ATbar Jihadi Arena Report: Somalia - Development of Radical Islamism and Current Implications
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Jihadi Arena Report: Somalia - Development of Radical Islamism and Current Implications

22/03/2010 | by Page, Jacqueline  
Executive Summary
Somalia was ranked number one on Foreign Policy and The Fund for Peace’s 2009 “Failed State Index”—for the second year in a row. [1] The country has been embroiled in a bloody civil war since dictator Siad Barre was ousted in January of 1991. Barre came into power through a military coup in 1969 which dispelled the democratic government that had ruled since the departure of the colonial powers in 1960. The fall of Barre left a power vacuum radical groups were anxious to capitalize on and which they have continued to exploit to this day.

This paper will explore the evolution of Somalia’s radical Islamist movements and the effect these organizations have had on the destabilization of the country’s political process beginning with al-Ittihad al-Islamiyya (AIAI), the geneses of many of the movements active today. The second chapter will take an in-depth look at al-Shabaab, the most notorious of Somalia’s radical groups, and its impact on the current crisis in the Horn of Africa. Somalia’s links to the global jihad, including its associations with al-Qaeda, and the influence of foreign fighters will be discussed in the following chapter. The fourth chapter will deal with local Somalis’ perception of and relationship with al-Shabaab, including local resistance to extremist violence. This report will conclude with a discussion of the most recent developments in Somalia and how the situation stands at present.

Al-Ittihad al-Islamiyya began as a nationalist movement to depose dictator Siad Barre. After the fall of Barre, AIAI changed its agenda to include the liberation of the Ogaden, a region of Ethiopia populated by ethnic Somalis. This move proved fatal for the organization as Ethiopia began to view AIAI as a national security threat. In August 1996, the Ethiopian army launched a cross-border attack which devastated the organization and AIAI dissolved just a few months later.

Parallelly, in Mogadishu, a movement of Islamic Courts was beginning to gain momentum. The court system, headed by Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, was founded in an attempt by locals to infuse a degree of order amidst the chaos plaguing the capital city at the time. The courts system, which gradually became known at the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), came into conflict with Mogadishu’s US-backed warlord coalition, Alliance for Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism, in 2006. It was during this confrontation that the ICU’s militant wing al-Shabaab, headed by former AIAI leader Dahir Hasan Aweys, rose in prominence. Al-Shabaab and the ICU defeated the warlord alliance and, by June, gained control of the entire city of Mogadishu.

The ICU ruled Mogadishu for a few months until Ethiopia teamed with Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG) forces to rout the organization in December 2006. Following the Ethiopian and TFG offensive, the ICU disbanded. Al-Shabaab remained an active militant organization and, a few months later, ICU leaders Ahmed and Aweys founded the Alliance for the Re-liberation of Somalia (ARS). After the initial invasion, Ethiopian forces stayed in Somalia to prop up the weak Somali government. Their presence became the call-to-arms for both al-Shabaab and ARS who were focused on ridding Somalia of these “foreign Crusader forces.”

The Ethiopian invasion spurred a wave of changes in the Somalia arena. Alliances were formed and broken and evolved and resurfaced in new form, including the foundation of Hizb al-Islam from the ashes of ARS. Through all this, described further in this report, Shabaab emerged as Somalia’s most influential, and perhaps most notorious, jihadist group. Though the organization’s main objective was to rid Somalia of foreign forces, namely Ethiopian troops and African Union peacekeepers, they also made an effort link the struggle in Somalia with the global jihad. In this vain, Shabaab cultivated relations with al-Qaeda, offering to shelter al-Qaeda operatives active in the area. Through the years al-Qaeda’s ideological and tactical influences on al-Shabaab became more and more apparent with leaders from both organizations frequently referencing and praising each other. Connected to this is Shabaab’s commitment to recruiting foreign jihadis. Before 2006, the presence of foreign fighters in Somalia was largely limited to a handful of al-Qaeda operatives. The Ethiopian invasion in 2006 seems to have been a mobilizing factor for the international mujahedeen and, though estimates vary greatly, approximately 1,200 foreign fighters are thought to be operating in Somalia currently. [2]

Throughout 2009, al-Shabaab made a number of territorial gains and was in control of southern Somalia and large portions of Mogadishu. At the time of this writing, Shabaab was attempting to expand into the northeastern portions of the country controlled by pro-government forces, like the Sufi militia Ahlu Sunna Wal-Jamaa. The large majority of Somalis practice Sufism whereas al-Shabaab is attempting to impose shariah law based on Salafi principles. This ideological rift is a major point of friction between al-Shabaab and the local population—on occasion locals have even joined together to protest Shabaab-imposed ordinances.

I. Development of Radical Islam in Somalia

A. Arrival and Rise of Radical Islam

Before we address the extremist movement and its hold on Somalia today it’s important to understand how radicalism and radical Islamism, in particular, arrived to Somalia and how extremist Salafi movements penetrated the nearly homogenous Sufi Islam practicing Somali population. Salafi Islam was first introduced to Somalia in the 1940s by scholars trained in Saudi Arabia. At first, the Salafist movement struggled to gain any real traction; it wasn’t until the 1970s and 1980s that Salafism began to develop a presence in Somalia. [3] The oil boom during this period drew large numbers of Somalis to Saudi Arabia for work. The Saudi government offered thousands of Somalis scholarships to study at Saudi universities, the majority of which were Salafi affiliated.[4] This exposure contributed to the increased acceptance of Salafi thought amongst the Somali population. When the workers returned to Somalia, they began to frequent the Salafi centers in Mogadishu and northern Somalia.[5] Among the centers’ most ardent followers were members of al-Jama’a al-Islamiyya (Islamic Association). Al-Jama’a al-Islamiyya, along with the other prominent Salafi organization at the time Wahdat al-Shabab al-Islam (Unity of Islamic Youth), was committed to warding off Western influence and establishing an Islamic state in the Horn of Africa.[6] The two organizations, both active since the 1960s, merged in 1984 to create al-Ittihad al-Islamiyya (AIAI, Islamic Union) headed by Wahdat al-Shabab al-Islam leader Sheikh Ali Warsame, who was among those trained in Saudi Arabia.[7]

B. Al-Ittihad al-Islamiyya

At its inception, Al-Ittihad al-Islamiyya’s primary goal was to establish an Islamic state in East Africa governed by shariah law.[8] However, in the late 1980’s, Al-Ittihad al-Islamiyya’s agenda evolved from a commitment to spreading Salafi ideology to open armed resistance to the Barre regime. Also significant is that at this time Dahir Hasan Aweys surfaced as the head of its militant wing.[9] Somalis supported AIAI, despite its Salafi orientation, because the organization had a very nationalist and anti-Barre agenda. After Barre was ousted in 1991, AIAI switched its focus to supporting the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF)—a separatist movement of ethnic Somalis in the Ogaden region of Ethiopia.

