Involved in: Training grounds, Aid for terrorists, Human rights atrocities;
Profit: Regimes, Presidents, Generals, Keep the citizens under fear, Damage on domestic democracy;
Spreading: Government propaganda, Fear;
Providing for Terrorists: Arms, Funds, Ground, Camps;
The violence and insecurity in Somalia – the failed state on the edge of East Africa that serves as a gateway to the Arabian Peninsula – spread beyond its borders through piracy, arms deals, human trafficking, and terrorism. The weak transitional government backed by an African Union peacekeeping force is unable to exert influence outside the capital and is at risk of being toppled by Islamist insurgents. And fears recently rose that Somalia’s instability could directly threaten U.S., European, and African security after al-Shabab, a militant group with links to al-Qaeda, claimed credit for the brazen terrorist attacks in Uganda during the World Cup.
Key terror groups operating in Somalia – history of Shabab
Shabab is one of the most feared and powerful militant jihadist outfits in Africa and the only organization in Somalia designated by the United States as a terrorist group. There are other armed and radical Islamist groups, but they are not identified as terrorist groups – and Shabab is the only one of real consequence at the moment.
Shabab was formed as a Sharia court militia in Mogadishu in the 1990s and then served as the militant wing of the short-lived Islamic Courts Union, a powerful force in southern Somalia that briefly controlled the capital prior to the invasion of Ethiopian forces in December 2006. Shabab was a small but effective fighting force and its leaders included committed jihadists, some of whom had served with the Afghan mujahideen. Until the Ethiopian occupation, the group answered to Hassan Dahir Aweys, a major figure in the Islamic Courts Union.
By 2005, Shabab included 400 men and was probably the strongest single fighting force in Mogadishu. At the time, the devastated and impoverished capital was still divided into small fiefdoms of warlords, armed businessmen, and Islamists. Shabab was decisive in defeating the U.S.-backed coalition of militias when war broke out in 2006 and the Islamic Courts Union came into power in June. For the next six months, it controlled Mogadishu and much of southern Somalia.
When Ethiopia intervened in December 2006 and successfully ousted the Islamic Courts Union, the political leadership fled the country to Eritrea. Shabab melted into Somalia’s interior, but quickly regrouped. It became the leading insurgent group against the Ethiopian occupation. Shabab transformed itself from a militia taking direction from political leaders to operating on its own accord as the leading force in the armed liberation movement. And some of Shabab’s young and emerging leaders had a stronger interest than the old guard in pursuing a relationship with al-Qaeda.
The group became a more radical Islamist movement and enjoyed a great deal of support from the Somali population during this time, even from the many Somalis who were appalled by its hardline interpretations of Islam and its affiliations with groups like al-Qaeda. Shabab capitalized on its role as a leader of the insurgency against Ethiopian military occupation, a cause that most Somalis rallied behind.
While the Ethiopian military occupation was designed to rid Somalia of a growing Islamist threat, the risk actually grew exponentially. Shabab was able to successfully conflate its radical Islamism with Somali nationalism. By 2008, the group had regained control of much of southern Somalia – from the Kenya border through most neighborhoods of Mogadishu. It inflicted heavy losses on the Transitional Federal Government, the interim parliament that was originally formed with international support in 2004 that had rode in on the Ethiopians’ coattails.
But when Ethiopia withdrew in January 2009 after the two-year insurgency, Shabab lost the two things that it defined itself as being against – the Ethiopian occupation and leader of the Transitional Federal Government, Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed, who was pressured to resign. Still, the new coalition in the transitional government was unable to take advantage and Shabab successfully recast itself as a resistance to the African Union peacekeeping force. The terrorist group painted the peacekeepers as armed infidels occupying Somalia and portrayed the transitional government as apostates and puppets of the West.
In 2009 and 2010, Shabab was able to consolidate control over most of Mogadishu and southern Somalia and was even able to extend its control into central Somalia. In the process, it deepened its affiliation with al-Qaeda.
Somali terror groups attracting fighters from around the world
Foreigners are coming from all over the Muslim world to join Shabab, but not in significant numbers. Estimates only range between several hundred and several thousand at the moment. Foreign fighters have never been decisive in the group, so it’s important not to exaggerate their significance on Shabab’s success or plans.
Still, foreigners are coming to Somalia to join the fight. Back in 2007 and 2008, Somalia was one of the few places where an al-Qaeda affiliated organization appeared to be having success. In Iraq the situation looked terrible for them, in Afghanistan the struggle didn’t seem particularly promising, but in Somalia there was greater hope on the militants’ side.
Untrained foreigners who don’t know the area or language can only play a limited role, but Shabab is undoubtedly interested in the diaspora for fundraising and as potential suicide bombers. One of the most important services that al-Qaeda has provided for Shabab is support for its propaganda and media outreach. The internet materials that al-Qaeda puts together – often produced or captioned in Arabic or English – are largely designed to recruit Somalis living abroad to support the movement.
Significance of somalia for terror groups
Shabab is now the new addition to the broader portfolio of al-Qaeda activities in the region. Until recently, Somalia had a relatively limited role in al-Qaeda’s playbook as it was primarily a place through which to move money, men, and materials into East Africa. And this doesn’t take true believers as money can easily buy movement through Somalia with no questions asked.
Al-Qaeda figures have been using Mogadishu and other areas controlled by Shabab as a hideout on and off for at least seven years, but only for a limited number of people.