David Shinn is an adjunct professor in the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University. He served for thirty-seven years in the U.S. Foreign Service, including as ambassador to Ethiopia and State Department coordinator for Somalia during the international intervention in the 1990s. This essay is a condensed version of a paper delivered at "The Foreign Fighter Problem: Recent Trends and Case Studies," a national security conference, held in Washington, D.C. in September 2010, and cosponsored by FPRI and the Reserve Officers Association.
Somalia has been a failed state since 1991. Warlords, ineffective national governments and Islamist groups have subsequently tried to rule the country. The extremist organization known as al-Shabaab, which means "The Youth," now controls most of south and central Somalia. It has close links to al Qaeda and is trying to replace the weak Somali Transitional Federal Government (TFG), which has the support of the African Union, Arab League, European Union and United States. Al-Shabaab has called for a global Islamic caliphate and the return to its control of Somali-inhabited territory in neighboring Ethiopia and Kenya, whose governments strongly oppose al-Shabaab.
Al-Shabaab has Islamist antecedents with a number of movements that predate Somali independence in 1960. An earlier, now defunct, Islamist organization held an alumni conference in Las Anod, Somaliland, in 2003. About a half-dozen battle-hardened, young Somali men attending this conference stormed out of the session in opposition to an agenda that stressed creation of a Salafi political organization that seemed too willing to accommodate the status quo. This breakaway faction then created al-Shabaab as a Salafi-jihadist movement. The principal leaders were Aden Hashi Ayro, killed in 2008 during an American missile strike, and Ahmed Abdi Aw-Mohamed "Godane," the current head or "emir" of al-Shabaab. Ayro trained in Afghanistan with al Qaeda during the late 1990s and Godane fought with al Qaeda in Afghanistan until the end of 2001. The name al-Shabaab did not come widely into use until 2007.
Al-Shabaab subsequently moved steadily closer to al Qaeda and adopted an organization and modus operandi that resembled that of the Taliban in Afghanistan. The foreign impact of al-Shabaab takes two forms-the adoption of strategy, tactics and ideology learned by Somali al-Shabaab leaders during their association with the Taliban and al Qaeda and the recruitment of foreign fighters. The former may be more important than the latter to the overall success of al-Shabaab in Somalia. Unlike Somalia's TFG, al-Shabaab has a well-defined vision and is prepared to use almost any tactic, however repressive and vicious, to achieve its goals.
Public statements by both al-Shabaab and al Qaeda, usually on their respective websites, have inexorably moved the two organizations closer to each other. In 2008, the State Department designated al-Shabaab a terrorist organization. The same year, Godane praised Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and the larger global jihadi movement. He also explicitly declared al-Shabaab's intention to attack the United States and implied that al-Shabaab has become part of the al Qaeda movement. Al-Shabaab released a video that pledged its loyalty to al Qaeda and urged young Muslims to join its cause. At the end of 2008, al-Shabaab sent warm greetings to several violent Islamist groups. In July 2009, Godane linked the war in Somalia to those in Afghanistan and Iraq. In September 2009, al-Shabaab released a video that pledged allegiance to bin Laden. Al-Shabaab's overtures to al Qaeda continued into 2010 when it issued a statement that linked jihad in the Horn of Africa to the one led by al Qaeda and bin Laden.
Since 2006, al Qaeda has regularly voiced support for jihad in Somalia. In 2008, one of al Qaeda's most senior commanders publicly recognized al-Shabaab for the first time and said Somalis should accept nothing less than an independent Islamic state. The three top leaders of al Qaeda made statements in 2009 supporting al-Shabaab's campaign in Somalia. Osama bin Laden released only five statements in 2009, but devoted one of them to Somalia, calling the conflict a war between Islam and the international Crusade. By recognizing Somalia's significant role in global jihad, al Qaeda has given credibility to al-Shabaab.
In spite of their common cause and mutual statements of support, most observers do not believe that al-Shabaab is a branch of-nor is it under the operational control of-al Qaeda. The most recent State Department annual report on terrorism stated explicitly that al Qaeda and al-Shabaab are not formally merged, but acknowledged there are many links between the two organizations. The United Nations Monitoring Group on Somalia concluded that extremists within al-Shabaab are seeking, with limited success, to align the organization more closely with al Qaeda. To the extent there are policy differences within al-Shabaab's leadership, they seem to center on those who seek a closer alignment with foreign jihadi organizations such as al Qaeda and those who want to pursue a narrower Somali Islamist agenda.