The two groups first became linked in the early 1990s when AIAI welcomed ONLF members fleeing Ethiopia after security forces there carried out a series of assassinations targeting the organization’s leaders.[10] At this time, AIAI was receiving funding from private Saudi benefactors and a variety of “charitable” organizations such as the Muslim World League and the International Islamic Relief Organization.[11] Some suggest Osama bin Laden also contributed up to $3million to AIAI’s cause.[12] The group used this funding to set up training camps and fund a series of coordinated attacks with the ONLF against Ethiopian targets.[13] Tensions with Ethiopia peaked in the mid-1990s when AIAI moved its base to Somalia’s Gedo region which borders Ethiopia. Seeing this as evidence of imminent attacks from AIAI on its territory, Ethiopia launched a cross-border assault against AIAI installations beginning on 9 August 1996.[14] The Ethiopian military far overpowered AIAI destroying the organization’s political and military infrastructures. The defeat led to the disbandment of al-Ittihad al-Islamiyya in January 1997.[15] After AIAI dissolved, many of its former members fled to Mogadishu and joined up with the Islamic Courts movement that was beginning to gain momentum there.[16]

C. The Islamic Courts Union

The first fully functioning shariah court in Mogadishu was founded in 1994.[17] It was created in an attempt by clan leaders to establish some kind of order amidst the chaos that had been plaguing the capital city. The Islamic Courts movement began to flourish in North Mogadishu but was unable to take hold in the southern part of the city due to resistance from the warlord General Aideed. When Aideed died in 1996, the door was opened for the courts to spread into southern portions of the city with Aweys[18] opening the south’s first court in 1998.[19] The courts in south Mogadishu were largely influenced by the aforementioned AIAI members, such as Aweys, who brought with them a militant, extremist mentality that had not been a part of the courts’ predecessors in the north.[20] In 2003, Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed revived the Islamic courts in north Mogadishu, again, in an attempt to restore order to the area. One year later Ahmed was elected Chairman of the entire courts system across both northern and southern Mogadishu and what gradually became know as the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) was formed.[21]

In 2005, the ICU suffered a series of assassinations that many attributed to Somalia’s new Transitional Federal Government (TFG). It was during this context that the militant wing of the ICU, al-Shabaab headed by Aweys’ protégé Adan Hashi Ayro, which advocated violent retaliatory acts against TFG personnel, began to emerge.[22] Then, in March 2006, a coalition of Mogadishu’s Hawiye warlords formed the US-backed Alliance for Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism (ARPCT). When Bashir Rage, a rival of prominent businessman and al-Shabaab benefactor Abukar Adane, joined the ARPCT, Adane called on the militia to take up arms against him.[23] With the defeat of Rage by al-Shabaab forces, the ICU gained control of the El Ma’an seaport. By June, they had captured the entire city of Mogadishu and forced out the ARPCT militants, in effect causing the collapse of the warlord alliance. It was the first time the city of Mogadishu had been united in 16 years.[24]

Upon consolidating their power in Mogadishu, the Islamic Courts Union established a Legislative Council and selected Aweys to be its chair. The appointment of Aweys, who had been instrumental in AIAI’s attacks against Ethiopia in the early 1990s, to a leadership position within the ICU and reports that the ICU was receiving support from long time rival Eritrea alarmed Ethiopian officials. As the courts began to spread their influence beyond Mogadishu, the TFG became increasingly concerned as well. The TFG voted in favor of a foreign peacekeeping presence and, at the end of June, permitted Ethiopian troops to enter Somali territory to help protect it from ICU attack.

In the meantime, the courts began to make tangible improvements to the quality of life in Mogadishu. They removed the roadblocks that had divided the city; cleaned the trash laden streets; and reopened the airport and seaport.[25] The ICU collected weapons from warlord militias[26] and return property commandeered by warlords to their lawful owners.[27] Most importantly, in the eyes of many Somalis, they brought about a degree of peace and security that had been illusive for over a decade—because of this, the ICU enjoyed a large degree of support from the civilian population under its control.

The height of ICU reign only lasted two or three months. This was in part due to the fact that tensions were escalating within the ICU leadership itself. Firstly, there were major differences between Ahmed, head of the Executive Council and considered a Quttubist, and Aweys, head of the Legislative Council and considered a Salafist.[28] Ahmed supported negotiations with the TFG and Aweys remained staunchly against any corporative action. Secondly, there were ideological differences even within the radical faction. Aweys’ goal was largely nationalistic. He wanted to establish an Islamic state governed by shariah law in all of Greater Somalia—“‘We will leave no stone unturned to integrate our Somali brothers in Kenya and Ethiopia and restore their freedom to live with their ancestors in Somalia.’”[29] Ayro, on the other hand, had much broader ambitions and wanted to link the struggle in Somalia to the global jihad.[30] The mounting activism and outspokenness of al-Shabaab only exacerbated this rift.[31]

The situation came to a head in December when the UN passed Resolution 1725 authorizing the deployment of African Union peacekeepers to Somalia. Though Ahmed remained opposed to any attacks against the TFG, on 12 December 2006 ICU defense chief Sheikh Indha’adde threatened, “‘starting today, if the Ethiopians don’t leave our land within seven days, we will attack them and force them to leave our country.’”[32] On December 20, Ethiopian and TFG forces launched an aggressive offensive quickly recapturing Mogadishu and crushing ICU military capacity. The defeat was so devastating that the ICU officially dissolved on 27 December 2006.[33]

