Somalia, a conflict-torn nation on the Horn of Africa, has seen over a decade of terror and destabilization at the hands of various Islamic extremist groups. After the fall of the Siad Barre military regime in 1991, a Salafi extremist group Al-Ittihad Al-Islami (AIAI, or “Unity of Islam”), came to power. AIAI was founded by Somalis who had studied at universities in Egypt and worked in Saudi Arabia in the ’60s and ‘70s, where they were introduced to Wahhabism, a fundamentalist sect of Sunni Islam. Upon returning to Somalia, these men formed the AIAI and aimed to establish an Islamic state in East Africa. In 2003, an internal dispute within AIAI led to a splintering of forces, with the younger members founding al-Shabaab, or “The Youth”. With broader ambitions for a “Greater Somalia” under Islamic rule, al-Shabaab joined forces with an alliance of sharia courts, known as the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), and seized control of Mogadishu in June 2006. The neighboring Ethiopian government, none too happy with the prospect of a hostile Islamist militia next door, launched an attack and drove the combined ICU and al-Shabaab forces out of the capital.
This was a critical turning point for al-Shabaab, as the ousting had a further radicalizing effect, “transforming the group from a small, relatively unimportant part of a more moderate Islamic movement into the most powerful and radical armed faction in the country,” writes Rob Wise, a counterterrorism expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Al-Shabaab retreated to the south, from where it began to reorganize and plan new attacks on Ethiopian forces. It was during this period that the group developed into a full-fledged militant movement and secured large swaths of territory.
So what exactly does al-Shabaab envision for Somalia? In areas it controls, al-Shabaab rules with an iron fist, enforcing its own harsh interpretation of Sharia law. The group prohibits all frivolity associated with Western excess, including music and movies, as well as other “un-Islamic” activities such as khat (a narcotic plant commonly chewed in east Africa and the Arabian Peninsula), smoking, and shaving of beards. Punishments for thieves usually consist of stoning and severing of body parts. Al-Shabaab has also reportedly engaged in kidnapping young boys from school to use as child soldiers. Above all, the group spends most of its resources on violently persecuting those who do not submit to their rule or ideology, including Christians and moderate Muslims.
In the three years following al-Shabaab’s retreat from the capital, thousands of new fighters joined its ranks. During this time, the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) recruited troops from around the continent to defend the government in Mogadishu. The presence of foreign soldiers catalyzed the expansion and aggression of al-Shabaab. In 2010, after al-Shabaab suicide bombers killed 74 people gathered to watch the World Cup in Uganda, Ali Mohamoud Rage, a Shabab spokesman, stated, “We are sending a message to every country who is willing to send troops to Somalia that they will face attacks on their territory.”
Al-Shabaab militants continue to pose a grave threat to the citizens under its rule, and the region more broadly. The group most recently caught the attention of the Western media in September of 2013 when they massacred 67 people in a mall in Nairobi, Kenya. This travesty reflected a progression in tactics from small-scale local attacks to more ambitious schemes abroad. The Westgate attack, and too many others have created deep anxiety throughout the region and across the globe. Several Western embassies in Kenya have issued travel advisories and even relocated staff to other countries. According to a UN report, “In 2014, “al-Shabaab’s newfound operational tempo in Kenya continued with a series of symbolic attacks and attempted plots, including a partially constructed vehicle-borne improvised explosive device, successfully infiltrated from Somalia.” Uganda is also a prime target of the group, evidenced by the various terror warning issued by the U.S. Embassy in Kampala, which most recently cited a specific threat to Entebbe International Airport on July 3, 2014. Though not all of al-Shabaab’s attacks have been successful, its growing operational reach and regional influence is evident.
There was a recent spark of hope in the war against al-Shabaab, when a United States air strike killed Ahmed Abdi Godane, al-Shabaab’s leader, in September 2014. Despite the fact that this was a significant achievement, it failed to significantly diminish al-Shabaab’s operational capacity. The death of Godane was certainly a step forward in the fight, but is likely to only have been a short-term gain, seeing as the group swiftly announced Ahmad Umar as successor to the former leader. Much of the group’s senior leadership remain alive and well, and are able to organize and plot attacks from within Somalia.
So what makes this group such an attractive force to so many young men in Somalia and East Africa more broadly? In an interview with the BBC, a Kenyan human rights lawyer Al Amin Kimathi describes the motivations behind al-Shabaab, which he gleaned from militants with whom he shared a jail cell. He describes how, “They are given quotations from the Koran, the Hadiths [Prophet Muhammad’s teachings], but they do not have the benefit of a critical mind to look at it in any other context and they trust the people driving them to this…They are given the feeling that they are a very important person and that martyrdom is something to aspire to – the anger over their deprivation is lowered to a feeling of comfort, to a point where the only thing they aspire to is a collective action.”
After Kimanthi would argue they do not have the right to take innocent lives, he noted how, “In a lot of instances you would even see a lot of remorse. But they would just come back with the mere argument of revenge.” Despite many people being seemingly “brainwashed,” Kimanthi remarked that he still believes it “possible to pull sympathizers back from the brink of committing violence.”
Beyond the ideological pull, the economic and political conditions in the region generate an increased likelihood that young men will turn to al-Shabaab. Youth unemployment is 64 percent in Somalia, and many feel marginalized by society. Additionally, the group utilizes technology like several radio stations, Twitter accounts, and promotional videos produced by its media arm, the al-Kataib foundation. These videos show a duality in their narrative: both a force of moral legitimacy, as they engage in charity works, and as a violent and relentless force.
But given the current regional instability and lack of alternatives for many young people, al-Shabaab continues to hold major sway in the region. It has demonstrated the operational capacity to conduct significant attacks in the capital, and now has networks that cover all of the Horn of Africa. Despite the efforts of Somali forces and the African Union peacekeepers, al-Shabaab continues to demonstrate an intent and ability to conduct attacks, and the underlying motives of economic and social disenfranchisement remain intact. Al-Shabaab’s expanded capabilities and regional influence over the past year indicates that, contrary to popular belief, the group remains a dynamic threat throughout East Africa.
This piece is part of BPR’s special feature on terrorism. You can explore the special feature here.