Horn of Africa: The endless insurgency of al-Shabaab

The Horn of Africa region has been the scene of one of the longest insurgencies in the world. Although Somalia is at the epicentre of the crisis, Islamist militants have managed to spread their activities throughout the region. Despite numerous efforts to eliminate al-Shabaab, the group has remained active and dangerous.

The rise and endurance of al-Shabaab

The Islamist insurgency in Somalia dates back to the early 2000s when the Islamic Courts Union (al-Ittihad Mahakem al-Islamiya – hereafter ICU) was established in order to create an Islamic state. Although the ICU had managed to occupy most of south and central Somalia by the summer of 2006, the group was eventually defeated by the Ethiopian-backed Somali Transitional Federal Government (TFG). The Mujahideen Youth Movement (Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen – hereafter Al-Shabaab) was formed sometime in 2006 by members of the ICU who vowed to continue the war against TFG and its Ethiopian allies.

The al-Shabaab is not a typical non-state armed group. Although it has lost territory over the years, the group has functioned as a proto-state in parts of the country still under its control. The implementation of a harsh version of Sharia has reduced violence and has increased sympathies among many Somalis who are tired of lawlessness and insecurity. Αl-Shabaab has even developed its own environmental policy. In July 2018, for example, the group declared a ban on single-use plastic bags because they are “a serious threat to both humans and livestock” and banned the logging of rare trees.

The endurance of al-Shabaab is phenomenal. The group still has thousands of experienced fighters across several provinces. Roland Marchal argues that the impressive survival of al-Shabaab is the result of widespread mistrust towards conventional clan-based politics among Somali youth, who seek a new ideological alternative. Al-Shabaab has presented itself as a vanguard movement fighting a war against literally everyone, namely corrupt locals (warlords), aggressive neighbours (Ethiopia, Kenya), and imperialist powers (the U.S. and Europe). This may be why the al-Shabaab insurgency has even attracted Muslims from abroad.

The role of the Somali diaspora

Al-Shabaab has recruited both diaspora Somalis and converts. In October 2008, Shirwa Ahmed, a Somali American from Minneapolis, became the first American suicide bomber to blow himself up outside a government compound in northern Somalia. In September 2010, a Somali American from Seattle launched a suicide attack against an African Union base in Mogadishu, killing 21 peacekeepers. According to an investigative report produced by the U.S. Congress’ Committee on Homeland Security, at least 40 or more American Muslims have joined al-Shabaab and 15 of them have been killed fighting in Somalia. In December 2012, Craig Baxam, a former US soldier converted to Islam, was arrested in Kenya while trying to travel to Somalia. He was self-radicalised through the Internet and decided to join al-Shabaab to defend territories controlled by the Islamists. Besides being foot soldiers, American Muslims have also risen to leadership positions. The American convert Omar Shafik Hammami (also known as Abu Mansuur alAmriki) was a senior member of al-Shabaab who published online his autobiography, The Story of an American Jihadi, describing his own radicalisation trajectory. To sum up, al-Shabaab has developed a sophisticated recruitment strategy to attract disenfranchised youth from Somalia and the diaspora alike.

The spillover effect

Since 2010, al-Shabaab has launched many attacks outside Somalia. The 2013 attack against the Westgate Mall in Nairobi attracted world media attention due to the presence of many Western civilians. In April 2015, a group of al-Shabaab fighters stormed the Garissa University campus in northeastern Kenya killing dozens of students. In early January of this year, al-Shabaab militants attacked communities in Kenya’s coastal Lamu region that borders Somalia. The group has extended its operations in the neighbouring country for two reasons.

First, the group does not see itself exclusively as a local group. Instead, it has developed a regional identity seeking to penetrate Muslim communities in Kenya. This is an ideological commitment that runs very deep. Al-Shabaab is the strongest jihadi-Salafi organisation in the region, but it has pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda has constructed a new transnational identity to promote its utopian vision of an Islamist takeover of the world. This new post-territorial identity aimed at creating a Homus Islamicus who would live and die by the Quran and the Kalashnikov. This new man would have allegiance to the umma and not his country of origin. Likewise, al-Shabaab has gone through a process of ideological transformation adopting a new modus operandi: the pursuit of a regional war

Second, the expansion of al-Shabaab’s reach can be viewed as a strategy of offensive defence against the United States and Kenya. In early January 2020, for example, a group of al-Shabaab assailants attacked a U.S base in eastern Kenya killing three Americans. It was obviously a response to the U.S. involvement in counterterrorism operations which have eliminated many senior al-Shabaab operatives. At the same time, Kenya is more than just a host to the U.S. Special Forces. Indeed, Kenyan troops have fought against al-Shabaab since October 2011. The Operation Linda Nchi (Protect the Country) was launched by the Kenya Defence Forces to eliminate al-Shabaab from the border areas. The Kenyan forces later joined the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISON) to stabilise the country. Since then, Nairobi has played an increasingly important role in overt and convert counterterrorism efforts in neighbouring Somalia.

The future of al-Shabaab

The group has suffered from several setbacks over years. Indeed, it has not been immune to internal disputes and external pressures. For example, ISIS criticised al-Shabaab for its allegiance to al-Qaeda and attempted to penetrate the organisation. Yet, the group has been able to maintain its autonomy, albeit as the al-Qaeda’s regional affiliate.

There are two factors that can have significant impact on al-Shabaab’s endurance and capacity to carry out attacks. First, the availability or lack of human resources can directly affect the group’s ability to execute operations. Second, ample access to diverse sources of funding can help al-Shabaab to sustain its presence in southern Somalia and possibly northern Kenya; without significant financial resources al-Shabaab would not be able to win many battles.

And, yet, al-Shabaab can survive if counterterrorism efforts start appearing more like foreign interventions. Islamist militancy is a symptom of a failed society that still shares a sense of common identity and national pride.

*Dr Emmanuel Karagiannis is a Reader in International Security at King’s College London’s Department of Defence Studies.