Though the ICU had disbanded its leaders remained active and, in January 2007, it reemerged for a short stint as the Popular Resistance Movement in the Land of the Two Migrations (PRMLTM).[34] Then, in September, the Alliance for the Re-liberation of Somalia (ARS) was formed to continue the resistance to the Ethiopian occupation.[35] The differences between Ahmed and Aweys remained a dividing factor and the movement split into two. ARS-Djibouti, headed by Ahmed, favored participating in negotiations and formally signed a ceasefire agreement with the TFG on 18 August 2008.[36] ARS-Asmara, headed by Aweys, rejected any cooperation with the TFG. The ICU militia, Al-Shabaab, remained active under the military leadership of Ayro, and executive chairmanship of Sheikh Ahmad Abdi Godane. When Abdullahi Yusuf resigned and Ahmed became the president of the TFG in January 2009, the ARS was broken up into three distinct entities: Hizb al-Islam, led by Aweys; the TFG, led by Ahmed; and al-Shabaab, led by Ayro.

D. Hizb al-Islam

The formation of the Hizb al-Islam coalition, comprised of ARS-Asmara, Jabhat al-Islamiya, Mu’askar Ras Kamboni and Mu’askar Anole, was announced on 4 February 2009.[37] Hizb al-Islam condemns Ahmed for participating in the UN-sponsored peace talks in Djibouti and has rejected his offers for them to participate in the government.[38] Spokesman Hassan Mahdi criticized Ahmed for supporting a “secular constitution” and said the four groups united to “‘continue the jihad and to rule the country [Somalia] under Islamic law.’”[39] Hizb al-Islam was first headed by Dr. Omar Iman, but in May 2009, shortly after Aweys returned from exile in Eritrea, Iman stepped down and Aweys assumed leadership.[40]

Hizb al-Islam has had a tumultuous relationship with fellow Islamist resistance movement, al-Shabaab. When the creation of Hizb al-Islam was announced, Mahdi indicated that though al-Shabaab was not part of the coalition, the groups held “‘identical positions’” and were considering a potential merger in the future.[41] In early May 2009, the two groups collaborated in an aggressive offensive against TFG installations in Mogadishu and captured a number of towns around the capital city.[42] By July, they were in control of all of southern Somalia and many of the central provinces; they had also limited government forces to just a few small strongholds within Mogadishu.[43]

Despite these collaborative efforts, the groups have clashed on a number of occasions, both ideologically and militarily. For instance, Hizb al-Islam, unlike al-Shabaab, supported the government’s decision to implement shariah law in April 2009.[44] A big source of contention has been over the role al-Qaeda should play in Somali internal affairs. Aweys rejects that bin Laden and al-Qaeda should have any sway over events in Somalia. In response to an audiotape bin Laden released in March 2009 regarding the situation in Somalia, Aweys said, “‘Somalia knows [its] future and who can involve, but it is not something for Osama Bin Laden and al-Qaeda either.’”[45] Shabaab, on the other hand, welcomed bin Laden’s message wholeheartedly.[46] Power struggles have also been source of conflict; it was reported Aweys was so enraged by Shabaab front man Shaykh Ahmad Abdi Godane’s ambitions to lead the Somali insurgency that he “threatened ‘to strike with an iron hand the young northerner.’”[47]

In fall of 2009, relations between Hizb al-Islam and al-Shabaab deteriorated as a number of territorial clashes broke out between the two groups. In September, both groups were vying for control of the port city of Kismayo and on the 23rd al-Shabaab unilaterally appointed its own governing council there.[48] The following week, al-Shabaab declared war against Hizb al-Islam, after its former ally refused to accept its authority over the city.[49] In response, Hizb al-Islam threatened, “‘We will fight al-Shabaab everywhere in Somalia if they so much as fire a pistol in Kismayo. They wanted us to surrender, but we shall never yield ... we want peace, unlike al-Shabaab, which declared war. We ask them to leave us. If they don't, we will force them to do so.’”[50] Despite the tough rhetoric, al-Shabaab had gained full control over Kismayo by 2 October 2009.[51] The territorial battles between the two continued and, on 21 November 2009, al-Shabaab seized Afmadow, the last remaining town under Hizb al-Islam control.[52] In December 2009, Hizb al-Islam, led by the Ras Kamboni and Anole factions, was beginning to challenge Shabaab forces in southern and central Somalia in an attempt to wrest some territorial control from the group.[53] A spokesman for the Ras Kamboni Brigade said their goal was to “liberate the country from al-Shabaab militants, who are indiscriminately killing innocent Somalis and trying to wipe out Somali culture.”[54]

II. Al-Shabaab

A. Foundations: Adan Hashi Ayro

As stated previously, al-Shabaab had originated as the militant wing of the ICU headed by Aweys and Ayro. Full control of the organization was placed in the hands of Ayro when Aweys fled Somalia after the Ethiopian invasion in 2006.[55]

Ayro moved from a remote area of Somalia to Mogadishu with his father at a young age. There he excelled in school and moved on to study Islamic law at the Be’er al-Hind mosque.[56] He attended basic training at the al-Imam Al-Shafii military base in Mogadishu and quickly rose to the rank of commander. When the Barre regime was overthrown in 1991, Ayro joined Awey’s AIAI movement and was an active member in the organization. After the Ethiopian invasion in 1996, Ayro traveled to Afghanistan where he attended al-Qaeda training camps[57] and became extremely adept in military tactics and weaponry.[58] He also had the opportunity to meet with Osama bin Laden who advised him to return to Somalia and use his skills to spread, “the idea of global jihad and the path of al-Qaida.”[59]

Upon his return to Somalia, Ayro began to recruit and train militants for the ICU. He is suspected to be responsible for the so-called “Somaliland Killings”—a series of murders targeting international workers in Somaliland between October 2003 and April 2005.[60] Despite the gravity of these attacks, Ayro remained a relatively unknown until he led a group in the disinterment of a colonial era Italian cemetery in January 2005.[61] The move provoked harsh criticism from the Somali and international communities. Aweys was even quoted as saying Ayro was “‘beyond his control,’”[62] and many ICU leaders began to distance themselves from Ayro and al-Shabaab as his brash tactics were damaging the organization’s reputation in world opinion.[63] Ayro lead al-Shabaab until he was killed on 1 May 2008 by a US tomahawk missile in Dhusa Mareeb at which time Shaykh Ahmad Abdi Godane assumed leadership of the organization.[64]

