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The Growing Strategic Gravity of al-Qaeda

Conference Hosted by the Jamestown Foundation

National Press Club
Washington, D.C.
9 December 2009

Al-Shabaab and the Future of Somalia

Remarks by David H. Shinn
Adjunct Professor, Elliott School of International Affairs
George Washington University

Harakat al-Shabaab Mujahideen (Youth Mujahideen Movement) currently poses

the most serious threat to the Somali Transitional Federal Government (TFG), which is
recognized by the United Nations, African Union, Arab League, Organization of Islamic
Conference 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 much
more territory than that controlled by the TFG. Al-Shabaab “control,” however, is an
ever changing patchwork depending on the fortunes of competing organizations such as
the extremist Islamic group, Hizbul Islam, and the Sufi organization known as Ahlu
Sunna Wal-jama.

Background of Al-Shabaab

Al-Shabaab apparently developed as a distinct organization in Somalia in 2004,

although some observers date it from 2005. It is a decentralized organization; its
leadership fluctuates and seems to vary by region. The killing in 2008 by the United
States of one of its most senior leaders, Aden Hashi Ayro, does not appear to have
diminished 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 a
suicide 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 in
2008 to take orders from al-Qaeda. In 2009, its information minister welcomed support
from 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, direction
from 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 an
earlier 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 Program

Al-Shabaab’s very name, the Youth, is an important indicator of its program. The
older generation of Somali clan and political leaders has failed over the past twenty years
to restore stability and respectability to Somalia. Al-Shabaab is an attempt to rally a
young generation of Somalis around a new religious organizing concept that it argues
will 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’s
interpretation of religion also provides a different way for young Somalis to confront
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 draconian
version of sharia, although actual sharia rulings seem to vary from one al-Shabaab
controlled part of Somalia to another. These decisions have included beheadings, stoning
of adulterers and limb amputations of criminals. At the same time, al-Shabaab engages in
activities 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 all
So far, al-Shabaab’s agenda and attacks have been confined to the wider Somali
region, although the foiled attack against a military base in Australia by persons linked to
al-Shabaab raises a question whether it had any direction from al-Shabaab leadership in
Somalia. The al-Shabaab spokesman in Somalia denied any connection. Al-Shabaab
also relies on pan-Somali nationalism to attract support and recruits and may eventually
resurrect as a major part of its program Somali irredentism in neighboring Kenya,
Ethiopia and Djibouti where there are large Somali populations. There may be some
tension between its call for pan-Somali nationalism and pan-Islamic goals.

Al-Shabaab Operations

Al-Shabaab recruits though a process of de-socialization. It targets children in

Islamic educational institutions who are orphans or removed from their families. They
undergo intensive indoctrination usually in isolated circumstances. This methodology
allows al-Shabaab to blur clan lines in its recruitment. It has attracted leaders and
supporters from Somaliland and Puntland as well as central and southern Somalia. No
single clan prevails in the organization but some clans seem more attracted to al-Shabaab
than others.
Al-Shabaab has a highly developed media sense, especially the use of the Internet
and 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 a

concept.” He lamented the long time it takes al-Shabaab at the local level to make a
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 in
urban 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 undetermined
number of Somalis from the diaspora who have joined the organization, including several
dozen 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 Ethiopian
soldiers, African Union troops and TFG officials and security personnel to achieve a
strategic political and/or military advantage. Al-Shabaab denied responsibility for a
heinous attack on a graduating university class in Mogadishu early in December that also
killed three TFG ministers. This attack caused outrage among many Somalis.
The al-Shabaab denial is not credible; it is the only organization in Somalia that
has a track record for suicide bombings. No other Somali organization has published
suicide videos or claimed responsibility for suicide attacks. Al-Shabaab has published on
the Internet detailed information showing a number of its suicide bombings. Until the
arrival 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-

Evaluating Al-Shabaab

Al-Shabaab has achieved a surprising degree of success. It is based, however, on

the relative weakness of the TFG and the government’s inability to seize the initiative
following leadership changes early in 2009. Perhaps even more important, al-Shabaab’s
success is predicated on fear and intimidation.
Neither the TFG nor al-Shabaab is currently in a position to win an outright
military victory in Somalia. Al-Shabaab controls more territory; the African Union
forces prop up the TFG in Mogadishu and the international community overwhelmingly
supports the TFG against al-Shabaab. Yet, al-Shabaab continues to attract financing and
recruits from the Somali diaspora, South Asia and the Middle East. The TFG is
desperately trying to train a loyal security force to confront al-Shabaab and reestablish
authority 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 which
group (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 be
exploited, and efforts should be made to bring it into the Somali political process. While
there may well be practical elements to al-Shabaab’s modus operandi, it is difficult to see
how most Somalis can accept an organization that relies on suicide bombings, political

assassinations, intimidation, the use of IEDs, a harsh interpretation of sharia and

desecration of Sufi culture and traditions such as the destruction of graves. There is no
indication that al-Shabaab is willing to compromise on its organizing principles, which
fly in the face of traditional Somali Sufi Islam.
Finally, does anyone really believe that al-Shabaab is prepared to accept limited
participation in some kind of government of national unity? In order to implement its
program, it would have to exercise complete control over all elements of power in
It is, of course, up to the TFG and Somalis generally to determine how best to
deal with and react to al-Shabaab. From the U.S. perspective, however, al-Shabaab is not
an organization that shows any promise for dialogue. While it may be possible for the
TFG to peal away disaffected al-Shabaab followers and Somali members who are not
ideologically committed to its program, most of the al-Shabaab leadership seem
determined to impose its agenda on Somalis even if they do not want it. Efforts to peal
away al-Shabaab support are the responsibility of the TFG and their Somali allies, not the
United States.