BARAWA, Somalia – The call for fundamentalist Islam exists in small factions throughout the world, primarily in the Middle East. Al-Shabaab, meaning ‘the youth’ in Arabic, is yet another group legitimizing its cause with widespread distaste for the poverty, destroyed infrastructure and rampant lawlessness in the region of its origin. Its ties to al-Qaeda and attacks against the West have brought al-Shabaab into the limelight and drawn United States policy makers into the discussion in recent years.
In the 1980’s, a militant extremist group took root in Somalia, hoping to replace the Mohammed Siad Barre regime with an Islamic state run by shari’a, Islamic, law. The group was called al-Itihaad al-Islamiya (AIAI) and meant ‘Unity of Islam.’ At around the same time, a coalition of shari’a courts emerged to impose law and order on Somali society. These courts eventually joined together as a center of power in 2004, creating the Islamic Courts Union (ICU.)
When AIAI experienced a rift between its old guard and the younger, more militant members who wanted to create a ‘Greater Somalia’ under Islamic law, the latter split off to form al-Shabaab. In 2006, al-Shabaab joined forces with the ICU to gain control of Mogadishu. Expansion of ICU through Somalia became of immense concern to nearby Ethiopia, especially as the ICU prepared for an attack on Somalia’s Ethiopian-backed transitional government in Baidoa. As a result, Ethiopia invaded Somalia and removed the ICU from its seat of relative power.
Most of the ICU fled to neighboring countries and al-Shabaab, operating separately from ICU authority, retreated to southern Somalia where it arguably grew into a guerilla movement, organizing assassinations and bombings on Ethiopian forces. Consequently, the 2006 Ethiopian invasion was a watershed event in the development of al-Shabaab as it exists today.
Prior to Ethiopia’s invasion, al-Shabaab constituted little more than a pawn among ICU forces. When the ICU ultimately dissolved and fled from their region of dominance, al-Shabaab stayed behind, multiplying in numbers as the only group actively opposing the Ethiopians. Between the invasion in December 2006 and mid-2008, al-Shabaab membership ballooned from somewhere around 400 members to thousands of Islamist militant fighters. Current numbers are estimated at somewhere between 7,000 and 9,000 fighters.
A lack of legitimate governance in Somalia at the time made the country a prime breeding ground. By providing essential goods and services to the people of southern Somalia, al-Shabaab practiced effective recruitment strategies while simultaneously enacting training camps across the ungoverned region.
Around this same time, al-Shabaab began to form close ties with al-Qaeda, the militant Islamist group founded by Osama bin Laden. The U.S. State Department consequently dubbed al-Shabaab a Foreign Terrorist Organization in February 2008. In efforts to increase legitimacy in the terrorist community and to court al-Qaeda operatives, al-Shabaab began carrying out the sort of suicide attacks and bombings unseen in Somali recent history.
On July 11, 2010, al-Shabaab solidified its commitment to al-Qaeda with their first attack outside Somali borders in a suicide bombing inside a restaurant in Kampala, Uganda. Coordinated bombs killed 76 people watching the 2010 World Cup final. Following the attack, senior al-Shabaab members expressed their continued goal to target the West and its interests. On September 21, 2013, al-Shabaab attacked Nairobi, Kenya’s primary shopping mall. The siege caused almost 70 deaths and lasted 80 hours.
Somalia currently maintains a parliament of sorts, led by Sharif Ahmed, the former leader of the Islamic Courts, though many continue to view Somalia as a failed state. While some considered al-Shabaab’s strength to have dwindled over the years, recent attacks brought with them a cause for concern. In the wake of a War on Terror, violence and anti-Western sentiment is very possibly on the rise.
U.S. officials have made it clear that their main interest in Somalia is to keep it from becoming a refuge for terrorist groups in the region. In January 2013, the U.S. officially recognized the Somali government and hinted at a future expansion of diplomacy in Somalia.
However, on January 26, a U.S. military strike targeted Ahmed Abdi Godane, a senior leader of al-Shabaab in southern Somalia. The previous day, al-Shabaab had called for a resurgence of attacks against Ethiopian forces. Diplomacy, it seems, must ring a different tone when it comes to national security.
– Jaclyn Stutz