B. The Organization

Al-Shabaab, which the United States officially included on its list of “Foreign Terrorist Organizations” in 2008, continues to be the most militant of Somalia’s insurgent militias.[65] The movement uses Islam as a unifying tactic, an alternative to the clannism typical of Somalia, and therefore can draw recruits from across clan lines.[66] Under the ICU, al-Shabaab had around 400 fighters; it is now estimated to number between 2,000 and 3,000.[67] The majority of Shabaab recruits are young, poorly educated, dogmatic men from Mogadishu’s high schools and universities. They have grown up surrounded by war and violence and, as Robert Draper suggests, for many Shabaab, “is a tempting exit strategy from powerlessness.”[68] The organization provides its recruits with a stable salary, something hard to come by in the worn-torn country.[69] Once lured in with the prospect of a steady income, the young men are exposed to passionate sermons and lectures radicalizing many into the aspiration for martyrdom.[70]

Though Shabaab designates a supreme central commander, first Ayro and now Godane, the organization seems to be otherwise decentralized with top leaders, known as emirs, managing operations in specific geographic regions—Godane in Mogadishu and central Somalia; Robow in the Bay and Bakool regions; and al-Turki in the Lower and Middle Jubba regions in the South.[71] The BBC reported that Shabaab militants are provided with precard phone cards to be used in executing daily operations. The emirs then pass on orders to middle lieutenants through, “text messages or phone calls from recognized voices, giving them proof the instructions are coming from the right person.”[72] The decentralized nature of leadership has given Shabaab the flexibility to manage its geographically dispersed insurgency.

C. Struggle Against Ethiopian, AU and TFG Forces

Al-Shabaab’s place in the Somali insurgency rose to prominence during the Ethiopian invasion in 2006. When ICU forces were crushed by the Ethiopians in late 2006, al-Shabaab took up the mantle of resistance to “the foreign occupiers” and fighting for the establishment of an Islamic state in Somalia and ultimately in the entire Horn of Africa. The African Union peacekeepers, who arrived in March 2007 to support the Ethiopian and TFG forces, also became targets of Shabaab aggression. To Shabaab, the AU forces were just another “foreign occupier” to be expelled. Robow even threatened Shabaab would seek to carry out attacks within Uganda and Burundi, the two countries whose soldiers make up the lion’s share of the AU force in Somalia.[73]

In January 2007, al-Shabaab militants launched a series of attacks—mortars, rocket-propelled grenades, ambushes, fire fights—against Ethiopian forces and TFG installations.[74] Insurgents attacked the presidential palace on 19 January 2007 firing eight mortars at palace walls, five of which made contact, and then storming presidential police with gunfire.[75] Near-daily attacks, which killed dozens, the majority of whom were civilians, continued through February.[76] On 5 March 2007, the first group of African Union peacekeepers arrived and was met immediately by mortar fire at their air airport base.[77] The following day a convoy of AU armored vehicles was attacked by a rocket-propelled grenade in Mogadishu.[78] Though none of the AU peacekeepers targeted were harmed, 12 civilians were killed and 17 others wounded in the attack.[79] Fierce fighting in the capital city was estimated to have killed over 1,000 people in April 2007 alone. [80]

Shabaab began to employ suicide bombings on a regular basis as a means to attack the “foreign occupier” forces. Suicide bomber Abdul-Aziz Dawood Abdul-Qade drove a truck laden with explosives into an Ethiopian base in Mogadishu on 20 April 2007.[81] Just a few days later, another suicide bomber attacked an Ethiopian camp in Afgoye, just outside the capital city.[82] In a highly sophisticated attack on 29 October 2008, five coordinated suicide car bombers attacked UN sites in Hargeisa, in Somaliland, and Bosasso, in Puntland, within 30minutes of each other—28 people were killed and more than 30 wounded.[83] The most devastating Shabaab suicide attack occurred on 18 June 2009. The bomber targeted a hotel in Beledweyne and killed Somalia’s National Security Minister, Omar Hashi Aden, and 35 others.[84]

Shabaab had consolidated its control of the Lower Juba region in southern Somalia by the end of 2008.[85] When the last of the remaining Ethiopian troops pulled out of Somalia in January 2009, Shabaab had expanded its area of influence even further and was in control of important cities like Baidoa and Kismayo.[86] Al-Shabaab vowed to continue its battle despite the withdrawal of Ethiopian troops, who had been the organization’s main target, and refused attempts by newly elected Somali President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, former leader of the ICU, to engage in dialogue.

With the Ethiopians gone, Shabaab focused its energies on battling AMISOM and TFG forces and enlarging its territorial control. In May 2009, Shabaab teamed with Hizb al-Islam to launch an assault on TFG forces in Mogadishu. The militants attacked government forces stationed at the city’s stadium and briefly gained control of the entire city until government forces launched a counter offensive just days later to retake lost territory.[87] Throughout 2009, Shabaab made a number of territorial gains securing control over all of southern Somalia and launching offensives into central and northeastern regions of the country.

D. International Agenda

As mentioned previously, it had always been Ayro’s goal to link the struggle in Somalia with the global jihad. As an organization, Shabaab has attempted to position itself as active in not just the Somali but the global jihad. In a May 2008 interview, al-Shabaab spokesman Sheikh Mukhtar Robow (aka Abu Mansur) said plainly, “The jihad in Somalia typically belongs to the global jihadist movement with regard to thinking and approach.”[88] He went on to say, “We here, in the bush in Somalia, carry out jihad to liberate Palestine from the occupier Jews…we say that we perform the jihad in Somalia while our eyes are on Jerusalem.”[89] Shabaab took these statements to a more literal level in November 2009 when it announced the formation of its very own Al-Quds Brigade, “whose goal is to free the Islamic holy places.”[90] Just a couple months later, in January 2010, Shabaab suggested it would send its trainees to fight across the Gulf of Aden in Yemen.[91] It is unclear whether Shabaab has the capacity to actually carry out any of these international ambitions nor why Shabaab would decide to send its militants abroad while there is still such an active ongoing struggle in Somalia itself. Nonetheless, these acts emphasize Shabaab’s commitment to position itself as a member of the wider global jihad.

