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Al-Qaeda, Al-Shabaab and Somalia

Selfridge Air National Guard

Base Community Council Monthly Speakers Event
Mount Clemens, Michigan
15 February 2011

Remarks by David H. Shinn

Adjunct Professor, Elliott School of International Affairs
George Washington University


The Somali Republic became independent in 1960 following the merger of former British
Somaliland in the northwestern part of the country and the former Italian Somalia located
to the east and south of Somaliland. Somalia’s first government had a well-deserved
reputation 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 a
national government. Also in 1991, the former British Somaliland declared its
independence from Somalia and established its own government. It has become the most
democratic government in the Horn of Africa although it has not obtained any
international diplomatic recognition.

After the Somali state failed in 1991, a variety of forces took advantage of the political
vacuum in the former Italian Somalia, now known as Somalia. Initially, Somali warlords
were 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 as
the 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 by
ensuring the delivery of food aid to insecure parts of Somalia. UNITAF kept many
Somalis alive. At the time, I was the deputy director of the State Department Task Force
for Somalia and subsequently State Department coordinator for Somalia. As a result, I
made a number of visits to Somalia in the mid-1990s. There was little understanding then
about the growing Islamist influence in the region and even less appreciation for the role
of al-Qaeda and a like-minded group in Somalia known as al-Ittihad al-Islamiyya, which
went by the acronym AIAI.

There were subsequently many conferences aimed at reestablishing a national

government in Somalia. The Somali participants at most of the conferences never reached
agreement on how to construct a new government. One initiative based in Djibouti did
agree on a government that managed to control part of Mogadishu, Somalia’s capital,
before its mandate ended. Following a lengthy reconciliation process in Kenya, this
government was replaced by the Transitional Federal Government or TFG that is
recognized today by the African Union, Arab League and international community but
controls very little territory in Somalia. Some 8,000 troops from Uganda and Burundi
under 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 Somalia
and 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 African
Union force in Mogadishu and financing from the international community. Its mandate
was due to expire this August; to the consternation of many in the international
community, 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 all
Somalis are Muslim. Islamic organizations stepped in to fill a void left by a failed state
and competing warlords who acted primarily on the basis of their personal or clan
interests. Most of this Islamic engagement was and continues to be positive, especially
when it provides essential services and imposes political stability without violating basic
human rights. Because I focus in my remarks on the Islamist extremist groups, which
want 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 Islamic
organizations do not have this agenda. Unfortunately, there has been a growing extremist
element in Somalia, manifested in the 1990s by AIAI and encouraged by small numbers
of 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 local
fighters. At the beginning of 1993, he sent a team of al-Qaeda veterans to conduct
operations in Somalia. Al-Qaeda believed that Somalia offered a safe haven for its
operations in the East Africa region. The first al-Qaeda operatives left Peshawar,
Pakistan, transited Kenya, and arrived in Somalia in February 1993. The group worked
closely 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 would
readily accept al-Qaeda and enthusiastically join the fight to expel the UNITAF
international peacekeeping force led by the United States from late 1992 until early May
1993, when it became a United Nations peacekeeping operation. Al-Qaeda looked at
Somalia as another Afghanistan.

The reality was quite different. Al-Qaeda underestimated the cost of operating in
Somalia. Getting in and out of the country was costly while expenses resulting from
corruption in neighboring states were high. Al-Qaeda experienced routine extortion from
Somali clans and unanticipated losses when bandits attacked their convoys. It
overestimated the degree to which Somalis would become jihadis, especially if there was
no 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 tribal
areas 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 early
engagement 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 a
number of young Somalis to the jihadi cause. The longer that the central government was
unable to establish authority throughout Somalia and the warlords fought among each
other 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 the
extremist AIAI. Two of these operatives were subsequently killed; the third, Fazul
Abdullah Mohamed of the Comoro Islands, is now al-Qaeda’s leading operative in East
Africa 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 to
oppose 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 who
are seeking greater autonomy. By mid-2006, the UIC, which consisted of both moderates
and extremists, soundly defeated the U.S.-sponsored warlords. By the end of the year, the
UIC had taken control of most of south and central Somalia and threatened military
action against Ethiopia, which took preemptive steps. At the request of the TFG, Ethiopia
sent a large military force into Somalia and forced the UIC out of Mogadishu early in

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 in
Somalia 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 into
moderate and extremist wings. The moderates led by Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed
eventually joined the TFG, and Ahmed became its president early in 2009. The
extremists divided into two main factions: al-Shabaab, which means the youth, and
Hizbul Islam, which means the Islamic Party. The intervention of Ethiopian forces in
Somalia served as a rallying cry for both of these Islamist groups, allowing them to
attract additional Somali followers to force out the foreign Ethiopian troops. The growing
influence 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 that
Somalia 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 Los

