Al-Shabaab Update and Strategic Plan
(Harun Maruf, September 18, 2020)
Transcript available below
About the speaker
Harun Maruf is a reporter and writer at VOA Africa Division with an extensive experience in working in conflict zones. He also covers security, extremism, piracy, human rights, politics and other current affairs issues. He secured the first radio interview with the late American jihadist Omar Hammami.
Maruf has also reported on the emergence of pro-Islamic State militants in Somalia; the travels of Somali youth from Minnesota to Syria to fight alongside ISIS and has presented hundreds of original radio documentaries about Al-Shabab, extremism, corruption, piracy, and human rights. In addition, Maruf is the author of hundreds of articles, papers and scholarly works about Somalia and the Horn of Africa and he’s frequently invited to speak on these subjects at international events, conferences, round-table discussions and town halls. Prior to VOA, Maruf worked for BBC and Associated Press as a reporter in Somalia, and as a researcher for Human Rights Watch. He holds a Master of Arts in international journalism from the City, University of London.
One of the most powerful Islamic militant groups in Africa, Al-Shabaab exerts Taliban-like rule over millions in Somalia and poses a growing threat to stability in the Horn of Africa. Somalis risk retaliation or death if they oppose or fail to comply with Al-Shabaab-imposed restrictions on aspects of everyday life such as clothing, media, sports, interpersonal relations, and prayer. Inside Al-Shabaab: The Secret History of Al-Qaeda’s Most Powerful Ally recounts the rise, fall, and resurgence of this overlooked terrorist organization and provides an intimate understanding of its connections with Al-Qaeda.
Drawing from interviews with former Al-Shabaab militants, including high-ranking officials, military commanders, police, and foot soldiers, authors Harun Maruf and Dan Joseph reveal the motivations of those who commit their lives to the group and its violent jihadist agenda. A wealth of sources including U.S. diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks, letters taken from the Pakistani hideout of Osama bin Laden, case files from the prosecution of American Al-Shabaab members, emails from Hillary Clinton’s tenure as secretary of state, and Al-Shabaab’s own statements and recruiting videos inform Maruf and Joseph’s investigation of the United States’ campaign against Al-Shabaab and how the 2006 U.S.-backed Ethiopian invasion of Somalia gave the group the popular support it needed to radicalize ordinary citizens and become a powerful movement.
Robert R. Reilly:
Hello, I am Bob Reilly, the director of the Westminster Institute. Welcome to our ongoing series of lectures via Zoom. I am particularly happy today to welcome back to the Westminster Institute Harun Maruf, who spoke to the Westminster Institute less than two years ago on the subject of Al Shabaab and Somalia, about which I will tell you a little more in a moment after introducing Harun.
Harun has had three decades of experience in journalism covering Somali and its struggles with war, terrorism, piracy, and drought since the early 1990s, and is one of the founders of the independent Somali media, which emerged after the collapse of the repressive government in 1991. In the past Harun worked for the Associated Press and the BBC as a reporter in Somalia. He is the longest serving editor of the Voice of America’s Somali service from July 2008 to the present moment.
In addition to his responsibilities as a senior editor, he introduced hard-hitting programs at VOA, including investigative reports and series programs. In March 2018, he launched the Investigative Dossier, a biweekly, groundbreaking investigative program and the first of its kind by Somali media. Harun thinks it is the greatest journalism work in his career. His work influenced policy changes by the Somali government. He has more than 325,000 Twitter followers in the Horn of Africa.
In 2018, Harun released a book co-authored with his VOA colleague Dan Joseph entitled Inside Al Shabaab: The Secret History of Al-Qaeda’s Most Powerful Ally. It tells the story of the militant group that is still trying to overthrow Somalia’s government and turn the country into a terrorist haven. The book was well received in Somali and internationally. Harun’s lecture on the topic of his book gained more than 106,000 views on Westminster’s YouTube channel, making it the all-time champion so far. Today, Harun will give his analysis of Al-Shabaab attacks this year, plus their strategic plan and the threat to Somalia and beyond. Welcome back, Harun.
Thank you very much, Robert. I am grateful for you inviting me back, I am also grateful for the kind introduction, and I am happy to be back. The topic we are going to talk about today is Al-Shabaab in recent months and the last couple of years, what Al-Shabaab has been doing. Before I move on to Al-Shabaab’s subject, I wanted to open my statement and my lecture by saying that I am speaking to you in my capacity as co-author of the book as an expert on Al-Shabaab. I am not representing the Voice of America, my employers, and my views are only mine.
The Electoral System
Having said that, and moving onto the situation in Somalia and Al-Shabaab, the good news today that is emerging from Somalia is that the federal government of Somalia and the leaders of five regions and Mogadishu have agreed to an electoral model. Somalia has been preparing for a long time to hold popular elections, one person, one vote election. There was a lot of optimism that this popular election would take place, but one more time Somalia’s leaders have agreed to hold an indirect election. That is an election based on the clan system and a power-sharing system.
The reason that the type of election in Somalia is important is because politics has dictated security and the government response to Al-Shabaab. Every four years a leader and a parliament are elected. That means any government that comes to power has a very, very short time to deal with Al-Shabaab or to make progress in securing the country. During the first two years of any government, the government tries to adapt to the situation, come up with a plan to govern the country, and to fight Al-Shabaab.
