Saturday, July 31, 2010


Unmasking The Terror

Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen (Movement of Warrior Youth), more commonly known as Al Shabaab (The Youth) is an offshoot of the Islamic Courts Union, a grassroots community-driven movement inspired by Somali Islamic scholars trained in Saudi Arabia as Wahhabi sect followers.

The group is opposed to the decade-long Somali peace process which produced the TFG and other transitional federal institutions. This process has the backing of the majority of Somalis and the international community, including the United Nations, the European Union and the African Union. It is in support of this process, undertaken by the Somalis themselves, that the AU deployed peacekeepers to Mogadishu in 2007.

Records of its formation are scanty, but it is widely believed that their former commander Aden Hashi Ayro played an integral part. According to a report by the Singapore-based International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research, Al Shabaab was created as a youth militia of the ICU in the years leading up to 2006. Ayrow wished to wage a violent Jihad against the West and was disappointed by the limited nationalistic goals espoused by some in the ICU, especially the now President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed of the Somali Transitional Federal Government.

According to an Al Shabaab propaganda magazine, “Shaykh Sharif, former chairman of the executive committee of the Islamic Courts… is nothing more than a Somali nationalist, pure and simple. The global jihad means nothing to him — he just wants Somalia to be a democratic Muslim state.” In fact, as the ICU sought to present a more positive international face, a tense relationship developed with Shabaab’s more radical elements. On occasion, the ICU even apologised for the group’s Taliban-like activities.

In May 2007, Ayrow was killed in a US air strike on a house in his central Somalia home town of Dusamareb. A few months later, in December, Al Shabaab named Sheikh Mukhtar Abdirahman (Abu Zubeyr), who hails from the relatively peaceful enclave of Somaliland, as its new leader.
Following the Islamists’ defeat by Somali Transitional Federal Government troops backed by Ethiopian forces, the ICU splintered, with some of the more radical elements, including Al Shabaab, regrouping at the Kenyan border to mount an insurgency. When Ethiopia withdrew its troops, Al Shabaab and their Islamist allies retook much of the former ICU territory but have been unable to topple the TFG in Mogadishu, thanks largely to African Union Peacekeepers from Uganda and Burundi.

According to a report by the Critical Threats Projects of the American Enterprises Institute, Al Shabaab, which has acted independently of the now-defunct ICU since early 2007, currently controls much of southern and central Somalia, including large portions of the capital, Mogadishu.
According to Abdisaid M. Ali, a former Cabinet secretary in the TFG, now an independent consultant, Al Shabaab does not have a written or declared programme apart from creating and imposing strictly Islamic Wahhabi doctrine in Somalia, and eventually spreading it to the rest of the African continent. It refers to the territory that it governs as the “Islamic Provinces,” which is one step short of declaring an Islamic state or a Caliphate. In an April 2008 announcement, the group itself declared that “the concept of jihad... does not recognise fanciful boundaries or so-called international legitimacy.”

Like many Islamist movements across the globe, Al Shabaab seeks to sustain jihad by continuously expanding its local community infrastructure and support. It has filled a vacuum in the country by providing the population with essential services and welfare — clearing of roadblocks, repairing roads, organising markets, and re-establishing order and a justice system through the use of Sharia courts — similar to the way the Islamic Courts acted in 2006.

However, these limited gains to the populace are more than offset by the group’s ruthless and uncompromising application of its particularly harsh version of Sharia. In October 2008, in the southern port city of Kismayo, the group condemned 13-year-old Aisha Ibrahim Duhulow to death by stoning for the crime of adultery after she was gang-raped by three men. None of men she accused of rape were arrested.

In December 2009, an Al Shabaab suicide bomber killed 19 people, including 4 cabinet ministers as well as reporters, dignitaries, parents, and students from Mogadishu’s Banadir University attending a medical school graduation ceremony at the Shamow hotel.

