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Issue 499/ 20th - 26th August 2011
Q&A: Somalia's Al-Shabaab Rebel Group
Somalia's Islamist rebels have pulled out of Mogadishu, but they remain in control of areas worst affected by famine and drought
Xan Rice in Nairobi
The Islamist rebel group al-Shabaab controls most of southern Somalia. Despite announcing a withdrawal from Mogadishu 10 days ago, the insurgents remain in charge of the areas of the country worst affected by famine and drought. Affiliated to al-Qaida and anti-western in outlook, al-Shabaab leaders have allowed few outsiders to gain a real insight into their methods and motivations. The following information is drawn in part from two reports, the International Crisis Group's Somalia's Divided Islamists, published last year, and the July 2011 report of the UN Monitoring Group on Somalia.
What are the origins of al-Shabaab?
The group became widely known in 2006 when the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), a broad-based religious movement, ousted the warlords that controlled Mogadishu and expanded its influence into other parts of southern Somalia. After Ethiopian troops defeated the ICU, al-Shabaab – which means "the youth" – emerged an as autonomous insurgent force. Some reports, however, suggest its origins may stretch back to the late 1990s.
Is al-Shabaab homogenous?
No. Initially it attracted a variety of Islamist groups opposed to the Ethiopian occupation, some hardline, others less so. Over time, and especially after the Ethiopian withdrawal from Somalia in early 2009, command became much more centralized and extremist. But al-Shabaab still relies on a wide variety of interest groups, from global jihadists, who play key roles in the operational command, to local businessmen more inspired by profit than the Qur'an. The style of rule differs by area and is subject to clan influence in some parts. Many of the young Somali footsoldiers were attracted to the cause by money – al-Shabaab paid recruits better than the government – as well as anger at the Ethiopian invasion. By collecting details of the recruits' families, al-Shabaab commanders have made it extremely difficult for their fighters to desert.
How is al-Shabaab funded?
The rebels operate a sophisticated and wide-reaching "tax" collection system. The UN Monitoring Group estimates that it generates up to $100m (£61m) a year through the control of airports and seaports, and taxes on goods, services, produce and livestock. It also operates checkpoint "fees" and other methods of extortion justified under Islamic almsgiving laws. Taxes from the export of charcoal are the most lucrative form of income, exceeding $15m a year. Linked to the charcoal trade are sugar imports, which also provide significant tax income. In total, port revenues amount to as much as $50m annually. Diaspora support and other jihad contributions also help.
What is al-Shabaab's goal?
The overriding motivations of the hardliner leaders are more ideological than political. With support from foreign jihadis, they view themselves as custodians of Islam. They see Muslims as being in a perpetual state of war with the "infidels", hence the affiliation with al-Qaida, and they are opposed to clanism. This outlook, which is influenced by jihads beyond Somalia's borders, conflicts with that of some influential al-Shabaab leaders lower down the hierarchy, whose ambitions are strictly national.
What methods has al-Shabaab used to advance its goals?
The rebels have used the internet extensively to promote their radical ideology and to celebrate their martyrs. This propaganda has been an important recruiting tool for volunteer fighters from abroad, especially from the Somali diaspora. Militarily, al-Shabaab has proved effective both in winning territory and especially in waging guerrilla war against a better-armed enemy. Its fighters are often hard to distinguish from the general population, making them difficult to target. In Mogadishu and elsewhere, the rebels have used roadside bombs and suicide attacks to devastating effect. They also planned and financed the July 2010 massacre in Kampala, Uganda, when suicide attackers detonated their explosives at two entertainment venues, killing 79 people.
Does al-Shabaab have popular support?
No. In the early days, the militants did attract goodwill as their goal of ending the Ethiopian occupation matched the aspirations of many Somalis. The rebels also brought law and order to areas they controlled, something the transitional federal government (TFG) has never achieved. But the militants' extreme interpretation of Islam runs counter to the culture and traditions of Somalia, where clan usually trumps religion. Bans on everything from watching films and football to pop music won the Islamists few friends, and taxes on small businesses and farmers, even poor ones, proved unpopular. Arbitrary and brutal punishments encouraged fear rather than loyalty. Many Somalis also resent the presence of foreign fighters on their soil. The expulsion of numerous international aid agencies came at the expense of the some of the most vulnerable people in al-Shabaab areas, adding to discontent.
Why did the rebels withdraw from Mogadishu earlier this month?
African Union peacekeepers and pro-government forces had mounted a strong offensive against the militants, and al-Shabaab leaders said the move was strategic. "This change in military tactics, as well as the increased mobility of the mujahideen's forces in all of Mogadishu's districts, will provide them with the ability to inflict the maximum damage to the frustrated African Union and TFG troops whilst greatly minimizing the losses on the side of the mujahideen," read a recent email message claiming to be from al-Shabaab's press office.
But there have also been increasing signs of divisions in the rebel ranks. The most senior al-Shabaab leaders are from Somaliland rather than southern Somalia and are transnational in outlook, having brought in foreign fighters and sought ties with al-Qaida. But an ill-judged attempt last September to capture the whole of Mogadishu, where 9,000 African Union peacekeepers are stationed, infuriated more nationalist supporters and clan leaders in rebel-held areas, because many of the young fighters they had recruited were killed in battle. Anger among clan elders over the hardliners' handling of the famine response has widened the rifts.
Where does al-Shabaab go from here?
Unconfirmed reports from Mogadishu suggest that al-Shabaab's leader, Ahmed Abdi Godane, may have been replaced by Ibrahim Haji Mead, also known as Ibrahim Afghani, a fellow veteran of the wars in Afghanistan. It is not clear if this is true, or what it means strategically. While disagreements within the leadership may take some time to reconcile, there is no suggestion that the rebels are about to be defeated. Indeed a campaign of heightened guerrilla attacks aimed at ensuring that Somalia is not governed "according to the whims and desires of the western nations and their puppet regimes" seems likely. The rebels' finances have been hit by the famine, however, following the exodus of hundreds of thousands of "taxpayers" from their areas. The loss of the Bakara market in Mogadishu will sting even more, as it generated a few million dollars a month in taxes.
Source: The Guardian