Al-Shabaab, an Islamist insurgency group, has been a serious concern for peace in Somalia, but more recently, it has appeared that the regional threat of this organisation is increasing. The group is increasing its activities on a more regional and international scale, and is acting on threats it has made, which has led to conflict escalating on national and regional levels. If the group acts on more recent threats made, a serious terrorist act will occur and conflict will escalate exponentially. This threat is a particular concern for Kenya, which has been the focus of several threats the group made at the beginning of 2011.
Thus far, Al-Shabaab has not acted on these threats, but if they were to act and retaliate, conflict will escalate, affecting the entire region. Several states are already involved, while Somalia is internally filled with strife and poverty. If the threat of escalating regional conflict is real, then there is also the threat of terrorist activities increasing on a regional level, as well as the possibility of more refugees fleeing to neighbouring states. This situation could be brought on by several events, but at this stage, a serious concern is that the threats and actions of the Al-Shabaab organisation could lead to this state of events.
The Al-Shabaab organisation
Al-Shabaab, the name literally meaning “the youth,” is an offshoot of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), which splintered into several smaller groups in 2006 and began operating as an independent entity in early 2007. This splintering occurred when Ethiopians entered Somalia in December 2006 to establish the authority of the United Nations (UN)-mandated Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and destroyed the ICU coalition of Sharia courts that controlled much of the country. However, the ICU’s military wing, Al-Shabaab, stayed to fight Ethiopians.(2) Since then, the insurgency group aims to overthrow the Government of Somalia and sees itself as waging a war against “enemies of Islam”, which has involved the Somali TFG and the African Union Mission to Somalia (AMISOM). The group has primarily targeted Somali Government officials; it has also targeted Ethiopian military forces and peacekeepers inside Somalia in pursuit of its goal.
Except for the war against “enemies of Islam”, the group also provides Government services to its constituents and enforces a strict interpretation of Sharia law in a large part of the southern and central parts of Somalia that it is said to have controlled since 2010.(3) The organisation maintains its grip on power by using violence and intimidation, while also having the necessary funds, weapons, technical expertise, and human resources needed to conduct operations. It raises money by taxing international aid organisations, collecting funds from citizens, receiving remittances from abroad, and receiving financial support from Eritrea.(4) It has also established an effective recruiting strategy to attract militants from throughout Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia, as well certain Western states, with several terror and insurgency training camps in the area it controls.(5)
Through this strategy, the group is now composed of both Somali and international militants, with several foreigners in its leadership. This foreign influence has led to the group employing new and different tactics such as suicide bombings.(6) The tactics employed include guerrilla techniques characteristic of terror groups when targeting its enemies, including suicide bombings, (remote-controlled) roadside bombs, grenade attacks, assassinations, and small-arms attacks. In 2008, the organisation started using political strategies as well to reach out to the Somalia public.(7) Yet it is due to these guerrilla techniques and the ties that they have to al Qaeda, that the group has been compared to the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan (Somalia Rebels). These ties to al Qaeda, as well as the organisation’s actions in the past, have led to it being designated a Foreign Terrorist Organisation in 2008 by the United States (US). Part of the same domino effect, Al-Shabaab has recently stated its aims to target Western interests and organisations within Somalia, especially with the new designation. It now wishes to rid Somalia of outside influences and foreigners, while spreading beyond the borders of Somalia. This reflects the threat that the group has presented the past few years, as well as the fact that this threat is constantly adapting and expanding in Somalia and in the region.
