Inside Al-Shabaab: The Secret History of Al-Qaeda’s Most Powerful Ally

Inside Al-Shabaab: The Secret History of Al-Qaeda’s Most Powerful Ally
(Harun Maruf, November 14)

Transcript available below

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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:

We’re delighted tonight to have tonight the two co-authors of this new book Inside Al-Shabaab: The Secret History of Al-Qaeda’s Most Powerful Ally with us tonight and it’s a special pleasure as a veteran of the Voice of America to have two current VOA people with us and those are the co-authors, Harun Maruf and Dan Joseph. Harun will be giving the talk tonight and then Dan will join us up at the podium here for the Q&A.

Now, Harun Maruf is a reporter and writer at the Africa Division. He’s covered a number of conflict zones but has become particularly expert in Somalia and has done extensive research on the origins of Al Shabaab and its contacts with Al Qaeda, its history, its current status, and its prospective future. I’m just going to read quickly from one of the blurbs on the back of the book to give you some idea of what has been achieved in it.

“This book reveals insights I’ve never seen during my fifteen years in counterterrorism―an excellent work,” Clinton Watts, Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy Research Institute. JM Berger, “Inside Al-Shabaab is the definitive history of the Somali militant group, rich with newly disclosed details about the group’s genesis and its ties to al-Qaeda.”

The only other thing I’m going to read from the back of the book is its price, $28, but at a special Westminster discount it’s available at the table outside for $20 and I know that Harun and Dan will be happy to sign the book for you after the presentation.

I’ll just briefly mention that Maruf is the author of hundreds of articles and papers and scholarly works about Somali and the Horn of Africa. Prior to the VOA, he worked at the BBC and Associated Press as a reporter in Somalia and researcher for Human Rights Watch. One extremely significant thing about his influence in the Horn of Africa today is the size of his Twitter audience, which is one hundred and thirty thousand? A hundred and…? A hundred and seventy thousand followers on Twitter [@HarunMaruf]. So without further ado, I welcome Harun Maruf to the podium.

Harun Maruf:

Thank you, Robert. Thank you very much for inviting us. It’s very nice of you and very kind of you and as a VOA employee, I’m honored to appear here not just for myself but also along with my colleague, Dan Joseph. Dan is a brilliant colleague. VOA has given us the permission to write this book and they have supported us. They’ve given us also the space not only to write this book, but also to collaborate on a number of stories, which you can see on our website. We actually collaborated on so many stories about the Horn of Africa and Somalia, Dan and I, for a long time and we would joke about writing together some time one day and in early 2015 we looked at each other and we said I think it’s the right time to write about Al Shabaab and the rest was history, so this book is a complete collaboration between me and Dan Joseph and Dan, thank you very much for working with me in producing this work. I think I would like also to say before I start that we are here representing ourselves. I’m not speaking on behalf of Voice of America.

I would like to talk about Al Shabaab, the origins of the group, and why the group is so deadly today, but before I start talking about Al Shabaab, I would like to mention the country we talk about is Somalia. Somalia has been without a country for thirty years, almost thirty years. When a country becomes lawless and stateless, the government collapses. You can understand the number of organizations that have come to Somalia to support. These were not just Western organizations, but also Muslim organizations, charities, and there’s a history of charities working in Somalia. They have been helping Somali people with food, with schools, with education, and a number of Muslim charities came to Somalia, including Saudi charities, including UAE charities, charities from all over Muslim countries have been to Somalia to support Somalis with education, scholarships, and they have been doing a great job, so when we talk about Al Shabaab, we always have to have in mind that there are a number of Muslim organizations that are working in Somalia and are doing a diligent job.

We also have to understand that because of the lawlessness in Somalia, many people have tried to reason why they are suffering for such a long time. Somalis have tried Socialism. They have tried being allied with the West. Nothing has worked. They have not been able to have a functioning government for almost thirty years, so a lot of people went to mosques, a lot of people have sought support from Muslim charities, and a lot of people have become very religious. They were trying to find an understanding for why they were suffering for such a long time, so what I call civil Islam, a number of organizations that practice civil Islam have done an amazing job in Somalia. If we understand the rise of Islamic Courts in Somalia, they have been able to stabilize parts of Mogadishu and parts of the country. Eventually, it led to the takeover of the south central Somalia in 2006, so it’s against that backdrop that Al Shabaab emerged.

