Sunday, September 22, 2013

Al-Shabaab and Somalia - A Backgrounder

Updated April 2015

The militant group, al-Shabaab, involved in the mass killing in a Kenyan mall in September 2013 and several mass murders since then, has a relatively long and key role in the history of Somalia's ongoing, decades-long civil war.

Somalia's civil war has been ongoing since 1991.  Since that time, an estimated 350,000 to 1,000,000 people have died in the country as hostilities have continued between the Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism (ARPCT) and the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) and its offshoot, al-Shabaab.  For the past two decades, the nation has been ruled by warlord led factions with no national government in place despite many attempts to install a central authority. 

Ethnic Somalis lived for many generations as a nomadic ethnic group on the horn of Africa.  Somalia's political boundaries, like so many of those in Africa, were imposed by the colonial powers that ruled the continent for generations with no regard for traditional ethnic boundaries.  As such, the Somali ethnic group was divided into five nations; modern day Kenya, Ethiopia and Djibouti along with British and Italian Somaliland.  The United Republic of Somalia was formed in July 1960 by the union of British Somalialand and Italian Somalialand.  This post-colonial model of democracy was not to last.  A coup by Major General Muhammad Siad Barre resulted in the formation of a socialist state in 1969 that was modelled after the Chinese model of socialism fused with Quranic interpretation.  His regime claimed that it would stamp out the clan system in the nation, however, this did not happen with members of Barre's clan getting preferential treatment.  Under his leadership, an intelligence/secret police service, the National Security Service, was formed.  It was known locally as the "Black SS" and was greatly feared for its use of torture and arbitrary detention.

Between 1978 and 1991, the Barre regime used extremely repressive tactics to suppress dissidents from all clans, particularly in the northwest part of the nation.  A wave of Army violence against the people of Hargeisa, the second-largest city in the nation, destroyed 70 percent of the city and killed an estimated 5000 civilians.  Nearly half a million Somalis fled to Ethiopia and another half million were internally displaced.

On January 27, 1991, militias struck back against Barre and drove him into exile where he died four years later.  In 1991 and 1992, intense conflict took place with factions fighting for control of land and resources in southern Somalia and, in particular, the capital, Mogadishu.  Many externally driven attempts were made to install a central government that would have some control over the entire nation but none succeeded.  The Transitional National Government (TFG), the fourteenth attempt at government since 1991, is currently in control of a only a few neighbourhoods in the capital with both the northern and southern part of the country refusing to recognize its legitimacy.  The Ethiopian Army intervened in late 2006 and early 2007, dispersing the power of the Islamic Courts Union, the rival to the TFG.  After their fall from power, militiamen from the ICU formed the Popular Resistance Movement in the Land of the Two Migrations (PRM), also known as al-Shabaab.  This group, the militant wing of the Islamic Courts, retook control of southern and central Somalia, regaining the territory held earlier by the Islamic Courts.  In 2013, the United Nations announced that up to 3000 African Union soldiers who were part of the AMISOM mission that had been used to stabilize the TFG had been killed over the past few years fighting the Islamic Insurgency.

In 2011, troops from Kenya crossed the Somali-Kenya border in Operation Protect the Nation, attacking southern Somalia in a response to the kidnapping of two Medicin Sans Frontiers workers from a massive Somali refugee camp in northeastern Kenya and raids on Kenya's coastal resorts by Somali criminals.  Here is a map showing the key operations during the first week of hostilities:

Since tourism is key to Kenya's economy, this response was in an effort to protect Kenya's national interests and was seen as an opportunity to put a final end to an already weakening al-Shabaab.  Kenya's use of 1600 troops along with airstrikes to push back al-Shabaab and carve out a buffer zone along its border was complicated by Ethiopia's interests in the area since they are backing their own proxies in southern Somalia.  It is important to note that there was never proof that al-Shabaab was responsible for the kidnappings.

Al-Shabaab's obvious goal is to re-establish an Islamic government in Somalia and impose its own strict version of Sharia law.  It's longstanding battle against the United Nations-backed TFG and AMISOM are just part of its mandate; its relationship with al-Qaeda, particularly al-Qaeda's leadership in Pakistan, suggests that it may wish to be part of a global jihad and gain legitimacy from its connection to al-Qaeda.  As it stands now, there does appear to be a connection between al-Qaeda's franchise in Yemen and al-Shabaab with the two groups sharing resources and key personnel.  The 85 member executive council of al-Shabaab consists of 42 Somalis and 43 foreigners who wield a great deal of power within the organization.  It is estimated that al-Shabaab now has between 3000 and 7000 fighters but has the ability to mobilize an even larger number of fighters on relatively short notice.  The foreign fighters are of three types:

1.) Somalis who were born in neighbouring countries, particularly Kenya.

2.) Somalis who were born in Somalia or whose parents were born in Somalia but have grown up in the diaspora and carry foreign passports.

3.) There are also between 200 and 300 non-Somalis from nations that include Kenya, Tanzania, Pakistan, Bangladesh, India, Afghanistan, Yemen, Sudan, Saudi Arabia and Uganda.

Foreign fighters bring key skills to the organization.  These include fluency in English, battlefield experience and bomb making skills. 

The key personnel include Sheikh Mohamed Abut Faid, a financier from Saudi Arabia, Abu Musa Mombasa from Pakistan who is director of training and security and Omar Hammami, born in Alabama to parents from Syria and the United States, who was in charge of financing foreign fighters, organizing attacks and from the United States until his death at age 29 in Somalia (unconfirmed) allegedly at the hands of rivals within his own group.  Here is a link to part one of his autobiography in case you are interested.

Unfortunately for Africa, most of the group's attention, including a suicide attack on a police headquarters in Nigeria's capital in June 2011 and an attack in Kampala, Uganda in July 2010 that resulted in the deaths of at least 76, seems to be focussed on nearby nations rather than on Europe or the United States despite their threats to export their brand of terrorism further abroad.  Sadly, al-Shabaab's most recent efforts in Kenya prove that they are quite capable of carrying out a rather large scale attack that ends in the deaths of many.    


  1. One critical issue has been overlooked by you.

    The involvement of Pakistanis guiding those who have attacked Nairobi Westgate Mall. It is a copy of the attack on Christian/Hindu/Jewish structures and people in Mumbai in 2008. Please connect the dots so that a complete picture emerges.

  2. I get the impression that many, if not most, Africans think they should not be a Christian or democratic territory. While the West has to see this as a threat, I doubt it could change this ideology. The colonial powers treated African traditions with scant regard so I'm not surprised that this has led to all these modern day issues. However, even without (or before) the interference of colonialism, the African tribes were always warring with each other. This has continued on as we saw how in Rwanda the jealousy between main tribes caused their brutal civil war.
    The main issue that can be countered here is to continue to try to weaken al-Shabaab.