For the next two years any government that is in power prepares for the next election and starts campaigning, so there is very little time to fight against Al Shabaab. There is very little time to plan a strategy against extremism and terror, and to execute that. That is why it is very important that elections and politics have negatively impacted the war against Al-Shabaab.
This is also important because whoever comes to power, changes the leaders of the security agencies in the country, and changing the security agencies and the leadership of these different apparatuses, different parts of the government, is determined by power-sharing, not necessarily the competence of the individuals.
I understand that the leadership tries very hard in order to appoint a competent person, but it has not worked in the benefit of degrading Al-Shabaab so far. For instance, the Somali federal government leaders and the regional leaders were supposed to implement a strategy to build the Somali National Army (SNA) to take over responsibility from the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), and to fight against Al-Shabaab and liberate Al-Shabaab from the remaining parts of the country. But that strategy has not been implemented during the last three years because of mistrust and bickering between the federal government and the regional leaders. So for the leaders to agree today that they are going to hold another election means we are expecting another government to come, and that government will decide the strategy and how to approach the fight against Al-Shabaab.
African Union Mission in Somalia
In the meantime, Al-Shabaab has been at ease. They have not been under pressure. They have been under some pressure imposed by the United States, but there has been very insignificant pressure coming from the Somali government and the African Union troops in Somalia. The African Union troops in Somalia have been in the country for thirteen years. They have done an amazing job in protecting the government from falling down in light of the attacks from Al-Shabaab. They have ceased all the major towns from Al-Shabaab, but they have not been able to neutralize Al-Shabaab and drive it out of the country.
Al-Shabaab has been playing the long-term war since 2011. They have been withdrawing from major towns without putting up a major fight. They have been saving their men to fight the fight in the long-term, so this is why it has been very important for Somalia and for its international partners to come up with a strategy to neutralize Al-Shabaab.
I am going back to earlier this year, for instance, when the epidemic COVID-19 came to Somalia in March 2020. March 16 was the first time COVID-19 arrived in Somalia. Al-Shabaab initially did not take the epidemic very seriously. They gave that generic response like any other extremist group, that the epidemic is solely infecting infidels, it is not very serious.
But it immediately spread to the rest of the country and it affected some of their members. One of their doctors was killed. Some of their members were also killed. Then they started to take it seriously and they have implemented a center to combat the virus. What happened was that they did not officially announce a reduction of the attacks. They did not officially accept the ceasefire call from the United Nations Secretary General. They did not officially make any statement, but somehow the attacks decreased in April, May, and June significantly.
There were different interpretations for why the attacks have decreased. Some people have suggested maybe because COVID-19 severely affected Al-Shabaab and they were trying to distance their fighters, they were trying to avoid bringing together fighters into one place in order to avoid getting infected. Some others suggested that what also happened was that the number of airstrikes by the United States have also decreased during this period, so the interpretation by some experts is that this was also an opportunity for Al-Shabaab to reorganize itself since these relentless airstrikes are not taking place.
The relentless airstrikes increased in 2017 when President Trump came to power. The President has given a lot of leeway to the Commanders to carry out attacks against Al-Shabaab, so the number of attacks increased considerably. This year alone nearly fifty airstrikes were carried out in Somalia. That is a record and we still have a few more months until the end of the year.
So these attacks have disrupted the movement of Al-Shabaab leaders. There were a couple of notable attacks where these airstrikes killed about one hundred militants each time, so Al-Shabaab stopped graduating new recruits. They have stopped congregating in one place, and certainly the movement of Al-Shabaab killers have either stopped or significantly decreased, but when COVID-19 came, airstrikes stopped or decreased.
Al-Shabaab found an opportunity to make movements, maybe to reorganize itself, maybe to put their infrastructure, their resources into places for future attacks. That is also another reading. The other reading is that these airstrikes have significantly disrupted the vehicles that are bringing explosives into major towns. We have also seen a reduction of Al-Shabaab’s major, complex attacks on military bases because this kind of attacks requires a large gathering of militants in certain points in order to attack a military base.
So we have seen this significant impact on Al-Shabaab by the airstrikes, but on the other hand, without a clear strategy on the ground, without a ground force taking on Al-Shabaab, airstrikes alone cannot completely neutralize the threat of Al-Shabaab in the country, and Al-Shabaab apart from these airstrikes has not suffered major losses in battle for a long time, for nearly ten years.
Al-Shabaab Resumes Attacks
So I am mentioning this COVID-19 period because when Somalia opened up in July and major restrictions were lifted, Al-Shabaab restarted carrying out major attacks with the last four or five weeks there were heavy attacks in Mogadishu at an upscale hotel. There was an attack in Mogadishu’s central prison.
There was an attack on a military camp manned by Somali forces and U.S. forces that happened very recently this month on September 7. A U.S. soldier was wounded in that attack, also four Somali soldiers were killed. But the importance of this attack for Al-Shabaab is that they were attacking a military base that accommodates, that hosts U.S. soldiers. This is significant because like many Al Qaeda affiliates, Al Qaeda member extremist groups, fighting the great infidel, the United States, is the pinnacle of jihadi [targets].
