Inside Al-Shabaab: The Secret History of Al-Qaeda’s Most Powerful Ally
(Harun Maruf, November 14, 2018)
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 is 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 are 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 is 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 has 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 am 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 have 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 am going to read from the back of the book is its price, $28, but at a special Westminster discount it is 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 will 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.
Thank you, Robert. Thank you very much for inviting us. It is very nice of you and very kind of you and as a VOA employee, I am 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 have 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 is 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 am 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 is 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 is 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 am 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 an organization called – you may have heard of this organization – Al Ittihad al Islami. It is an organization being blacklisted by the United States. It is 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 is where Al Ittihad was training its militias. That is 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 am 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 are going to stop violent jihad, we are going to go back to preaching, and we are going to- If we want to carry out jihad, we are going to seek fatwa from scholars. We are 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 am 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 will 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 am 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 is 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 is 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 is 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 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 is 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 do not 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 do not 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 is not because Al Shabaab is weak, it is 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 is efficient, that is very radical. This is a radical organization that is 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 am going to stop there. Thank you very much.
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?
Well, certainly there is 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 did not reach out in some fashion, and Al Shabaab didn ot 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.
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. And ideologically, they are very aligned. Al Shabaab at one point was very close, as Dan said, was very close to making the switch, but as we mentioned, Al Shabaab has this affinity, this affection for Al Qaeda leaders, and they still call the head of the Taliban as the Amir al-Mu’minin, and they are in weekly or so communication with Al Qaeda. But ideologically there is not really a lot of difference between Al Shabaab and ISIS.
Congratulations on the publication of your book. Al Shabaab is just like [the] Taliban? What does it take to build alternative institutions to replace the rule of Al Shabaab in Somalia, and what are the prospects of those institutions being put in place in, if not a short, a medium term?
Al Shabaab, as we said, they have very close ties with Al Qaeda, and quite a few of the Al Shabaab founders and early leaders spent time in Afghanistan, and were mentored by bin Laden and Zawahiri, and they modeled themselves to a large degree on the Taliban and the degree of control over people’s lives that the Taliban exercised, and the punishments that the Taliban exercised such as chopping off somebody’s hand if they are accused of robbery or stoning people to death for adultery or public executions for spying, that kind of thing, so they are fairly similar to the Taliban. I do not know if there is a back and forth today on that, but I think that is your answer.
That is absolutely right, Dan. They also have other similarities. The Taliban is very much entrenched in [the] tribal system in Afghanistan. Al Shabaab does the same. They use [the] clan system to their advantage. They use the clan system to recruit people. They call elders, and they say we want one hundred boys or three hundred boys or five hundred boys by this date. They also tell elders to collect money from the clan elders. That is another way they generate [income], they collect money from ordinary people.
Al Shabaab sometimes pretends they are [national heroes]. Just lack week, I do not know if you have seen a video Al Shabaab has published just last week, equating, comparing themselves to the former freedom fighters of Somalia, which fought against the British colony and Ethiopia, so Al Shabaab does this in order to take advantage of the people, so there are a lot of similarities. They change their policies. They do a lot of politicking to manipulate, but their ideology and agenda is fringe and [they are a] very extreme Al Qaeda organization.
To come to your other question about what can be done to defeat Al Shabaab, is that [correct?]
Audience member:[My question was what can be done] to have other institutions put in place.
Yeah. Somalis have the problem that many African countries have, which is [that] there is too much emphasis on politics, and who is going to become the leader, and who is going to rule in the next election. And Somalis have never reelected a leader, so the person who is elected as a leader only holds office for four years. So, the first two years he is adapting to the system and trying to get used to the way, and the following two years he is campaigning for election, although they have never [reelected anyone], so not a lot of [the] job is done.
