While the majority of Somalia's Islamist groups, like elsewhere, participate in a broader non-violent political movement seeking reform, social justice, and government accountability, a small yet significant number of Somali Islamist groups resort to violence. On one level, Somalia's status as “the most failed state” (2) has required its population to take security into their own hands. Indeed, the 2009 Failed State Index remarked that “Somalia was too failed even for al-Qaeda.” (3) On the other, existential crises are not licenses for the unwanted imposition of Islamic States.
Many Islamists share an affinity for ideologues such as Hassan al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb, yet readings and interpretations vary widely across the spectrum of political Islam. As one author wrote of Somali Islamists in particular, since “there are no clear cut doctrinal or ideological boundaries between them,” it is possible that “sympathisers may shift from one group to the other.” What helps to distinguish them, rather, “are the many differences they have on mundane issues, like ablution, age of marriage, and so on. Rituals more than ideology have been the bone of contention.” (4)
Of course, Islamism is far from monolithic. Current taxonomies are as of yet, however, inadequate to properly explain the viscosity that renders a group violent versus non-violent in the “doctrinal or ideological boundaries between them.” While some (the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt, for example) have disavowed violence, and are likely to remain faithful to that ethic in pursuit of democratic political gain, predicting which groups might become violent in the most failed of states is another matter entirely. What appears to be the case is that a “cell” must first prove itself worthy of al-Qaeda's endorsement (as in al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM). At this point, whether Mogadishu could represent a stronghold for violent Islamism as a base of its regional operations in the same way that the AQIM does in Algiers has yet to be seen.
Uncertainty prevails over whether al-Qaeda frequently works with, is patron to, or may one day fully sponsor or endorse, al-Shabaab. What is clear for now is that al-Shabaab is bent on terrorism and violence as a means to its end: securing an Islamic state in Somalia. Since 2009 they have bored for themselves a stronghold in the south. Suspicions over links between international al-Qaeda attacks (as was the recent case with the Nigerian national bound to Detroit), and Somalia are rumoured among some intelligence circles. But given US reluctance to engage with or set foot in Somalia following the 1993 catastrophe in which 18 of its Rangers were killed (evidenced in the book and movie Black Hawk Down ), there appears little the international community is willing to do until a more tenable connection is made, or until a more direct threat to foreign nationals or domestic safety is tendered.
A Short History of al-Shabaab
Al-Shabaab (also known as the Harakat Shabaab al-Mujahidin, al-Shabab, Shabaab, the Youth, Mujahidin al-Shabaab Movement, Mujahideen Youth Movement, or Shabab) is an Islamist organisation that has been actively opposing Somalia's transitional Government as well as its Ethiopian supporters since 2006. Al-Shabaab controls a vast portion of southern Somalia including a significant proportion of the capital, Mogadishu. The relatively freer area of Mogadishu is currently protected by African Union troops, an area that barely includes the Presidential compound.
Originally the militant wing of the Islamic Courts Union, a group that controlled Somalia prior to the country's invasion by Ethiopian forces, al-Shabaab leaders have claimed affiliation with al-Qaeda since 2007. Though there is no indication that al-Qaeda has officially accepted the group into its ranks, many of its home-grown ideologues have root systems that can be traced to al-Qaeda's Afghan jihad. Many analysts therefore believe that al-Shabaab's organisational links to Al Qaeda are weak. However, in February 2008 the United States added the group to its list of foreign terrorist organisations, revealing its capability, if not to harm, then to threaten, US interests. “Al-Shabaab's strength has grown since then,” one report proffered, “but many experts say the withdrawal of Ethiopian forces from Somalia in January 2009 could diminish the group's basis for popular support,” (5) indicating a long and drawn-out waiting game for those uninvolved.
Al-Shabaab is led by Sheikh Mohamed Mukhtar Abdirahman (or Abu Zubeyr), though reports indicate that a number of senior officials behind the scenes are likely pulling its strings. The group is cordoned into three geographical areas: Bay and Bokool, led by Mukhtar Roobow (Abu Mansur), al-Shabaab's spokesman; south-central Somalia and Mogadishu; and Puntland and Somaliland. A fourth unit, which controls the Juba Valley, is led by Hassan Abdillahi Hersi (Turki), who is not considered to be a member of al-Shabaab, but rather “closely aligned with it.” (6) According to a December 2008 UN Monitoring Group report, these regional units “appear to operate independently of one another, and there is often evidence of friction between them.” (7)
The bulk of al-Shabaab's supporters come from the Hawiye clan. Overall membership is estimated to be several thousand troops in size (between 3,000 and 7,000), though its ‘hardcore' believers are said to be a fraction of that number, ranging from 300 – 700 persons. Because al-Shabaab has engaged in practices of forced recruitment among Somalis, experts are unclear on how many members of the group truly believe in and internalise the organisation's ideology. The combination of the failed Somali state and growing al-Shabaab insurgency has proven insufferable to many nonetheless. Victims of its suicide bombings, violence and terror abound unabated.