Our book starts with the stories of two men. One is Ibrahim Haji Jama Me’aad. The other one is a young Somali fighter. His name is Asad Yare. Ibrahim Haji Jama Me’aad came to the United States in 1981 as a student. He lived in the United States until 1988. He met a Palestinian jihadist by the name of Abdullah Azzam, who convinced him, when he met him in Virginia, to go to Afghanistan and fight alongside the Mujahideen. Ibrahim Afghan traveled to Afghanistan. He helped the fight against the Soviet Union and in return, Al-Qaeda mentored him, they trained him, and they convinced him to go to Somalia and do the same thing, take the Al-Qaeda ideology and philosophy to Somalia. He came back to Somalia in 1990 and he set up the first jihadist training camp. You might ask yourself were there any jihadists at that time in Somalia? Yes, and I’m going to explain to you how that came.

Somalis are a hundred percent Sunni Muslim. For centuries the vast majority of people have followed the Sufi order but in the late 1960s, a large number of scholars returned from Egypt, from Sudan, and from Saudi Arabia and they have challenged the role of the Sufis in the society because the Sufis were more or less- they were participating in the government. They were more or less interested in conducting education, preaching, spirituality. What they were not able to do is explain the role of religion in politics. They were not able to explain the relationship between the public and the government, and the government and the citizens, so the scholars who returned from these countries, Egypt, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, they challenged the Sufi orders. They ridiculed it and from then on, in 1969, a Salafist network emerged in northern Somalia, today’s Somaliland. Four years later in 1973, another Salafist network emerged in Mogadishu. These two organizations have collaborated. They have exchanged books. They brought teachers from Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and they have spread Salafism throughout the country. They targeted university students, the military, civil servants, and they have succeeded.

In 1983, these two organizations merged under the an organization called – you may have heard of this organization – Al Ittihad al Islami. It’s an organization being blacklisted by the United States. It’s not defunct, but it helped the emergence of Al Shabaab. How? In 1996, Ethiopia sent troops into Somalia to the southwestern region of Gedo because that’s where Al Ittihad was training its militias. That’s where Al Ittihad, the gentlemen I told you, Ebrahim Afghan, and others were training Somali jihadists. They were not only training jihadists but they also brought Al-Qaeda fighters from Afghanistan, including Saif al-Ad, you may have heard. The current deputy leader of Al-Qaeda was in Somalia in 1993. Hasan Said was in Somalia. Saghir was in Somalia. They mentored Somali jihadists. They trained them. They brought in explosives experts. Until Somali jihadists at that time- I’m going to call them Somali jihadists because Al Shabaab proper emerged in 2006, although the word Al Shabaab is not new. It has not been new in the mosques because when young people go to mosques, they were being described as ‘youth‘ or ‘al Shabaab‘, so the word is not new.

But the organization Al Shabaab emerged in 2006, so Ethiopia sent troops to dismantle this threat that was coming from Somalia and that was 1996 and in the following year, Al Ittihad Islam split into two groups: a group largely dominated by scholars who said we’re going to stop violent jihad, we’re going to go back to preaching, and we’re going to- If we want to carry out jihad, we’re going to seek fatwa from scholars. We’re not going to just trust young fighters to launch jihad as they wish. And another group, including Ibrahim Afghan who I told you earlier and other young, Somali jihadists who had been going to Afghanistan. I’m going to tell you a little bit more about that. They have set up a movement called the “New Salafi Jihadists,” and this group are the group that was bringing in Al-Qaeda members from Afghanistan, from Egypt, from Sudan into Somalia. This group was protecting the three men that the United States believed were involved in the attacks in the East Africa embassies; Fahr Harun Fazul, Abdulhar al-Sudani, and I’ll remember the other guy, but three of them, all of them are dead now. Two of them were killed by the Somalis gunmen and one of them was killed by the United States.

So, Ebrahim Afghan was helping young Somali jihadists travel from Somalia to Afghanistan so that they will meet Al-Qaeda, train, come back to Somalia, spread, train more jihadists. Ebrahim Afghan was not just doing that, he was also meeting- I told you earlier that Muslim charities and Muslim countries came to Somalia to offer a scholarship to Somali students because Somalia’s education system collapsed. Among the countries and charities that heavily supported Somali students were charities based in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, so one of the largest destinations for Somali students was Pakistan, so Ebrahim Afghan would visit universities in Islamabad and Karachi and he would take them to Peshawar. During the holidays he would take them across the border into Afghanistan and they got training there, mentored, and they became battle-hardened jihadists and they came back to Somalia to lead the formation of Al Shabaab.

When 9/11 happened and the United States attacked Afghanistan, a significant number of these jihadists came back to Somalia, so that they could continue the jihad in Somalia. Al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, Abdullah Azzam, Ayman al Zawahri, they always saw Somalia and Yemen as the future bases for Al Qaeda and and jihad. So the emergence of Al Shabaab in 2006 was not accidental. It was planned, helped, nudged, mentored by Al Qaeda to help the emergence of a jihadist group in Somalia. The formal leader of Al Shabaab was asked who inspired jihad in Somalia and he named three people: Osama bin Laden, Ayman al Zawahri, and Yahya al-Libee, all of them Al Qaeda ideologues. So, when I say that, I’m not saying that there were not Somali scholars who were pursuing the idea of jihad and establishing an Islamic government in Somalia. Of course, there were Somali scholars, Salafists, who always wanted that, but Al Qaeda has given this group organization, mentorship, finance, sophistication, techniques, and they became the deadliest group we call today Al Shabaab.