What they could have done is really ask the international community to support the security branch and the justice system and equip the security branch so that they can investigate attacks, launch counterterrorism [operations], they can train the security branch’s plainclothes people so they can go into the society, because after all, what Al Shabaab is doing is terrorizing people. What they did is what the government should have done. They deployed hundreds of people who are spies in the government-controlled area, and they are spying on everybody, and every hotel, and every movement of officials. And then they assassinate, and they hunt them down, and the government is in defense, waiting for Al Shabaab to come. This is exactly what the government should do, and they need to establish very strong security practices and ask the international community to focus on establishing this security branch no matter who rules. So, this is what Somalia needs. It needs less emphasis on politics, more emphasis on counterterrorism and organizations that can fight Al Shabaab.
If I may ask a quick follow-up question – well, I will just shout. [Do] the forces that led – including security forces that led the countering or going after Al Shabaab have the moral support among the people, the tribes for these campaigns, for these efforts to be effective and successful? I mean the Taliban is still quite alive today, and that is a challenge.
Yeah. It is a good question. I was talking about the Islamic Courts earlier in 2006, and the Islamic Courts have changed the mindset very quickly. Within six months they were able to control south-central Somalia. That is because they emphasized law and order and justice, and people felt a connection. The Somali security branch that exists does have the support of their elders, but I am going to give you an example. For instance, the United States in 2009, I believe, trained about forty Somali counterterrorism [specialists], forty, four zero. They were brought in somewhere in Ohio and they were trained to conduct counterterrorism operations. This forty became eighty, and the eighty became one hundred and twenty, and the number grew.
Today, the Somali counterterrorism unit within the National Intelligence Service is very effective. Al Shabaab attacks hotels, takes them over momentarily, but they have not been able to hold [hotels for] long hours. For instance, the attack that took place last week in Mogadishu. You have heard [there were] triple bombings and then a number of attackers immediately got off the vehicle, and they tried to storm a hotel. They were shot by security forces who acted very quickly, so this thing can be done, but it needs the support not only of the clans, but it needs the support of the government. And one other aspect to that is fighting corruption because Al Shabaab is exploiting corruption, they are bribing the security branch, they are bribing individuals to get information [and] to access key installations, so the task is monumental.
Thank you for the talk. It is very interesting. I cover sub-Saharan Africa as an analyst, and as I step back and look at the continent, the Horn of Africa is undergoing profound change, especially in the last few months or a number of months rather. Just today you had the lifting of sanctions against Eritrea by the United Nations Security Council. You have a Prime Minister in Ethiopia who is pushing for very ambitious reforms and reconciliation that has opened up peace with Eritrea, and brought between Eritrea and Somalia, and so as these three countries have increased their talks amongst each other in recent months. It is very interesting that they have been discussing more political and economic integration. I was wondering if given how Ethiopia has meddled in Somalia for so many years, given its geopolitical imperatives, if you see a potential that this new wave of reform coming from Ethiopia and the reconciliation amongst them could yield the potential for greater stability in the years ahead, greater ties, and the potential for just better supply links, etc. Thank you.
I just wanted [to say], you mentioned Ethiopia meddled in Somalia for many years. I just want to point out that Eritrea certainly did as well. In the early years of Al Shabaab, in the pre-years during the Islamic Courts Union period, they were supplying missiles and things like that. In terms of benefits to Somalia, I would think definitely if the reforms in Ethiopia last, and if real economic cooperation is built between Ethiopia and Eritrea, and Somalia can stabilize to a point where not so much money, so much effort is being lost to corruption, definitely, Somalia can benefit from the peace there. It does depend though on Somalia taming corruption, getting a functioning government for the first time in thirty years, and the establishment of some kind of law and order and peace.
Right now, even though conditions have improved to some degree – Ethiopian Airlines did begin flights to Somalia just last week for the first time in forty-one years, since the 1977 Somali-Ethiopian War, but I think long term it depends on investors feeling safe that their money will not go up in smoke, their people will not be shot down. It just kind of depends on Somalia turning the corner and reaching some kind of stability.
Audience member:[I have] multiple questions. First, thank you for the presentation. What is the endgame that they have, the objective? What is their current strength? And where do you see Al Shabaab in two, five, and ten years from now?