If we go back to the number of attacks that Al Shabaab has conducted against the United States since 2017, three U.S. soldiers and two Pentagon contractors were killed in Al Shabaab attacks. The most notable attack happened on January 5 in northeastern Kenya in Manda Bay. That is when Al-Shabaab carried out that complex attack on the airbase which is used by the United States and Kenya’s forces, and that was significant because Al-Shabaab bypassed several Kenyan military bases in order to attack this base where the United States soldiers were based.
So this is very important. Al Shabaab is sending a message that it can attack the United States and it will attack the United States given the opportunity. It also shows and gives us an understanding the nature of Al-Shabaab, which is a transnational organization that has ambitions beyond the borders of Somalia.
Al-Shabaab sometimes sends mixed messages. In one week you might see them attacking, for instance, a hotel complex in Kenya, like the attack in January last year. That attack killed more than twenty people. The reason they gave for that attack was in response to President Trump recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Then in another week within that month you might see Al-Shabaab calling for Somalis to defend their country against Crusaders, portraying themselves as a nationalist organization.
So they gave these mixed messages, but it is a typical, transnational, terrorist organization that is bent on taking over Somalia, attacking other countries beyond the borders of Somalia, so that has been the threat that Al-Shabaab posed to Somalia, as well as to the countries in the region and beyond.
After the attack last week in southern Somalia where the U.S. soldier was wounded, Al-Shabaab issued a new threat against the United States, emphasizing that they are going to concentrate their attacks on U.S. interests and against the United States. This is probably partially propaganda, but also they have shown that they can attack the United States and U.S. interests.
We have seen a major attack, an insider attack, on the biggest airbase in Somalia in September last year about a year ago. This airbase hosts the largest number of U.S. troops that are training Somali forces. Nobody expected Al-Shabaab to infiltrate the base. It is heavily protected. It was a suicidal mission. All of the attackers were killed, about ten of them. None of them were injured on the part of the United States and Somali soldiers, but the message was that they can attack U.S. soldiers.
Actually, a few months later, Al-Shabaab showed us a video of their leader, sending off these attackers, who carried out the attack on the military base. They did not completely show his face, but they carried his message and they showed him partially. So Al-Shabaab remains a threat to the Somali government, to the regions, and also it remains a threat to other countries, and other countries’ interests in Somalia.
I want to talk about the other part of Al-Shabaab, which is despite this threat, Al-Shabaab itself has been losing some men in recent years. Within this year alone they have lost three major leaders. One of them was killed in February this year. Probably the most important leader Al-Shabaab lost for a long time since the death of its former leader in September 2014.
This gentleman’s name was Bashir Mohamed Mahamoud Qorgab. He was a ruthless, long-time military commander. The United States put five million dollars on his head, and apart from that he was commanding the Al-Shabaab wing that operates in northeastern Kenya, the Al-Shabaab group that was behind that attack on Manda Bay, the base in northeastern Kenya where the U.S. soldier and two contractors were killed in January. So he was killed in February. That was a major success for the Somali government and for the United States, which cooperated in this attack.
In April this year, the United States and Somali government also killed another commander. His name was Yusuf Jiis. He was the head of Al-Shabaab in charge of NGOs. Why are the NGOs important? Because they try to exploit NGOs. Al-Shabaab naturally expelled all of the international NGOs from Somalia, but they deal directly with local NGOs, some of whom represent international NGOs. So they tried to extort them, to get money from them, in order to finance their operations. This guy was reportedly involved in the ransacking of NGO offices in early 2000 in southwestern Somalia. He was quite ruthless, and he was taken out in April this year.
Lastly, just last month the United States targeted another military commander. His name was Abdulkadir Commando. He was killed near the town of Sakow in southern Somalia. The reason I am mentioning these key leaders is that these attacks had an impact on the operations of Al-Shabaab as I mentioned earlier. It is targeting not only foot-soldiers, but also key leaders.
But when it comes to the long-term strategy in dealing with Al-Shabaab, it might not account for very much unless there is a robust, on-the-ground strategy in order to fight against Al-Shabaab. African Union troops have twenty-two thousand soldiers in Somalia, but twenty-two thousand soldiers is insignificant in number compared to the size of Somalia, Somalia is a very large country and Al-Shabaab is a very deadly, organized, militant organization that is bent on playing the long game, fighting the long war, taking their time.
And their strategy, very, very clearly, is to wear off these operations, to exhaust these military operations against them, whether it is the United States’ airstrikes or whether it is the African Union Mission in Somalila, to exhaust these operations and eventually force them to leave Somalia. That is the game they are playing and not many people doubt that unless Somalia builds its own army, they could eventually retake most of the country, unless there is a really focused, viable strategy in order to build a viable Somali National Army.
One other item I want to mention is that because of the length of the African Union Mission in Somalia, which is now in its thirteenth year, and because of the unpredictability of airstrikes in the long-term – because, after all, these airstrikes are to disrupt Al-Shabaab attacks and to degrade, they are not necessarily there to completely neutralize the threat of Al-Shabaab – because of this there are forces in Somalia who are suggesting perhaps we should talk with Al-Shabaab.
