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What You Need to Know to Understand al-Shabaab

What You Need to Know to Understand al-Shabaab

Explainer

15 min read

Peter Chonka Teaching Fellow, SOAS

Posted on: 21st September 2016

In a changing, fragmented Somalia, Harakaat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen's insurgency has yet to be defeated. Three years on from the infamous Nairobi Westgate shopping mall attack, which grabbed global headlines, the jihadi group has shown its staying power with persistent (if less internationally publicised) violence in Mogadishu, Somalia's capital. The al-Qaeda affiliate is, however, being put under increased domestic and international military pressure. On the political front, the implementation of 'Vision 2016,' a framework for reconfiguring the Somali state and undertaking indirect elections, brings with it optimism for further political stabilisation. But this is tempered with uncertainty – and overshadowed by al-Shabaab's violence.

The internationally-recognised Somali Federal Government (SFG) has made significant security gains since being installed in 2012. Still, armed conflict continues in sporadic and shifting patterns in south and central Somalia, and in territory under the control of the autonomous Puntland administration in the northeast. From one perspective, Somalia's conflict sees al-Shabaab pitted against the SFG (or nominally SFG-aligned regional states) and its external backers. These include African Union Mission for Somalia (AMISOM) forces, the United Nations, and other states, such as Turkey. Since 2011, al-Shabaab has gone from having significant territorial control, administering large swathes of the south and centre, to being a harried insurgency, largely displaced to the rural hinterlands. AMISOM and the Somali military have been responsible for major territorial gains against the group, while international actors, particularly the US, have engaged in sporadic drone strikes or special forces raids. From another perspective, however, al-Shabaab is but one actor in the ongoing contest between the regional political organisations jockeying for influence in Somalia's 'federal' future.

Clan dynamics is one the least understood factors in al-Shabaab's resilience.

Al-Shabaab emerged from an environment of extreme political fragmentation and previous experiments of Islamist governance. These, in turn, were a function of a much longer historical conflict dating back to resistance against Siyaad Barre's secular military regime, which collapsed in 1991. Since then, with no genuine national reconciliation process, key fault lines remain. As such, al-Shabaab's jihadi insurgency is heavily influenced by political, economic, regional, and 'clan' dynamics. The latter is one of the least understood factors behind the group's resilience.

Al-Shabaab's demise has been predicted time and again, usually following periods of territorial displacement or assassinations, such the 2014 killing of former Emir Ahmed Abdi Godane (nom-de-guerre Mukhtar Abu Zubeyr) in a US drone strike. The US military footprint has increased significantly in southern Somalia in recent months, and the pace of strikes and commando raids (often in collaboration with elite Somali troops) has visibly intensified. Such intensification is intended to weaken al-Shabaab's capacity to undermine the indirect parliamentary and presidential elections due to be held from the end of September. As the wider security situation currently prevents 'one person one vote' elections, a system involving electoral college delegates, selected by clan elders across the regions will undertake this process. The framework for the 2016 elections – hammered out through various agreements with the recently formed regional states – remains controversial. Political uncertainty remains over its ability to deliver results within its (already delayed) timeframe. Despite coming under increased military pressure, al-Shabaab's attacks on locations such as hotels and restaurants (most recently in August 2016) highlight the group's continued capacity to disrupt the type of elite and public political gatherings required for these important election processes.

Divided but homogenous?

While politically divided, Somali society is relatively homogenous. Unlike neighbouring states in the Horn of Africa, the population of Somalia (including the independent but unrecognised Republic of Somaliland) largely identify as 'Somali,' speak dialects of Somali, and are practising Sunni Muslims. Society is structured around 'clans,' with lineage traced back through male ancestors to founding figures often endowed with quasi-mythical links to Arabia and the Prophet Mohammad. The clan 'system' is based around four (or five) major families: the Daarood, the Dir (including or excluding the Isaaq which is sometimes seen as a separate 'clan family'), the Hawiye, and the Raxanweyne (also known as the Digil and Mirifle). These are sub-divided into closer kin networks and the important diya (Somali: mag) paying kinship groups that collectively raise and settle compensation claims for infractions against other clans. This system is one of the foundations of Somali customary law, which in the past organised Somalia's mostly nomadic and pastoral society. It has continued to function (or adapt) in south and central Somalia since the 1991 governmental collapse.

