AL-SHABAB: THROUGH THE SMOKESCREEN
During war and conflict, there is always a distinct and striking difference between the propagated news and the reality on the ground. In such environments, propaganda is an instrumental tool of deception in creating an image or a view that is intended to label the opponent in the eyes of public as a vicious predator whose obliteration is a legally binding matter.
In Somalia, the misinformation in the electromagnetic waves has been in overdrive since the rise of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) in 2006. The ICU grew in popularity as it brought stability to Mogadishu and beyond,by combating anddefeating notorious warlords who were beingbankrolled by the US embassy in Nairobi, Kenya. But that brief respite was short-lived when Ethiopian troops invaded and overthrew the ICU installing a secular transitional government with the approval and support of theBush administration in late 2006. Al-Shabab was the military wing of the ICU but this little known militant group emerged as a strong contender after seeing off the well-trained Ethiopian forces in a bloody war that lasted from 2006 until early 2009.Furthermore, Al-Shabab has evolved over the years; it pledged allegiance toal-Qaeda, and Somalia becamea new battlegroundfor jihad.
So, who is Al-Shabab? According to international media, it is a terrorist group that indiscriminately targets civilians in its cowardly suicide operations, it ruthlessly extorts and overtaxes the locals due to financial difficulties, it is headed by illiterate self-serving criminals, and the Al-Shabab are utterly despised by the people of Somalia. So, the question is: how accurate is this depiction of Al-Shabab that we havebecome accustomed to hearing and expected to wholeheartedly believe? Few journalists and researchers have been brave enough to go behind the scenes and expose the truthcountering the deeply-rooted misconceptions about this group. They have had the integrity to release reports and research studies that have begun to shedlight on the demonized Al-Shabab as an organization and in its administrative practices.
PUBLIC SAFETY AND BASIC SOCIAL SERVICES
Somalis are a close-knit tribal society and this social structure has been a source of manyconflicts because of the lingering rivalries among tribes which has the tendency toigniteover simple trivial matters. Interestingly, Al-Shabab members come from all tribes, both large and small, while simultaneously not having any bias towards any specific tribe or clan, claiming to deal with all evenly. That unique make up has led to Al-Shababpossessinga deep understanding of the different tribes in their areas, it knows the tribal gazing lands and past feudal history,and it has builtgood rapport with the leading chieftains in each tribe; these factors are crucial when dealing with tribal plaints and to avoid blunders with grave ramifications.It stepped in to fill the vacuum under an Islamic banner, and that softened the local people’s attitude towards it. It was genuinely accepted as a legitimate force for good. As a result, many people prefer to live inAl-Shabab controlled areas, not only for safety measures, but also for its transparent familiar process. Nonetheless, this confidence building process was gradual, frank,and it did have its difficulties over the years.
Some international media outlets reported on the phenomenon simply corroborating the realities that were already well known to Somalis as well as aid organizations on the ground. An article published by The Washington Post titled,“This is why al-Shabab won’t be going away anytime soon” by counterterrorism analyst Tricia Bacon mentioned this about Al-Shabab:
What’s more, al-Shabab is relatively uncorrupt and efficient. You can see that clearly on the roads that it controls, where it operates checkpoints that require set payments, offer a receipt to passengers, and keep the roads relatively safe.
In addition, a freelance reporter named Asad Hussein had the audacity to travel through Al-Shabab territory which meant going on a “suicidal” mission based on the general misconstruction about the group, and his perilous adventure was published by The New York Times titled, “My Parents’ Country, in the Grip of the Shabab.”
A journey through Shabab country was predictable. There was a sense of order: You knew what to expect and how much you had to pay. It was striking in a country where all institutions had broken down, where corruption choked everything [ii]
The sense of order and security is not a surprise because Al-Shabab enforces the Sharia penal law which is fully accepted by Muslims. It includes a variety of punishments including things that are looked at as taboo in the West like amputation, public lashing and stoning to deathdepending the nature of the offence. Some offenses may end up in a simple verbal warning and admonishment while other more serious crimes may be dealt with more severely. For example, if a mature and sane individual commits an act of theft while fulfilling some jurisprudence conditions, he/she will lose his/her right hand. The concept is not to amputate people’s limbs but to deter others who have the ambition toact unlawfully, and as a result, the crime rate in Al-Shabab land is virtually negligible.