The objective is to restore the caliphate in Somalia. That is the objective of Al Shabaab that has been articulated by the former leader of Al Shabaab, Ahmed Abdi Godane, who was trained in Afghanistan, and without a doubt he was the man who created, and structured, and built the organization we today call Al Shabaab. He was their second leader. So, what he said was our objective is to restore the caliphate. And he also added on that. He said Islamic government is not coming by itself, you have to sacrifice in blood, wealth, and fight against infidels. He ridiculed peace conferences held for Somali politicians. He said our ideology is based on Islam, Shariah, and the traditional rulings of Islamic governance. Al Shabaab is not a democracy. It loathes democracy, so their objective is to restore the caliphate through violent jihad. What was the other question you asked?
Audience member:[What is] their current strength [and] where do you see them in two, five, and ten years?
The current strength, as I mentioned, Al Shabaab has what they call maktibists, they are seven to twelve, sometimes they merge maktabs. Maktabs are departments or ministries that govern. And the heads of maktabs are the executives that run the organizations, or the Tanfid. They also have Shura, which is like a parliament which advises the executive. And they are a top to bottom organization. There are orders, guidelines, instructions, move very fast. They have thirteen thousand men who fight for them in all frontlines. They operate like a government.
Sometimes you think they might have mechanized brigades because when they are raiding a military base or [something] belonging to African Union troops or the Somali government, they will bring fighters from all over the regions, they will bring suicide bombers. For all of this they will collect intelligence, and this intelligence will be collected from the base, and they will probably access the base. They will probably talk to people who are in the base. They are very much part of the society, they are very much entrenched in all sectors of society, so they get information very easily. Numbers, where to attack, this information moves to the commanders who plan the attack, and then it moves to the amir, and they give final approval.
So far, they attacked Kenya. They attacked all of the countries who sent troops to Somalia except Djibouti. In January 2016, they killed about 140 Kenyan troops. They killed the year before 53 Burundian soldiers. They killed 19 Ugandan soldiers when they attacked the Ugandan military base. They attacked an Ethiopian military base. The Ethiopian military is very strong, and they are being trained for counterinsurgency, so in that attack they failed and about a hundred Al Shabaab fighters were killed. But they tried, so Al Shabaab is a very strong organization. They have got very sophisticated, battle-hardened attackers and fighters.
In the long run, historically in Somalia, Islamic militants, jihadists, fought against not only African Union troops and the Somali government but they also fought against warlords in the early ’90s, they fought against Ethiopia, they fought against clans. Each battle they lost, but they always managed to get back up, reorganize, and reemerge. And I think this is a problem not only for Somalia, but it is a problem that exists everywhere, in Iraq and Syria. What do you do? Do you have the time, the finances, the patience, the system on the ground in place to combat this, to commit to a long war in order to get and finish them off? This is what it needs. Somalia is not unique, so that is what it is going to need to get rid of Al Shabaab. But in the long run, I believe Al Shabaab will stay because [it is not just that] they are not only strong, [it is also true that] the opposition is also very weak, so there are a lot of things which are aiding Al Shabaab to continue to stay for a long time.
Can I just add a little something? The African Union force has more than 20,000 troops in Somalia, and for the last three years or so they have discussed taking out those troops because they have suffered huge casualties over time. But their withdrawal plan is predicated on a strong Somali government taking over security, and that has not happened, that has not even begun to happen. And so, you asked about the end game. Right now, I do not think there is a realistic end game in sight where Al Shabaab is defeated, and the Somali government takes over, and the country finally enters a period of stability.
Thank you. First, Eastleigh: how much control does Al Shabaab have over Eastleigh, Nairobi? And secondly, you talked about the restoration of the caliphate. How does that compete or join with, for instance, Sudan, [which] has talked about restoring a caliphate too. How do those two things work together?
Eastleigh is the Nairobi suburb, which is mainly inhabited by Somalis. Al Shabaab is present in Kenya. They carry out a lot of complex attacks in Somalia, but if you are talking about individual attacks and IED attacks, they probably carry out more attacks in Kenya than in Somalia. This is because [of] the long border that Kenya shares with Somalia and this is because the largest number of foreign fighters with Al Shabaab are from Kenya, so Al Shabaab trains Kenyan fighters and sends them back into Kenya. There is an Al Shabaab unit called Jeish Amin. Amin is the commander of that [army] unit. They include Somalis as well as Kenyans.