Somali society is structured around four or five major clan families.

Clan identities overlap with the political and economic dynamics of conflict that have defined post-colonial Somalia, the regional and clan-based resistance to Barre's dictatorship, and the civil war that followed its collapse. Clan-families are not monolithic and territorially fixed, though they are sometimes invoked within the debate over state collapse and reconstruction. Inter-clan conflict can take place at any level of the genealogical structure, as alliances shift. In the absence of state structures across southern and central Somalia, customary law and sharia law have come to play a re-energised role. This, in turn, maintains the importance of clans.

'Clanism,' or qaybyaalad, is frequently condemned in political commentary and popular culture as hampering the re-emergence of a united Somalia. Yet, the role of clans is (for now) semi-institutionalised in the newly developing federal structure. The '4.5' system, in place since the previous transitional federal government, prescribes quotas for the four main 'clan families,' as well as a half-share for groups seen to sit outside of the main Somali lineage system.

Despite its relative homogeneity, Somalia has diverse 'minority' groups which include the so-called Somali 'Bantu' (Jareerweyne) or Benadiri communities, believed to descend from different non-Somali indigenous or immigrant populations, or 'caste'-defined groups associated with certain jobs. What's more, although 'standard' Somali (Af Maxaa Tiri) is an important lingua franca, the Raxanweyne, one of the main Somali clan families, use a distinct dialect, Af Maay. During the civil war and in its aftermath, minority communities have been targeted by more powerful armed clan factions in processes of land and resource expropriation. How far these communities are represented in southern Somalia's developing federal structure will affect future stability. This will impact al-Shabaab's ability to mobilise communities under a nationalist banner of 'impartial' reformist Islamism against 'clan politics' and foreign intervention.

Playing the ‘clan card’

Al-Shabaab has consistently tried to channel popular frustrations with elite 'clanism' towards its own nationalist, Salafi-inspired agenda. Somali Islamists have long touted the potential for religious militancy to prevail over clan interests and seemingly intractable political divides. Al-Shabaab has taken advantage of divisions to grow its support base. At times adept at playing the 'clan card,' the group has also fallen foul of clan politics. This has compromised its ability to win back the level of support it gained in its resistance to the hugely unpopular US-backed Ethiopian invasion of 2006.

This intervention broke up the emerging Union of Islamic Courtsadministration, a loose coalition of locally-based Islamic judicial bodies which had improved security conditions across large parts of south and central Somalia. This was significant in legitimising and empowering al-Shabaab, hitherto one of the most radical armed wings of the wider Courts movement.

There has always been a high level of clan diversity among al-Shabaab's leadership, even in recent years when the organisation has been squeezed by military pressure and targeted killings. A 2015 'most-wanted' list published by the federal government included clan details of al-Shabaab leaders, showing figures from each of the main lineage groups. Although these individuals do not represent their clan as such, al-Shabaab does have cross-clan appeal and its leadership is more diverse than most other Somali political groups. Following the Ethiopian invasion, and between 2006 and 2009, al-Shabaab expanded across south and central Somalia in what is referred to as its 'golden age.' Appointing walis, or local governors, from outside dominant lineage groups in some areas, the group promoted itself as a facilitator of impartial local governance through an even-handed (if harsh) interpretation of sharia.

Al-Shabaab's leadership has always had clan diversity.

Having shifted from being a territorial administration to an insurgency that justifies killing other Muslims on the basis of takfiri doctrines, al-Shabaab has lost significant amounts of public support. Nevertheless, its networks remain operational across Somali society, which has become increasingly conservative in public expressions of religion. Many politicians and commentators advocate for various brands of Islamism to play integral roles in the reconstruction of the Somali state. In this environment (and with less territory being directly administered by the group) it is difficult to assess the development of al-Shabaab's ideology, particularly in terms of social policy. Its communications, however, continue to emphasise its affiliation to al-Qaeda's wider agenda.

