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Al-Qaeda, Al-Shabaab and Somalia Selfridge Air National Guard Base Community Council Monthly Speakers Event Mount Clemens, Michigan 15 February 2011 Remarks by David H. Shinn Adjunct Professor, Elliott School of International Affairs George Washington University Introduction The Somali Republic became independent in 1960 following the merger of former British Somaliland in the northwestern part of the country and the former Italian Somalia located to the east and south of Somaliland. Somalia’s first government had a well-deserved reputation for observing democratic rule. In 1969, however, the military seized power and a dictatorial military regime remained in place until its overthrow in 1991. At this point, Somalia became a failed state and has never subsequently been governed by a national government. Also in 1991, the former British Somaliland declared its independence from Somalia and established its own government. It has become the most democratic government in the Horn of Africa although it has not obtained any international diplomatic recognition. After the Somali state failed in 1991, a variety of forces took advantage of the political vacuum in the former Italian Somalia, now known as Somalia. Initially, Somali warlords were the most influential political force in Somalia. They held, for example, most of the power during the U.S.-led humanitarian intervention in Somalia in late 1992 known as the Unified Task Force or UNITAF. Perhaps a few of you took part in that operation. If you did, you deserve congratulations for helping to end a terrible famine in Somalia by ensuring the delivery of food aid to insecure parts of Somalia. UNITAF kept many Somalis alive. At the time, I was the deputy director of the State Department Task Force for Somalia and subsequently State Department coordinator for Somalia. As a result, I made a number of visits to Somalia in the mid-1990s. There was little understanding then about the growing Islamist influence in the region and even less appreciation for the role of al-Qaeda and a like-minded group in Somalia known as al-Ittihad al-Islamiyya, which went by the acronym AIAI. There were subsequently many conferences aimed at reestablishing a national government in Somalia. The Somali participants at most of the conferences never reached agreement on how to construct a new government. One initiative based in Djibouti did agree on a government that managed to control part of Mogadishu, Somalia’s capital, before its mandate ended. Following a lengthy reconciliation process in Kenya, this government was replaced by the Transitional Federal Government or TFG that is recognized today by the African Union, Arab League and international community but controls very little territory in Somalia. Some 8,000 troops from Uganda and Burundi under the auspices of the African Union protect the TFG, which occupies about half of


Mogadishu, from extremist Islamist forces that occupy most of south and central Somalia and the other half of Mogadishu. The TFG is ineffective and has not been able to attract broad-based support in Somalia. It remains in power through the presence of the African Union force in Mogadishu and financing from the international community. Its mandate was due to expire this August; to the consternation of many in the international community, it just extended itself in power for an additional three years. The Rise of Islamist Influence and Arrival of Al-Qaeda The vast majority of Islamic activity in Somalia simply reflects the fact that nearly all Somalis are Muslim. Islamic organizations stepped in to fill a void left by a failed state and competing warlords who acted primarily on the basis of their personal or clan interests. Most of this Islamic engagement was and continues to be positive, especially when it provides essential services and imposes political stability without violating basic human rights. Because I focus in my remarks on the Islamist extremist groups, which want to impose an Islamic caliphate and in their effort to seize power have no respect for human rights, it is important not to lose sight of the fact that most Somali Islamic organizations do not have this agenda. Unfortunately, there has been a growing extremist element in Somalia, manifested in the 1990s by AIAI and encouraged by small numbers of imported al-Qaeda operatives beginning in the early 1990s. One of Osama bin Laden’s most trusted and talented al-Qaeda lieutenants, Abu Hafs alMasri, made multiple trips to Somalia beginning in 1992. He met with Somali Islamists, assessed their capabilities, and made arrangements to provide training and arms for local fighters. At the beginning of 1993, he sent a team of al-Qaeda veterans to conduct operations in Somalia. Al-Qaeda believed that Somalia offered a safe haven for its operations in the East Africa region. The first al-Qaeda operatives left Peshawar, Pakistan, transited Kenya, and arrived in Somalia in February 1993. The group worked closely with AIAI and established three training camps in Somalia. Abu Hafs was killed in 2001 in a U.S. airstrike near Kabul. He expected Somalia would become a low-cost recruiting ground where disaffected Somalis in a failed state would readily accept al-Qaeda and enthusiastically join the fight to expel the UNITAF international peacekeeping force led by the United States from late 1992 until early May 1993, when it became a United Nations peacekeeping operation. Al-Qaeda looked at Somalia as another Afghanistan. The reality was quite different. Al-Qaeda underestimated the cost of operating in Somalia. Getting in and out of the country was costly while expenses resulting from corruption in neighboring states were high. Al-Qaeda experienced routine extortion from Somali clans and unanticipated losses when bandits attacked their convoys. It overestimated the degree to which Somalis would become jihadis, especially if there was no financial incentive, and failed to understand the importance of Somali Sufi Islam, which is much more benign than al-Qaeda’s interpretation of Islam. Unlike the tribal areas of Pakistan, it found a lawless land of shifting alliances that lacked Sunni unity. The primacy of clan ultimately frustrated al-Qaeda’s efforts to recruit and develop a strong,