III. Global Jihad

A. Al-Qaeda’s Presence in Somalia

1. Early Involvement: 1990s

Al-Qaeda first became involved in the region in the early 1990s when the United Nations sent UNOSOM peacekeepers to help administer humanitarian aid and the United States launched “Operation Restoration Hope.” In 1993, bin Laden told a group of al-Qaeda members, “‘the American army now they came to the Horn of Africa, and we have to stop the head of the snake, the snake is America…We have to cut the head and stop them.’”[92] Shortly there after, Aweys made contact with Mohammed Atef who arranged for four al-Qaeda operatives, including Ali Mohamed and Sadiq Mohamed Odeh, to go Somalia to train the AIAI mujahidin. The exact role al-Qaeda played in the conflict between the Somali mujahidin and US/UN troops and, in particular, in the infamous “Black Hawk Down” incident is still unclear. While AIAI’s spokesman, Abu Yaser, suggested in a 1997 interview that al-Qaeda operatives had “participated in that battle with some explosives and in launching attacks,”[93] other accounts limit al-Qaeda’s participation to training and financial support.[94] Regardless of what their precise contribution may have been, the events in the early 1990s were the impetus for the establishment of long-term connections between the al-Qaeda and leaders of the Somali jihad, including Adan Hashi Ayro.

Though Somali militants were not directly involved in the 1998 US embassy bombings in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, al-Qaeda operatives, including Harun Fazul and Wadih al-Hage, conducted some of the planning for the attacks from Somalia.[95] This was again the case regarding the 2002 attacks on the Paradise Hotel and the Moi International Airport in Mombasa. Fazul organized part of his team in Mogadishu and gathered many materials needed for the operation from the local arms market.[96] After the operation, the al-Qaeda team fled back to Somalia.[97]

2. Al-Qaeda and al-Shabaab

Ideological Links: The Global Jihad

Ayro gained notoriety for his alleged links with al-Qaeda. It is believed he helped shelter a number of al-Qaeda militants including Fazul Abdullah Mohamed, Abu Talha al-Sudani and Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan.[98] Additionally, ideological links between al-Qaeda and al-Shabaab have been evident for an extended period of time. Al-Qaeda leaders have released a number of videos and audio recordings praising al-Shabaab. In March 2007, a video featuring Shaykh Abu Yahya al-Liby, leader of the Libyan al-Qaeda organization, was released in which he referred to Shabaab as, “‘the lions of Somalia and champions of the deserts and jungles.’” Then, in June 2008, al-Liby again appeared in a video recording urging Shabaab to hold fast to the jihad and not to accept, “‘anything less than an independent Islamic State that does not recognize ‘international legitimacy,’ nor man-made legislation.’”[99] Al Qaeda's second-in-command, Ayamn Al-Zawahiri, issued statements on 11 September 2006 and 5 January 2007 reaching out to Somali Muslims and calling on the international mujahidin to “rush to the aid of their Muslim brothers in Somalia.”[100] In an audio tape released 1 July 2006, Osama bin Laden himself extended support stating, “We promise almighty Allah that we will fight [crusader] soldiers on the land of Somalia,” and encouraging, “Muslim youths and their merchants” to aid the Somali cause in any way possible.[101] Then again on 19 March 2009, bin Laden praised al-Shabaab and asked the Somali people to oust President Ahmed from power.[102]

For its part, al-Shabaab has welcomed the support from al-Qaeda (unlike other Somali Islamists, such as Aweys).[103] Al-Shabaab leaders thanked al-Liby for his March 2007 statements saying, “May Allah bless [al-Liby] for what he has done on our behalf.”[104] Shabaab leaders frequently employ al-Qaedaesque rhetoric. For example, in a May 2008 interview, Robow frequently used “Crusader” terminology—“US forces launched a crusade against Somalia,” “the apostate militias that belong to Abdallah Yusuf’s government,” “the Ethiopian Crusaders”—to describe the situation in Somalia.[105] In March 2009, Robow even explicitly confirmed al-Shabaab was seeking to merge with al-Qaeda: “‘We are negotiating how we can unite into one…We will take our orders from Sheik Osama bin Laden because we are his students. Al-Qaeda is the mother of the holy war in Somalia.’”[106] These ambitions were reiterated on 29 January 2010 when Shabaab released a statement saying, that “jihad of Horn of Africa must be combined with the international jihad led by the al-Qaeda network”[107] and that they had “‘agreed to join the international jihad of al Qaeda.’”[108]

Tactical Links

These ties to al-Qaeda also seem to have influenced the evolution of tactics adopted by al-Shabaab. The group’s spokesman Mukhtar Robow has said out-rightly, “‘We get our tactics and our guidelines from them [al-Qaeda]” and that large numbers of Shabaab militants “have spent time with Osama bin Laden.’”[109] Indeed, many of Shabaab’s leaders have trained in al-Qaeda camps, including Ayro, Godane and Robow. Upon his return from Afghanistan, Ayro trained his followers in the use of explosives, shoulder-launched missiles and anti-tank systems .[110] For a number of years, these were, by and large, the tactics employed by the Islamist militias—suicide bombings and attacks resulting in large numbers of civilian casualties were very rare.[111] After the Ethiopian invasion in 2006, things began to change. Al-Shabaab used the presence these foreign “Crusaders” to justify increasingly violent tactics. Roadside bombings, suicide missions and targeted assassinations, tactics common in the Iraqi insurgency, begin to play an increasingly central role in the Somali arena.[112] In June 2008, Shabaab Commander Godane addressed this shift in methodology: “‘Your mujahideen brothers have adapted to this superiority [of Ethiopian military forces] by adopting a guerilla-style of warfare that had rendered most of the weapons of our enemies ineffective.’”[113] This guerilla-style warfare has since dominated the Somali scene.