Outsiders often juxtapose Somalia's traditional 'moderate' and Sufi-orientated popular Islam common with al-Shabaab's Salafi interpretation of Islamic law. But this is an oversimplification of developments in the country long predating the group. Reformist and politically-orientated Sunni Islamism played a part in resistance to the pre-1991 military dictatorship, and in politics after the state collapse.

Room for al-Shabaab

The 'colonial' motivations of external actors (the West and neighbouring states such as Ethiopia and Kenya, now 're-hatted' under an AMISOM mandate) are frequent topics of critique in Somali media, and these discussions are not limited to jihadi sympathisers. A common refrain in political commentary has it that foreign powers exploit clan divisions in order to divide and rule Somalia. The perceived lack of clan diversity in Somalia's military is of major concern for many commentators. As such, local distrust of 'state' forces believed to be operating with ulterior (clan) motives often compromises the federal government's ability to hold territory taken from al-Shabaab.

In Mogadishu, at the political centre of the country's ongoing reconfiguration, the '4.5' quota system reinforces 'clanism' in political institutions. This system will be used (supposedly for the last time) in selecting lawmakers from newly formed federal regions, who will then elect a new president in October to replace incumbent Xasan Sheikh Maxamuud. The new regional states themselves (Jubaland, the Southwest state, the Middle Shabelle/Hiiraan state, and Galmudug) are all at different levels of institutional consolidation, formed with varying degrees of involvement from the federal government in Mogadishu. Puntland, as a more established and autonomous state, maintains an ambiguous relationship with Mogadishu and disputes its borders with its neighbours Galmudug and Somaliland. The latter's government considers itself fully independent and will play no role in the upcoming election process despite having representation allocated to it.

The new states have struggled to appease certain clans with satisfactory regional representation and clan elders understand that the makeup of regional structures will have a significant bearing on subsequent representation in the capital. At the same time, clan-based groups often deal directly with neighbouring powers such as Kenya and Ethiopia to further their own strategic and security agendas.

Al-Shabaab has drawn young recruits from marginalised clans.

Locally, a snapshot of the Lower Shabelle region gives a good example of the complex clan-political dynamics across south-central Somalia. Running south from Mogadishu, Lower Shabelle region is now part of the Southwest state formed in 2014, and its main hub is the port city of Marka. This was 'liberated' from al-Shabaab in 2012 by AMISOM and the military. The operation was emblematic of the optimism around the newly-forming government in Mogadishu. While al-Shabaab has progressively lost the other urban centres it held in the region, it maintained a covert urban presence and control of roads in the hinterland. This has allowed it to periodically reappear in Marka and dispute (often via social media) its control of this important city with the Ugandan AMISOM forces based in the outskirts.

Political contestation across Lower Shabelle is characterised by historical and ongoing land disputes. One strand of conflict involves the Biyamaal clans (of the Dir clan family) who have long been settled in the region, and powerful Habir Gedir subclans (of the Hawiye) perceived to have been moving south and grabbing land since 'their' capture of Mogadishu in 1991. Also present in the region are Raxanweyne clans and numerous coastal 'minority' groups such as the Reer Baraawe or Jareerweyne. Conflict sporadically flares up between armed clan militias, the army (itself composed of certain clan militias), AMISOM troops, and even US Special Forces who have periodically raided al-Shabaab assets in the region.

The multitude of political actors means that allegiances are dynamic and opportunistic. Certain clans have in the past allied with al-Shabaab to help them assert their influence vis-á-vis the emerging Southwest federal state, while Somali military or AMISOM forces may be perceived by some as serving the agendas of Mogadishu elites. At the same time, al-Shabaab has attempted to appeal to minorities who feel they have been neglected or persecuted in wider struggles between more dominant groups. This brief overview of one (diverse) region cannot do justice to the political complexity on the ground but illustrates how the intertwining of local, regional, federal, national, and international agendas creates space that al-Shabaab has been able to exploit.