unified Somali coalition. The jihadi foreigners from al-Qaeda concluded during this early engagement in Somalia that they encountered more adversity than success. Al-Qaeda’s entry into the region was not, however, a total loss. It did manage to recruit a number of young Somalis to the jihadi cause. The longer that the central government was unable to establish authority throughout Somalia and the warlords fought among each other for power, the greater was the opportunity for the Islamic groups to increase their following, in part by imposing stability on the ground. In addition, three non-Somali alQaeda operatives involved in the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, took refuge in Somalia with the assistance of the extremist AIAI. Two of these operatives were subsequently killed; the third, Fazul Abdullah Mohamed of the Comoro Islands, is now al-Qaeda’s leading operative in East Africa and a regular visitor to Somalia. The internationally-sanctioned Transitional Federal Government has been unable to prevent violence in Somalia, especially in Mogadishu. By early 2006, the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) had gained considerable support in Mogadishu and much of south/central Somalia. This alarmed the TFG, the government in neighboring Ethiopia, and the United States, which ill-advisedly financed a group of warlords in Mogadishu to oppose the Islamic Courts. Ethiopia and Somalia have a long history of hostile relations, compounded by the fact that most of southeastern Ethiopia is inhabited by Somalis who are seeking greater autonomy. By mid-2006, the UIC, which consisted of both moderates and extremists, soundly defeated the U.S.-sponsored warlords. By the end of the year, the UIC had taken control of most of south and central Somalia and threatened military action against Ethiopia, which took preemptive steps. At the request of the TFG, Ethiopia sent a large military force into Somalia and forced the UIC out of Mogadishu early in 2007. The Islamist leaders and their militia went into hiding, migrated to southern Somalia or took refuge in Eritrea, which supported and funded the extremist Islamic organizations in Somalia as a way to put pressure on Ethiopia, with which it fought a war during 19982000 and had a continuing, serious border dispute. At this point, the UIC fractured into moderate and extremist wings. The moderates led by Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed eventually joined the TFG, and Ahmed became its president early in 2009. The extremists divided into two main factions: al-Shabaab, which means the youth, and Hizbul Islam, which means the Islamic Party. The intervention of Ethiopian forces in Somalia served as a rallying cry for both of these Islamist groups, allowing them to attract additional Somali followers to force out the foreign Ethiopian troops. The growing influence of the more extreme al-Shabaab also attracted the renewed interest of al-Qaeda, which following its earlier mixed experience in Somalia was not entirely convinced that Somalia offered good prospects for al-Qaeda’s program. The Origins and Development of Al-Shabaab Al-Shabaab formally established itself in 2003 at an AIAI alumni conference in Los Anod, Somaliland; several al-Shabaab leaders come from Somaliland. About a dozen


