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Al-Shabaab: The inside story of a ragtag outfit

Monday, October 24, 2011

As Kenyan and Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government forces push forward to the strategic port of Kismayu, the true nature of Al-Shabaab and how it exacts loyalty and revenge is emerging.

The militant group has succeeded in holding sway over much of central and southern Somalia since 2007 using brutality and fear, painting its battle against the TFG as a war to free Somalia of a puppet regime (the TFG) backed by Ethiopia and the US.

Al-Shabaab has blocked aid agencies from delivering food directly to starving populations, and is thus single-handedly responsible for the displacement of thousands who now live in horrendous conditions in refugee camps inside Kenya.

Operation Linda Nchi against Al- Shabaab is taking a toll on innocent people, with thousands of fleeing the combat in Somalia and streaming into Dadaab, Kenya’s largest refugee camp, to begin a new life in squalid conditions.

According to Military Spokesperson Emmanuel Chirchir, the overall campaign strategy of Operation Linda Nchi remains to reduce the Al-Shabaab’s effectiveness and to restore TFG authority in order to achieve enduring peace in Somalia.

Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government forces patrol the street of Kokani as they await orders to advance to Kismayu — an Al-Shabaab stronghold. [PHOTO: MAXWELL AGWANDA/STANDARD]

Many of those who have fled the war-ravaged country told The Standard they are happy with the assault by Kenya’s Defence Forces on the militants.

The name Al-Shabaab literally means "the youth" and although at its founding, the terror group was embraced by many Somalis resentful of Ethiopia’s invasion of their country and atrocities committed by its troops, it quickly morphed into a hybrid branch of Al-Qaeda and includes Somali and international militants from the US, Europe and Kenya.

It was the entry of the Ethiopians in December 2006 to support the UN-mandated TFG and dismantle a coalition of shari’a courts known as the Islamic Courts Union, which controlled most of the country that gave birth to Al-Shabaab.

Ethiopia was very effective in dismantling the ICU, but left behind bitter memories among the war scarred Somali population.

By 2009 when Ethiopia handed over defence of the TFG to the African Union Mission in Somalia (Amisom), Al-Shabaab had been so effective that the fledgling Somali administration was struggling to extend its authority beyond a few dusty blocks in Mogadishu as well as strategic government installations, including the airport and seaport.


Al-Shabaab thus ended up with a vast amount of geographical space ranging from its border with Ethiopia to the north as well as central and southern regions of Somalia.

This free space provided the perfect camouflage for planning attacks and sheltering operatives sent by Al-Qaeda to assist it set up terrorist training camps as part of the global jihad movement.

It began recruiting battle hardened jihadists from Afghanistan and intensified the use of suicide bombings against its perceived enemies.

These were people skilled in guerilla insurgency and the use of terror.

Militants came from Africa, the Middle East and South Asia, as well as the US and Europe.

Last week, two Britons of Somali origin were arrested on Kenya’s border with Somalia.

According to the American Institute, at least 20 Americans and 100 Britons are fighting for Al-Shabaab.

It focused its recruitment on young Muslim men, regardless of heir ethnic origin or race, looking to participate in the global jihad led by Osama bin Laden, as well as Somalis seeking to defend their homeland.

Mr Abu Mansour al Amriki whose real names are Omar Hammami, is one of the top terrorists on the US Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI’s) most wanted list.

Hammami is a US-born Al-Shabaab militant once rumoured to have been killed by US Predator drone, although his death has never been independently confirmed.

Kenya was for long very strategic to Al-Shabaab, because it offered them a safe haven, allowing the leaders to make investments using the vast Somali Diaspora in Nairobi’s Eastleigh and elsewhere to finance its operations.

Al-Shabaab fighters freely crossed the vast and poorly policed border frequently to receive treatment in Kenya.

The Al-Shabaab have invested in property and smuggling of goods, including clothes, cars and oil, with the help of several Kenyan businessmen.

When Ethiopia got rid of the ICU, several of its leaders fled to neighbouring countries. One of them, Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweis, the current leader of Hizb al Islam allied to Al- Shabaab, fled to Asmara, the capital of Eritrea, which is hostile to Ethiopia.

There he formed the Alliance for Liberation of Somalia (ARS) with funding from the Eritrean government.

Guerilla tactics

Aweis slipped back into Somalia and joined Al-Shabaab to successfully force out the Ethiopians using guerrilla tactics and terrorism, including roadside and suicide bombs.

He rose to be a prominent leader of the Al- Shabaab.

Another Al-Shabaab leader, Mukhtar Abu Zubair, also rumoured to have been killed — although this was also not confirmed — fought for Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan under his real name Ahmed Abdi Godane, prior to September 11 bombing of the US.

The departure of the Ethiopians under an UN-backed peace deal in January 2009 left the TFG government of President Sheikh Sharif, a moderate Islamist, severely weakened militarily, but it also meant Al-Shabaab could no longer pose as the defender of the Somali nation against foreign occupation.

Its legitimacy threatened, Al- Shabaab decided to retain the support of the people by providing services normally offered by the State, distributing money to the poor and those in need.

It also began taxing imports coming through the port of Kismayu, which it controlled, and set up roadblocks where it levied taxes on goods and vehicles of humanitarian NGOs distributing aid in its territory under what it called "Office for Supervising the Affairs of Foreign Agencies" and banned food from the US.

In this way, it effectively controlled how much aid went in and how it was distributed, leaving the population at its mercy and portrayed itself as defending the Somali people from attempts by the US to weaken the country through humanitarian aid.

To emphasise this it raided offices of two UN aid groups in Baidoa and Wajid in July 2009, banned their operations and commandeered their vehicles and computers.

It also punished suspected criminals brutally, however petty the crime, with many losing their limbs and others being stoned to death.

Kenya’s Defence Forces are seeking to cut off Al-Shabaab from its supply routes by sea, air and land, weakening its capacity to effectively train for attacks and reducing its weapons stockpile.

It now has the support of member states of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development and France whose navy on Sunday bombarded the town of Kuday, which is south of Kismayu.

Estimates of Al-Shabaab’s total manpower range from 2,000-5,000, including up to 1,000 foreign fighters.


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