From a tactical point of view, al-Shabaab has borrowed heavily from the Taliban and al Qaeda. Suicide bombings, which were unknown in Somalia prior to 2006 and even alien to Somali culture, have become commonplace with al-Shabaab. There is an acceptance of death worshipping among its leaders. Al-Shabaab's rhetoric increasingly resembles that of al Qaeda. It avoids Somali nationalist slogans and refuses to use the traditional Somali flag, which it replaced with a black flag emblazoned with the Shahaada (declaration of the faith) in white text. It often holds press conferences in Arabic rather than the more common Somali language. Al-Shabaab militia members are known as the "masked men" because they obscure their faces with red scarves. As in the case of al Qaeda, it has developed an effective communications and media effort to get its message out for recruitment purposes. Al-Shabaab is looking more and more like the Taliban of the 1990s.
In addition to Godane, the top al-Shabaab leaders include Ibrahim Jama "al-Afghani" and Fuad Mohamed Khalaf "Shongole." All three are Somali but Shongole lived in Sweden for a number of years. They preside over a leadership structure that is strongly influenced by those with foreign ties. The key foreigner is Fazul Abdullah Mohamed from the Comoro Islands, referred to variously as al-Shabaab's "chairman of the board" and commander in chief who became al Qaeda's leader in the Horn of Africa in 2009. Others include financier Sheikh Mohamed Abu Faid from Saudi Arabia; Godane's adviser Abu Suleiman al-Banadiri, a Somali of Yemeni descent; director of training Abu Musa Mombasa from Pakistan; Omar Hammami, aka Mansur al-Amriki, in charge of financing foreign fighters from the United States, of Syrian and American parents; and Mohamoud Mujajir, in charge of recruitment of suicide bombers, from Sudan. The 85 member executive council of al-Shabaab includes 42 Somalis and 43 foreigners. The International Crisis Group has concluded that "the hardliners, led by the foreign jihadis, wield enormous influence and have access to resources and the means to dictate their wishes to the less powerful factions."
Estimates of al-Shabaab's armed strength range from a low of 3,000 to a high of 7,000 although it can mobilize large numbers of fighters on short notice. Most of these fighters are Somalis who never left Somalia. Counting-or even defining-foreign fighters is an inexact science, although there is general agreement on the nature and magnitude of the foreign involvement. There are three kinds of "foreign" fighters: Somalis who were born across the borders in neighboring countries, especially Kenya, and have the nationality of those countries; Somalis who were born in Somalia or whose parents were born in Somalia but have grown up in the diaspora and now carry foreign passports; and foreigners who have no Somali ethnic connection. Most of the non-Somalis come from the Swahili coast of Kenya and Tanzania, Pakistan, Bangladesh, India, Afghanistan, Yemen, Sudan, Uganda and Saudi Arabia. It is important to distinguish among these groups as some estimates of foreigners apply only to the last and smallest category. The number of persons who have joined al-Shabaab and have no Somali ethnic links is probably between 200 and 300. A larger number of ethnic Somalis, perhaps as many as 1,000, from the diaspora and neighboring countries have also joined al-Shabaab.
The Afghan-trained Somalis and the foreign veterans from Afghanistan and Iraq play an important role as al-Shabaab field commanders because of their military experience. They brought specialized skills with them to Somalia and often lead the training and indoctrination of al-Shabaab recruits. They teach the techniques of suicide attacks, remote-controlled roadside bombings, kidnappings and assassinations of TFG officials, journalists, humanitarian workers and civil society workers. The foreigners are the principal link to al Qaeda and by most accounts are exerting growing influence on the organization. The foreign element of al-Shabaab is not only behind the planning of suicide bombings, but it has provided several of the suicide bombers including at least two from the Somali diaspora in the United States.
Foreigners have assisted and died in other attempts to increase the lethality of al-Shabaab attacks. Four Ugandans admitted involvement in the three bomb blasts that killed 79 persons, mostly Ugandans, in Kampala in July 2010. Two of the four had previous ties to al-Shabaab while the other two were apparently recruited in Kampala. One of the four confessed that he escorted a Kenyan suicide bomber to the location of one of the attacks. In an apparent premature car bomb explosion, the TFG reported that at least ten insurgents died in August 2010 at a house in Mogadishu used by al-Shabaab. The TFG said the dead included three Pakistanis, two Indians, one Afghan and an Algerian. In September 2010, a Somali-American died on the streets of Mogadishu following a battle with pro-government forces. An estimated 12 U.S. citizens have been killed fighting alongside al-Shabaab in Somalia.