Indeed, al-Shabaab's tactics have evolved. At first sight of its insurgency in 2006, al-Shabaab resorted to guerrilla tactics to oppose the Somali Government and its Ethiopian and African Union allies: suicide bombings, shootings and targeted assassinations were rife. There is now evidence that al-Shabaab is using political savvy to garner legitimacy from those areas it usurps. As one report stated, “As the group sought to take control of towns in southern Somalia, it began to use political strategies as well. Before a particular town was captured, insurgents had meetings with local clan leaders to convince them that their intentions were good.” (8) By February 2009, al-Shabaab took control of most of southern Somalia.
An al-Shabaab State?
On 24 December 2009 residents of a southern Somali town reported that al-Shabaab was enforcing what has been called in recent briefs “Taliban-style dress code”. The radical Islamists have been targeting young men with long hair, no beards, and Western-style trousers (considered those that hang below the ankle). Non-abiders are corrected immediately. Trousers below the ankle are altered on site, and those with long hair are subject to impromptu haircuts. Men have been ordered to shave moustaches and grow beards.
These restrictions follow from measures already in place: a ban on movie theatres, musical ringtones and dancing at weddings, etc., all of which resemble rule imposed by the Taliban under Afghanistan rule in the 1990s (though long hair was permitted under the Taliban). There is widespread concern that the imposition of dress and legal codes are part of a larger measure to realise an Islamic (al-Shabaab) State.
Assessing the Future with a Foggy Lens: Al-Shabaab in 2010
Apparently, such domestic threats are not enough to warrant international or US presence in Somalia. Sadly, these kinds of political, cultural and “religious” codes have appeared elsewhere, in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Northern Nigeria, among other regions prone to Islamist ideology and politics. The international community pays undue attention to these breeding grounds of terrorism. If there is a transitional phase that can be detected within Islamist groups surely what demarcates some as radical from others as moderate is their inclination towards, first, local violence catered to the “near enemy.” It appears as though the shift in focus to the “far” enemy follows from successful local campaigns. (9) Al-Qaeda's official endorsement occurs during the first phase, and often entails the second.
On 2 January 2010 al-Shabaab rebels attacked Dusa Marreb in central Somalia, a town lost to a moderate Islamist group, Ahlu Sunna Wal Jama, during 2009. Residents of the town fled upon hearing gunfire. 10 people were killed as a result of the fighting. Ahlu Sunna Wal Jama had forced al-Shabaab to flee in December 2008 and vowed to challenge them in efforts to “restore stability and harmony in Somalia and achieve a genuine government of national unity.” (10) The assault came a day after al-Shabaab attempted to attract international attention by declaring their intentions to send insurgents to Yemen. (11) This demonstration of will and capability is the kind of plea that should arouse serious concern perhaps best viewed as a means also to solicit al-Qaeda's approval and further cooperation.
The United States has been aiding the Yemeni Government in combating a branch of al-Qaeda there. This bilateral effort will likely continue, with President Barrack Obama declaring the Yemeni groups responsible for sponsoring the 25 December 2009 bombing attempt meant to bring down a Detroit-bound jet. Yet Somalia is left virtually untouched by Western assistance, save for the unmanned drones that are used for targeted assassinations in Somalia.
Western governments may hope that Ahlu Sunna Wal Jama and other moderate Islamist groups can withstand, if not repel, Somalia's increasingly powerful extremist groups – al-Shabaab central among them. Yet from the totality of evidence on radical Islamism in Somalia available, these measures appear to be palliatives – and hopeless ones at best – rather than proactive solutions to the underlying causes of violent Islamism both in Somalia and elsewhere. At present, Western guesswork about the connectivity and relationship between suspected al-Qaeda “cells” remains just that. As such, there is no way of assessing whether the “myth of Islam” is closer to a representation of truth or a hypostatisation of trope.
(1) Matthew J. Gordner is an External Consultant in Consultancy Africa Intelligence's Conflict & Terrorism Unit (
(4) Roland Marchal, “Islamic political dynamics in the Somali civil war”, in Alex de Waal (ed.), Islamism and Its Enemies in the Horn of Africa (Indiana University Press, 2004), p. 127.
(9) For the distinction between “near” and “far” enemy see Fawaz A. Gerges, The Far Enemy: Why Jihad Went Global . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.