Today’s steady rhythm of terror can normalise the atrocity of each attack. But behind every instance of extremism lie tales of tragedy. In Somalia, stories such as that of Maryam Abdullahi Gedi, a final-year medical student, are now coming to light. Due to graduate this week, she was one of 300 people killed in a truck bomb attack in the Somali capital on 14 October. Similar stories will play out across the mosques, offices, and dinner tables of Mogadishu, which has suffered a string of deadly attacks over recent years. The latest episode is another reminder that the current approach to fighting Islamist militants is ineffective and needs to be revisited.
No one has claimed responsibility for Saturday’s heartlessness. They may never do. But there is only one suspect: al-Shabaab. The group, which is an affiliate of al-Qaeda but has a breakaway faction that pledged allegiance to ISIS, has unleashed renewed violence since the second half of 2016, when it killed more than 4,200. In doing so, al-Shabaab ended Nigerian ISIS affiliate Boko Haram’s four-year reign as Africa’s deadliest terror group. For the past 10 months, the Somali movement has been launching deadly offensives on military formations, signalling a growing strength.
In January, the al-Qaeda affiliate killed 180 Kenyan troops in the Somali town of El Adde. In June, jihadis chanting “God is great” stormed an army base, killing up to 70 people and wounding dozens. And in September, eight soldiers perished in their base on the outskirts of Mogadishu, while in the port city of Kismayu, 26 soldiers were slaughtered three weeks earlier.
The recent escalation in al-Shabaab’s attacks is not restricted to Somalia. In May, the group killed eight security officers in twin roadside bombings in neighbouring Kenya. Two months later, at least nine people were killed in an attack in the town of Lamu in the east of the country. Three more lives were lost in the same town in an attack in August.
The group has been resurging amid a decade-long UN-backed peacekeeping effort, the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), and years of US counter-terrorism operations that have engulfed billions of dollars. Several factors have contributed to the recent swell in extremist violence.
Firstly, the Somali government appears divided over the best way to handle the crisis – a fact underlined by the resignation of the country’s defence minister and army chief in the days before the latest incident.
Secondly, AMISOM troops suffered a serious setback in 2016 when Somalia’s neighbour Ethiopia withdrew 4,300 soldiers from the south of the country because Addis Ababa could not continue to cover the cost of keeping them there. This development aided al-Shabaab, which recaptured the area almost immediately. To compound the situation, Uganda is due to withdraw its 6,000 soldiers from the operation in two months’ time.
Thirdly, in mid-2016, the EU, which had fully funded the mission, announced it would cut its financing by 20 per cent to enable it to channel more resources to the Sahel and Chad Basin, which are also facing escalating violence. This budget slash led to a deficit in AMISOM’s administrative budget and the loss of about 165 US dollars for each soldier per month. This unsettled the troops and affected their morale. Vast uncontrolled territory might also help al-Shabaab. The group uses the large swathe of territory in the East African country as a safe haven, and AMISOM lacks resources to monitor such an expansive chunk of land.
Supplementing these factors is the inability of the Somali government and the international community to effectively block al-Shabaab’s financing. The group’s revenue comes mainly from the illegal production and export of charcoal and sugar, taxes on residents and extortion of businesses, hijacking of humanitarian aid, ransom from kidnappings, and contributions from sympathisers through informal money transfers.
The jihadi group poses a serious threat not only to Somalia’s security but also to that of the entire African continent and the globe at large. Beyond its activity elsewhere in East Africa, a statement by al-Shabaab’s leader in May 2014 expressing solidarity with Muslims in the Central African Republic and the group’s reported link with Boko Haram and an extremist group in Tanzania indicate its continental reach. The group has issued several threats to strike outside Africa, including American and European targets. It has recruited at least two dozen Americans and 100 Europeans via English-language propaganda videos.
The Islamist group adheres to the same global Islamist ideology as al-Qaeda and has made several public statements pledging allegiance to the group and praising its leaders. In February 2010, the group said, “Jihad in the Horn of Africa must be combined with the international jihad led by the al-Qaeda network.” Most al-Shabaab leaders trained or fought with al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, and its ranks include between 800 and 1,100 foreign fighters, scores of whom also fought in Afghanistan, Iraq, or Pakistan.
When ISIS, al-Qaeda, and their affiliates are defeated in Iran, Iraq, and Syria, Salafi-jihadis will be looking for somewhere to hide and continue to operate from. The vast ungoverned territory of Africa promises to be a fertile environment. This situation will be abetted by porous borders, vulnerable populations, and ineffective governments. Surviving fighters of defeated movements will want to rally around a group that has mastered its terrain and been able to sustain a campaign of terror and violence. Al-Shabaab fits this description.
Better concerted efforts are therefore urgently needed to defeat al-Shabaab. The international community must continue to support AMISOM with more manpower and resources to continue the battle against the insurgents. The US should expand its airstrikes against the Islamists. And international partners must support the Somali and neighbouring governments to build up their intelligence and military capacities.
But military might alone cannot comprehensively defeat the terror group. To crush al-Shabaab, the social and political questions on which the group thrives need to be addressed. The group parades itself as the only mechanism for the effective and efficient delivery of justice. Litigants in many towns and cities of Somalia, including Mogadishu, turn to al-Shabaab’s mobile sharia courts for adjudication of their land and property disputes. This portrays the group as a symbol of justice and makes it acceptable to local communities. To address this situation, the newly elected Somali president should establish and staff more courts in cities and remote areas to deliver justice and take the masses out of the clutches of the Islamists.
Furthermore, al-Shabaab flourishes on the support of aggrieved clans and youths, especially in southwestern Somalia, which has been complaining of structural marginalisation and persecution by bigger clans. The group taps into these grievances to recruit and galvanise public sympathy and support. The national government should therefore take steps to deal with these complaints and empower youths to find meaning in their lives and build community resilience.
Similarly, the international community should not stop at military support and airstrikes. It should extend its hands to helping Somalia build effective security, justice, and political institutions. These require technical expertise and huge financial investments, both of which the country is lacking. International donor agencies could be of great help here. Such steps are essential now to prevent al-Shabaab from gaining a firmer foothold across Africa and beyond.