Suicide Bombings

On 18 September 2006, a suicide bomber targeted TFG President Abdullahi Yusuf in Baidoa, killing 11 bystanders, including Yusuf’s brother. Somali officials immediately pinned the attack on al-Qaeda with President Yusuf saying, “‘There is nothing like this in Somalia except for al-Qaeda.”[114] Foreign Minister Ismail Mohamed Hurre describe the incident as, “‘characteristically an (al) Qaeda-type attempt.’”[115] The attack is significant as it was the first time a suicide attack, an al-Qaeda associated tactic, had taken place in Somalia. As Mohamud Gulane, a Somali elder, described, “‘committing suicide to kill others is a phenomenon that was imported from outside”—it was evidence of a growing link between Somali insurgents and the global jihadi movement. [116]

Since then, suicide bombings have become an increasingly common fixture of the Somali insurgency with 19 such incidents since 2006.[117] As mentioned previously, Shabaab has regularly used suicide attacks to target Somali government officials or “foreign occupiers,” such as the Ethiopian troops and AU peacekeepers. The most recent suicide bombing in Somalia took place on 3 December 2009 during a graduation ceremony for Benadir University medical, engineering and computer science students at the Shamo Hotel in Mogadishu.[118] The suicide bomber, disguised as a woman, killed 22 people and injured 46. Three government officials were killed including Health Minister Qamar Aden Ali, Education Minister Ahmed Abdulahi Waayeel, Higher Education Minister Ibrahim Hassan Addow; the Sports and Tourism Ministers were among those injured.[119] Rather than avoiding civilian causalities as in the past, the attack took the lives of many innocent civilians including students, parents, journalists and university officials.

Despite this transition in tactics, it is important to note that rather than immediately claiming responsibility for an attack that had killed three government officials, the following day al-Shabaab spokesman Sheikh Ali Mohamud Rage denied the group was responsible for the attack and instead accused the government. Nonetheless, al-Shabaab is blamed and former Islamic Courts Union members who witnessed the attack identified the bomber as a member of al-Shabaab.[120] Somali Prime Minister Omar Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke suggested this was because of the group feared backlash from the Somali population for the high number of civilian causalities the attack incurred.[121] The denial of responsibility may also reflect a growing rift within Shabaab’s top leadership. Godane appears committed to using al-Qaeda trained foreign fighters to continue a violent insurgency against the TFG whereas Robow seems to be open to engaging in negotiations with Shabaab rivals and attempting to sustain a degree of local popular support.[122] Other analysts suggest the attack, perpetrated by a Danish citizen of Somali origin, was evidence of the growing control foreign fighters, who place little importance on local civilian casualties, have over the organization.[123]

B. Foreign Fighters

The presence of foreign fighters in Somalia is not a new phenomenon. However their presence from the mid-1990s until 2006 seemed largely to be limited to the handful of al-Qaeda operatives active there. It was after the Ethiopian invasion and subsequent occupation in 2006, which seemed to be a significant mobilizing factor for the Diaspora community, that an increased number of foreign fighters began to journey to Somalia to take up the cause. [124] An audiotape released by bin Laden in July calling on the greater Muslim community to aid in the Somali jihad was likely seen by many as a direct endorsement of the conflict as a “legitimate jihad.”[125] The ICU reportedly received help from “several hundred” foreign fighters during the its battle in 2006 to oust Ethiopian troops.[126] Amidst the height of tensions between the ICU and Ethiopian forces in December 2006, ICU leaders Sheikh Hassan Abdullah Hirsi al-Turki and Sheikh Yusuf Mohamed Siad “Indha-Adde” each made separate appeals to the international Muslim community to come to Somalia and aid the organization in its jihad. [127] Later that month, witnesses reported that several boats of men, who appeared to be ethnically-Arab, arrived on the shores of Kismayo.[128]

Despite the withdrawal of the “Crusader” Ethiopians, al-Shabaab has continued its attempt to court foreign fighters to join in the Somali struggle. In 2008, spokesman Mukhtar Robow made a number of appeals to the global Muslim community saying foreign jihadis would be welcomed in Somalia and would be allowed to, “‘wed our daughters and share our farms.’”[129] Ayro placed a great deal of importance on the recruitment of foreign fighters to the Somali jihad; he once said quite directly, “the Jihad has no point or meaning without migration.’”[130] The organization also began to release a series of recruitment videos in English featuring an American Muslim convert, Omar Hammami, in an attempt to reach out to Western audiences.[131] Their efforts were aided by statements released by Osama bin Laden March 2009 praising the Somalia mujahidin, emphasizing the importance of the Somali arena and calling on the international Muslim community help the Somali jihadis in every capacity possible.[132]

Estimates of the number of foreign fighters present in Somalia vary greatly and Somali government officials have been accused of inflating the numbers to cajole additional support from Western governments concerned about al-Qaeda.[133] With this in mind, in May 2009 U.N. Security Council documents put the number of foreign fighters between 280-300. In December, Wafula Athanas Wamunyinya, the AU’s special representative for Somalia, reported that Shabaab was estimated to have recruited 1,200 foreign fighters with ethnic-Somali Kenyans accounting for roughly half.[134] Several are reported to hold leadership positions within the organization including Abu Musa Mombasa, a Pakistani man in charge of security and training, and Mohamoud Mujajir, a Sudanese man responsible for suicide bombing operations.[135] Recruits, including many from non-Somali origins, have arrived from all corners of the globe: Pakistan, Afghanistan, the United States, Tanzania, Sudan, Canada, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands, just to name a few.[136] Policy makers fear that that these foreign fighters will return from stints with Shabaab to carry out attacks in their home nations—concerns were recently realized as a Somali man with links to al-Shabaab, attempted to kill Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard at his home in Aarhus, Demark on 3 January 2010.[137]

1. The United States

Beginning in September 2007, about 20 young Somali-Americans from Minneapolis, Minnesota made their way to Somalia to join al-Shabaab. Once in Somalia, the men received military training and ideological indoctrination from Somali, Arab and Western instructors. [138] Largely college-educated and previously apolitical, the men’s exact motivations for joining the Somali jihad are unclear, but it appears the US-backed Ethiopian invasion in 2006 was a major mobilizing factor. The group included Shirwa Ahmed who was, according FBI direct Robert Mueller, “the first U.S. citizen to carry out a terrorist suicide bombing.”[139] Ahmed was involved in an October 2008 Shabaab attack in Puntland that killed 22 individuals, including UN aid workers.[140] Four other members of the Minneapolis group are reported to have died in the conflict.[141]