Al-Shabaab has developed one of the more effective recruitment programs found among militant Islamist groups. It has been particularly successful in the large Somali diaspora in Europe, North America, the Middle East, Africa and Australia. There are an estimated two million Somalis living in the diaspora. While the number of Somali recruits is tiny compared to the number living in the diaspora, the relative success of the recruitment program has focused unprecedented attention on al-Shabaab, particularly in the United States. The earliest American recruits had a mixture of backgrounds. A small number of American converts to Islam arrived in Somalia late in 2006. By early 2007, recruitment had begun in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, location of the largest Somali community in the United States. Small numbers of young Somalis also began leaving for Somalia from Seattle, Boston, Portland, Maine, and Columbus, Ohio. These early recruitment efforts went largely unnoticed by American security personnel.
By mid-2009, more than 20 young Somalis, most of them from Minnesota, joined al-Shabaab in Somalia. This is, however, a minuscule percentage of the more than 100,000 Somalis in the United States. One reason the numbers are so low is concern that an al-Shabaab victory in Somalia would destroy the Somali remittance system, which is the backbone of the Somali economy. The recruits from the United States represent a wide variety of backgrounds. Some have criminal and gang backgrounds; others are good students and were thought to be upstanding citizens. Most seem to have been motivated by a complex mix of politics and faith. The arrival of Ethiopian troops in Somalia late in 2006 and a surge of nationalism among young Somalis in the diaspora motivated a significant number of them. Al-Shabaab recruiters came to Minnesota and paid cash for their air fare to the region.
Diasporas in other countries have also been subject to successful al-Shabaab recruitment. The Somali community in the United Kingdom, estimated at 250,000, is the largest in Europe. Somali community leaders there fear that up to 100 young men and women have joined al-Shabaab. The recruits from the United Kingdom also include a few of Pakistani, Bangladeshi and West African origin. The head of MI5, the United Kingdom's counter-intelligence and security agency, said it is only a matter of time before there are terrorist attacks in the UK inspired by those fighting with al-Shabaab. There are about 25,000 Somalis in Sweden. The Swedish state security police estimate that about 20 people have joined al-Shabaab or one of the other armed opposition groups in Somalia. The Swedish government believes that five have been killed and at least ten remain at large in Somalia. The Australian government charged several young men linked to al-Shabaab with a plot to attack a Sydney military base. The security and intelligence service in Denmark, which has a Somali community of about 10,000, warned that several members of this community have been recruited by al-Shabaab. Small numbers of Somalis in Canada, Germany and Norway have also responded to al-Shabaab's call to arms.
Al-Shabaab's employment of foreign fighters is both a strength and a weakness. These fighters bring specialized skills such as bomb making, battlefield experience and fluency in English. On the other hand, al-Shabaab attracted much of its support by condemning the engagement in Somalia of foreign troops from Ethiopia and the African Union. Somalis generally do not want foreigners involved in their political life. Somalis from the diaspora, who are supporting al-Shabaab, are probably fully accepted by indigenous Somalis. Non-Somalis are almost certainly looked upon with disapproval and may become the Achilles' heel of al-Shabaab. The importance of the skills provided by the foreign fighters is likely to diminish over time as al-Shabaab develops these same skills internally. Even now, al-Shabaab makes every effort to hide the role of non-Somalis in the organization.
Al-Shabaab's reliance on foreigners and its draconian tactics such as suicide bombings, occasional beheadings, forced marriages between Somali women and foreign fighters, among other actions, may eventually alienate a critical mass of Somalis. In 2010, during the holy month of Ramadan, al-Shabaab stepped up its reign of terror against the TFG and African Union forces in Mogadishu. Somalis are increasingly speaking out against these policies, which are foreign imports. Al-Shabaab has faced a number of low-level defections. In October 2010, it may have experienced the most serious one so far when al-Shabaab deputy commander in chief, Sheikh Mukhtar Robow, reportedly sent his Rahanweyn clan fighters from Mogadishu to his stronghold in Baidoa, in south-central Somalia, over disagreements with Godane. Speaking from a mosque in Baidoa, Robow subsequently denied any rift within al-Shabaab. However, the report persists and, if accurate, it would be a major blow to al-Shabaab. There is no suggestion that Robow has any interest in joining the TFG.
The situation has not yet reached the point where it appears to endanger al-Shabaab's control over most of southern and central Somalia. Al-Shabaab filled a security vacuum in much of Somalia beginning in 2007 and continues to receive some credit for establishing, albeit with brutal tactics, stability. So far, the forces opposing al-Shabaab are not strong enough to defeat it.
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