Al-Shabaab’s threats to Horn of Africa security
International and regional powers should map out an overall and effective strategy to stand with the Somali government to help re-build its national army. Coincidently, they should counter those militants ideologically.
The growing influence of al-Qaeda-linked group al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen (also known as al-Shabaab Movement) over the past few years have posed threats to Somalia’s internal security and the entire Horn of African, alike; it has recently sought extending its influence outside Somalia via having a strong link to Qaeda branch in Yemen.
Lately, al-Qaeda militant organisation in general has brought its influence to bear on northern and western parts of Africa. It is working on building up a network connects all branches all over the continent, starting from Libya, Mali and Niger. Unlike the Islamic State militant group (ISIS), al-Qaeda strategic structure depends on the organised technique to avoid hunting.
Therefore, understanding the repercussions of al-Shabaab’s clout on the security of the Horn of African countries requires an in-depth look at the movement’s characteristics, factors of its influence, and the reasons behind its increasing attacks.
I - Characteristics of Al-Shabaab
Somalia suffers many armed groups; the most dangerous one is Al-Shabaab. It was commonly known as “Al-Shabab al-Mujahideen” (means in English the Jihadist Youth) since 2006 after the Union of Islamic Courts controlled over Mogadishu and other parts in central and southern Somalia. Since then, it announced that it would not fight as a resistance organisation anymore but as ‘Jihadist” against “enemies of Islam,” missing the concept of true Islam that rejects all kinds of violence.
On the ground, the movement made a significant gain; two-thirds of the capital Mogadishu came under its control in the period between 2009 and 2011. The United Nations Monitoring group on Somalia and Eritrea has estimated that movement has around 5 million fighters (1)
1. Emergence of al-Shabaab Movement: http://www.islamist-movements.com/2372
The Movement’s points of strength
1- Widespread presence
Al-Shabaab widely exists in 18 areas, including nine places southern Somalia, such as cities of Kismayo, Mogadishu, Merca, Jowhar, and Garbahare. Although its militants were forced get out of these areas, they retook their control over them. On March 7, 2018, the militants recaptured many parts of Balad district. Mid-2017, the group seized the north-eastern town of Garad, which locates in the semi-autonomous region of Puntland, to have it asa safe haven where its fighters can shelter from airstrikes in open areas southern and centre of the country.
On August 14, 2014, Al-Shabaab completely took over Lego town that located on the road between Mogadishu and Baidoa,after Uganda forces withdrew.
Al-Shabaab’s structure is hierarchy. It is believed that the group has four wings: first, the Shura Council, which chaired by an emir and consists of leaders. Second, “the Call” for recruiting new fighters. The third division is called “Hasbah”; it represents the religious police who monitor if the group’s religious rules are applied or not. The fourth one is the “Military wing” for training fighters and carrying out terrorist attacks. (2)
3- Reliable sources of finance:
The movement has reliable sources to fund its activities and fighters. The most important source is the Somali tribes, to which some of militants belong. These tribes help the group in livestock trade and the agricultural production. Second resource is money of remittances transferred to the group via bank accounts from charities outside Somalia. In addition, taxes on trades and having ransoms of hostages are the group’s other financing sources. (3)
4- Excessive Violence
Al-Shabaab is known, amongst all terrorist groups, with excessive violence. It is described as “al-Qaeda’s bloodiest branch as it can kill hundreds of people in one terrorist attack. On October 14, 2017, Al-Shabaab killed 358 people and injured 228 others, using a car bomb in Mogadishu. Two weeks later, it launched a double attacks by two car bombs downtown the capital, claiming lives of 17 people.
(2) and (3) Questions on Somalia’s future amid al-Shabaab’s escalating attacks: Emarat Alyoum
5- Tribal alliances:
The group managed to have alliances with a number of Somali tribes. Recently, it formed an alliance with Mercidi tribe to increase its influence in the area. However, to break off this alliance, the Somali government has appointed Hassan Ali Khairy, one of this tribe, as a Prime Minister on February 23, 2017. (4) Although the fragile government’s decision of the appointment could pose a threat to itself, it tries to bring stability and curb the increasing terrorist attacks.
Since the beginning of 2006, Al-Shabab’s attacks dramatically increased on all levels. In Somalia, terrorist attacks, particularly with car bombing, unprecedentedly escalated. On February 2018, two explosions hit the Capital Mogadishu, killing 45 people and injuring 36 others.
Targeting civilians is one of changes made for the movement’s attacks since early 2017. Car bombing attacks targeted public places, killing civilians and military personnel. On March 17, 2017, a car bomb exploded in a crowded street in Mogadishu, claiming lives of 15 civilians and injuring 17 others. They also deliberately target some civilians; on August 11, 2017, the group has killed two civilians in Kismayo city over accusation of cooperating with the government. Its attacks showed how the group has been hunted by a state of arrogance.
On other level, the group have focused on targeting the African forces. In early August 2016, a number of Ugandan troops were killed in attack by the movement’s militants near Buulo Mareer town. In a video footage titled “Bitter Truth” released by al-Shabaab, they executed a captured Kenyan soldier in August 2017.