The men of the Minneapolis contingent are not the only Americans to have way joined the Somali jihad. Omar Hammami, the young man who appearred in the Shabaab’s 2008 recruitment videos, is from Mobile, Alabama. Shortly after the 9/11 attacks, Hammami was quoted a saying, “‘even now it’s difficult to believe a Muslim could have done this.’”[142] Nonetheless, in October 2007, Hammami was spotted at an Islamist training camp in Somalia.[143] American Abu Mansur al-Amriki even holds a leadership position within the organization and, the former field commander, appears to now be in charge of the “finance and payroll department of the foreign mujahidin.”[144] Al-Amriki has also been featured in a number of al-Shabaab recruitment videos.

2. Europe

The United Kingdom and Scandinavia, both of which host large populations of Somali refugees, have been also been sources of recruits for al-Shabaab.[145] Following the appeals for foreign fighters made by al-Turki and Indha-Adde in December 2006, the leader of a UK Islamist organization released a statement urging its followers to move into action: “‘The obligation of supporting the Jihad all over the world (including Somalia) is Fard Ayn (an individual obligation). You can fulfill this duty financially, physically and verbally…no Muslim (man or woman) has an excuse of doing nothing at all.”[146] Seven Britons were captured by Ethiopian troops in January 2007 as they fled fighting alongside remnants of the ICU militia.[147] In October 2007, a 21-year old British-Somali man acted as a suicide bomber in a Shabaab attack in Baidoa that killed over 20 Ethiopian troops.[148] A number of Swedes were also involved with the ICU campaign against Ethiopian troops and an Imam from Stockholm, Sheikh Fuad Mohammed Oalaf, served as a minister in the ICU government in 2006 and then later left the movement to join al-Shabaab.[149]

3. Veterans of other Jihadi Arenas

There appears to be a growing trend of war veterans from other regions making their way to Somalia. Because of the military pressures present in more traditional jihadi arenas (ie. Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq), many foreign fighters have decided to relocate to Somalia and take up the cause there.[150] Somali government officials claim Shabaab has solicited the help of Somali pirates to smuggle al-Qaeda members from the Middle East into the Horn of Africa and that up to 1,000 reached Somali shores in the first half of 2009.[151] Professor Abdulrahman Adan Ibrahim, Somalia's first deputy prime minister, explained the mutually beneficial relationship he suspects the two parties to have struck: “‘the pirate gangs are bribing the Shabaab not to attack them, and the Shabaab are getting the pirates to bring in fighters.’”[152] The growing number of battle-hardened al-Qaeda members collaborating with al-Shabaab is worrisome in that these men bring with them knowledge of “sophisticated terror tactics” that may now make their way into the Somali arena.[153]

4. Integration of Foreign Jihadis

Historically, Somalia’s clan system has been an obstacle for foreign jihadis. As mentioned previously, Somalia’s population is extremely homogenous—outsiders are easy to spot. In addition, Somali customary law (xeer) stipulates that, only individuals with some degree of connection through kinship are granted protection.[154] Conversely, for international jihadis, the practice of placing clan or personal needs over those of the organization is strange and difficult to digest.[155] These factor combine to create an inhospitable environment for foreign jihadis. In the 1990s, al-Qaeda operatives assessing the situation in Somalia reported that: “‘Although outsiders might succeed in co-opting a local group, the segmentation of social groups and the nature of social relationships would limit their capacity to extend their influence. This makes Kenya and Tanzania more conducive to the development of terrorist networks, even if Somalia becomes a refuge to for some of them.’” However, recently al-Shabaab seems to be less and less concerned with the distaste the greater Somali population has for outsiders. In May 2009, The Economist reported that foreign fighters in Mogadishu “are no longer being hidden by their commanders but are being eagerly shown off to display the insurgents’ global support.”[156]

IV. Relations with the Local Population

In general, the Islamist insurgency enjoys little support amongst the Somali public. Somali society revolves heavily around a rigid clan system made up of the Hawiye, Darod, Dir, Isaaq and Rahanweyn. Clan and sub-clan loyalty often come before allegiance to state, let alone political affiliations.[157] For this reason, many Somalis reject Shabaab as it has positioned itself as “clanless.”

Another factor is the sect of Islam the insurgents support versus that of the local population. The Somali population is largely homogenous; the majority of Somalis speak the same language, share the same culture and practice the same form of Sufi Islam. Al-Shabaab, on the other hand, follows a radical strain of Salafi Islam. This is a major point of friction between the insurgents and the local population. Al-Shabaab has imposed a strict version of shariah law, enforced by its police force Jaysh al-Hisbah, in the areas it controls.[158] This includes: public stonings (including a 13 year-old girl accused of adultery in October 2008)[159]; beheadings (including seven individuals accused of being “Christian spies” in July 2009)[160]; public lashings of any man without a beard; the amputation of convicted thieves’ hands and feet; whipping of women for wearing bras; and the prohibition of movies, dancing at weddings and playing or watching soccer.[161] Shabaab’s radical interpretation of shariah law is not supported by the large majority of Somalis and many have outwardly demonstrated resistance to Shabaab rulings. In January 2009, Kismayo residents rioted when Shabaab turned its soccer stadium into a market and in March nearly 1000 Baidoa residents took to the streets to protest a ban on khat, a mild stimulant popular in the region—some demonstrators even threw rocks at Shabaab militants.[162] This ideological fissure is likely to remain a key point of conflict between Shabaab and the residents of areas under its control.[163]

In 2007, before the arrival of AMISOM peacekeepers, local Somalis fed up with violence began to take up arms and form vigilante forces to combat insurgent groups. On February 21, locals attacked a group a militants attempting to fire a mortar at government positions from their neighborhood.[164] A couple days later, they fought along side government forces to repel an insurgent attack on Mogadishu’s Bar Ubah neighborhood.[165] One of the vigilante leaders in Mogadishu, Mohammed Abdullahi, expressed the groups’ commitment to combating rebel forces: “‘No insurgent can dare use our area to launch attacks. They would ideally want to, as we are very close to the presidential palace. But we will never allow them.’”[166] Vigilante activity seemed to diminish with the arrival of AMISOM forces, but in April 2009, Hawiye Clan Elders called on locals to once again form civil forces to defend against insurgent violence and restore security to the capital city.[167]

