandatewas due to expire this August; to the consternation of many in the internationalcommunity, it just extended itself in power for an additional three years.
The Rise of Islamist Influence and Arrival of Al-Qaeda
The vast majority of Islamic activity in Somalia simply reflects the fact that nearly allSomalis are Muslim. Islamic organizations stepped in to fill a void left by a failed stateand competing warlords who acted primarily on the basis of their personal or claninterests. Most of this Islamic engagement was and continues to be positive, especiallywhen it provides essential services and imposes political stability without violating basichuman rights. Because I focus in my remarks on the Islamist extremist groups, whichwant to impose an Islamic caliphate and in their effort to seize power have no respect for human rights, it is important not to lose sight of the fact that most Somali Islamicorganizations do not have this agenda. Unfortunately, there has been a growing extremistelement in Somalia, manifested in the 1990s by AIAI and encouraged by small numbersof imported al-Qaeda operatives beginning in the early 1990s.One of Osama bin Laden’s most trusted and talented al-Qaeda lieutenants, Abu Hafs al-Masri, made multiple trips to Somalia beginning in 1992. He met with Somali Islamists,assessed their capabilities, and made arrangements to provide training and arms for localfighters. At the beginning of 1993, he sent a team of al-Qaeda veterans to conductoperations in Somalia. Al-Qaeda believed that Somalia offered a safe haven for itsoperations in the East Africa region. The first al-Qaeda operatives left Peshawar,Pakistan, transited Kenya, and arrived in Somalia in February 1993. The group workedclosely with AIAI and established three training camps in Somalia.Abu Hafs was killed in 2001 in a U.S. airstrike near Kabul. He expected Somalia would become a low-cost recruiting ground where disaffected Somalis in a failed state wouldreadily accept al-Qaeda and enthusiastically join the fight to expel the UNITAFinternational peacekeeping force led by the United States from late 1992 until early May1993, when it became a United Nations peacekeeping operation. Al-Qaeda looked atSomalia as another Afghanistan.The reality was quite different. Al-Qaeda underestimated the cost of operating inSomalia. Getting in and out of the country was costly while expenses resulting fromcorruption in neighboring states were high. Al-Qaeda experienced routine extortion fromSomali clans and unanticipated losses when bandits attacked their convoys. Itoverestimated the degree to which Somalis would become jihadis, especially if there wasno financial incentive, and failed to understand the importance of Somali Sufi Islam,which is much more benign than al-Qaeda’s interpretation of Islam. Unlike the tribalareas of Pakistan, it found a lawless land of shifting alliances that lacked Sunni unity. The primacy of clan ultimately frustrated al-Qaeda’s efforts to recruit and develop a strong,
 
unified Somali coalition. The jihadi foreigners from al-Qaeda concluded during this earlyengagement in Somalia that they encountered more adversity than success.Al-Qaeda’s entry into the region was not, however, a total loss. It did manage to recruit anumber of young Somalis to the jihadi cause. The longer that the central government wasunable to establish authority throughout Somalia and the warlords fought among eachother for power, the greater was the opportunity for the Islamic groups to increase their following, in part by imposing stability on the ground. In addition, three non-Somali al-Qaeda operatives involved in the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Nairobi,Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, took refuge in Somalia with the assistance of theextremist AIAI. Two of these operatives were subsequently killed; the third, FazulAbdullah Mohamed of the Comoro Islands, is now al-Qaeda’s leading operative in EastAfrica and a regular visitor to Somalia.The internationally-sanctioned Transitional Federal Government has been unable to prevent violence in Somalia, especially in Mogadishu. By early 2006, the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) had gained considerable support in Mogadishu and much of south/central Somalia. This alarmed the TFG, the government in neighboring Ethiopia,and the United States, which ill-advisedly financed a group of warlords in Mogadishu tooppose the Islamic Courts. Ethiopia and Somalia have a long history of hostile relations,compounded by the fact that most of southeastern Ethiopia is inhabited by Somalis whoare seeking greater autonomy. By mid-2006, the UIC, which consisted of both moderatesand extremists, soundly defeated the U.S.-sponsored warlords. By the end of the year, theUIC had taken control of most of south and central Somalia and threatened militaryaction against Ethiopia, which took preemptive steps. At the request of the TFG, Ethiopiasent a large military force into Somalia and forced the UIC out of Mogadishu early in2007.The Islamist leaders and their militia went into hiding, migrated to southern Somalia or took refuge in Eritrea, which supported and funded the extremist Islamic organizations inSomalia as a way to put pressure on Ethiopia, with which it fought a war during 1998-2000 and had a continuing, serious border dispute. At this point, the UIC fractured intomoderate and extremist wings. The moderates led by Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmedeventually joined the TFG, and Ahmed became its president early in 2009. Theextremists divided into two main factions: al-Shabaab, which means the youth, andHizbul Islam, which means the Islamic Party. The intervention of Ethiopian forces inSomalia served as a rallying cry for both of these Islamist groups, allowing them toattract additional Somali followers to force out the foreign Ethiopian troops. The growinginfluence of the more extreme al-Shabaab also attracted the renewed interest of al-Qaeda,which following its earlier mixed experience in Somalia was not entirely convinced thatSomalia offered good prospects for al-Qaeda’s program.
The Origins and Development of Al-Shabaab
Al-Shabaab formally established itself in 2003 at an AIAI alumni conference in LosAnod, Somaliland; several al-Shabaab leaders come from Somaliland. About a dozen

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