On the contrary, the Somali government soldiers are notorious for robbery, extortion, rape, and sometimes unjustified killings. Tricia Bacon states,
That contrasts sharply with how others, including government forces, manage roads, which are rife with predation and repeated extortion, which has both safety and economic repercussions — as I heard repeatedly from citizens, businesspeople and aid workers alike.[iii]
As Tricia Bacon noted, this fact is common knowledge to all Somalis and equally, Asad Hussein wrote this on Somali security forces:
Most drivers preferred Shabab-controlled roads to government-controlled ones. ` They saw the Somali government soldiers as greedy and corrupt and had a ` name for them: “Cali-Uus,” or “the big-bellied Ali.[iv]
While inAfgoye, a government controlled town on the outskirts of Mogadishu, AsadHussein additionally mentioned being apprehensive regarding his life and his possessions.
I could use my smartphone and play music. I had my freedom. I wasn’t sure about my safety.[v]
Similarly, the UN Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritreareport of November 2017 reports an unpleasant scenario that locals face during the rainy season. In the rainy season, many dirt roads are unusable due to mud and are not operational until the dry season, therefore, travelers are forced to pass through some of the government controlled checkpoints. The security forces punish the drivers with hefty fees for evading them during the dry season.
Local authorities and armed actors took advantage of the drought response by tripling checkpoint fees in some areas. In April 2017, 60 trucks were blockaded atWanlaweyne, Lower Shabelle region, when Federal Government security forces attempted to force commercial trucker to pay “arrears” for the times they had used the alternative Al-Shabaab-controlled route to Baidoa. Transporters in many places preferred Al-Shabaab routes where payments were honoured, receipts were issued and the violence associated with the security forces was avoided.[vi]
As experts have noted, the Somali security forces are unpaid tribal militias who lack moral ethics to perform their duties. The uniform they wearserves as an alternative way of paying the bills by robbing the public at gunpoint,particularly the travelers. Unfortunately, the government has failed to understand the importance of proper education, discipline, and leadership skills,and it hasremained satisfied with their militaristic potential, a failure thatisjeopardizingthe very existence of this embryonic government. So, the drivers and passengers alike in Somalia take long detours on unpaved dirt roads just to stay in Al-Shabab controlled areas avoiding the dreadful sight of Somali government troops.
In addition, US Senator Jack Reed who visited Mogadishu onthe 20thof February 2018,vented his disappointment in Farmajo’s administration, and he characterized the current administration with the following words:
The government is perceived by many people as corrupt and not serving their ends. 
Apart from public safety, Al-Shabab provides basic social services to locals through its various Wilayaat or local administrations. Tricia Bacon stated:
Al-Shabab has deftly managed clan dynamics and provided basic services in ways that have brought it political power and influence throughout southern Somalia, especially the rural areas, where residents are wary of the still-fragile government.
Moreover, they build up infrastructure in cities under their control including providing electricity and clean running water, opening hospitals, and schools, re-organizing the markets, etc. With its limited resources, Al-Shabab had renovated roads, repaired bridges, and dug up canals. And symbolically, it wants to show that self-reliance is a key word in building a strong community without the ‘politicized assistance.’ Christopher Anzalone, an Al-Shabab expert, summed up an array of Al-Shabab’s administrative efforts in a recent article titled, Black Banners in Somalia.
The group’s civil administration continues in 2018 to carry out a variety of governance activities, including the running of sharia courts, holding meeting with clan leaders, and providing aid collected as religiously mandated charity (zakat). Al-Shabaab administrators also ran sharia institutes, schools, and courses for clan youth, merchants, and craftspeople and organized traveling health and vaccination clinics for people and livestock.