Salafis are strongly opposed to many Sufi precepts and traditions and al-Shabaab militants have targeted Sufi leaders and holy sites on several occasions. On 9 December 2008, Shabaab militants destroyed the graves of a number of well-known Sufi leaders in Kismayo saying it was “‘un-Islamic’ worship dead people.’”[168] Later that month, a similar incident occurred in Jilib—in this case locals accused Shabaab of using foreigner fighters to carry out the job.[169] Shabaab continued to conduct operations against Sufi holy sites throughout 2009 including in the town of Brave in June, Galhareeri in October and Basra, where seven people where killed, in December.[170]

A. Ahlu Sunna Wal-Jamaa

These attacks have not gone unanswered. The Sufi militia Ahlu Sunna Wal-Jamaa (“The Companions of the Prophet”) has spearheaded the resistance movement against al-Shabaab. Ahlu Sunna sees Shabaab as importers of a foreign and misguided interpretation of Islam. Despite Sufis’ typical aversion to violence, the organization’s chairman Sheikh Omar Sheikh Mohamed Farah, expressed Ahlu Sunna’s commitment battling Shabaab: “We have to be ready to fight those distorting our religion...We have never liked to fight but this is a time to do so.’”[171] Clashes between the two groups began to intensify after al-Shabaab’s attacks on Sufi holy sites in late 2008. When Shabaab assassinated Sufi clerics in March 2009, Ahlu Sunna declared jihad against the group who they referred to as “‘the Islamist strangers.’”[172] The group, which is loosely aligned with the TFG, was locked in a number of battles against Shabaab forces in central Somalia throughout 2009. They forcefully retook the town of Guri El in December and repelled a Shabaab attack on Dhusamareb on 29 January 2009.[173] Ahlu Sunna was also responsible for organizing an anti-Shabaab protest in Mogadishu following the December 3rd suicide attack at the Benadir University graduation ceremony.[174]

On 7 December 2009, in the wake of the Benadir University attack, hundreds of Somalis took to the streets of Mogadishu to protest al-Shabaab. The demonstration, during which participants chanted, “down with al-Shabaab” and “we don’t need violence,” was the first of its kind in Mogadishu.[175] A number of Somalis expressed disgust with al-Shabaab tactics. As activist Abdi Mahad put it, the attack was “‘a wake-up call for all. Up to that point, everybody assumed they were fighting foreigners and the government, but we realized on Thursday [3 December] that they are at war with us…They are killing our best and brightest. They are the enemy.’”[176]

V. Recent Developments and Conclusions

The three main insurgent groups active in Somalia, al-Shabaab, Hizb al-Islam and Ahlu Sunna Wal-Jamaa, engaged in a number of territorial battles in early 2010. On 2 January, Ahlu Sunna fended off an attempt by Shabaab forces to retake Dusa Marreb, a town it lost control of one year earlier.[177] In the middle of the month, Hizb al-Islam attempted, unsuccessfully, to fend off an Ahlu Sunna Wal-Jamaa in Beledweyne while simultaneously engaging Shabaab forces in Dobley.[178] Similarly, while Shabaab was fighting Hizb al-Islam in Dolby, they lost battles with Ahlu Sunna Wal-Jamaa over the villages of Wabho and Warhole.[179] On 29 January 2009, in a move typifying the tumultuous relationships between Somalia’s insurgent groups, al-Shabaab announced that Ras Kamboni, the Hizb-Islam collation member who had spearheaded attacks against Shabaab just one month earlier, was joining its ranks going forward.[180]

Over 19,000 Somalis have died and 1.5million have been displaced by the violence that has plagued the country since the beginning of 2007 alone.[181] At the time of this writing, Somalia’s neighbors, Kenya, Ethiopia and Djibouti, appeared to be training ethnic Somali military officers, on behalf of the TFG, for an assault on Shabaab installations in the near future.[182] AMISOM was active in training Somalia military personnel within Somalia itself. An influx of AU peacekeepers is scheduled to arrive, presumably to help secure areas liberated in the upcoming operation.[183] What will come of the prospective offensive against al-Shabaab has yet to be seen. If the initiative fails and Shabaab is able to consolidate its territorial gains and further destabilize the fragile Somali government, it likely to have international implications as the organization may be in a position to strengthen its support of foreign global jihadi movements, such as al-Qaeda. The situation in Somalia is still very fragile and deserves additional attention going forward.

Appendix One: Ethnic Dispersion Map

Ethnic Dispersion Map

University of Texas, “Ethnic Groups from Somalia Summary Map, CIA 2002”

Appendix Two: Al-Shabaab Symbol

Al-Shabaab Symbol

Excerpt from

“Description: A green circle with a yellow banner on top reads, in Arabic, “the Movement of the Shabaab Mujahideen.” The center image includes a map of the Horn of Africa, an open Qur’an and two crossed AK-47 rifles. Above the Qur’an is the Islamic declaration of faith, “There is no God but the God, and Muhammad is the messenger of God.” The bottom banner reads, “The Army of Hardship in Somalia.”

Explanation: The map of the Horn of Africa at the center of the symbol depicts Al Shabaab’s primary geographical location. The Qur’an highlights the group’s goal to establish an Islamic state in Somalia by ridding the country of Ethiopian and outside forces, as well as the centrality of Islam to the group’s ideology. The rifles symbolize the group’s commitment to violent jihad, while the shahada, the Islamic declaration of faith above them, underline Al Shabaab’s commitment and devotion to Islam. The Arabic words at the bottom of the symbol, “the army of hardship in Somalia,” allude to the “army of hardship” that was victorious in the battle of Badr against the Meccan disbelievers during the time of the Prophet Muhammad.”

ADL, “Al-Shabaab.”


[1] Foreign Policy, “The Failed State Index 2009.”