This argument has gathered momentum since the Taliban started talking with the United States. They argue that since Al-Shabaab’s core members are Somalis, that they will be susceptible to negotiations that they will entertain. While this argument cannot be completely written off, negotiations might be possible with Al-Shabaab, I do not think the Somali government ever rejected negotiating with Al-Shabaab if that leads to a negotiated settlement.
But Al-Shabaab has only shown an interest in negotiations one time in its entire history, snd this is the reason that many people are saying maybe it is perhaps time to talk to Al-Shabaab. That was in 2009. A new government formed in Djibouti led by the former leader of the Islamic Courts Union, which emerged in Mogadishu in 2006 and almost took over south-central Somalia. Some Salafi scholars have tried to mediate between the new government led by the former leader of the Islamic Courts, and Al-Shabaab.
At that time Al-Shabaab did not officially announce it was negotiating, but it was negotiating behind the scenes. It was talking to the Salafi leaders, and it came up with two major conditions. The first condition was that Somalia must accept Sharia law and the second condition was that African Union troops must leave Somalia very soon.
The Somali government, without any negotiation settlement with Al-Shabaab, found it difficult to accept one of the conditions. The first condition was accepted immediately by the Somali Parliament and they have implemented an article passed by the Parliament, which says that the Constitution and the laws of the country will never contradict Sharia. And they have passed a law, which says Sharia is the basis for the laws of the country. Still, that was not acceptable for Al-Shabaab. That is very important because Al-Shabaab did not recognize that Parliament, and I will explain later why they do not recognize the Parliament.
African Union Withdrawal
The second condition was the withdrawal of African Union troops from Somalia. That was very important for the government because if the troops withdraw at that time without the Somali Army, Al-Shabaab is going to take over the country. They are going to overthrow the government, so the government could not have accepted that condition. So both conditions – one of which was accepted by the government and they passed a law, accepting Sharia as the basis for the laws of the country – still that was not acceptable to Al-Shabaab.
The indication here is that Al-Shabaab is not going to accept the Somali government and the Somali Parliament because they are both apostates, and militant, jihadi, Salafi groups do not negotiate with groups they describe as apostates. But then there are those who say the Taliban is negotiating with the United States.
Bringing Al-Shabaab to the Table
It is very likely that Al-Shabaab might not reject negotiations with the United States, but they might not negotiate with the Somali government. But the majority consensus is that a negotiation will come if the power of Al-Shabaab is significantly reduced, and if the scholars of Al-Shabaab – because Al-Shabaab has scholars who issue fatwas, and these fatwas have described the Somali government as apostate, and they believe in killing the apostates in their own interpretation of Islam. And a majority of scholars believe that unless these scholars are engaged and these scholars withdraw that fatwa, describing or designating the Somali government and the Somali Parliament as apostates, the road to negotiations or the possibility of negotiating with Al-Shabaab is just going to be a futile exercise.
But what we have practically seen in Somalia is that Al-Shabaab was not the first, armed, militant, Salafi organization in Somalia. There was Al-Itihaad al-Islamiya (AIAI), which had an armed wing in the early ’90s. From 1991 it fought against Somali administrations in the country.
There were a number of [clashes] between Somali administrations and militant organizations. There was fighting in April 1991. There was more fighting in 1992. There was fighting between Al-Itihaad al-Islamiya and Ethiopia in 1995. All these fights were defeated, the militant organizations were defeated and they were dispersed. And each time they were defeated, they came back to reorganize themselves in a different form. And the last fighting between Ethiopia and Al-Shabaab in 1995 completely destroyed Al-Itihaad al-Islamiya, but it split them into two groups; a new Salafi jihadi group, which later on became Al-Shabaab, and another Salafi group, which completely renounced fighting jihad, and instead they opted for a peaceful spread of the religion throughout Somalia.
So there are very large segments of the community who believe that, okay, Al-Shabaab will talk, they might talk, they might change, but there has to be certain pressures, certain developments that can force Al-Shabaab to negotiate. Al-Shabaab is not in a position now militarily, financially. They are taxing the population, not only in the areas they control, but in the areas they do not control, including Mogadishu, the capital. They are calling rich people and asking them to give millions of dollars, extorted money, in order to finance their operations.
So Al-Shabaab is a shadow administration that is also taxing, just like the Somali government, taxing the population, sending attacks, threatening, trying to micromanage people, not only the government and the people who work for it, but ordinary people, civil society leaders, journalists, others. They are threatening them.
In order to degrade them significantly and force them to negotiate, they say, Al-Shabaab has to either be militarily weakened, financially weakened, ideologically challenged, because after all, if you fight with them, but this ideology still attracts some youngsters, some people in the countryside, you may not make a lot of progress in terms of fighting the ideology.
So the fight against Al-Shabaab is not only a military [battle], it is also ideological, it is economic, it is social, like anywhere else in the rest of the world. Based on the experiences we have seen from 1991, there is a very good chance that if Al-Shabaab forces are weakened militarily, socially, ideologically, then they can be forced to negotiate or at least they can be split into two groups.
Defections from Al-Shabaab
So far the Somali government has been investing heavily in trying to get some people to defect from Al-Shabaab. There were a number of high profile people who defected from Al-Shabaab, but they have been defecting from Al-Shabaab since 2009, yet that has not affected their capacity, and their capability, and the threat. So instead of focusing on getting people to defect from Al-Shabaab, why not militarily pressure them, ideologically pressure them, economically pressure them? And then try to change the mindset and the dynamics on the ground, and the geographic presence of Al-Shabaab.