So what’s Al Shabaab? Al Shabaab is an extremist organization, an Al Qaeda ally. They officially merged with Al Qaeda in 2012, but I also told you that there’s another person involved in this story, the story of a young man by the name of Asad Yare. He represents the other faction, the other face of Al Shabaab. There are genuinely- There is a significant number of Al Shabaab supporters who support Al Shabaab because they believe Somalia’s under attack from Christian countries: Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya with the support of the United States, and the West. This young man was a student in Mogadishu in 2006. He was mesmerized by the victory after victory that Islamic Courts were gaining against the warlords and he finally joined them. His brother was killed. That was the last straw. He was trained as a fighter. He wanted to rise a jihadist. He wanted to defend Somalia against warlords, against Ethiopia. He was only less than 20 but he was a very well trained jihadist who within one week he will carry out assassinations. He would ambush Ethiopian troops. He would transport logistics, weapons, explosives for Al Shabaab from one place to another. When the Somali government was recognized and supported by the United States and the international community, under Islamic Courts created an agreement in 2009, a significant number of fighters defected from Al Shabaab to join the new government. He was one of them. He defected from Al Shabaab. He became a bodyguard for the Foreign Minister but that was not enough for him. He wanted something different. He was attending a school early on before he joined Al Shabaab in Somalia. He wanted to go abroad. He wanted to go to Bangladesh. He was very ambitious. On the other hand, he had blood on his hands, so he left the minister. He tried to go outside Somalia. He went to South Africa. He went to Kenya. Everywhere he goes, he could not adapt his life so he came back to Mogadishu and in 2010 he hid in a vehicle belonging to the African Union to visit Somalia. He entered the presidential palace and he carried out the first attack in the presidential palace. I interviewed him right before he committed this act. I was doing a program about youth and war, so a friend told me that this young man defected from Al Shabaab and he has a story to tell to the audience so I interviewed him. I had a long interview with him. He was very intelligent but he was also lost. He believed that he was fighting for his country and he believed that Al Shabaab was taking Somalia somewhere but Al Shabaab was a dead end. But he represents hundreds, maybe thousands of Somalis who support Al Shabaab, who believe that Al Shabaab is the future of Somalia, so these are the two faces of Al Shabaab.

And today’s Al Shabaab, the group we call Al Shabaab today, they are a well-established organization that conducts attacks, that governs the area they control. They collect taxes not only from the people they control, but also from areas they do not control and they use all kinds of mechanisms to achieve that.

They use currency system, they use collections, they infiltrate the system, they obtain information from organizations, businesses, universities, and they tell them these are the number of people who attend your university or this is the amount you imported last month. You have to pay either tax. You have to pay support to Al Shabaab. They also tax vehicles that are leaving Mogadishu that are going through their territory.

Al Shabaab does not control a major city in Somali but they control a vast land in the countryside, so vehicles that are traveling from major towns to the regions have to go through Al Shabaab territory, so they tax, they collect, millions. In 2017, a think tank in Mogadishu estimated that they collect about $27 million, but that is not the only income, that is not the only finance that Al Shabaab is getting. Al Shabaab uses all other kinds of mechanisms to collect finance from farms, from crops. They also tax people who are cutting trees.

You have heard that charcoal is a big business for Al Shabaab. It has been a big business for a long time, but recently, because Al Shabaab they lost all the sea port, all access to sea ports, they cannot export charcoal by themselves and they do not want the Somali government or regional governments to benefit from the exportation of charcoal, so what they do is they heavily tax on people who are going to the hinterland to cut trees.

So that’s another way they receive income, but they also collect extortion. They call businesses, rich people. They threaten them. They threaten them that if they want to survive, if they want to have their business open in peace, they must pay, and the government cannot give protection to these businesses so businesses are compelled to pay this money.

Al Shabaab has a very large militia. The people that we spoke to, Dan and I, estimate that about 13,000 men fight for Al Shabaab. About half of that, maybe they are what we call jabhat, the military. They fight in the frontline against the Somali government, against the African Union. The rest are either police – police they go to towns, shops, they enforce laws, they tell people to go pray. They arrest people who do not pay tax. They implement rulings by their courts. They have charts.