Al-Shabaab frames its jihadi 'resistance' in opposition to these processes of political reconfiguration. Although its propagandaemphasises the group's impartiality, it frequently discusses clan politics, whether presenting itself as an arbitrator of local disputes or publishing declarations of support from certain clans. In the past, al-Shabaab has drawn many young recruits from marginalised clans, such as the Jareer (or Bantu) populations. Al-Shabaab's promise of regular pay is another key element in attracting economically disadvantaged members, who may hail from such communities. Financially, al-Shabaab has been relying more heavily on zakat taxation, as prescribed by sharia law, in areas still under its control. Previous revenue streams, including the charcoal trade via Kismaayo and the remittance economy, have been squeezed with the loss of the port city and other urban territory. This, in turn, has increased tensions with some clan groups.

Al-Shabaab has been able to manipulate inter-clan conflict and recruit from various lineage groups, but nonetheless it has been vulnerable to such divisions. This has had serious political consequences. Former senior commander Mukhtaar Roobow disappeared from the scene, allegedly angered that his Raxanweyne clansmen had suffered the majority of the casualties in a failed 2011 Ramadan offensive on Mogadishu. His continued absence (he is believed to have retreated to 'home' territory between the Bay and Bakool regions) indicates the potential for clan alienation.

Al-Shabaab is itself, at times, described as a conspiratorial actor in league with political elites. After an early 2016 incursion of al-Shabaab fighters (many of them children) from the south, Puntland state officials accused the federal government of tacit complicity. The implication here was that Mogadishu had an interest in destabilising the autonomous region. Puntland has also accused neighbouring Somaliland of facilitating al-Shabaab operations. Conspiracy theories link the regional and clan background of various high-profile figures (such as former Emir Godane, who hailed from Hargeysa) to covert support from Somaliland. The resilience of such (entirely unproven) allegations highlights the level of distrust across the political spectrum, and the constant suspicions of ulterior motives and hidden agendas.

Global connections

From the foreign states engaged diplomatically and militarily in political state-building and counter-insurgency, to the remittances and investment flowing in daily from the global diaspora, cross-border influences are vital to understanding Somalia. Al-Shabaab, in its relationships with external financiers and ideologues, is hardly unique in this regard.

Following civil war and state collapse between 1990 and 2015, the number of people born in Somalia but living outside the country more than doubled, from around 850,000 to two million. Today, the global diaspora is spread across Africa, Europe, the Middle East, North America, and Australia. It includes post-war refugees as well as several earlier generations of migrants. Twentieth century Somali migration dates back to the colonial era, while the 1970s Gulf oil boom led to economic migration from Somalia to petrol-producing Arab states. This period of migration helped bring Arab-influenced religious practices to Somalia as these workers returned. Currents of political Islamist thought that these immigrants brought back to Somalia translated into opposition to the perceived aggressive secularism of Siyaad Barre's dictatorship, and laid the foundations for Islamist politics after the state collapsed.

Al-Shabaab is as globalised as the Somali population. The diaspora and transnational support have been key in its continued insurgency. The link between the remittance economy and support for terrorism has been acknowledged by policy makers since the period immediately after 9/11, when the US government shut down the operations of the Al Barakaat money transfer company for its alleged role in financing al-Qaeda affiliates (pre-dating al-Shabaab) in Somalia. This was part of a largely misguided US effort to finance ostensibly 'secular' warlords against Islamists in Somalia, conflating local political dynamics with 'War on Terror' action against global jihadis.

This is not to suggest that militant Islamist organisations in Somalia have remained unconnected to global jihad. There is evidence that al-Qaeda has had contacts with Somali Islamists since the early 1990s. Nevertheless, Western security approaches targeting terror financing have had serious ramifications on the wider Somali economy, which relies on remittances. It has also affected the ability of international aid to reach victims of disasters such as the 2011 famine which ravaged much of south and central Somalia (and was exacerbated by al-Shabaab and the constraints it put on aid agencies).