And I am sure you have heard [about] the fighting in Boni forest in northeastern Kenya. [Al Shabaab] carried out ambushes against Kenyan military [and] Kenyan police. I mean the IED attacks against Kenya is almost daily. You see policemen being killed, [soldiers] being killed. And they are not attacking now from Somalia, they are very much based in Boni Forest in Kenya, so they have informers, people who collaborate with them. I am not saying easily, but I am sure they have in Nairobi a number of people who help them.
So, I would not necessarily say Eastleigh is an Al Shabaab stronghold. Eastleigh is like any other Somali-inhabited township in East Africa where Al Shabaab can go achieve its objectives, whether it is raising finances or collecting information or recruiting. Just to add on to that, there is a scholar who is one of the well-known scholars in Somalia who is the leading scholar who gives fatwa to Al Shabaab. And he lives in Nairobi, ironically, and he is not hiding. He runs his own mosque. Although during the last three years or so, his relationship with Al Shabaab was not so good because he advised them to join ISIS, and they did not join [ISIS].
He did not get purged, though?
He did not get purged. The other question you asked [was about the] caliphate. This is an argument that Al Shabaab had, the Al Shabaab leadership, and they disagreed on whether they can proclaim, announce [their state] as a caliphate or give that leadership decision to Al Qaeda, so they wrestled on this. This is one of the reasons why they are so close to Al Qaeda and the Taliban. Eventually, they decided to waive this decision, [and defer] to Al Qaeda, so they did not announce a caliphate. They still consider themselves as an emirate of Islamic emirates.
Thank you for your talk. I wondered if you could [speak] to Al Shabaab’s standing within the international jihadi community. What I mean by that is pre-rise of ISIS, when they first pledged allegiance to Al Qaeda, there was a flurry of foreign fighters who were going there, and we had a lot of instances of Somali youths from Minneapolis and some other locations trying to travel to Somalia to join Al Shabaab to fight with [them]. It appears at least since the rise of ISIS that their standing has dropped a little bit, and they have become more of a regional force. I just wondered if you could speak to that.
Well, it is true they do not seem to get as much support from the United States as they were about ten years ago. There were a lot of Minneapolis youths and men from Baltimore, Chicago, and New York who either went there or tried to go there and join the group. As far as their standing, at that time they were conducting conference calls and emails. They were reaching out in that way, and they were successfully finding fundraisers in America as well as fighters. You [asked] if they had become a more regional force.
I think it is true that most of their manpower these days comes from within Somalia and Kenya. Harun has been talking about their recruiting in Somalia and Kenya. Now, a lot of that is forcible recruiting. They go into a village and say you need to hand over this number of kids. I am not saying they do not get any foreign fighters from Pakistan or anywhere else, but yeah, I think most of it is now coming from within the region. They have gotten very focused on events in Kenya and Somalia. They did conduct an attack in Kampala, Uganda in 2010, but I do not think they have even tried to do anything outside Somalia or Kenya in the last few years.
Al Shabaab has been getting recruits from the United States and the West. In 2006-2008, most of these youngsters were going to Somalia to fight against Ethiopian troops – most of them. That is the reason they gave, but when they went there, Al Shabaab was the organization that was ready, organized, and they had the system to accommodate them initially.
But Al Shabaab had problems with the foreign fighters. We talked about [how] Al Shabaab is very strong, but Al Shabaab is also being infiltrated by Western intelligence, so they are very afraid. Their leaders move around a lot. And they were very suspicious of foreign fighters, so they mistreated them. Any foreign fighter who came was put in a remote training camp. They would confiscate passports, anything, any possession that foreign fighters came with. And foreign fighters at one point tried to have their own unit, ‘foreign fighters with Al Shabaab,’ and former [unintelligible] men. Omar Mahomed tried to become head of that group, but it did not last long. They killed him eventually. Just this week, they killed an Egyptian in the town of Jilib. So, they do not trust foreign fighters that much.
