By Abdihakim Hassan
Monday August 8, 2022
Al-Shabaab’s recent incursion to Ethiopia may well be the most important discussion in East Africa these days. This incursion exposed the serious security risk of terrorists crossing the Ethiopia border, and vulnerabilities of expanding their terrorist attacks in large portions of Ethiopia. Even though the definition of terrorism has different interpretation, most definitions involve violence, targeting civilians and those who are non-combatants. The term “terrorism” is defined as act of violence, which is a normative concept, used to describe illegitimate uses of violence. Most of us accept that the use of violent force may be legitimate in some contexts.
Despite the challenges and obstacles, the Somali government encounters, Al-Shabaab cannot be defeated simply by the military overpowering them. As Somalia adopted a federal government system, the existence of prolonged political turmoil, constant conflicts between the federal government and its Member States supported Al-Shabaab far beyond their operation capacity. Al-Shabaab emerged from the power vacuum that is created by the absence of good governance and a failed state.
However, conflicts and weak institutions facilitated Al-Shabaab to control most of the southern and central regions in Somalia where they committed violent insurgency. The president of Somalia called Al-Shabaab an African terrorist in his recent article published in The Economist. Contrarily, the notion that classifies Al-Shabaab as an only African terrorist group is not a valid assessment. Al-Shabaab affiliates with Al Qaida, and recruits jihadist from transnational boarders. Their fundraising history proved that they had clandestine fundraising activities beyond international borders.
As Al-Shabaab wants to establish an Islamic State in Somalia, they engage in domestic terrorism in Somalia, and in neighboring countries. In a series of occurrences, they have claimed the assassination of innocent people, and the responsibility for many bombings.
Winning the war against Al-Shabaab requires comprehensive terrorist strategy. Some countries focus on the prevention of extremism, rather than the prevention of terrorism. Somalia needs both strategies to fight Al-Shabaab. The attacks by Al-Shabaab near the Ethiopian’s border with Somalia is a new strategy, methods and tactic which indicates the transformation of Al-Shabaab into a transnational military operation. As of now Al-Shabaab controls 75% of south and central Somalia, and the effectiveness of liberating those areas is not easy and it is difficult to measure in the short term as it requires collaborations and resources.
Regardless of the analyses of why Al-Shabaab crossed the Ethiopian border and the motive behind this attack, Al-Shabaab is a part of Salafi- Jihadist organizations. Their ideology is based on the Sunni sect of Islamism, seeking to establish a global caliphate. And now Al-Shabaab has stepped out and followed Al Qaeda’s strategy, seeking to be a mentor in East Africa's Salafist, particularly in Ethiopia where two years long civil war has bitterly divided the society and Al-Shabaab is emerging new threats.
It is almost impossible to counter every terrorist attack, there will always be new attacks regardless of precautionary security takes. It is also impossible to win the war against Al-Shabaab beyond the battlefield. Here are some long-term recommendations and strategies to combat and eradicate Al-Shabaab’s threats.
Firstly, understand Al-Shabaab’s recruitment process, as the recruitment is the long-term sustainability of terrorist organization, Al-Shabaab’s survival and prosperity will always depends on their ability to recruit new members. With a good counterterrorism strategy in place, enlisting new members may decrease due to the effective counterterrorism operations. Evidently, Al-Shabaab have been forcing young boys to join the group, in many situations, Al-Shabaab uses conscription style to recruit new members. The absence of community policing activities and lack of federal police support makes the situation even worse. With the little resources available in regional governments, the federal security agents should monitor the social base of al-Shabaab and detect the secret gathering to attract outsiders for recruitment.
Secondly, like every other organization, terrorist organizations rely on ongoing financial resources to continue to their day-to-day activities. Al-Shabaab generates millions of dollars of revenue from a diverse source of activities. Money is an essential part of terrorist operations to achieve the long-term objectives. Money is the lifeblood of Al-Shabaab's operation. Without money this group cannot be functioning. Scrutinizing the mystery about Al-Shabaab’s taxation scheme and intercepting how the funds are collected are essentially important for preventing future terrorist attacks. Does Al-Shabaab receive donations from international groups and local businesspeople? Have they used the local banking system or Hawala for money transfer, to counter Al-Shabab’s activities? All those questions need to be addressed.
Thirdly, Al-Shabaab consistently uses weapons and ammunition, which includes explosive row materials. What do we know about the source of weapon supply? Ironically, no traceable evidence shows how those weapons were purchased and delivered into Somalia. It appears no one even knows the weapon smuggling network exists in Somalia. This is an important issue, for the dynamics and circumstances that might lead counterterrorist agents to prevent and reduce such attacks. Al-Shabaab engages with the Somali government and crosses border to attacks neighboring countries.
Fourthly, Al-Shabaab loves propaganda and wants to share their advertisements, grievances, and goals to the public. Sometimes they demand respect, in order to legitimize their cause. Al-Shabaab uses terrorist attacks to spread propaganda. As well as the internet and social media networks to disseminate propaganda, ideology and to recruit new members. Many internet companies are trying to wipe terrorist content from their platforms, it is impossible for internet companies in Somalia to conduct some form of censorship for Al-Shabaab’s activities. According to Voice of America, Al-Shabaab controls cell phone network towers in many places in Somalia, and this would give Al-Shabaab privilege and authority to control and manipulate the communication systems. In a recent attack on Ethiopia, Al-Shabaab switched off all the cellular network towers to mask their operations.
Finally, preventing terrorist attacks require deep analytic understanding of Al-Shabaab’s terror activities. Intelligence agencies must constantly feed live intelligence, connect to reliable intelligence, all the while sharing intelligence with the appropriate partners. We must know and understand Al-Shabab’s tactics, methods, what kind of weapons and explosives they use, recruitment and training schemes, social media activities and posts. More importantly, we must know their past activities and attacks in a given jurisdiction.
Intelligence sharing is very important within the government agencies and sharing with partners, particularly neighboring countries. The recent Al-Shabaab attacks in Ethiopia have once again highlighted the contradiction between the seemingly free movement of Al-Shabaab across neighboring countries and the lack of wide intelligence sharing. Rumors speculated Al-Shabaab’s intent was to help an ethnic Oromo insurgent group inside Ethiopia, and it seems no one detected and knew about these activities ahead of time.