The Turkish national police recently issued a warning across the country's 81 provinces about a potential al-Shabaab attack on Turkish soil, according to local media reports. Turkey is no stranger to terror attacks, but why would the Somalia-based al-Qaeda affiliate target Turkey?
Muslim majority Turkey certainly seems to have hit a nerve when it comes to al-Shabaab. Following a car bombing by the group that targeted a Turkish delegation in Somalia in January 2015, al-Shabaab's spokesman Sheikh Ali Mohamud Raage named Turkey one of the group's targets. Moreover, he said Turkey was the "biggest enemy of Muslims."
Turkey-Somalia ties pose a serious threat to al-Shabaab's existence on two fronts: They put both the group's ability to operate and its religious foundation at risk.
The flourishing relationship was given a fresh push in 2011, when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited Somalia with his family and cabinet ministers when he was still prime minister. It was the first such visit by a non-African leader in two decades. At the time, Erdogan stressed Ankara's commitment to not abandoning "their Muslim brothers and sisters." Far from abandoning them, Turkey has maintained its commitment to Somalia with investment and development activities to this day.
Ties between Turkey and Somalia hurt al-Shabaab on two fronts.”
The two countries have cooperated in visible, high-profile projects such as hospitals and the development of the capital Mogadishu's airport. Not only are they strengthening Somali infrastructure, they are bolstering the government. Turkish operators have replaced competing militias in controlling some of Somalia's lucrative ports, where 55 per cent of the revenue goes into the Somali government's coffers.
Strengthened infrastructure and regular revenue make for a stronger Somali government, and a stronger Somali government is more likely to be able to provide stability and security to it citizens. Rebuilding key infrastructure, creating jobs, and generating wealth, Turkey has undermined al-Shabaab's exploitation of poverty to attract recruits.
Further, al-Shabaab has built authority by claiming to be the only 'legitimate' (read non-corrupt or hypocritical) Islamic movement in Somalia. Turkey's work there undermines that claim. Turkey's Directorate of Religious Affairs, the Diyanet, has been funding mosque-building projects in a number of countries, including Somalia. Building mosques gives Turkey a platform to promote itself as a legitimate and authentic religious authority. It also gives it an opening to promote Turkey's vision of Islam as part of a functioning democratic state.
When Mehmet Gormez, the head of the Diyanet, received a delegation from the Union of Muslim Scholars of Somalia, he spoke about the importance of eradicating poverty as a means to eradicate the malice fuelling extremism in the country. He pledged to "help our scholars in Africa."
Gormez' comments suggest Turkey is making efforts to counter both the poverty-related push factors that help extremist groups like al-Shabaab flourish, as well as the more ideological aspects of the group's thinking. While other regional Muslim powers like Egypt and Saudi Arabia have often ignored or neglected Somalia, possibly a reason for the prevalence of the foreign-based Salafi-Jihadi group al-Qaeda in that country, Turkey seems to be the only partner willing to engage with the African state. Of course, while this engagement helps Somalia fight al-Shabaab, it helps Turkey spread its 'brand' of Islam.
No doubt Turkey has helped alleviate some of Somalia's troubles with aid; it gave over a billion dollars of humanitarian aid in 2012 alone. The longer-term aspirations of Turkey, however, are linked to economic opportunities in the African state. Access to Somalia's oil reserves is undoubtedly on Turkey's list, with Turkish firms exploring opportunities in that sector. Somalia has also become a major trading partner for Turkish exports. These jumped from $2.1 billion in 2003 to over $10 billion in 2013. Without the necessary infrastructure, trade is at risk. In the long-term, Turkish investment in Somali infrastructure will benefit both nations, but Somalia would benefit from putting the relationship on a more equal footing.
Still, as far as Somalia is concerned Turkey is not only investing billions and working to eradicate poverty, it is helping restore stability and security to a country where three generations have grown up not knowing peace. But for al-Shabaab, Turkey is an unwelcome visitor, hampering recruitment efforts and helping the government fight the group. It seems unsurprising, then, that Turkey has become a major enemy.