Somalia’s Al Shabaab a Persistent Foe

The radical Islamist movement will not be defeated through military means alone.

When the most feared Islamist insurgent group in Somalia withdrew from its bases in Mogadishu after a three year occupation of most of the city, commanders of the African Union’s peacekeeping force AMISOM and Somali government leaders boasted about the group’s sudden decline in the country. Before the withdrawal, Al Shabaab, as the Islamist group is known, had already suffered a series of military defeats in the capital city. A far better equipped AMISOM force, with Ugandan and Burundian troops in the lead, managed to get themselves together and retake some of Mogadishu’s important commercial districts.

After the retreat from Mogadishu, optimistic Somali parliamentarians predicted that Al Shabaab was all but finished. At the time, they had a point — the organization is hated by most Somalis, who see the group as a main contributor to the deadly famine that is still claiming the lives of their family members and friends.

The Salafist interpretation of Islam that Al Shabaab peddles as its main message was alien to the Somali culture that historically runs on a clan, sub-clan, and Sufi Islamic combination. The suicide bombings that plague Somalia today didn’t happen before 2007 when an influx of foreign militants brought the deadly tactic with them. The beheadings, amputations and stoning that Al Shabaab employs to punish those that do not conform to its belief system were all largely unfamiliar to Somalians prior to its arrival. The deliberate targeting of mothers and children is now a common occurrence.

Yet as in all military engagements around the world, especially those that include a vicious and persistent insurgency operating in a black hole of governance, successes can turn into failures in a couple short weeks. Al Shabaab’s departure from the capital in August has been seriously undermined since by the Somali government’s inability to fill in the vacuum if left with a security presence.

This deficiency was inevitable. The African Union mission, with its 9,000 soldiers and limited rules of engagement, is simply not large enough to reoccupy the entire city — let alone the country.

Somalis in Mogadishu, tired of explosions and guns, are often caught up in the fighting, making the AU complicit in civilian casualties. A new offensive by the Kenyan army into the western regions of Somalia will probably contribute to Al Shabaab’s pressure, at least in the short term. But with Kenya’s traditional aversion to the use of force, and its fear of terrorism reprisals, the military operation could very well be cut short if Kenyan troops start dying in the streets.

Al Shabaab may be weakened but it can still execute terrorist attacks in any area of Somalia, at a time of their choosing. The October 4 suicide truck bombing is the latest example. One hundred Somalis were killed, most of whom were young university students full of potential. The attack occurred smack in the heart of the K4, an area of Mogadishu usually labeled as the safest part of the city.

The world and the African Union need to wake up and realize that Al Shabaab is not going anywhere. The sooner this realization is met, the quicker the transitional government — with the support of the United Nations, United States, African Union and Arab League — will stop trying to rely on brute military force to defeat them.

Al Shabaab may be an unofficial Al Qaeda affiliate with transnational jihadists in its senior ranks but this does not mean that all of its members blindly follow the destructive terrorist brand. Finding those people and drawing them out from underneath the organization’s shadows, must be moved up the list as an urgent priority.

It will certainly be difficult, if not impossible, to convince the moderate (or less extremist) rank and file to shift their allegiances to the transitional government, an institution that is at best broke, corrupt, incompetent and ineffective. But at the very least, clear incentives could persuade the less ideologically committed fighters to protect their own communities.