The group – which formally joined al-Qaeda in 2012 – has benefited from recruitment and technical expertise from a variety of foreign sources. Non-Somali jihadi fighters from the Middle East, South Asia, North America, and Europe have played important operational roles in the group's ranks. Al-Shabaab has explicitly appealed to diaspora Somalis in its propaganda, exhorting them to return to the homeland to fight a 'crusader alliance' of 'infidels.

Conflict within al-Shabaab over the role of external fighters has highlighted how local political dynamics remain salient. This became clear in dissent to former Emir Godane's centralisation of the group, and the supposedly privileged role foreign fighters were given in its ranks. What was essentially a leadership struggle culminated in crackdowns by Godane, through the secretive Amniyat unit, and the killings of figures including Ibraahim Xaaji Jaamac Meecaad 'Al Afghani' (a long-time associate of the Emir) and the vocal American Jihadi Omar Hammami. These cleavages were not definitively settled by Godane's purge. New Emir Axmed Diiriye (AKA Cumar Abuu Cubeydah) has a much lower profile, illustrated by the conflicting reports which emerged from various analysts and the federal government itself about his clan background. Although he has been described as a former close confidant of Godane (killed by US drone strike in 2014) the necessity of maintaining 'nationalist' unity has no doubt been a primary concern to al-Shabaab since those former divides. Disputes between local and foreign fighters have not been aired since in public.

Attacks outside Somalia point to regionalisation of al-Shabaab's jihad.

Attacks in Kampala, Nairobi, and along the coastal and border regions of Kenya point to a regionalisation of al-Shabaab's jihad. The group's propaganda around such operations is ambiguous, reflecting its attempt to appeal to different audiences inside and outside of Somalia. While al-Shabaab may attempt to speak, for instance, to non-Somali Kenyan coastal Muslims (with their own set of grievances against a 'highland' Kenyan state), the notion of a 'Greater Somalia,' and the idea of an ethnic constituency of Somalis who have historically been divided by colonial borders drawn across Somalia, Djibouti, Ethiopia, and Kenya, remains a major part of al-Shabaab's message.

Al-Shabaab also attempts to capitalise on local discontent with diaspora 'returnees' benefiting from new opportunities in Somalia at the expense of those who stayed through the bad years. It does this by pushing the idea that diaspora Somalis are bringing with them various 'un-Somali' and 'un-Islamic' attitudes and practices. Conversely, there is public commentary that emphasises the 'foreignness' of al-Shabaab's religious ideology in contrast with the 'traditional' practices of Sufi-influenced 'Somali' Islam.

Looking Ahead

Al-Shabaab's international alignment is being increasingly tested by the rise of ISIS in Syria and Iraq, and calls for it to switch its allegiance from al-Qaeda. Although it is too early to speculate on how these dynamics will play out in Somalia, the emergence of an apparent ISIS-affiliated splinter group highlights continued tensions. This group, which recently made itself known through a short 'training camp' video, appears to be centred around a Puntland-based ideologue, Sheikh Cabdulqaadir Muumin, until now engaged in al-Shabaab's fight against local (and US-backed) forces in the northeast. The internal dynamics of this move are not yet clear, though it may relate to the regional clan politics of the Puntland al-Shabaab structure.

Once again, international networks of affiliation and material support remain important, but it will likely remain the case that Somali politics (itself highly globalised through a dynamic and engaged diaspora) will be the primary driving force of the regional conflict. Al-Shabaab's ability to manipulate local and global networks will depend on political settlements and the how far local groups, including clans, perceive that they are being integrated or marginalised. The final months of 2016 and the upcoming election of a new federal government via clan elders and embryonic states will prove decisive in this regard and – just like al-Shabaab itself – this will be influenced by the global dynamics of financing, diplomacy, and ideology. 

What Is al-Shabaab?

Extremist Ideologies

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