Because of the weakness of the justice system in Somalia, monied people if they want to get their property back or farm back for example, because the government is weak and cannot implement, they go to Al Shabaab judges and they ask them to mediate or reach a verdict and Al Shabaab does this and Al Shabaab implements. They don’t even have to go to areas controlled by the government. They will just send a message or a telephone number and they will tell that person to implement that ruling and it will be done. Otherwise, you are going to lose your life.

So, Al Shabaab is a very sophisticated, bureaucratic organization that controls everybody, every one of them. They have a database for their neighbors. They know their names, the names of their relatives. If you want to leave the Al Shabaab area to come to the government, they ask you when you are going to come back, who do you know. They will make sure that they know and they always stay psychologically with you even if you are not in their territory, so that you don’t say anything bad about them or you do not undermine their ideology.

But having said that, Al Shabaab has been fighting for a long time in Somalia, ten years now. They were able to control in Mogadishu most of Mogadishu in 2009, 2010, but they were kicked out in 2011. They lost almost all of the major towns in Somalia. Most of the Somalis do not buy their ideology. They do not control all of Somalia and they have not been able to convince Somalis, all Somalis, to take their ideology, but they are capable of carrying out deadly attacks like we saw last year in October, which killed about 587 people, the vast majority of them civilians, almost all of them.

When nothing is happening, Al Shabaab is always mobilizing, looking for a new way to carry out an attack, so sometimes you will see a lull for three months, four months. It’s not because Al Shabaab is weak. It’s because they are planning. They are always borrowing time to plan the next deadly attack, train more fighters.

They still recruit fighters even though they have 13,000 people. In one day late last month they recruited about 300 men in just one village, so some of these are fighters, some of these are spies. They have got a very sophisticated, strong spy network that is within the government, that is within the army, the is embedded with almost every sector of the community, giving them, feeding them with information.

The good thing is as said, they have not been able to convince all the soldiers to take the ideology and they have not been able to take all of Somalia and they have not been to overthrow the Somali government thanks with the help of the international community, in particular African Union troops.

The United States has a very small number of troops, maybe about 500. Most of them are training Somali forces, counterterrorism forces, but the United States conducts airstrikes against Al Shabaab. This year they conducted about thirty airstrikes. Last year it was 33. These airstrikes target suspected Al Shabaab vipers, vehicles that are carrying explosives into the major towns and officials that are suspected, believed to be bomb makers, so they can claim, the United States can claim, that they have had some success. People believe the United States have some success in taking out a number of key individuals within Al Shabaab, but you cannot contain this kind of ideology by bombing from the air.

You need a system of governance that’s efficient, that’s very radical. This is a radical organization that’s going very extreme to change people’s minds, to convince a human being to kill itself and kill 587 people, so you need a radical approach, a radical agenda to defeat them and the support of the international community for Somalia is non-existent.

They say that there are 22,000 troops from the African Union, but they have been protecting the government in Mogadishu and other key areas and Al Shabaab is controlling the rest of the country and Al Shabaab is coming, planning to attack them and they are in defense, so this strategy is not working. The government, international community they have to come up with a different strategy that can defeat Al Shabaab, but in the meantime, as we speak Al Shabaab is in a converse role. So I’m going to stop there. Thank you very much.

Watch the Q&A…


Audience member:

Can you address the links between – if there are any – Al Shabaab and ISIS, communications, any coordination, fighters going back and forth, anything like that?

Dan Joseph:

Well, certainly there’s not coordination. ISIS started a movement in about late 2014. They were trying to convince Al Shabaab to effectively leave Al Qaeda and align themselves with ISIS and they made headway. There were a lot of the foot soldiers in Al Shabaab who believed that – you know, at the time, ISIS was on the rise – and Al Shabaab should shift its allegiance to this new, powerful group that had become sort of the brightest start in the jihadist sky.

And the discussions did go up the hierarchy, and at one point in 2015, it was reported that Al Shabaab was considering making the switch, but Al Qaeda didn’t reach out in some fashion, and Al Shabaab didn’t pull the trigger on the switch. And a few months later, the leaders decided that not only are we not going to join ISIS, they decided that the people in the group, the men in the group who had advocated for that, must be purged, and so, starting in late 2015, there was a purging. People were hunted down and killed. Some men turned themselves into the government rather than stay with Al Shabaab.

Since then there have been occasional clashes between them. There is still a small ISIS faction that is based up in Puntland. There have been occasional clashes between them, but really there is no coordination, there is no collaboration whatsoever. They are enemies, and as ISIS has declined I think its appeal among Al Shabaab and Somalis in general has declined too. They did take over a small town on the coast of Puntland I think in late 2016 and they held it for about a month, but they eventually withdrew. You could almost characterize them as an afterthought in Somalia now.

Harun Maruf:

I just want to add to that. Ideologically, there is not a lot of difference between Al Shabaab and ISIS. They are both jihadists. They both brutally kill people. They behead.

See the rest of the Q&A…