By Redmond Alejandro B. Lim*
Last March, Somali Prime Minister Omar Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke flew to Qatar in a visit that was supposed to lobby for more foreign investments in his country. “Somalia is no longer equated with the negative aspects: piracy, terrorism. Now the country is ready for business,” he declared in an Al-Jazeera interview. “Somalia… has seen a steady decline in terrorism activities in the last few years. So I think Somalia is less vulnerable and the country is really moving out of this, gradually but surely.”
A month later, a widely reported attack by the Somalia-based Al-Shabaab on a Kenyan university near the Somali border killed 148 people, mostly students, the deadliest attack in Kenya since the 1998 bombing of the US embassy in the Kenyan capital Nairobi. Uhuru Kenyatta, the Kenyan president, immediately denounced the attack and promised swift retaliation with international backing. Then, around a week later, the group carried out another attack against Somalia’s Ministry of Higher Education in the center of the capital Mogadishu, killing at least ten people. Then on April 20, the group carried out yet another bombing in northeastern Somalia, killing many UN workers.
These are merely the latest in a lengthy string of increasingly gory attacks carried out by the Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen, more commonly known as al-Shabaab. The group is responsible for many terror attacks against the Somali central government and its African Union Mission to Somalia (AMISOM) partners. Most prominently, some of these attacks include a raid against a hotel popular with government officials in late March of this year (the same hotel was also attacked previously in 2013), and the much publicized siege of an upscale mall in the Kenyan capital in 2013, which lasted days and left close to 70 people dead. Apart from Kenya, the group has also carried out numerous attacks in other nearby East African countries including Ethiopia and Uganda in retaliation for the latter’s participation in AMISOM, transforming a previously Somali problem into a transnational terrorism issue.
The uptick in violence in East Africa, as well as in West and North Africa, comes amid today’s rose-tinted African narrative of progress and rapid economic expansion popular among many Africa hacks. Together with a string of other setbacks – the most recent Ebola outbreak in West Africa, pervasive corruption, interethnic strife, and weak democratic institutions in many parts of the continent – global jihadism in East, West, and North Africa, has sobered many an optimistic outlook for the second-fastest growing region of the world.
A history of extremism
Al-Shabaab (Arabic for “The Youth”) emerged in 2003 as a militant youth wing of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), an alliance of Sharia courts which themselves were formed from the decades of chaos and instability in Somalia following the collapse of the last central government in 1991. After losing a lot of ground, including the capital Mogadishu and the lucrative port of Kismayo, to Western and AMISOM-backed government forces, Al-Shabaab today controls pockets of territory in the southern part of the country, quickly adapting the guerilla tactics and bombings prevalent among many radical jihadi groups.
Al-Shabaab funds its guerilla war through a variety of sources, including extensive racketeering and extortion, sympathetic and/or dummy charities, and donations from the Somali diaspora. There is also speculation that the terrorist group occasionally colludes with Somali pirates off the Horn of Africa, although this claim has yet to be corroborated. Before the liberation of Kismayo by government troops, the group had also controlled the charcoal and sugar trade there. Finally, there are suspicions that they also have foreign state sponsors, although these states deny the allegations.
It should be noted that in terms of its internal organization, the group is not monolithic and is rather decentralised. Just as in Somali society, Al-Shabaab’s foot soldiers come from different local tribes with strong clan loyalties. Moreover, the leadership envisions a more transnational agenda by linking up with other jihadi groups around the world and eventually targeting the West, while the rank-and-file has a more nationalist inclination to simply establish an Islamic Somali government.
The origins and methods of Al-Shabaab sound a discomfortingly familiar narrative. Indeed, while the particular details and minutiae are different, radical jihadi groups share not just a universal distaste for all things American, but also form from conditions of poverty and alienation from mainstream society: without access to education and economic opportunity, many young people become disillusioned with their governments and become drawn to more radical means of social change.
Indeed, in recent years many jihadi groups have formed connections (as well as rivalries) with each other: Al-Shabaab has been an Al-Qaeda affiliate since 2012 while its West African counterpart Boko Haram had just recently pledged its allegiance to Islamic State (IS), Al-Qaeda’s rival for brutality. Globalisation and the Internet age have made many issues borderless, and terrorism certainly weighs heavily on this list.
The Philippines, although half a world away, can learn much from the experiences of East Africa. Connections and networks between Southeast Asian terror groups, such as Abu Sayaff and the Malaysian Jemaah Islamiyah, are well known and can threaten the livelihoods of the people in the regions involved, as well as commerce and trade in the maritime routes in the Sulu Sea. Transnational terrorism destabilizes not only the Philippines but also the wider Southeast Asian region. In the same vein, Al-Shabaab’s forays outside Somalia have threatened not only the country but also the regional and even global order; the country is adjacent to the Gulf of Aden which forms part of the critical Suez Canal international shipping route linking Europe and Asia.
Garissa and beyond
To be sure, Al-Shabaab has since suffered many setbacks thanks to pressure from AMISOM, US drone strikes, and the Somali army. As recent as April 24 of this year, Uganda, which has contributed a substantial number of troops to the peacekeeping effort, declared the group to be defeated.
However, the April 20 attack on Garissa University should serve as a wakeup call to complacent policymakers to take important steps in the battle against extremism. Right away this includes increasing local/national security measures. Freezing financial assets linked to Al-Shabaab can also severely hamper the latter’s activities. Complementing these measures would be coordination at the regional and international level to combat global jihadism. Local and national religious leaders should also speak out against the use of violence to achieve political goals, and interreligious dialogue between faith community leaders should be encouraged.
But in the long-term, ultimately it is only through reducing poverty and providing access to both basic services and political participation from the marginalized sectors of society can a disillusioned population be dissuaded from the allure of violent upheaval. Making people have a stake in society by providing democratic participation ensures that they stick to peaceful and lawful activities to protect their rights.
*Redmond Alejandro B. Lim is a former Foreign Affairs Research Specialist with the Center for International Relations and Strategic Studies of the Foreign Service Institute. Mr. Lim can be reached at [email protected].
The views expressed in this publication are of the authors alone and do not reflect the official position of the Foreign Service Institute, the Department of Foreign Affairs and the Government of the Philippines.