Changing and expanding threat
Initially the group’s objectives appeared to be linked to Somalia and gradually even the Horn of Africa, but its behaviour has shifted to strike more across the globe. This first reflected in reality when Al-Shabaab fired mortar shells at a US congressman as his plane lifted off from an airport in Somalia in April 2009, while fighting between Al-Shabaab and Somali government forces has flared since May 2009. In 2009 alone, Al-Shabaab conducted at least five suicide bombing operations. The group benefits from the technical assistance, including bomb-making skills, of veterans of the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.(8) Even though the group has proven that it has the means to carry out sophisticated, mass casualty terror attacks, Al-Shabaab has also demonstrated the ability to follow through on its threats. For example in September 2009, only days after the group vowed to avenge the assassination of Saleh Ali Nabhan, the former al Qaeda leader in East Africa, there were twin suicide bombings at the African Union force’s headquarters in Mogadishu.(9)
There was a further development of events in July 2010 with twin bombings in Uganda, which marked the first time the terror group launched an attack outside of Somalia. It also proved that Al-Shabaab has the capability to spread conflict and expand their movement across a wider region. The bombings killed more than 70 people, including an American aid worker. Suspects claimed that the organisation targeted venues where Westerners went, while an Al-Shabaab spokesman threatened additional attacks against Uganda and other African countries if they did not withdraw their soldiers from the African Union’s peacekeeping mission stationed in Somalia.(10) The attacks were retaliatory since Uganda and Burundi had made contributions to AMISOM, which supports the Somali TFG against the group.(11) The insurgents once again warned neighbouring countries on 16 May 2011 to not send troops into the country, as has been planned by Djibouti. These troops will assist more than 6,200 soldiers that Uganda and Burundi have already given to support the Western-backed administration, which is trying to establish the first functioning Government since the ouster of Mohamed Siad Barre, the former dictator, in 1991.(12)
In May 2011, Al-Shabaab also vowed to avenge the killing of Osama bin Laden and to continue with their fight to topple the country’s Western-backed Government. Analysts have said bin Laden’s death is unlikely to dampen the insurgency waged by Somalia’s militants, who are regrouping amid infighting among the country’s politicians after a recent government offensive. The death of bin Laden has not only helped the insurgents to recruit more foreign fighters, some with a direct link to al-Qaeda, but also to champion a nationalist cause, often against the presence of Western-funded peacekeepers.(13) The presence of peacekeepers is not the only aspect that Al-Shabaab resents; they have also increasingly threatened Kenya, as the country has supposedly moved their troops along and over the Somali border, in order to (help) fight Al-Shabaab. The threat to Kenya illustrates the expanding threat of the organisation, specifically in the East African region.
Threat to Kenya
It has been seen that this group has the ability to carry out the threats they make. They have also made clear the desire and intention to strike beyond the borders of Somalia, and it currently has the means to prepare and execute such an attack. Such threats have been made against Uganda, Burundi, Western countries and organisations, Somalia leaders, but also against Kenya. Al-Shabaab has accused Kenya of deploying more than 1,500 troops in Somali bordering towns and moving them along the border. Kenya has thus been warned (and threatened) to withdraw their forces from the border.(14) Al-Shabaab has also warned of a “revenge attack” against Kenya, after Kenya assisted the Somali TFG in attacks against Al-Shabaab positions, which led to internal strife, especially in border regions.(15) In February 2011, the group again threatened Kenya, accusing Kenya of training Somali government forces and allowing Ethiopian troops to operate from its towns. According to some sources, the hundreds of new recruits trained in Kenya and Ethiopia have assisted Somali troops in fighting Al-Shabaab. “Kenya has constantly disturbed us, and now it should face the consequences of allowing Ethiopian troops to attack us from Mandera town,” Al-Shabaab spokesman Sheikh Ali Mohamud Rage said a news conference.(16)
Such threats are not new, although the insurgency group has not acted on one of these threats as they did in 2010 in retaliation against Uganda. Until now, Kenya has only been affected by al Qaeda strikes twice; a 1998 bombing of the US embassy in Nairobi and an explosion at an Israeli-owned hotel on the coast in 2002.(17) This does not mean that the threats made by Al-Shabaab should be taken lightly. They have acted on threats made towards Uganda, as mentioned earlier. Somalia still poses an existential threat to Kenya on two fronts. Firstly, there are the exports of Somalia refugees to neighbouring states, like Kenya, who often are Al-Shabaab adherents, which according to some could be used to initiate terrorist strikes within Kenya. The second aspect is that if Al-Shabaab was to be successful in establishing a strict Islamist state in Somalia, it would be a source of instability and insecurity for the entire region. Furthermore, this trend could then possibly spread to more states.(18) This also translates into a threat for the region, just as much as the threat of revenge does. That explains why some states have supported the Somali TFG in trying to fight the Al-Shabaab. Stopping the activities of the group could end the insurgency trend and (some) of the rebel activities and result in peace for the region.