The foreign fighters Al Shabaab likes today are the foreign fighters, as Dan said, coming from the region (Kenya, Tanzania, even Ethiopia, even Burundi). I am not saying there are not individuals who may travel from Chechnya or Afghanistan or Pakistan to go to Somalia, but Al Shabaab does not need foreign fighters today. They actually have enough fighters. What is also more interesting is that Al Shabaab has been using foreign recruits. When they are talking about foreign recruits, they include Somalis who returned from abroad. They consider them as foreign fighters.
What they have been doing with them is they put them in training camps, and they use them as suicide attackers because this is a young man who came from the West. They are hungry. They are disenchanted with life, so they go back to Somalia, and what does Al Shabaab do? They put them in the frontline, and they give them suicide vests, and immediately while they are fresh and hungry and ready to die, they put them in the frontline. And many of them committed suicide attacks in Somalia, so Al Shabaab is not a fan, not a big fan of foreign fighters, but internationally I think they know what they want.
They very much consider themselves as an Al Qaeda ally.
They are the strongest Al Qaeda ally today. They controlled the largest territory of any Al Qaeda-allied group. They are self-sufficient. They are collecting, they are financing, they are running operations. They have their own system that is working for them through the community if they want to recruit, if they want to get financing, if they want to get information. Everything is working for them. What is more important, maybe I should have mentioned it earlier, is that (the lady has asked what can be done) Al Shabaab walks back when you pressure it. That is why they were kicked out in 2011 from Mogadishu. That is why they lost almost every major town in Somalia, so one thing that worked is that when you pressure Al Shabaab, when you attack their resources, attack their leaders, they withdraw, they pullback, they try to save men, they try to fight another day. This is why you need consistence, infrastructure, determination, well-trained soldiers to go after them, fight them in the countryside, recruit those people who can give information about their movements, foil attacks. This is why you need all of these [things], but Al Shabaab, actually, can be defeated and we have seen examples of that.
Robert R. Reilly:
If I may, what means of communication does Al Shabaab have with the people in Somalia? Do they have radio stations? Do they produce their own literature, that kind of question, number one? Or is the war of ideas taking place in the mosques? What is the battlefield for the war of ideas there? And number two, substantively, to whom do the Al Shabaab leaders appeal [to] in their literature that you know [of]? With ISIS, you always have quotations from Sayyid Qutb. Is the jihadi literature for Al Shabaab the standard literature you see throughout the jihadi movement or do they appeal to other sources?
Regarding communication, they have their own media unit, al-Kataib. They have always done videos, and the videos have gotten increasingly sophisticated over the years and longer. When Al Shabaab attacked the Kenyan base, El Adde, in 2016, they filmed it as they were attacking it, and they produced a video [with] long, medium, and short versions of the attack. And you could see the fighters. You could see the suicide bombing, the explosion off in the distance, and the fighters charging the base.
But in addition to the videos, they have also exploited radio.
In 2010, they launched what they called the Ramadan Offensive in Mogadishu. This was the biggest attempt to overwhelm the government and take full control of the city. The first thing they did was make an announcement on a network of Mogadishu radio stations. It was almost like a nationwide or a presidential address, but it was based on violence and jihad. And on the first day of the fighting, they took over a station called Radio Holy Qur’an, and that became an Al Shabaab outlet. They are like ISIS and other terrorist or militant groups that know how to operate the modern media and make it work to their advantage.
Harun Maruf:[That is] absolutely right. They have a very sophisticated, well-oiled media machine. They issue very well-edited, high-definition videos, which I am sure you have seen online. They have journalists who are embedded in their fighters, who as Dan said record attacks as they happen. For instance, one of the attackers who attacked the hotel just last week on Friday, when he was conducting the attack, he was directly communicating with an Al Shabaab radio [station], and they were recording. They just published it today, his voice. This is exactly the message they want other young fighters to hear. They have websites, they have radio [stations], they have a media office that produces these propaganda videos about jihad.
They have tried to be successful like ISIS on social media, on Twitter, on Facebook. They have tried that, but Twitter was able to confront that. During the Westgate attack, they were able to live tweet the attack, but as time went on, Twitter was able to shut down their [Twitter] accounts, but Al Shabaab [still] has websites.
