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Al-Shabaab: Somalia’s Many-Headed Hydra

There are no simple solutions to tackling Somalia's complex and elusive rebel group.
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AMISOM troops capture territory from al-Shabaab insurgents in Mogadishu.

World leaders and Somalis were told that they face an “unprecedented opportunity” to turn around the situation in Somalia yesterday. Speaking at a conference in London on how to bring peace and stability to Somalia, UK Prime Minister David Cameron insisted that tackling terrorism and piracy was in the interests of everyone.

Suffering Somalia

Somalia has been described as “the world's most failed state” by UK Foreign Secretary William Hague. It has been without a central government since 1991, marred by internal conflict and external invasions, and ravaged by droughts and famines.

Currently, however, the greatest risk to Somali peace and stability perhaps derives from the militant Islamist group al-Shabaab, who were not invited to the London conference. Al-Shabaab emerged as a splinter group from the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), a group which controlled much of Somalia before Ethiopian forces, supported by the US, invaded in 2006.

The ICU had been a rival administration to the western-backed Transitional Federal Government (TFG), which pushed them out of the capital Mogadishu during the Ethiopian invasion.

Support for al-Shabaab

The 2011 drought and famine in the Horn of Africa only served to exacerbate the threat al-Shabaab poses. The group blocked most foreign aid to the region, adding to the 300,000 Somalis that were forced to flee in 2011 alone. Al-Shabaab also represents a threat to the UK; the upcoming conference is in part a pre-emptive effort by the UK government to diminish the risk of terrorist attacks at 2012 Olympic Games by the group, who are believed to have around 50 British nationals in their ranks.

The difficulty in dealing with al-Shabaab lies in its decentralised nature. As Professor David Anderson, Professor of African Politics at the University of Oxford and expert on Somalia, explained to Think Africa Press, the group is a “many-headed hydra”. It consists of several affiliated, often clan-based militia groups with differing agendas, methods and degrees of control. Although an overarching aim is Somali nationalism, some elements within al-Shabaab advocate the narrow focus of ridding Somalia of all foreign influences and establishing an Islamic state while others have a global jihadist agenda.

Anderson believes this jihadist angle has been distorted by “western propaganda” overemphasising al-Shabaab’s existing but tenuous links to al-Qaeda. Coverage in the West has, for instance, focussed heavily on the fact that some al-Shabaab militants have been trained in Afghanistan and on al-Shabaab’s statement that the “jihad of Horn of Africa must be combined with the international jihad led by the al-Qaeda network”.

Reports of al-Shabaab suicide bombings overshadow the fact that extremist Islamic views are not particularly popular with the Somali population, and that Salafists have found it difficult to attract supporters in regions where Islam is, according to Anderson, rooted in “saints, shrines and iconography” and has a very local focus.

Somali self-determination

Whilst jihadist views have often alienated Somalis, al-Shabaab’s nationalistic angle is proving increasingly popular. The struggle against invasions by Ethiopia in 2006 and Kenya last year allowed al-Shabaab to significantly broaden their base and present themselves as the “spearhead of Somali resistance to foreign occupation”, according to the UK think tank Chatham House.

The nature and extent of al-Shabaab’s control over central and southern Somalia, beyond larger and strategically significant cities such as the port of Kismayo, is unclear. But it seems that the presence of foreign troops on Somali soil and the promise of protection can prompt tribal elders and sheikhs to support or come to an agreement with the group.

Anderson believes it is this nationalistic element that is on the rise within al-Shabaab, and that the longer the current situation prevails, the more likely it is that Somali youth will be radicalised and support for al-Shabaab will prevail or increase. Although the group’s disparate nature has allowed some progress to be made in “peeling away” affiliated militias, primarily by the Ethiopian army, ultimately the solution can only lie within a reconstitution of Somalia and the establishment of a legitimate, central government.

Statistics by the UN High Commission for Refugees for 2011 show that the dramatic rise in the number of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in Somalia is due primarily to conflict and insecurity, ahead of environmental issues of famine and drought. Furthermore, a dramatic drop in IDPs in December 2011 seems to be attributable to more severe restrictions imposed by al-Shabaab in central and southern Somalia.

If an attempt is made by Western powers to interfere directly, the situation is likely to worsen, reinforcing global, jihadist elements within al-Shabaab and delegitimising the Somali government. With the first appointment of the UK ambassador to Somalia since 1992 and the upcoming conference on February 23, there is hope that a reassessment and recommitment of the UK’s efforts towards a legitimate Somali peace will be effective, sustainable and, equally, mindful of the Somalis’ own political self-determination. Judging by yesterday's conference there is still some way left to go.

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