On Saturday, militants of the terror group al-Shabaab set off two bombs and attacked a government building in Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia, with at least five people killed and 21 injured. This is another incident challenging the capacity of the Somali government and its allies to resolve the problem.
A number of African countries have been fighting al-Shabaab for more than a decade, but now Western nations are leading this campaign. Late last year, US-led air strikes against al-Shabaab increased, with the civilian death toll rising, The Guardian reported early this year. This was due to a new directive, signed by US President Donald Trump, which relaxed the rules aimed at preventing civilian casualties. And here is the other side of the coin – civilian casualties actually give legitimacy to the terror group as a resistance movement.
International assistance is important, but when it comes to combating terrorism, relying on military force seems to be a questionable practice. This is especially true for terror groups entrenched in the region and counting on support from a certain portion of the local population. This is where a “soft power” approach proves to be effective.
Al-Shabaab, one of the most lethal terror groups in Africa, clearly illustrates the complexity of the problem. This jihadist fundamentalist group has a largely domestic focus, taking advantage of people’s discontent with the Somali authorities. Although al-Shabaab’s capabilities are now limited and the group has suffered military losses, it still controls a significant portion of the territory.
International assistance is important, but when it comes to combating terrorism, relying on military force seems to be a questionable practice. This is especially true for terror groups entrenched in the region and counting on support from a certain portion of the local population
In this context, supporting and developing civil initiatives will be an invaluable contribution to conflict settlement. The Hiraal Institute, a research organization focused on security problems facing East Africa, particularly Somalia, was established for this reason.
I contacted Richard Barrett, a former British diplomat and intelligence officer, who is one of the world’s top experts in counterterrorism. He sits on advisory boards of a number of institutions, including that of Hiraal Institute. Barrett has pointed out that these problems are complex and all too often the people explaining them are not themselves Somali.
“The Hiraal Institute, which is staffed entirely by Somalis based in Mogadishu, is able to add the cultural dimension that is often missing from other analysis,” Barrett said. “The institute relies on local networks throughout the country as a research base to get at the facts on the ground. It also aims to help the federal government of Somalia and its international partners make better policy decisions based on both factual evidence and clear analysis.”
According to the think-tank, at present, al-Shabaab controls territory in 11 of the 18 Somali regions as well as parts of Kenya’s Coast and North Eastern provinces. As for attacks, since the beginning of the year, more than 200 security incidents have been recorded in Somalia, with the bulk of them carried out by al-Shabaab.
Promoting itself as an alternative to the government, al-Shabaab offers security to populations in the areas under its control, operates courts and settles disputes. When it comes to local conflicts, such mediation becomes a good way to avoid violence. And people are appreciating this.
In addition, the group offers protection to marginalized clans, something that provides it with support from the locals as well. All this helps al-Shabaab integrate into communities and survive a sustained crackdown from the government. And this is not to mention its ideological influence extending far beyond its territories.
The group is remarkably adaptive. After withdrawing in 2011 from Mogadishu, al-Shabaab has been restructured with an emphasis on organizational security and reducing risks to the fighters. Primarily, this is about the group’s intelligence unit – the Amniyat, described as a “secret service structured along the lines of a clandestine organization within the organization.”
As Michael Horton, a senior analyst at the Jamestown Foundation, wrote, “Amniyat operatives remained behind in the cities, towns, and villages from which al-Shabaab had retreated.” So a network of Amniyat informants was set up throughout Somalia, including government ministries.
As Barrett has noted, the threat from al-Shabaab is seen as steady. “But its rise and fall depend more on the efficiency and effectiveness of the Federal Government of Somalia than on its own efforts. Al-Shabaab faces many internal and external difficulties, and although it remains a lethal organization, it is not likely to capture major areas that are currently under government control. It does threaten Kenya as well as Somalia,” the expert stressed.
A painful blow was delivered to the group with the death in 2014 of its leader Ahmed Godane, a charismatic orator and effective manager. That same year, Ahmed Dirie, popularly known as Abu Ubaidah, was named as the new al-Shabaab emir, but he is no match for the previous leader in all respects. In June, news media announced that Abu Ubaidah had died from a kidney disease, but a pro-al-Shabaab website has denied these reports.
“Godane was indeed charismatic, but the present leader, who is, in any case, ill, is more inclined to rule through a tight clique of supporters who are suspicious of others and prefer to rule through fear than through the projection of visionary or inspiring leadership,” Barrett said.
Now, what have we learned from all this? Al-Shabaab is very resilient, sophisticated, adaptive and creative. In June, the group took quite an innovative approach. It banned single-use plastic bags, calling them a “serious” threat to humans, livestock and the environment. As Hussein Sheikh-Ali, chairman of the Hiraal Institute, noted in a tweet, that move would make al-Shabaab “the first environmentally conscious terror group and the first authority in Somalia to ban materials harmful to the environment.”
Let’s face it: In order to defeat al-Shabaab, first and foremost, it is necessary to be twice as creative, twice as sophisticated and as close as possible to people and their needs.