If these steps are taken, many Somalis believe Al-Shabaab can be significantly weakened. But I am going to conclude with my earlier remarks. Unless there is a very strong, determined Somali government that has a strategy in building a national army, that has a strategy in fighting against Al-Shabaab money laundering, that has a very viable, strong strategy to counter Al-Shabaab ideologically, then this fight is going to be a long war, and that is what we have now.
Robert R. Reilly:
Harun, thank you so much for that fascinating update. You offered the analogy with Afghanistan, so let me begin by asking you a question about the Taliban and Al-Shabaab. One very effective thing the Taliban did was institute a Sharia court system, which was scrupulously fair. It was unlike the Afghan government court system. It was not corrupt and it was expeditious. This really was an exercise of sovereignty. If you can administer justice, you are the sovereign of the area in which you administer. Has Al-Shabaab been able to do that in Somalia? Do they have a functioning Sharia court system that is respected?
Al-Shabaab has about twelve maktabs or departments, what they call their Department of Defense, Department of Politics, Department of the Jabhas, and there is also a Department of Courts and a Department of Da’wah. So they have courts and they have been taking civil cases, land disputes, marriage disputes. They have been taking cases not only in the areas they control, but also there were reports of some people going to Al-Shabaab areas, seeking justice.
A Flawed Judicial System
But Al-Shabaab’s court system is heavily flawed. It is biased. Al-Shabaab does not believe in lawyers. They do not have lawyers for the accused. And there is significant evidence that people who have the power in how these courts rule are the Amniyat. Amniyat is the security branch of Al-Shabaab that has the intelligence unit, the assassination unit, the explosives unit, all of these come under the Amniyat.
So people are taken to courts in many occasions and courts issue rulings without any evidence. Judges read statements, saying that this person has confessed to the alleged crime, and they have executed a number of people, a countless number of people. So these Al-Shabaab courts have not been transparent, and the people who defected have testified and have told me that most of the people give forced confessions because they are tortured. And they have very dangerous prison cells where people are tortured and they are forced to confess.
So they have this court system, but there are very serious question marks. But there were cases I documented where instead of inviting people who have a dispute over land for instance, one of the cases I came across, Al-Shabaab did not invite the people who were disputing [the issue]. Instead of inviting, they sent assassins and they got rid of one of the people who were in the dispute because he did not obey their order to appear before the court.
This happened. It is not just one case, there were a number of cases where Al-Shabaab assassinated people who refused to appear or recognize their courts. So they have this court system, but there are also these cases where people were either tortured and forced to confess or people were assassinated because they have not accepted Al-Shabaab rulings or they have not accepted Al-Shabaab summons to appear before their courts. But to answer the biggest question, the Taliban were hosting Al Qaeda, which is a transnational organization that believes in fighting global jihad. Al-Shabaab is Al Qaeda that believes in global jihad, that wants to fight beyond the borders of Somalia.
Robert R. Reilly:
Thank you, Harun. Might I ask you before we leave the subject of the legal system, you mentioned that the legislature in Mogadishu accepted Sharia as the law or at least that no law in Somalia would contravene Sharia. Did that have a practical effect in the legal system? Did that have any meaning on the ground?
It has meaning on the ground because, for instance, Al-Shabaab cases and cases of murder by members of the Somali military are taken by military courts, and these courts rely on Sharia in order to pass their judgements against Al-Shabaab, against killings, against murders, against the attacks by Al-Shabaab. These courts heavily rely on Sharia. There are also civil cases in the country. The civil laws in the country also refer to religion when they are passing judgement. There is the Somali penal code that was passed in 1964, which they also refer to when they are passing judgements.
So it has some meaning and it is also very important because the arguments that are coming from Al-Shabaab is that this is an apostate government and they are fighting in order to impose Sharia in the country, but the Somali Parliament and the Somali government are saying, okay, Sharia is the basis for the Somali laws.
The Somali Constitution says any law that is against the Sharia is not a law. That is an article in the Somali Constitution, so it is very important that Somalia has that because it is one of the articles that Al-Shabaab is using in order to manipulate people and say that this government is imposing man-made laws on the country.
The Caliphate Debate
Robert R. Reilly:
Now, in terms of its larger ambitions, you mentioned in your 2018 Westminster talk that Al-Shabaab’s objective was a caliphate, [but] of what dimensions? Where would this caliphate be? [Would this be] a universal caliphate?
A universal caliphate. That is very important. Al-Shabaab discussed this. In 2010, there was a large meeting that Al-Shabaab held in southern Somalia, and that discussion was should we declare a caliphate in Somalia or should we become part of a larger caliphate in the world? And the discussants who were participating in that meeting agreed that the caliphate they are looking for is a global caliphate. It is not just a small caliphate in a small part of Somalia or a small part of Africa.
This was also a contentious point because the leader of Al-Shabaab at the time, Ahmed Abdi Godane, argued although he wants to wait, that the larger caliphate, the global caliphate, he still wants to be regarded as the amir al-mumineen of Somalia or the leader of the Islamic Emirate of Somalia.
