The Splintering of Al Shabaab

For the better part of five years, much of Somalia’s long-suffering population has been caught in a deadly stalemate between al Shabaab, an al Qaeda-linked militant group, and African Union peacekeepers, known as AMISOM. The peacekeepers are tasked with defending the country’s weak Transitional Federal Government (TFG), which, despite years of backing from regional powers and the West, remains politically dysfunctional and incapable doing anything resembling governing. Fielding an army of its own remains a distant aspiration.

That is why quelling the insurgency has fallen entirely on AMISOM. Over the last 18 months or so the 12,000 strong force has honed its tactics and made gains, however stilting, against al Shabaab. Insistent that no American boots hit the ground in Somalia, Washington has backed the mission. (That is, of course, no American boots on the ground with the exception of last week, when a Navy Seal team rescued two aid workers in central Somalia, some 500 kilometers north of Mogadishu.) In return for their troop contributions to AMISOM, the United States has given Burundi and Uganda several hundred million dollars in salary, equipment, training, and logistical support. Perhaps more importantly, Washington now calls both countries allies.

But other powers are involved in the battle now, too. In November, around one thousand Ethiopian troops entered central Somalia in an effort to distract al Shabaab from the floundering Kenyan incursion of around 1,500 troops into the far south. Kenya’s decision to invade seems to have been a long time in the making, but it was not coordinated with Washington or AMISOM; more, it proved ill-timed, since it coincided with Somalia’s rainy season. For the first two months, Kenya’s heavy military equipment was, literally, stuck in the mud just inside Somalia’s border. As the Kenyan government helplessly watched its bills pile up, al Shabaab’s fighters kept just out of rifle range. Since December, when the rains ended and the Ethiopians stepped in, Kenya has fared somewhat better. But Nairobi has yet to articulate a coherent strategy and, worse, it is belatedly asking for Western assistance to cover the cost of the occupation.

By some crude measures, the ad-hoc alliance between Kenya, Ethiopia, and AMISOM has strained al Shabaab, forcing the movement to contend with attacks on three separate fronts. Al Shabaab’s decision to withdraw from Mogadishu last August might have been strategic, but its subsequent loss of Beletweyne and other towns along the Kenyan border has raised hopes that, although the group still controls large swathes of territory in southern Somalia, there may nevertheless be an end to the violence in sight. 

Washington would cheer al Shabaab’s defeat, but, as is often the case in the Horn of Africa, the United States should be careful what it wishes for. Al Shabaab’s leadership is already divided among nationalist factions of clan-based militia leaders, who are mainly determined to oust the TFG and put their own clans in power. They count upwards of 7,000 in their ranks and make up the bulk of the group’s members. In the wake of a military defeat, the nationalists, who enjoy the support of substantial constituencies on the ground, are likely to cast off the al Shabaab banner, but will retain their importance as clan-based militia leaders and clerics. They will continue to play politics, and, depending on the incentives they’re offered, will act as influential spoilers or peacemakers in any emergent political order. Some of these leaders, including Mukhtar Robow and Hassan Dahir Aweys, have been linked to al Qaeda, but the United States would do well to tolerate them, because the Somali public generally perceives them as legitimate. 

But there is a smaller group of hardliner al Shabaab radicals who, with their foreign supporters in the Gulf, have a transnational jihadist agenda and would prefer to target U.S. assets in the region. In a nightmare scenario, they might deploy a U.S.-passport holding Somali to attack inside the United States. 

Until now, the nationalists and radicals have been held together by mutual benefit — the radicals have gained a foothold in Somalia’s slippery clan system and in return, the nationalists have received funds and technical training from abroad, including from the Middle East and South Asia. The nationalists, who are worried about keeping up the flow of remittances to the Somali public, have mostly prevented the radicals from striking beyond Somalia. A break between the two factions would liberate the radicals from that constraint, while making Somalia a less attractive haven.

The question then becomes whether al Shabaab’s radicals would be able to re-implant themselves among the radicalized and disenfranchised youths in Kenya or the many frustrated opposition movements in East Africa — for example, Uganda’s militant Allied Democratic Forces (ADF). Addis Ababa, Kampala, and Nairobi all present attractive targets, but the entire eastern seaboard of Africa, and even Johannesburg, would theoretically be vulnerable to attack. It would be a strange twist of counterterrorist fate: the successful battle against Islamist militants would catalyze al Shabaab’s evolution into a regional terrorist organization. 

Despite its areas of control, a majority of the Somali population actually despises al Shabaab. That is for a simple reason: the group is corrupt. Since gaining control of much of the Somali countryside in 2007, al Shabaab has invested tremendous time and energy in building up what is essentially a racket “taxing” businesses — including on the proceeds of pirate operations, which are one of the most iconic, if not necessarily most lucrative of Somali enterprises — in its areas of control. But while the militants fill their coffers, the population starves. And although al Shabaab controls the security situation in much of the country, it has never taken up the real responsibility of governing, preferring to leave the daily decisionmaking in the hands of the local clans.