These recent terrorist attacks showed that the group’s ideology has turned be excessively extremist by targeting civilians including women and children, contradicting with Al-Qaeda’s fundamental ideology, which was calling for avoiding women and children in their attacks. Due to the change of its ideology, some leaders split from the movement . Leader Mukhtar Abu Mansour and his followers have recently handed themselves in to the Somali government in August 2017. (5)
On the other hand, the movement tried to solidify its ideology and history via media to prove that it is not a mere local militant group, but a big organisation ones under al-Qaeda’s command. In June 2017, the group released a documentary titled “The Mach of Resistance by Sheikh Mukhtar Abu al-Zubayr” talks about the movement’s history, foundation, and leaders.
(4) Values and joint principles between the President and Hassan Khairy are behind appointing the latter as prime minister- Mogadishu Centre for Research and Studies
(5) Impacts of dissension among al-Shabaab al-Mujahdeen in Somalia- Al-Siyassa http://www.siyassa.org.eg/News/15424.aspx
The documentary revealed the identity of former leader of the movement Mukhtar Abu al-Zubayr . His real name is Ahmed Abdi Godane, who was killed in a drone airstrike in September 2014. al-Zubayr was an known only for few leaders in the movement.
The documentary also revealed identities of other unknown leaders such as Mohammed Ismail Yusuf and Ibrahim Naley , who played a big role in targeting U.S. troops in Somalia. The identity of Abu Talha al-Sudani, the militant who plotted for attacks against U.S. embassy in Nairobi and Dar al-Salam in 1998, was also revealed. Also prominent leader Mohamed Santiri’s identity was announced. (6)
It talked about the former leader of al-Shabaab Abu al-Zubayr, his life, education, then his travel to Afghanistan where he met with former Leader of al-Qaed Osama bin Laden and his successor Ayman al-Zawahriri. It also tackled the movement’s armament.
The movement aimed to send a message, via the documentary, that it is a powerful organisation and their militants scarify themselves in the name of the religion against the U.S. troops and the Somali government, in order to recruit biggest number of youth inside and outside Somalia.
Moreover, the film showed that the movement’s have a great ability to release well-produced media contents, like ISIS’ ones.
III- Motives of escalated attacks
Al-Shabaab’s escalated activities have certain motives on military, geographical and media levels.
1- Expanding clout:
Escalating terrorist attacks against Somali government, African troops, and dissenting militias indicate that the movement seeks to monopolise violence among all militant organisations in the country. It aims to extend its control in new areas, particularly along the strategic coastal lines, which connect Somalia with Kenya.
2- Exploiting the withdrawal of African forces:
The group recaptured areas that suffered security vacuum after withdrawal African forces. In October 2016, the movement announced its control over city of Halgan after withdrawal of Ethiopian troops. Other two cities of El Ali and Moqokori were recaptured by the militants after withdrawal of Ethiopian troops. (7)
(6) “March of Resistance” a documentary produced by al-Shabaab al-Mujahdeen’s emir Mukhtar Abu al-Zubayr- Sheada news agency- goo.gl/ANi5P7
(7) New phase: reasons of U.S. targeting against Somali al-Shabaab al-Mujahdeen- Future for Advanced Research and Studies
3- Stop Dissenting
Over the past few years, voices of dissent rose among the group’s members. Other militant groups announced their loyalties to its rival ISIS. So, al-Shabaab leaders sought to create a state of organisational cohesion and confidence among its ranks.They worked on escalation of terrorist attacks to expand geographically, and on producing a good media propaganda for its ideology.
4- Thwarting Farmajo’s project
President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo has adopted a new initiative aims uproots all terrorist groups, mainly al-Shabaab movement. The initiative seeks to bring stability to the country via preventing the group’s financing sources, rebuilding the state’s institutions, specially the military institution, and via creating tribal alliances.
Consequently, the terrorist attacks have been intensified since early 2017 to foil Farmajo’s project, which endangers the movement’s influence. (8)
5- Scaling down ISIS’ influence:
Around 600 militants, led by former member Abdel Qader Mo’men, have dissented from al-Shabaab and announced their allegiance to ISIS in January 2016. Since then, ISIS-linked group was considered a threat to al-Shabaab’s influence. Thus, the movement has recently worked on scaling down ISIS’ influence, particularly among the youth via adopting excessive violence and increasing number of attacks as extremists believe that loyalty should be given to the most violent organisation.
IV- Repercussions of Al-Shabaab’ clout on Horn of Africa
Following the defeat of ISIS in Syria and Iraq, al-Qaeda groups worked on expanding its presence in many countries to easily direct attacks against international and regional targets. So, al-Shabaab sought boosting its presence in Africa and increasing coordination with al-Qaeda branch in Yemen, in order to not be the next target by the international powers. However, its increasing clout would have certain negative repercussions.