battle-hardened, Afghan-trained young Somali men stormed out of the AIAI alumni conference in opposition to a proposed agenda that stressed creation of a Salafi political organization. The radical dissidents then organized a parallel conference in Las Anod and launched al-Shabaab as a Salafi-jihadist movement. The most important leaders of the group at its creation were Aden Hashi Ayro, who was killed in 2008 during an American missile strike on his home in Somalia, and Ahmed Abdi Aw-Mohamed “Godane,” who took over al-Shabaab after the death of Ayro but has recently been pushed to the side. Ayro trained in Afghanistan with al-Qaeda during the late 1990s. Godane fought with alQaeda in Afghanistan until the end of 2001 and put in place a chain of command patterned after the one used by al-Qaeda. With the passage of time, al-Shabaab has moved steadily closer to al-Qaeda and adopted a modus operandi that increasingly resembles that of the Taliban in Afghanistan. There are even some suggestions that al-Shabaab portrays itself as closer to al-Qaeda than alQaeda is willing to acknowledge. Public statements by both al-Shabaab and al-Qaeda, usually on their respective web sites, have inexorably moved the two organizations closer to each other. In 2008, the State Department designated al-Shabaab a terrorist organization. Al-Shabaab leaders have praised al-Qaeda leaders since 2008 and declared that al-Shabaab has become part of the al-Qaeda movement. In 2009, al-Shabaab released a video that pledged allegiance to Osama bin Laden. Since 2006, al-Qaeda has reciprocated by voicing general support for jihad in Somalia. In 2008, one of al-Qaeda’s senior commanders recognized al-Shabaab for the first time and said Somalis should accept nothing less than an independent Islamic state. The three top leaders of al-Qaeda made statements in 2009 supporting al-Shabaab’s campaign in Somalia and even put it on the same level as Afghanistan and Iraq. Osama bin Laden released only five statements in 2009, but devoted one of them to Somalia, calling the conflict a war between Islam and the international Crusade. Most of us who have followed al-Shabaab do not believe it is a branch of nor is it under the operational control of al-Qaeda, but it does have close ties with al-Qaeda. The 2009 State Department annual report on terrorism stated that al-Qaeda and al-Shabaab are not formally merged, but acknowledged there are many links between the two organizations. In 2010, the United Nations Monitoring Group on Somalia concluded that extremists within al-Shabaab are seeking, with limited success, to align the organization more closely with al-Qaeda. The absence of al-Qaeda control over al-Shabaab may not be very significant if Alex Gallo, an analyst at West Point’s Combatting Terrorism Center, is correct in arguing that al-Qaeda has become a professional services or consultancy entity. This business model allows al-Qaeda to claim that it is actively engaged in waging violence against the “far enemy,” which includes the United States, while not assuming the financial burden of actually waging the violence. From a tactical point of view, al-Shabaab has borrowed heavily from the Taliban and alQaeda playbooks. Suicide bombings, which were unknown in Somalia prior to 2006 and even alien to Somali culture, became commonplace under al-Shabaab. There is an acceptance of death worshipping among its leaders. Al-Shabaab’s rhetoric increasingly


resembles that of al-Qaeda. It avoids nationalist slogans and refuses to use the traditional Somali flag, which it replaced with a black flag emblazoned with the Shahaada or declaration of the faith in white text. It often holds press conferences in Arabic rather than the more commonly used Somali language. There is a strong foreign influence on alShabaab that takes two forms: the transfer of strategy, tactics, and ideology learned by Somali al-Shabaab leaders during their association with the Taliban and al-Qaeda and the recruitment of foreign fighters. Al-Shabaab has a well-defined vision and is prepared to use just about any tactic, however venal, to achieve its goals. Al-Shabaab looks increasingly like the Taliban of the 1990s. Al-Shabaab’s Military Strength and Foreign Influence Although the most senior officials in al-Shabaab are Somali, they preside over a structure that is strongly influenced by non-Somalis or Somalis with past ties to jihadi organizations. According to one recent account, the eighty-five member executive council of al-Shabaab includes forty-two Somalis and forty-three foreigners. The International Crisis Group, which follows developments in Somalia closely, concluded that “the hardliners, led by the foreign jihadis, wield enormous influence and have access to resources and the means to dictate their wishes to the less powerful factions.” Current estimates of al-Shabaab’s armed strength range from a low of 3,000 to a high of 7,000, although it can mobilize larger numbers on short notice. Most of these fighters are Somalis who never left Somalia; a much smaller number, perhaps as many as 1,000, hails from the Somali diaspora. This figure includes Somalis from neighboring Kenya and other countries in the region and those from the Middle East, Europe and North America, including a dozen or two from the United States. Non-Somali foreigners fighting on behalf of al-Shabaab probably number only 200 to 300 and come primarily from Kenya’s Swahili coast, Pakistan, India, Afghanistan, Yemen, Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda, and Saudi Arabia. The Afghan-trained Somalis and the foreign veterans who experienced action in Afghanistan and Iraq play an important role as al-Shabaab field commanders because of their military experience. They brought specialized skills with them to Somalia and often lead the training and indoctrination of al-Shabaab recruits. They teach the techniques of suicide attacks, remote-controlled roadside bombings, kidnappings and assassinations of TFG officials, journalists, and humanitarian and civil society workers. The foreigners are the principal link to al-Qaeda and by most accounts are exerting growing influence on alShabaab. They are also causing some dissent within al-Shabaab between those who favor close ties with foreigners and adoption of their extreme tactics and those who want more Somali control over al-Shabaab and question the efficacy of tactics such as suicide attacks. Al-Shabaab’s use of foreign fighters is both strength and a weakness. In some cases, the foreigners bring specialized skills such as bomb making, battlefield experience, and fluency in English or other major languages. On the other hand, al-Shabaab attracted much of its support by condemning the engagement in Somalia of foreign troops from