A central tenet of counterinsurgency strategy is that an insurgency’s final defeat requires a credible political alternative to step into the ensuing power vacuum. In Somalia, the problem is that the TFG is not up to the task. Corruption is rampant with the TFG, too: a confidential donor-supported audit showed that 96 percent of bilateral aid awarded between 2009-2010 simply disappeared. Without military protection from AMISOM, which has created a sort of “green zone” around the presidential palace, the transition government’s hotels and offices would be overrun. The bottom line is that the TFG is, on its best day, little more than a drain down which international funds disappear.

The TFG’s myriad failures is what made it possible — or, as Addis Ababa and Nairobi saw it, necessary — for Ethiopian and Kenyan troops to invade. Both countries have backed political and military proxies in Somalia to protect their interests. These proxies, including the Sufi militia Ahlu Sunnah Wal Jama and regional administrations, such as those in Azania and Jubbaland, intend to compete rather than cooperate with the TFG for international resources and influence. 

Some have tried to depict al Shabaab as a transnational terrorist organization, but that is largely a misconception. Recently, a group of senior leaders of the nationalist wing independently announced their intention to re-name al Shabaab the “Islamic Emirate of Somalia” and henceforth focus on local governance — a direct challenge to those who would see the group move closer to al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and other nearby terrorist networks. Indeed, over its seven-year history, al Shabaab’s actions have largely been domestically oriented, invested more in the nationalist goal of removing AMISOM and the TFG from Mogadishu than in fighting a war with the rest of the world.

Yet, as al Shabaab splinters, the group’s radical core will seek new allies. These will most likely be drawn from the growing cohort of politically disaffected youth throughout East Africa. They need not be Somali. One can already witness the early stages of this process in the rush by the Nairobi-based Muslim Youth Center (commonly known as the “Pumwani Muslim Youth”) to become al Shabaab’s mouthpiece in Kenya. But deeper networks are forming out of sight and further afield, as the UN Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea documented last year in its report to the Security Council, which also noted that non-Somali Kenyan nationals already constitute the largest non-Somali group in al Shabaab. Al Shabaab could even reach across the Gulf of Aden to expand the links it already has with al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which could provide new sources of funding and a renewed connection with al Qaeda core. Or it could seek to link up with al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb or with Nigeria’s increasingly dangerous Boko Haram sect, with which it already has some interactions. Ultimately, the newly independent radicals could seek to be the official local franchise of al Qaeda, or worse — they could eschew the Middle Eastern influence and weave regional grievances into their own new jihadist narrative.

Over the past six years, U.S. development and humanitarian assistance to Somalia has declined dramatically (even in the wake of the worst famine in decades), there have been uncountable civilian casualties resulting from indiscriminate fire, millions of people have been starved from their homes, and there have been no state-building efforts worth the name. Although there have been perfunctory nods to governance and peace building, U.S. policy has largely revolved around counterterrorism.

And true, beating the terrorists in Somalia might, in some sense, win the war. But it will not keep the peace. If the United States were to attempt some modest steps toward assisting the Somalis to resolve their conflicts and reconstitute their government — as it certainly should — the effort would more effectively be made in coordination with its existing partners among the Muslim countries. Turkey, for example, is an increasingly popular presence in Somalia and is one of the few countries to even dare open an embassy in Mogadishu. And even then, the effort should fall under the mantle of humanitarian and development assistance, not as a footnote in a global counterterrorism campaign. 

It might not be possible to keep the radical elements of al Shabaab from scattering across the Horn of Africa. The group’s vital networks already extend far beyond Somalia. Much of its funding, and all of its popular support, come from abroad. In that sense, al Shabaab’s adventure in Somalia has served al Qaeda’s purpose. It has provided an old and fairly tarnished group of foreign radicals with new prestige, allowing them to inspire and radicalize new cohorts of disaffected youth across East Africa, and particularly in Kenya. Somalia is not — and never has been — a hospitable haven for al Qaeda, and its utility is now clearly exhausted. The next and more dangerous stage of the jihad lies in Kenya, Libya, Nigeria, and Uganda.

The best that Washington can do now is to close the book on its ill-fated war in Somalia. The easiest way to do this would be to signal a willingness to live with al Shabaab’s disaffected nationalist branch, provided that they open the parts of Somalia that they control to humanitarian relief and make a break with the group’s hardcore leadership and its ambitions of transnational jihad. This will not solve the problem of keeping hardliners from branching out and creating a regional terrorist threat — that ship has already sailed. But it is the only way to end the conflict in Somalia.

Opening a path for parts of al Shabaab to participate in the political process may be distasteful to the West, but the White House should bear in mind that the basic outline of the Somali conflict has not changed. The population remains disaffected from the TFG. Heavily splintered, clan factions are quickly evolving into autonomous political entities. National reconciliation remains a fantasy, so there is no simple military solution to the crisis. In a sense, with the gains made in recent months, there are now two al Shabaabs, and if Washington and the UN ignore that, it will be at the cost of another decade of chaos, anguish, and death. Figuring out how to engage one, however, while declaring a new and separate war on the other, might actually start paving a path to peace that is more than just a fantasy.

Bronwyn Bruton is deputy director of the Council’s Michael S. Ansari Africa Center. Dr. J. Peter Pham is director of the Center. This essay was originally published with Foreign Affairs. Photo credit: UN/Flickr.

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