Since capturing large swathes of southern Somalia, the radical Islamists have been undertaking a programme of destroying mosques and the graves of revered religious leaders from the Sufi branch of Islam, to which most Somalis belong. They have also banned the playing of music on radio and the hiring of women by broadcasting stations.

Prior to the attacks in Kampala, the group banned the playing of football and screening of soccer matches in the areas it controls in Somalia, describing the sport as ''a satanic act'' that corrupts Muslims. In 2006, two people, including a young girl, were killed in Mogadishu when Shabaab gunmen fired their weapons directly into a crowd of demonstrators protesting their attempts to forcibly shut down a cinema theatre screening a World Cup semi-final.

Al Shabaab has loosely co-ordinated levels of leadership that revolve around local villages and religious leaders who rely on radical scholars for interpretations of the meaning of the jihad and the Koran as well as guidance in the armed conflict against the Transitional Federal Government and the African Union peacekeeping troops in Mogadishu. In the past, they used to be in conflict with traditional religious leaders but the radicals seem to have overpowered them through intimidation and assassination.

Though the group is nominally led by Sheikh Mukhtar Abdirahman (Abu Zubeyr), experts say a core group of senior leaders guide its actions. According to a situation report titled Somalia: Understanding Al Shabaab written by Paula Cristina Roque for the Institute for Security Studies, Zubeyr is assisted by a 10-member council, or Shura. In accordance with the general structure of jihadist organisations, this consultative council is comprised of sub-emirs in charge of different areas — military, theology, political information and external relations.

The militia is divided into three geographical units: Bay and Bokool regions, led by Mukhtar Roobow "Abu Mansur," the group's former spokesman; south-central Somalia and Mogadishu; and Puntland and Somaliland. A fourth unit, which controls the Juba Valley, is led by Hassan Abdillahi Hersi "Turki," who is not considered to be a member of Al Shabaab, but is closely aligned with it. These regional units "appear to operate independently of one another, and there is often evidence of friction between them," says a December 2008 UN Monitoring Group report.

Roque writes: “The Shura council and operational autonomy of different cells allows each commander to pursue his own military strategy and administer the areas conquered independently, but this decentralisation also makes the group difficult to monitor and oppose, as the removal of the top leadership would not render the organisation inoperative.”
To further complicate matters, the organisation also has two branches, or sub-units, the military branch Jaysh Al-Usra (the army of hardship), and the branch that maintains law and order, Jaysh Al-Hesbah (the army of morality).

Much of the Shabaab leadership hails from Somaliland and Puntland. While rank and file fighters are recruited from inside and outside Somalia, many come from the southern regions of Kismayo and Baidowa. According to Abdisaid Ali, Shabaab members tend to be men aged between 20 and 30 years, mostly uneducated. There however have been reports of boys as young as 14. After a review of all publicly available ranges, the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research estimates Al Shabaab's strength at approximately 4,000 individuals. The Economist magazine believes 3000 may be closer to the mark. However, as Stephanie Hanson notes in a report for the Council on Foreign Relations, “The number of rank-and-file members is less important than the number of hardcore ideological believers.”

According to Andre le Sage, a senior research fellow for Africa in the Institute for National Strategic Studies at the National Defence University of the US, the most hardline and ideologically motivated Al Shabab militias remain those run by Abu Zubeyr and Fu’ad Shongole (originally from Puntland but holds Swedish citizenship) around Mogadishu, and Ibrahim Haji Jama “al-Afghani” around Kismayo. These individuals are seen as the primary leaders of Al Shabaab’s foreign fighters, the strategists driving Shabaab’s support for global jihadi agendas rather than a narrower focus on controlling Somalia, and those with the deepest ties to Al Qaida.

UN Security Council documents estimate the number of dedicated foreign fighters at about 300, mainly from Afghanistan, Eritrea, Pakistan and Yemen. According to the New York Daily News, scores of U.S.-born Somali-Americans have flocked to their ancestral homeland to take up arms with the group. The several hundred Kenyan fighters are not considered particularly dedicated and frequently defect owing to the strict rules against smoking, alcohol, chewing khat and having extra-marital relation with women.