Godane and Aweys
And that has raised some objection from some of the Al-Shabaab scholars. One of the scholars who rejected that notion is Hassan Dahir Aweys, and he later on defected or was forced to defect from the group. He is now under house arrest in Mogadishu. They rejected that idea and he did not want Ahmed Abdi Godane, the former emir of Al-Shabaab, to be considered as the interim leader of an Islamic Emirate in Somalia.
There are certain religious articles that govern (in the eyes of Al-Shabaab) this kind of caliphate, and the scholars who attended that conference agreed that Al-Shabaab did not meet this criteria, so they need to be part of a larger caliphate. And later on to emphasize that role they merged with Al Qaeda in February 2012.
Al Qaeda or ISIS
But when the caliphate emerged in Iraq and Syria, that is when some members of Al-Shabaab asked the hard question of the leaders of Al-Shabaab and said, okay, so the caliphate came. Why do we not join the caliphate? And then the question became political. What is going to be our role? Who is going to appoint and dictate us? We do not want somebody in Iraq and Syria to call the shots. We are going to stay as Al-Shabaab, as Al Qaeda.
And that is partially why they stuck with Al-Shabaab. Apart from the emotional connection, the background that they shared with Al Qaeda, some of the leaders of Al-Shabaab were trained in Afghanistan. They met Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahri. Because of that affinity and that affection and because they did not want to lose relevance in Somalia they decided not to join the caliphate, but there was a time when the vast majority of Al-Shabaab members, the ordinary members, were very keen on joining, merging with ISIS.
But Al-Shabaab saw the danger that they would lose their relevance, their leaders felt that their positions would be in question, and they rejected the idea. And they went against the people who advocated for this idea. They attacked and killed some of them. This is why a small number of Al-Shabaab defected and announced the Somali Islamic State Group, and merged with ISIS in Iraq and Syria in 2015.
Robert R. Reilly:
Harun, you mentioned the taxation system that Al-Shabaab has inside Somalia, but that cannot be sufficient to sustain them. I do not know how many troops they now have or the size of Al-Shabaab, you might mention current estimates, so where does the rest of the money come from and where do the weapons come from?
This is very important. Al-Shabaab is a complex organization. They are a multifaceted organization. They have been taxing businesses, wealthy people, shops, all kinds of small businesses in Mogadishu, and in most Somali towns in south central Somalia, but Al-Shabaab also controls the countryside, largely, vast land in the countryside. And commercial goods leave major towns in Somalia in order to go to another town, and because Al-Shabaab is still capable of attacking not only the Somali government and African Union forces, but also civilian vehicles.
These transportation vehicles, these commercial vehicles that are moving goods from one part of the country to another go through Al-Shabaab territory, and Al-Shabaab erected so many checkpoints throughout the country in order to tax this. They tax the goods, they tax the vehicles, and they tax the people. So Al-Shabaab is taxing a vast amount of money. In 2018, for instance, a local think tank estimated that Al-Shabaab collected $27 million. That is a lot of money in Somalia, where they pay, for instance, their militias between $30 and $70 a month.
And apart from this Al-Shabaab is involved in other illicit trades. They make money in other forms. They also collect animals from the public, from the pastoral community. They collect thousands and thousands of animals, camels, sheep, goats, and as you well know, livestock is the number one pillar of Somalia’s economy, livestock for exportation.
Somalia heavily relies on livestock exportation. Somalia traditionally has relied on livestock exportation, and Al-Shabaab collects this large number of livestock, which they redistribute, some of them to poorer people, but we believe and experts believe that these animals are also sold and it also generates a large amount of money, which they use to run their operations, incuding buying weapons.
But they have also been carrying out attacks in 2014, 2015, 2016 on military installations. They ran over and seized a large number of weapons, which can sustain them for a long period. So the weapons that they need to buy today are the explosive agents, TNT. This is the kind of weapons they have bought recently from outside the country, but the rest of the weapons had been abandoned in the country.
Somalia has been heavily weaponized, heavily militarized for decades because of the war between Somalia and Ethiopia, and because the former military government of Somalia heavily imported weapons from the Soviet Union. These weapons are still in abundance in the country.
Robert R. Reilly:
And if you could briefly address the estimated size of the Al-Shabaab militias today.
The estimated size of Al-Shabaab according to my book I based on that estimate interviews that I had with two Al-Shabaab defectors; the former number two Al-Shabaab leader, Mukhtar Robow, and the former military intelligence officer of Al-Shabaab. And they both came to very similar numbers, that is thirteen thousand men in Somalia. Estimates given by other experts range from five thousand to ten thousand, but this estimate has been in place since 2009-2010.
It is inconceivable that the number of Al-Shabaab members would stay the same for ten years because they have been recruiting militias from the clans, from the countryside, from the schools. And they have forced a number of clans to — as they call ‘donate’ — young boys. For instance, Al-Shabaab has carried out a daring attack on Puntland, that is a relatively stable part of Somalia, in 2016. And they lost a lot of men in this attack, and a large number of their attackers were captured.
