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Extremist group rose from Somalia's long history of anarchy
Wednesday, September 25, 2013
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Al-Shabab, the Somali extremist group that launched a bloody, audacious attack targeting Christians at a shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya this past weekend, was thought to be a spent force.
It probably still is, but the co-ordinated attack did what al-Shabab desperately needed to do to get out from under suspicion that its jihadi quest had failed.
Because western Christians were involved, the carnage got far more attention than bombings over the weekend in Pakistan and Iraq, to say nothing of the daily savagery of Syria.
Such attention pays triple benefits. It gives al-Shabab far more attention in western capitals than it deserves. It suggests to other al-Qaida chapters - and what is left of its leadership, with whom it has often quarrelled - that it is not yet dead. And video of the carnage will also help the group attract new recruits, especially in countries such as Britain and Canada where a few disaffected young
Somali immigrants may find something heroic in al-Shabab's vile actions and consider making the long trek back to the desert to join in the mayhem.
An added bonus for al-Shabab is that it was the entry of Kenya's army into Somalia along with African Union troops that put the resilient group back on its heels after contributing greatly for a short spell to the chaos that made Somalia one of the most dangerous countries in the world.
Al-Shabab chose well what prize to hit: the shopping centre in Kenya was a soft target. It does not take much military capacity or genius to run through a mall killing people and taking hostages.
Lots of countries have dirty wars. The Balkans, Northern Ireland, Chechnya, Congo, Rwanda, Iraq, Afghanistan and Timor come to mind. But Somalia was always a bit special.
The level and length of the anarchy that I saw there during the early and mid-1990s, and the rivalries that pitted clan against clan and sub-clan against sub-clan, cannot be easily compared to anywhere else.
My first visit to the distant desert town of Belet Huen took place several months before the Canadian Airborne Regiment arrived there in 1993.
Somalis had been starving and I arrived on a Red Cross charter flight with a crew from ABC News.
Kids had been writhing on the ground, but after a few days of high-protein rations they were up and around. As Red Cross workers unloaded food and medicine, the re-energized kids started to throw rocks at them. A few metres away, their parents inexplicably laughed and egged their offspring on as their European and North American benefactors danced a painful jig. The relief mission came to an abrupt end, the Red Cross plane returned to Kenya with all of its passengers and most its cargo and, for a time, the Somalis went back to starving.
My next trip was to the coastal town of Kismayo where I spent a night hunkered down in a compound for foreign-aid workers. For hours in the extreme heat, humidity and gloom we listened to the screams of a wretched man in the building next door as his Islamist captors tortured him by beating the soles of his feet.
The third visit was to Mogadishu. The airport was secure and bustling with purpose in a way that every temporary U.S. airbase does. But venturing even a few metres beyond the airport perimeter was impossible without a strong military escort because the city was ruled by rival gangs high from chewing khat who raced around in Mad Max-style pickup trucks known as "technicals."
A short time later, I was with Canadian paratroops deployed to Belet Huen. Military engineers there marvelled at how an entire Bailey bridge they had put down the previous day had completely disappeared overnight. Every scrap of metal including every nut and bolt had been stolen.
It was such an environment that produced al-Shabab, which is based in Kismayo.
Within months of being established only about eight years ago, it had grown to become one of the largest, most feared group in southern and central Somalia. Taking its lead from al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden, it practises a fanatical, fantastically cruel version of Shariah law in which, for example, young girls suspected of having had relations with a boy were buried alive, with their heads smashed to pieces by stones thrown by a baying mob.
Despite the brutal images from Nairobi this past weekend, all is not lost. If properly supported, the Kenyans can take care of this.
Canada can play a bigger role in keeping a lid on al-Shabab by sending more Joint Task Force 2 and Special Operations Regiment troops to East Africa to train and advise the Kenyan army.
And it might also be a good idea for Canada to pay even more attention to the behaviour of Somali radicals known to be recruiting in the New World.
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