Abdisaid Ali fingers Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states as significant sources of external funds flowing to Al Shabaab and other radical Islamist movements in the Horn of Africa through Dubai. He however believes that terror financing in East Africa “is mainly a ‘local loop’, community based grass-roots support structure that help these elements to prevail… Local mosques, local religious leaders, and local community networks provide the bulk of long term financial support for logistical and operational needs.” Other analysts have disputed this, saying Al Shabaab thrives on taxes imposed on the local population, and especially the trade in charcoal and khat. This may partly account for the group’s about-face on the banning of chewing khat in areas it controls.

Raising Expectations

Failed State? What Failed State?

Hussein Abdulkadir, 30, wakes up every morning at 5.30 am. After a quick shower and morning prayer, he has breakfast with his wife and three kids. After making sure they do not miss the school bus, he also gets on a bus to head to the hospital where he works as a nurse. Money is short and like many workers across the globe, he worries about his ability to provide for his family. “I have to pay rent at the end of the month and the kids go to a private school which is very expensive.” What makes Abdulkadir’s mundane story remarkable is he lives in what has been described as the most dangerous city on the planet: Mogadishu.

For many, Somalia epitomises a situation of constant crisis, a ‘black hole’ of death and disaster. For the last three years, the country has occupied the top spot in the Failed States Index compiled by the Fund for Peace and Foreign Policy magazine. Though there is a paucity of meaningful human development data, available indicators paint a sorry picture.

For example, drought and civil unrest have displaced 1.5 million people and, according to WFP, left 70 percent of the population in central Somalia in need of humanitarian assistance. Overall, a third of Somalis are dependent on food aid and one in six children is acutely malnourished – a total of some 240,000 children – the highest acute malnutrition rates anywhere in the world. Maternal mortality rates are also among the highest in the world with studies showing that as many as 45 women die everyday during pregnancy and childbirth.

However, this image belies the reality of emerging national and sub-national political entities that have ensured a degree of civilian security in particular places at particular times as people have adapted their behaviour and livelihoods to cope with insecurity and even to profit from the opportunities that conflict throws up. “There is life in the midst of all the chaos,” says Abdulkadir. “Not everyone has left. We cannot leave the country to the dogs.”

According to Anna Lindley, formerly a Research Officer at the Refugee Studies Centre and now a Lecturer in Development Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, “on one level, the question of why people have been leaving Mogadishu since 2006 has an obvious answer. But on another level, many of the people find ways to negotiate daily dangers. They are witnesses to the last two decades of insecurity, but their voices are rarely heard. Life does go on, albeit in ways outsiders often find hard to imagine.”

“Four of my children go to school but for the last few weeks their learning was interrupted by the fighting,” says Abdullah Nur, a 55 year old porter at the city’s Aden Ade international airport. “We are used to such clashes and after some time, life goes back to normal.”

The absence of a central government has had a surprisingly limited effect on daily life with ‘local authorities’ largely filling the vacuum. These have provided a surprising degree of stability in some places. "Notwithstanding the general perception of Somalia as anarchic, basic law and order is in fact the norm in most locations… much of the Somali countryside - especially Somaliland, Puntland, and pockets of southern Somalia - is safer for local residents than is the case in neighbouring countries… It is important not to confuse the security problems of international aid agencies with security problems for average residents," says Ken Menkhaus, a professor at Davidson College and a specialist on the Horn of Africa.

Under the stewardship of the Transitional Federal Government, which has been in place since October 2004, the country has made major strides. That year, according to the African Executive, enrolment in primary school shot up to 300,000, much higher than what it was prior to the civil war. In addition, to secondary, vocational institutes, and adult education colleges, the country now has up to 10 universities, three of which are ranked among Africa’s top 100. They include Hargeysa University, Mogadishu University, Puntland State University, Amoud University and Banadir University.