And the young men who were captured were aged from 13, 14, 15, 16, very young aged kids, so that shows that Al-Shabaab has been recruiting from the schools, from the clans, from the madrassas, and they are still recruiting. The recruitment in large numbers and graduation of large number of Al-Shabaab recruits have probably stopped recently because of the airstrikes, but the recruiting nonetheless has not stopped. And Al-Shabaab largely operates in small numbers, anyway. They are a guerrilla group, carrying out hit-and-run attacks apart from once in a while a major attack on a military base. So I would estimate their numbers at at least thirteen thousand.
Robert R. Reilly:
Harun, some analysts say one mistake the United States made in Iraq in 2003 was a lack of appreciation for the tribal system in that country. They thought Iraq is a very cosmopolitan place and we need not take the tribes into account. There was a very low level of awareness of the importance of tribes.
You mentioned the clans in Somalia. Are they of paramount importance, and how does the clan structure play out in respect to the government vis-à-vis Al-Shabaab?
That is a very important question. Somali clans have been an important factor in the conflict in the country. I say this because when the former government of Siad Barre collapsed in 1991, clans became very important in the civil war. Clan militias have ransacked, destroyed towns and they have taken the country in a downhill.
Clan warlords have been marauding the country and this is why the famine broke out in Somalia in 1991-1992. This is why President Bush Sr. sent thirty thousand U.S. troops to Somalia in December 1992 in order to degrade the clan warlords and help the aid reach the people who need it. About a thousand people were dying in Somalia at the time. So the clans are a very important part of Somalia.
Clans also play a very important part in the current government because the entire political system of Somalia is based on clan power-sharing, the so-called 4.5 Formula. There are four major clans and other smaller clans that take half of what a major clans takes. We have 275 members in the parliament. Each major clan takes 61 members. The rest, which is half of that, 31 members, go to the rest of the clans. So the clans are very important.
How Al-Shabaab Used the Clan System
Al-Shabaab came and took advantage of this clan system, but before Al-Shabaab the Islamic Courts came. That was very important because the Islamic Courts convinced the clans that in the absence of government, the only way they can restore some time of stability in their respective areas is to form Islamic courts that are based on clans.
They were clan warlords that do not believe in Islamic courts, but there were religious scholars who wanted to start Islamic Courts in order to pacify their respective areas, their regions, and this is the system that Al-Shabaab and Salafi jihadists took advantage of. They got themselves embedded in the Islamic courts, and they strengthened and grew within the Islamic courts until it was too late to stop in 2006. This is how Al-Shabaab emerged in 2006, so the clan system is very important.
Clan Support Today
Al-Shabaab used that system in order to recruit young boys, in order to collect weapons from the clan. They still hold meetings for the clan elders, and ask them to bring a hundred men from each clan, and a hundred guns, rifles. They still do that today and Al-Shabaab uses that to their advantage and they do not shy away from mentioning clans who support them. The name them and they say these clans came to our aid and because of that they are ahead of the other clans, and they force other clans to also do the same.
So they eulogize this clan system and the clans who support them, but clans are also important and they can become a tool to fight against Al-Shabaab because when it comes to politics and political representation, clan representation is very important. There are still some clans who are supporting Al-Shabaab because they do not see themselves to be benefiting from the current power-sharing, which is the system that the Somali government is using, so the clan system can be used against them.
I want to mention one very important thing. Clans also have weapons. I mentioned earlier that one of the biggest challenges facing the Somali National Army is the clan issue. Why? Because there are efforts in order to integrate different clans into the Somali Army so that they reflect the country, and that has not worked very well so far.
And one other important thing is that according to the last assessment made by the Somali government, about thirty percent of the weapons that the Somali Army uses against Al-Shabaab belongs to certain clans. So this is why it is very important clans are engaged, represented in politics, and mobilized against Al-Shabaab.
Al-Shabaab knows this danger and they continuously court clan elders. They continuously held seminars, workshops, endless [events]. I have not seen within the last five years or so the Somali government or the United States, holding a meeting for clan elders in Somalia. Al-Shabaab holds seminars and workshops for clans almost on a monthly basis just to keep them in check and to make sure they are intimidated because this is also intimidation. There were meetings last year, for instance, that Al-Shabaab arranged with elders who selected delegates who will be voting for the MPs.
I mentioned the agreement reached by the federal government and the Somali regional leaders today. This agreement says each MP will be selected, will be voted on by one hundred-and-one delegates. These delegates will be selected by clan elders, so it is very important. Any delegate selected by these clans is an important delegate. So this is why Al-Shabaab last year invited the clan elders and agreed to a deal with them that they will not be participating in the elections, that they will not be electing delegates to elect MPs. I do not think that is going to stop the election from taking place, but they can also manipulate these clan elders, so that is also another vulnerability.
Before Al-Shabaab held this meeting for the clan elders, they assassinated dozens and dozens of delegates who participated in the last election in 2017 in order to scare people from participating in this process. So Al-Shabaab assassinates clan elders who do not listen to them, who participate in government elections and government programs, and they keep clan elders in check regularly in order to keep their support on their side.
Robert R. Reilly:
If I may ask one last question, Harun, supposedly Turkey has its largest overseas military base in Somalia for the purposes of training the Somali National Army. Other countries have a presence there aside from the United States; Qatar, the UAE. There seems to be a lot of players. Can you speak briefly as to their competing interests and how that is playing out inside the country?