Anod, Somaliland; several al-Shabaab leaders come from Somaliland. About a dozen
battle-hardened, Afghan-trained young Somali men stormed out of the AIAI alumni
conference in opposition to a proposed agenda that stressed creation of a Salafi political
organization. The radical dissidents then organized a parallel conference in Las Anod and
launched al-Shabaab as a Salafi-jihadist movement. The most important leaders of the
group at its creation were Aden Hashi Ayro, who was killed in 2008 during an American
missile strike on his home in Somalia, and Ahmed Abdi Aw-Mohamed “Godane,” who
took over al-Shabaab after the death of Ayro but has recently been pushed to the side.
Ayro trained in Afghanistan with al-Qaeda during the late 1990s. Godane fought with al-
Qaeda in Afghanistan until the end of 2001 and put in place a chain of command
patterned after the one used by al-Qaeda.

With the passage of time, al-Shabaab has moved steadily closer to al-Qaeda and adopted
a modus operandi that increasingly resembles that of the Taliban in Afghanistan. There
are even some suggestions that al-Shabaab portrays itself as closer to al-Qaeda than al-
Qaeda is willing to acknowledge. Public statements by both al-Shabaab and al-Qaeda,
usually on their respective web sites, have inexorably moved the two organizations closer
to each other. In 2008, the State Department designated al-Shabaab a terrorist
organization. Al-Shabaab leaders have praised al-Qaeda leaders since 2008 and declared
that al-Shabaab has become part of the al-Qaeda movement. In 2009, al-Shabaab released
a video that pledged allegiance to Osama bin Laden.

Since 2006, al-Qaeda has reciprocated by voicing general support for jihad in Somalia. In
2008, one of al-Qaeda’s senior commanders recognized al-Shabaab for the first time and
said Somalis should accept nothing less than an independent Islamic state. The three top
leaders of al-Qaeda made statements in 2009 supporting al-Shabaab’s campaign in
Somalia and even put it on the same level as Afghanistan and Iraq. Osama bin Laden
released only five statements in 2009, but devoted one of them to Somalia, calling the
conflict a war between Islam and the international Crusade.

Most of us who have followed al-Shabaab do not believe it is a branch of nor is it under
the operational control of al-Qaeda, but it does have close ties with al-Qaeda. The 2009
State Department annual report on terrorism stated that al-Qaeda and al-Shabaab are not
formally merged, but acknowledged there are many links between the two organizations.
In 2010, the United Nations Monitoring Group on Somalia concluded that extremists
within al-Shabaab are seeking, with limited success, to align the organization more
closely with al-Qaeda. The absence of al-Qaeda control over al-Shabaab may not be very
significant if Alex Gallo, an analyst at West Point’s Combatting Terrorism Center, is
correct in arguing that al-Qaeda has become a professional services or consultancy entity.
This business model allows al-Qaeda to claim that it is actively engaged in waging
violence against the “far enemy,” which includes the United States, while not assuming
the financial burden of actually waging the violence.

From a tactical point of view, al-Shabaab has borrowed heavily from the Taliban and al-
Qaeda playbooks. Suicide bombings, which were unknown in Somalia prior to 2006 and
even alien to Somali culture, became commonplace under al-Shabaab. There is an
acceptance of death worshipping among its leaders. Al-Shabaab’s rhetoric increasingly
resembles that of al-Qaeda. It avoids nationalist slogans and refuses to use the traditional
Somali flag, which it replaced with a black flag emblazoned with the Shahaada or
declaration of the faith in white text. It often holds press conferences in Arabic rather
than the more commonly used Somali language. There is a strong foreign influence on al-
Shabaab that takes two forms: the transfer of strategy, tactics, and ideology learned by
Somali al-Shabaab leaders during their association with the Taliban and al-Qaeda and the
recruitment of foreign fighters. Al-Shabaab has a well-defined vision and is prepared to
use just about any tactic, however venal, to achieve its goals. Al-Shabaab looks
increasingly like the Taliban of the 1990s.

Al-Shabaab’s Military Strength and Foreign Influence

Although the most senior officials in al-Shabaab are Somali, they preside over a structure
that is strongly influenced by non-Somalis or Somalis with past ties to jihadi
organizations. According to one recent account, the eighty-five member executive
council of al-Shabaab includes forty-two Somalis and forty-three foreigners. The
International Crisis Group, which follows developments in Somalia closely, concluded
that “the hardliners, led by the foreign jihadis, wield enormous influence and have access
to resources and the means to dictate their wishes to the less powerful factions.”