(8) President Farmajo and the terrorist challenge…strength and weakness papers- al-Siyassa magazine- http://www.siyassa.org.eg/News/12013.aspx
1- Threatening U.S. interests:
U.S. and Western countries are seen arch-enemies by al-Qaeda since its establishment under name of “World Islamic Front for Jihad against the Jews and the Crusaders” in August 1988. It was the only terrorist group whose ideology depends on the hostility against the U.S. Former leader of al-Qaeda Osama bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri stated “The ruling to kill the Americans and their allies— civilian and military—is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to do it.” (9)
So, al-Shahaab’s priority is to target the U.S. interests in the region. The more groups’ terrorist attacks escalated, the more U.S. interests are endangered. “We approach these security threats through our third strategic principle of keeping pressure on the networks of VEOs such as Al-Shabaab, ISIS, Al Qaeda, and Boko Haram in order to mitigate their destabilising influence,” said Marine Corps Gen. Thomas D. Waldhauser, commander of U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) before the House Armed Services Committee on national security challenges and U.S. military activities in Africa, on March 6, 2018. (10)
“At the same time, we remain postured and ready to respond to contingencies and to protect U.S. personnel and facilities on the continent,” he added.
Over the past ten years, U.S. has launched a series of airstrikes on al-Qaeda militants in Africa, killing around 300 members. Recently, U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration has given the AFRICOM Command the authority to intensify airstrikes against the movement’a safe hideouts, said Captain Jeff Davis, the Pentagon spokesman, in a statement on March 30, 2017.
9) Guidance of Islamic Movements in the World, first issue, third edition- March 2006 - Al-Ahram Centre for Politics and Strategic Studies- Page 73
(10) Africa Command (AFRICOM) before the House Armed Services Committee- http://www.marines.mil/News/News-Display/Article/1459689/africom-commander-testifies-before-house-committee/
Al-Qaeda has a great hostility against Gulf States in general, and Saudi Arabia and the UAE in particular. In 1988, It established its branch “al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP)” to attack the Gulf States. Al-Asma’i has delimited the peninsula saying “The Arabian Peninsula’s latitude extends from the countryside of Iraq to Adel, while its longitude stretches from Tihamah to outskirts of Levant.” Thus, all Gulf States locate in the Arabian Peninsula. (11)
On April 30,2017, Qasim al-Raymi, AQAP current leader, called upon all branches to commit attacks in the two Gulf States. Despite that al-Qaeda’s attacks against Saudi Arabia’ interests were limited in Yemen, Raymi’s call indicted that the organisation still bears hatred towards the two oil-rich countries.
Al-Qaeda escalating attacks will negatively affect Saudi and UAR interests, especially after these countries pledged 130 million euros (€ 00 million form Riyadh and €30 million from UAE) to the anti-terrorism forces in Sahel region of West Africa, according toFrench President Emmanuel Macron in Paris Summit in December 2017. The anti-terrorism forces consist of troops from Mauritania, Mali, Burkina, Chad, and Niger.
After being well-trained and well-financed from seized ports, al-Qaeda members in Somalia and Yemen planned to launch attacks on the Gulf States, said former Somali Intelligence Chief Bashir Mohamed Gamei Ghoby.(12)
3- Threatening International Navigation:
Distinguished maritime ports locate in the Horn of African along Red Sea, Aden Gulf, and Indian Ocean are vital world trade passages through which Gulf oil ships pass from Gulf States to European countries and U.S. Red Sea-located Bab al-Mandab Strait is annually crossed by about 12 million containers of goods, in addition to the oil tankers. It is considered one of the most important international trade ports. Therefore, the increasing activity and influence of the al-Shabaab Movement represents a direct threat to international trade, particularly after the movement sought expanding its existence in Somalia to infiltrate to Djibouti, the gate to Bab al-Mandeb Strait.
(11) Ali Bakr: "The strategy of combatting AQAP - a comparative study with the Egyptian situation" - Al-Maspar Center for Studies - October 2007 - Dubai, UAE - p: 136
(12) Somali al-Shabaab Movement and its threats to Gulf security- goo.gl/XG7Yq9.
4- Threats to Neighbouring Countries:
Neighbouring countries could be easy targeted by al-Shabaab movement amid its creasing influence. Kenya has witnessed several attacks announced by the movement. The latest attack was launched on March 8, 2018, killing five police personnel. On 21 September 2013, they attacked Westgate shopping centre in Kenyan Capital of Nairobi, killing at least 72 people (61 civilians, 6 Kenyan soldiers, five attackers.) Also, around 200 other people were injured in the attack.
In April 2015, a total of 147 people, including 70 academic students and four attackers, were killed in terrorist attack launched against a university Garissa , northeastern Kenya, by al-Shabaab.
Recently, the movement has targeted the UN peacekeeping forces; early 2015, the militants opened fire on them and killed two soldiers.
In conclusion, the absence of a comprehensive counter-terrorism strategy in Somalia could unleash al-Shabaab’s escalating violence and threats against the region and the entire African continent in the coming period of time.