Who Are Somalia’s Al Shabab?

06.06.08

Categorie: Africa, Extremists |

Two years ago an alliance of moderate Islamic Courts ruled Mogadishu and much of Somalia. Then Ethiopia, fearing a stable and prosperous Somalia — and hungry for access to Somalia’s ports — destroyed the Islamic Courts and propped up the unpopular Transitional Federal Government. Islamic insurgents rose up to challenge Ethiopian and TFG troops.

But who exactly are these Islamists? They call themselves “Al Shabab” — “The Youth” — but they appear to have comprised at least two distinct groups in recent years.

The Combating Terrorism Center’s Sentinel journal (pdf!) says Al Shabab originally

may have emerged in 2004 partly as a reaction to a failed CIA attempt to capture one of the three Somalia-based al-Qa`ida operatives wanted in connection with the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania.

For years it was the centralized armed wing of the Islamic Courts: the Ethiopian invasion appears to have mostly destroyed that organization. But the TFG’s failure to win popular support, plus widespread opposition to the Ethiopian occupation, has driven new recruits to the Al Shabab banner, Sentinel claims. Now

it appears that the command structure of al-Shabab may have been decentralized and the group broken down into cells to give regional al-Shabab commanders greater independence to carry out attacks when and where they see fit.

Shabab spokesman Abu Mansur says the group has achieved four important things in its new incarnation:

• The mujahideen have adopted new operational techniques never used in the region before (though further details of these techniques are not given).

• The mujahideen succeeded in cutting off enemy supply lines by planting booby traps on the main routes.

• The mujahideen liberated cities and whole regions occupied by the enemy. They also stormed enemy barracks at Baledogle military airport (about 60 miles west of Mogadishu) and in more than eight Somali directorates and governorates.

• The types of Somali jihadi operations conducted for the last year and half include urban ambushes and raids, suicide attacks, artillery and rocket attacks on enemy positions such as the presidential palace and the airport in Mogadishu.

Related:
Somali pirates = Robin Hood?
Brain drain dooms Somalia
U.N. Blue Berets replace Ethiopians?

(Photo: me)

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19 Responses to “Who Are Somalia’s Al Shabab?”

  1. Andy says:

    Do you have anything to back up the claim that Ethiopia invaded because it “fear[ed] a stable and prosperous Somalia,” as opposed to, say, because the ICC had declared war against Ethiopia and had repeatedly sent fighters towards the TFG in Baidoa?

    Ethiopia is far from being a good guy, but that’s a pretty big claim about motivations there. It’s not like the ICC was all that great either. Yes, it contained moderate elements, but as a whole it had no claim to the title “moderate.”

    The one good thing I’ll say about the TFG is this: it’s the one entity within Somalia {proper) with any sort of claim to legal legitimacy (not counting Somaliland). It’s the internationally recognized government of Somalia. Classic COIN says: every action you undertake should bolster the legitimacy of the government and undermine the legitimacy of the insurgency. If the goal of the international community in Somalia is to achieve stability and centralized government, then it has to pick a side and stick with it. The IC picked the TFG, which makes an armed movement like the ICC, claiming political power, automatically an insurgency against a legitimate government. One does not have to whitewash the shortcomings of the TFG in order to support it as the legitimate government against insurgents.

  2. David Axe says:

    Andy,

    Ethiopia and Somalia are historic rivals. It’s in Ethiopia’s interest for Somalia to be weak. Of course, the downside of this is that, these days, weak states can still exercise a form of power by way of DIY terror. Not that Somalia is a terror exporter — it’s not. This is just to say that Ethiopia has as much to fear from a weak Somalia as from a strong one.

    What’s my proof? Well, that’s a judgment, not a quantifiable fact. That’s the thing with motives. They’re very hard to “prove.”

  3. Kevin Knodell says:

    I hate to take this position as well, but the Islamic Courts can’t really be called moderate, and they clearly praised the “martyred” Somalis who “somehow” found themselves fighting against coalition forces in Afghanistan.

    That being said, I think it’s a reasonable analysis of Ethiopia’s motives. Somalia is not a largescale terrorist factory (yet), but the Ethiopians amd the airstrikes could still change that. I had a discussion with an (Ethiopian American) Cadet who thinks the attack was aimed at suppressing smugglers and refugees from coming into Ethiopia, and the ethnic somali insurgency in the Ogaden http://www.jamestown.org/terrorism/news/article.php?articleid=2370221

  4. Andy says:

    “It’s in Ethiopia’s interest for Somalia to be weak.”