That is another very important question. Somalia has a government that is very fragile, that is just starting to stand on its feet, but Somalia is also located on a very strategic part of Africa. Somalia has the longest coastline in Africa. Somallia is very close to the Middle East, to the Far East, and Somalia has vast mineral resources.
I am going to start with Turkey. Turkey came to Somalia at a time when Somalia was going through a difficult time. That was in 2011. That was the second time since 1991 that Somalia suffered famine, and thousands of people were dying every day. There was not a lot of international attention to this disaster until the former Prime Minister, now the President of Turkey, Erdoğan, visited Mogadishu in August 2011.
That visit led to visitors from different countries and pledges from other countries, from Africa, from Arab countries, from Western countries to see what was happening on the ground. It was a landmark visit that captured the hearts of Somalis because Turkey opened its support to Somalia. Turkish charities went to Somalia. They helped people who were suffering from famine and starvation, and it was a turning point. It was a game changer. It led to other countries doing the same, and famine was contained.
Then Turkey moved on to development programs, building roads, buildings, rehabilitating old government buildings including the two buildings of the Somali Parliament; the Upper House, the Senate, and the Lower House. They modernized the seaport in Mogadishu, as well as modernizing the airport in Mogadishu. So Turkey heavily invested in Somalia. Hundreds of millions of dollars were given to Somalia by Turkey in aid, but also billions of dollars were invested by Turkey in development projects.
So the establishment of the military base came in 2017 and that was very significant because Somalia was training soldiers in Ethiopia, in Uganda, in Djibouti, in Kenya, and these troops were coming and they were just joining the fight against Al-Shabaab. So there was no cohesion, there was no uniform training. There was a unit of Somali soldiers, a brigade of Somali soldiers, trained by Ethiopia, and people would say, oh, this is brigade X and Y, trained by Ethiopia, or by the United Arab Emirates, or by Kenya. So what Turkey did is it said we are going to do a uniform training for all these different soldiers, so they set up a very modern military training [program] in the country.
But in 2017, when Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and Bahrain cut ties with Qatar, Somalia found itself in a difficult position. Why? The United Arab Emirates had a military training facility in Mogadishu and in other parts of the country. It was training the Somali Army and it was helping the government. Saudi Arabia was financially helping the government. Turkey and Qatar were also helping the government, not only militarily but also through budgetary support. Turkey still until today gives $25 million in budgetary support to Somalia. That is a lot of money when the annual budget of Somalia is $364 million, so that is significant.
So the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Egypt pressured Somalia, among many other countries, to cut ties with Qatar, and Somalia said Qatar has been helpful to us the same way you have been helpful to us, so we are not going to cut ties, we are going to stay neutral. But staying neutral was a lilfeline, it was a reprieve for Qatar because when these countries isolated Qatar, one of the airspaces that Qatar Airways and Qatar officials could use was Somalia in order to commute to the rest of the world, to Africa, to Asia, to the West. Somalia found itself in a very important place, so Qatar got even closer to Somalia. Qatar respected Somalia even more for the independent decision Somalia had taken. That led to the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia getting even more agitated.
Qatari influence in Somalia
One other important thing is that there are individuals who are ideologically close to Qatar, who are within the Somali government. So these individuals have vigorously defended Qatar. The Somali government turned against the United Arab Emirates when the UAE sent a plane-laod of cash, $9.5 billion, which the Somali government thought was for the opposition to the government, in order to weaken the Somali government and undermine the government into influence the emergence of a more pro-UAE, pro-Saudi Arabia politicians.
So the Somali government took a very decisive action. It closed the UAE military training facility and it came very close to cutting ties with the UAE. The ties were not cut, but the two governments are not on good terms, and that has undermined the political stability. It certainly undermined the training of the Somali Army because the United Arab Emirates was one of the countries that were really significantly improving the Somali Army, but that support has stopped now. The Somali government still has that $9.5 billion. It has not returned it to the UAE. The UAE asked for this money to be returned.
Relations with Egypt
The relations between the two countries is very, very complicated. We do not know if this election will change that, but Somalia got closer to African countries, to Ethiopia. The current Somali leadership have grown close in its relations with the governments of Ethiopia and Eritrea, and that has also annoyed the government of Egypt because Egypt was also looking for Arab countries that support it in its dispute with Ethiopia over the Nile River. So some Arab countries support Egypt.
Somalia is a member of the Arab League. It joined the Arab League in 1972. But Somalia is also located in a very strategic position, very close to Ethiopia. Egypt supported Somalia militarily, historically, when it was fighting aginst Ethiopia. This current Somali government has changed that dynamic. It got closer to Ethiopia. It turned away Egypt, so Egypt is furious, Ethiopia is happy, but Somalia is in a fragile situation.
Robert R. Reilly:
Harun, thank you very much for this extraordinarily rich presentation on Somalia and Al Shabaab today, and Al Shabaab’s strategy. I greatly appreciate your return to the Westminster Institute. I thank our viewers and invite them to go to the Westminster Institute’s webpage, where you will find this lecture posted and you can explore our other videos on the Westminster Institute YouTube channel. Thank you very much for joining us.
Thank you very much, Robert. It is an honor joining you, and I am glad I have appeared at the Westminster Institute again.