According to the U.S. State Department, Somalia's Harakat al Shabab al Mujahideen (Arabic for “Movement of the Youth”), known most commonly as simply al Shabab (or al Shabaab), has become one of the most lethal terrorist groups in East Africa.
At the close of the twentieth century, all of the elements were present for radicalism to flourish in Somalia. The collapse of President Siad Barre's government in 1991 left a power vacuum that would be filled by unrestrained violence and a humanitarian tragedy of unparalleled proportions. The country became divided into three separate entities—Somaliland, Puntland, and South Central Somalia—each controlled by tribes and subset clans. These frail entities had no power to impose order or rein in would-be challengers to their authority. Lawlessness ensued, hundreds of millions fled their homes, and tens of thousands have been killed. Somalia's situation was further complicated by the United Nations’ establishment of a Transitional Federal Government (TFG) in Mogadishu, Somalia's capital, in 2004, and by an invasion by Ethiopia in 2006. Both of these events lent credence to the charge that Somalia's problems were manufactured outside the country, and by enemies of Islam.
These conditions gave rise to al Shabab. With fighters trained in Afghanistan and Iraq, al Shabab is an offshoot of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), a group that had been removed from power by the Ethiopia invasion in December 2006. al Shabab's ideological modus operandi is centered on Islamism and nationalism, which resonate in the Somali psyche for a number of reasons, including the UIC's relative success (despite its short-lived experience in power) in establishing order and enticing Somali businesses to invest in Somalia, the widespread presence of Islam in Somalia, and the highly contested presence of foreign troops in the country. al Shabab called for the establishment of a Shariah state (i.e., a state governed by Islam), proclaimed jihad against unbelievers, and urged nationalist resistance against foreign forces, specifically the African Union (AU), the United Nations, Ethiopia, and, more recently, Uganda.
al Shabab has used several tactics to gain recruits, including threatening the family members of those who refuse to join, providing financial help to those in desperate need, and offering refuge for criminals and stipends as salaries for recruits. The group has also had a strong following among some Somalis living in the United States and Europe since 2006.
As a group, al Shabab remains deeply divided, and its terrorist tactics have only exacerbated those fragmentations. It has claimed responsibility for attacks launched against civilians, government officials, and United Africa peacekeeping forces. In July 2010, al Shabab fighters killed 32 people, including 6 politicians, in Mogadishu, and a month later 76 people were killed by al Shabab in a crowded restaurant in Kampala, Uganda. Other terrorist tactics have also been used, including stoning and cutting off people's limbs. These tactics have been vehemently condemned by Somali Sufi Muslims and reformist religious clerics, and they have been rejected by the Somali civilian population at large. Additionally, many of the pretexts used by al Shabab to lure recruits have been taken away. In particular, moderate ICU religious leaders were appointed to top TFG leadership positions, and Ethiopian forces have been withdrawn.
Still, it is difficult to predict whether al Shabab's days are over. Conflicting reports suggest a strong propensity for its survival as a transnational group. Indicators are that it might seek, or might have already established, formal ties with al Qaeda, thereby giving it a raison détre and name recognition. In the general scheme of things, however, much of al Shabab's future is tied to Somalia's internal predicament. A drastic improvement of Somalia's internal condition, along with a genuine resolution of its conflict, would go a long way to deflect any pretenses al Shabab uses to justify its terrorism.
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