    Well, this might be entirely true, but your original claim was that Ethiopia wanted a Somalia that was neither stable nor prosperous. I could imagine Meles hoping for a weak, poor Somalia under the control of the friendly TFG that would be easy to influence, but it’s difficult to imagine any kind of semi-rational leader hoping for a collapsed state next door.

    Anyway, I asked because I was genuinely curious – I haven’t been to the Horn, though I’m close to people who work the issue, and was interested in the perspective of someone who’s been on the ground. I tend to believe that Ethiopia viewed the ICC – which renewed claims to the Ogaden, declared war, etc – as a genuine security threat and intervened in the hopes of establishing the TFG as a friendly, weak neighbor. I tend not to believe that Ethiopia intervened just to ensure continuing instability and an absence of centralized authority. That just sounds too stupid, even for Meles.

  5. Ahmed says:

    I love seeing debates about Somalia on the internet. 95% of the time it’s people who don’t know what is going on or just people who have an agenda.

    Are the Islamic Courts moderate?

    Well first of all there is no Islamic Courts Union (ICU) any more. That Union died when the Ethiopians invaded. WHEN they were in power they were moderates.The extremist elements Al-Shabab were being controlled by the ICU chairmen all of whom were moderates. In fact the only time Al-Shabab got out of hand was when the ICU commanders were to far to control a good example is Kismayo. They took over the city and promptly killed the milita of warlords that were wounded in the fight for Kismayo. Other then the extremist rumours people talk about were basically propaganda and exagiration. Theatres showing football were banned. Porn theatres were. The ICU didn’t declare Jihad on Ethiopia until they attacked ICU fighters in Central Somalia before the December war. The ICU only said that they would support the unification of Somalis (tantamount to invasion since millions of Somalis live in Ethiopia) if Ethiopia didn’t leave Somalia.

    In fact the Ethiopian presence in Somalia was illegal according to the UN. They were supplying and training the TFG for years while they shouted and made noises about Eritrea funding the ICU.

    I personally live in the UK and have been doing so since I came here when I was 5 year old. But I do visit Somalia sometimes. When I was there I figured out something. In Northern Somalia there is Somaliland and Puntland. Who both have large seaports. They are backed and funded by Ethiopia. Souther Mogadishu before the ICU came was different. There were to many warlords to pay off. When the TFG came into existence the man who became the President was a former leader of Puntland who had been working with the Ethiopians since 1977 after the Ogaden war. If the TFG came into power they would effectively have Somalia ruled by people favourable to them.

    When the ICU came into the scene they had something the TFG,Somaliland and Puntland didn’t have. Credibility. They came into existence because warlords paid by the CIA attacked them. Instead of begging for help they united and fought the warlords and kicked them out of Mogadishu. They then proceeded to clear Southern Somalia of warlords. When I was there I was amazed how peaceful it was. I could travel from Mogadishu to the southernmost point of Somalia without having to pay a single cent to armed men in illegal checkpoints.

    They have been described has Somalias Taleban but the Taliban discredited themselves when they took over most of Afghanistan. The Taliban killed people of different ethnic backgrounds and enforced harsh laws on women. The ICU never did that. A good example can be found in what happened when both of these two groups were attacked by an invasion force. The Taliban lost control immediately because the local people rose up against them. The ICU fighters where hidden away by the locals. Now look what is happening in Afghanistan. The Taliban are operating only in the mountains and areas near there despite having millions from drug money to buy arms and countless of fighters around the world. The ICU doesn’t have the same level of spending nor forgien fighters. Yet the Insurgents have taken control of the vast majority of Southern Somalia.

    I guarantee you that if no other country interferes. The Ethiopian troops will be kicked out of Somalia this time next year and the TFG will have collapsed.

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  11. [...] If the story is true, it’s likely the kids have joined one of the large armed Islamic groups, either the hardline Al Shabab or the more moderate Islamic Courts Union. Al Shabab and the ICU are competing with each other for control over southern Somalia, while steadily pushing back the U.S.-supported “Transitional Federal Government.” Washington has labeled Al Shabab a “terrorist group,” but the group’s connections to Al Qaeda have been exaggerated. [...]

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  17. [...] U.S. special operations forces, are working together to steadily chip away at the strongholds of al-Shabab, an al-Qaida affiliate and one of the most fearsome insurgent groups in the [...]

  18. [...] and secretive U.S. special operations forces, are working together to steadily chip away at the strongholds of al-Shabab, an al-Qaida affiliate and one of the most fearsome insurgent groups in the [...]

  19. […] and secretive U.S. special operations forces, are working together to steadily chip away at the strongholds of al-Shabab, an al-Qaida affiliate and one of the most fearsome insurgent groups in the […]

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