Current estimates of al-Shabaab’s armed strength range from a low of 3,000 to a high of
7,000, although it can mobilize larger numbers on short notice. Most of these fighters are
Somalis who never left Somalia; a much smaller number, perhaps as many as 1,000, hails
from the Somali diaspora. This figure includes Somalis from neighboring Kenya and
other countries in the region and those from the Middle East, Europe and North America,
including a dozen or two from the United States. Non-Somali foreigners fighting on
behalf of al-Shabaab probably number only 200 to 300 and come primarily from Kenya’s
Swahili coast, Pakistan, India, Afghanistan, Yemen, Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda, and Saudi

The Afghan-trained Somalis and the foreign veterans who experienced action in
Afghanistan and Iraq play an important role as al-Shabaab field commanders because of
their military experience. They brought specialized skills with them to Somalia and often
lead the training and indoctrination of al-Shabaab recruits. They teach the techniques of
suicide attacks, remote-controlled roadside bombings, kidnappings and assassinations of
TFG officials, journalists, and humanitarian and civil society workers. The foreigners are
the principal link to al-Qaeda and by most accounts are exerting growing influence on al-
Shabaab. They are also causing some dissent within al-Shabaab between those who favor
close ties with foreigners and adoption of their extreme tactics and those who want more
Somali control over al-Shabaab and question the efficacy of tactics such as suicide

Al-Shabaab’s use of foreign fighters is both strength and a weakness. In some cases, the
foreigners bring specialized skills such as bomb making, battlefield experience, and
fluency in English or other major languages. On the other hand, al-Shabaab attracted
much of its support by condemning the engagement in Somalia of foreign troops from
Ethiopia and those sent by the African Union. Somalis generally do not want foreigners
involved in their political life. Somalis from the diaspora who are supporting al-Shabaab
are probably fully accepted by indigenous Somalis. Non-Somalis, however, are looked
upon with disapproval. In addition, the special skills provided by foreign fighters will
diminish over time as al-Shabaab develops these same skills among its Somali cadre. Al-
Shabaab makes every effort to minimize the role of non-Somalis in the organization in
order to avoid criticism.

Recent Al-Shabaab Setbacks and Responses

In the past several months, al-Shabaab has experienced several important setbacks but
also demonstrated its ability to persevere in the face of adversity. Its internal problems
became more obvious to outsiders following its failed Ramadan offensive in October
2010 against African Union forces in Mogadishu. Key commanders concluded that al-
Shabaab leader Godane and foreigners in the movement mismanaged the offensive that
resulted in the death of many fighters and eventually ended in the loss of territory.
Godane also tried militarily to crush the rival Hizbul Islam extremist group, which is
much weaker than al-Shabaab, rather than encourage it to join in an alliance. These
events exacerbated long-standing disagreements within the al-Shabaab leadership and led
to an uptick in desertions from al-Shabaab.

Consequently, al-Shabaab deputy commander in chief, Sheikh Mukhtar Robow, sent his
clan fighters, who had taken heavy casualties in the Mogadishu fighting, to his stronghold
in Baidoa in south-central Somalia. Two other important al-Shabaab leaders sided with
Robow, who supports a more Somali nationalist agenda, in opposition to Godane’s
leadership. Eventually, even the small group of foreign fighters concluded that Godane
was tearing al-Shabaab apart and determined that new leadership was required. Haji Jama
al-Afghani, who trained and fought in Afghanistan and Kashmir, has emerged as the new
nominal leader of al-Shabaab. Concurrently, the organization decided to decentralize the
command structure. Godane was put in charge of operations in Somaliland, his home
area. Robow was given responsibility for Bay and Bakool regions in south/central
Somalia, where he hails from. Other al-Shabaab leaders took charge of areas where they
have local support.

Godane also lost his battle to crush Hizbul Islam, which instead was forced in December
2010 to merge with al-Shabaab. Its leader, Hassan Dahir Aweys, according to one report
was given command of his home region in central Somalia. Another account suggests he
received no command and is on a short leash. Some observers believe that no more than
one-third of his Hizbul Islam followers joined al-Shabaab.

Al-Shabaab continues to make good use of the internet in its overseas recruitment
campaign. It has made a major effort to shut down any independent media activity in
Somalia, although courageous and enterprising Somali journalists, in spite of periodic
assassinations at the hands of al-Shabaab, continue to defy the orders. Al-Shabaab now
controls, however, much of the radio transmitting capacity in Mogadishu and recently
launched a TV news channel. Inadequate and insufficient TV equipment has limited the
number of Mogadishu residents who can watch the channel.

There is growing Somali criticism of al-Shabaab and especially its foreign fighters and
tactics. Al-Shabaab has also been unable to resolve its internal leadership and policy
differences. Nevertheless, the situation has not reached a point where it endangers al-
Shabaab’s control over most of south and central Somalia. The TFG and its allies are still
not strong enough to challenge al-Shabaab’s control and the African Union forces have
no intention of expanding their military presence beyond Mogadishu.