Improvements have also been recorded in the health sector. UNICEF country representative Rozanne Chorlton says Somalia is on track to be measles and tetanus-free. It has been polio free since 2007 and in 2009 immunized 1.5 million children – 85 per cent of those under five – as well as 1 million women, 65 per cent of those of child bearing age against tetanus.

Ordinary life is sustained by a vigorous economy based on pastoral and agro-pastoral livelihoods, and on trade. Nomads and semi-pastoralists make up a large portion of the population, are dependent upon livestock for their livelihood. The sector accounts for about 40% of GDP and about 65% of export earnings.

Commercial infrastructure and institutions, World Vision says, are functional and relatively sophisticated. The sprawling Somali diaspora sends home an estimated $1 billion every year and the country has some of the best telecommunications in Africa: a handful of companies are ready to wire home or office and provide crystal-clear service, including international long distance, for about $10 a month." According to the BBC, it takes just three days for a landline to be installed - compared with waiting-lists of many years in neighbouring Kenya.

Prior to 1991, the national airline had only one airplane. Now there are approximately fifteen airlines, with over sixty aircraft plying six international destinations, and many more domestic routes in Somalia. According to a 2005 World Bank report, the "private airline business in Somalia is now thriving." The carriers offer competitively priced tickets and are crucial to Somalis’ booming trade and the delivery of humanitarian assistance by the international community. The international airport in Mogadishu has been renovated and sports a new 3km runway, an 80 feet air traffic control tower, a reorganized baggage system and even a duty free shop and restaurant to serve travelers.

However, the insurgency continues to pose grave problems. Jihadist cells in Mogadishu are increasingly fragmented and answer to no one, and some have targeted national aid workers and civil society leaders. This has infused political violence with a high level of unpredictability and randomness in Mogadishu that has eroded the ability of astute Somali aid workers, businesspeople, and civic figures to take calculated risks in their movements and work.

The U.S. State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Report published in June 2009, noted the widespread use of children in fighting forces in the country. Extremist groups opposed to the TFG, such as the Al Shabaab, conscript and recruit children as young as eight years of age, including girls, to plant bombs, carry out and assassinations. “I have so many friends who were brainwashed by the Al Shabaab to join them. I don’t think we will realize peace at home as long as Al Shabaab exists” says a Somali teenager who only gave his name as Kadhar. The militias also reportedly traffic Somali women and children within the country for sexual exploitation and forced labor.

The diminished capacity of the transitional government also presents huge challenges. The livestock industry, one of the main pillars of the economy, lacks proper regulation, and lacks certificate of origin regimes needed to meet phytosanitary requirements for international trade, affecting access to export markets. Following an outbreak of Rift Valley Fever on the African Horn in 2000, Saudi Arabia banned livestock imports from the country for nine years.

Similarly, the lack of a monetary authority has resulted in the frequent issue of ‘counterfeit’ Somali shillings, triggering inflation. The informal Hawala systems of remittances may be efficient but is unable to demonstrate compliance with international standards and regulations, and has in some cases been subject to legal sanctions.

In addition the absence of macro-economic management leaves the economy at the mercy of businessmen and money traders. Abdallah Hussein, 20, who lives in the capital, says: “Life in Mogadishu is very harsh. There are no jobs, there is nothing at all. I wish the country was a better place where I can go to school, live a better life and shape my future”

The situation is complicated by easy access to firearms. Mogadishu is awash with weapons. There is even an arms bazaar called Cirtogte or “Sky Shooter” within the expansive Bakara market where feuding groups have a ready supply of cheap munitions, guns, grenades and mortars. Says Saado Ahmed, an 18 year old resident of the city: “The biggest challenge facing the youth in Mogadishu is lack of opportunities. Youths have nothing to do, they are all idlers and that is what makes them vulnerable to these armed groups. All the soldiers you see fighting each other are youngsters with no future at all. They just believe in guns.”