Ethiopia and those sent by the African Union. Somalis generally do not want foreigners involved in their political life. Somalis from the diaspora who are supporting al-Shabaab are probably fully accepted by indigenous Somalis. Non-Somalis, however, are looked upon with disapproval. In addition, the special skills provided by foreign fighters will diminish over time as al-Shabaab develops these same skills among its Somali cadre. AlShabaab makes every effort to minimize the role of non-Somalis in the organization in order to avoid criticism. Recent Al-Shabaab Setbacks and Responses In the past several months, al-Shabaab has experienced several important setbacks but also demonstrated its ability to persevere in the face of adversity. Its internal problems became more obvious to outsiders following its failed Ramadan offensive in October 2010 against African Union forces in Mogadishu. Key commanders concluded that alShabaab leader Godane and foreigners in the movement mismanaged the offensive that resulted in the death of many fighters and eventually ended in the loss of territory. Godane also tried militarily to crush the rival Hizbul Islam extremist group, which is much weaker than al-Shabaab, rather than encourage it to join in an alliance. These events exacerbated long-standing disagreements within the al-Shabaab leadership and led to an uptick in desertions from al-Shabaab. Consequently, al-Shabaab deputy commander in chief, Sheikh Mukhtar Robow, sent his clan fighters, who had taken heavy casualties in the Mogadishu fighting, to his stronghold in Baidoa in south-central Somalia. Two other important al-Shabaab leaders sided with Robow, who supports a more Somali nationalist agenda, in opposition to Godane’s leadership. Eventually, even the small group of foreign fighters concluded that Godane was tearing al-Shabaab apart and determined that new leadership was required. Haji Jama al-Afghani, who trained and fought in Afghanistan and Kashmir, has emerged as the new nominal leader of al-Shabaab. Concurrently, the organization decided to decentralize the command structure. Godane was put in charge of operations in Somaliland, his home area. Robow was given responsibility for Bay and Bakool regions in south/central Somalia, where he hails from. Other al-Shabaab leaders took charge of areas where they have local support. Godane also lost his battle to crush Hizbul Islam, which instead was forced in December 2010 to merge with al-Shabaab. Its leader, Hassan Dahir Aweys, according to one report was given command of his home region in central Somalia. Another account suggests he received no command and is on a short leash. Some observers believe that no more than one-third of his Hizbul Islam followers joined al-Shabaab. Al-Shabaab continues to make good use of the internet in its overseas recruitment campaign. It has made a major effort to shut down any independent media activity in Somalia, although courageous and enterprising Somali journalists, in spite of periodic assassinations at the hands of al-Shabaab, continue to defy the orders. Al-Shabaab now controls, however, much of the radio transmitting capacity in Mogadishu and recently


launched a TV news channel. Inadequate and insufficient TV equipment has limited the number of Mogadishu residents who can watch the channel. There is growing Somali criticism of al-Shabaab and especially its foreign fighters and tactics. Al-Shabaab has also been unable to resolve its internal leadership and policy differences. Nevertheless, the situation has not reached a point where it endangers alShabaab’s control over most of south and central Somalia. The TFG and its allies are still not strong enough to challenge al-Shabaab’s control and the African Union forces have no intention of expanding their military presence beyond Mogadishu.


Al-Qaeda, Al-Shabaab and Somalia