The activities of Al-Shabaab, in combination with the actions of neighbouring states, have already created an unstable situation. Within this situation, insurgent activities are taking place and even being encouraged, creating an environment where more youth could be tempted to join this movement, or where states or AMISOM decides to send in more troops. This will have a domino effect, as has already been seen in the region. It has also been seen that the threat of this insurgency group is constantly changing and expanding, that it is now a threat to the region and not only to Somalia and those directly involved in stopping Al-Shabaab.
One of the states involved in this situation and that could be the next state to be targeted by the group is Kenya. If Al-Shabaab should act on threats made towards Kenya, the region will be affected more than ever before, as more states are becoming involved. However, the threats of attacks and revenge are not only a concern for escalating regional violence, but the possibility that the activities of Al-Shabaab are spreading to more regions is troublesome as this will be a source of instability and insecurity for the entire region. One could conclude that the entire region has, and will increasingly be, affected by the activities of Al-Shabaab, but the volatility of the situation will be determined by whether the organisation decides to act on threats made towards Kenya, as well as by the actions and reactions of states towards this organisation’s activities.
This article is republished with permission from Consultancy Africa Intelligence (CAI), a South African-based research and strategy firm with a focus on social, health, political and economic trends and developments in Africa. For more information, see http://www.consultancyafrica.com.
(2) Harnisch, C., ‘The Terror threat from Somalia: the Internationalisation of Al-Shabaab’, Critical threats, 12 February 2011, http://www.criticalthreats.org.
(3) ‘International Terrorist Database: Al-Shabaab’, Anti-Defamation League, 2011, http://www.adl.org.
(4) Harnisch, C., ‘The Terror threat from Somalia: the Internationalisation of Al-Shabaab’, Critical threats, 12 February 2011, http://www.criticalthreats.org
(5) Anderson, J.L., ‘The Most failed State‘, The New Yorker, 14 December 2009, http://www.newyorker.com
(6) ‘The rise of the Al-Shabaab’, The Economist, 18 December 2008, http://www.economist.com.
(7) Harnisch, C., ‘The Terror threat from Somalia: the Internationalisation of Al-Shabaab’, Critical threats, 12 February 2011, http://www.criticalthreats.org.
(10) ‘International Terrorist Database: Al-Shabaab’, Anti-Defamation League, 2011, http://www.adl.org.
(11) ‘CrisisWatch no 94′, International Crisis Group, 1 August 2010, http://www.crisisgroup.org.
(12) Omar, H., ‘Somalia’s Al-Shabaab militia warns Djibouti against deployment of troops’, Bloomberg, 16 May 2011, http://www.bloomberg.com.
(13) ‘Al-Shabaab vows to avenge bin Laden’, News24, 7 May 2011, http://www.news24.com.
(14) ‘Kenya: Al-Shabaab Threaten to attack Kenya Capital’, AllAfrica, 21 January 2010, http://allafrica.com/stories/201001210933.html.
(15) Khalif, A., ‘Kenya: Al-Shabaab warns of terror attack’, Daily Nation, 27 February 2011, http://www.nation.co.ke.
(16) Mohamed, I., ‘Somalia’s Al-Shabaab threatens to attack Kenya’, AlertNet, 27 February 2011, http://www.trust.org.
(18) Mutua, M., ‘Why Kenya military must crush Al-Shabaab’, AllAfrica, 13 May 2011, http://www.nation.co.ke.
Written by Annette Theron (1)