They have very clever [approaches]. What they did in Somalia is there is an Al Shabaab radio [station] called Al Andulus, that is official Al Shabaab radio, but they also have two other stations. They tried to deceive the community, so they portrayed themselves as independent radio stations, so they sometimes call politicians, and ask them questions about what they think about Al Shabaab, just to portray themselves as independent media. But their message is always very consistent. They report jihad. They report Al Shabaab attacks, speeches.
One of the reasons that Al Shabaab was targeting media is because they failed to convince local journalists who are independent to air their messages wholly. The local media said this is [a] very inflammatory message. We cannot air them. It is going to incite violence. It is not ethical. We cannot air your videos as they are. So, Al Shabaab targeted them, so this is why they established their own media. And their media is one of the go-to websites [for] when you wake up in the morning. They publish so much information. They also never forget preaching, so they have a department. Earlier I talked about maktabs, ministries. They have a department called Da’wah, and that department sends preachers to mosques to preach. What they also do is – the videos that we are talking about now they screen them. Every Friday they screen a story about jihad, whether it is in Somalia or from Afghanistan or from another part of the world, so they have a very strong media organ.
Robert R. Reilly:
To which authorities do they appeal [to] when they are preaching or recruiting?
Yes, they appeal to Salafi scholars. Ibn Taymiyyah is the most prominent. The Jordanian scholar, I cannot remember his name, [and] there are a number of Salafi scholars, all of the Salafi scholars. Ibn Taymiyyah is the most prominent. He is featured in most of their speeches.
First of all, I would like to say thank you for concluding this project and [because] there is [so] much data and information to judge. As a Somali, I feel that I knew a lot about Al Shabaab, but your book keeps surprising me while I am still reading. One of the things that I wonder is your source as we can understand for safety reasons you kept to yourself, so how do you doublecheck when you get information from someone who used to be Al Shabaab or worked closely that you provided in the book?
I mean it depends on each source individually. There are some people that either Harun knew or I knew and we felt we could trust them. Some sources for the book came from documents. The U.S. diplomatic cables that were released through Wikileaks. We got information from the U.S. government prosecution of Al Shabaab fundraisers and former fighters. In the indictments, there was a lot of evidence, recordings of people, and we felt we could trust that.
I mean the ones you did not provide, like with U.S. cables, you always mention, you refer when you get your source, but those that you get inside Al Shabaab. There is a lot of information [for which] who gave it to you is unknown.
I mean the people we quoted about Afghani, some of them have told us their names, including his righthand man, Abu Ayman, who was a fighter who traveled from Sweden to go to Somalia and fight alongside Al Shabaab. Now he is back in Sweden. He is being rehabilitated, so he was the righthand man of Ibrahim al-Afghan. We spoke to people who are very close to Ibrahim al-Afghan. We cannot name them, but we spoke to people who know him in person. But generally, what you do when you get a source is you try to corroborate, speak with other defectors, and what we did was speak with the defectors.
And we were very lucky to speak with the most high-profile defectors to date so far, including Mukhtar Robow, Abu Mansur, who was one of the Somali jihadists who were trained in Afghanistan [and] who before 9/11 happened was in Afghanistan. Ten days before 9/11, he was in a training camp outside Kandahar. Bin Laden came to him (this is the way he narrates the story), and Bin Laden said something is going to happen in ten days. We have to disperse the fighters. We have to hide somewhere. America is going to come and bomb us. They did not tell them specifically we are going to attack New York, but he told them – this is Mukhtar Robow, deputy leader of Al Shabaab [and] not only deputy, at one point he was the acting Emir of Al Shabaab, a man who never left Somalia apart from going to Afghanistan. The only country he ever went to was Afghanistan. We were very lucky to speak with him for the book.
We also spoke to Zakariya Ismail [Ahmed] Hersi. I am sure you know him, former intelligence official. The United States put [a] $3 million dollar [bounty] on his head [and a] $5 million [bounty] for Robow, so we are very lucky to have spoken with both of them for the book. We corroborated all of these sources, and if we could not corroborate a source, we stated that that person was the only source for that story.