Furthermore, Al-Shabab has done much to help those in need during times of drought. This is what the UN Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea 2017 reports said about it:
.. Al-Shabaab mounted a well-publicized drought response, setting up regional drought committees and activating its Al-Xhasan humanitarian wing. In March 2017, the group conducted a series of high-profile food and water distributions in the regions of Bay, Bakool, Galgadud, Hiran, Lower Shabelle and Mudug.[iv]
The biggest political institution in the world, the UN, acknowledged that Al-Shabab’s response was swift and effective in covering vast stretches of land with a piggybank budget.
As noted earlier by Christopher Anzalone, Al-Shabab has Sharia courts in areas that it controls, and even residents in government ‘green zones’ travel for justice to Al-Shabab’s Sharia courts. Tricia Bacon mentioned the following:
Al-Shabab offers a modicum of security in areas under its influence. It operates courts, including mobile courts, to punish crime and resolve disputes. That’s especially important in an area rife with local conflicts, especially land disputes, and few effective ways to settle them, except violence. While media reports focus on al-Shabab’s harsh sharia punishments, some Somalis seek out al-Shabab courts, knowing that they will deliver a relatively thorough verdict and will enforce resolution.[v]
Also, the UN Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea report in November 2017 reports the same serviceillustrating that rather than loathing and fearing Al-Shabab, Somalis actually seek them out.
Al-Shabaab’s court in Afgoye continued to be the go-to jurisdiction for many with respect to land disputes, even in Mogadishu.[vi]
Regarding the Sharia courts, there are two important aspects that motivate people to go there. Firstly, Muslims believe Sharia should be used in settling their disputes and they view it as divine law that is free from human deficiencies and biases. Secondly, Somali people do not view Al-Shabab in the same way as the outsiders do but rather as an organization that follows the footmarks of Prophet Muhammed, peace be upon him, in its practices. Their actions show that they are confident in Al-Shabab’s overall impartiality and justness.And interestingly, the popularity of its courts has reached beyond Somalia’s borders; it has been reported that plaintiffs have arrived from the neighboring countries and some from as far as Europe. The truth is that Al-Shabab enjoys a positive approval rating among the locals.
However, looking at that relationship between Al-Shabab and the Somali people, someput the Somali government’s corrupted judiciary institution and lack of objectivity in its deliberation as the main cause. Suppose the government somehow overcomes its innate nature of perpetual fraudulence practices and gains the trust of its people, it will still be missing the very element that lures people to Al-Shabab: Sharia. And, instead of winning the hearts and the minds of its people, the Somali government issued a threatful warning against such trips, which did little to deter those from going to Al-Shabab areas for justice.
THE FAILURE OF MILITARY APPROACH
The US does not have a well-defined foreign policy on Somalia but rather it relies on a trial-and-error method that has backfiredvarious times already. Since the collapse of Siad Barre’s government, Somalia has seen foreign troops on its soil and the outcome has been persistently bloody. Alex Perry of Time wrote an interesting article titled, “Kenya Invades Somalia. Does It Get Any Dumber?” which summarized Somalia’s record with the invading forces,
The last 20 years have also seen Somalia emerge with a particularly consistent record of chewing up anyone who arrives carrying a gun, including the U.N. and U.S. special operations troops (1992-3), Ethiopians (2006-9) and Ugandans and Burundians from an African Union peacekeeping force (2008-today).[vii]
Experts unanimously agree that the decision to invade Somalia by proxy with Ethiopian troops was perhaps the worst US foreign policy decision ever in an African country, and Al-Shabab gained much-needed support from Somalis who ardently wanted Ethiopians out of their land. Helen Epstein, a visiting professor at Bard College wrote an article published in The Atlantic titled “Negotiating with Al-Shabaab will get America out of Somalia,” presented the catastrophic outcome of the Ethiopian invasion.
Then the Bush administration, convinced, probably incorrectly, that the ICU was protecting al-Qaeda operatives responsible for the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, sent navy ships and other artillery to assist Ethiopian troops as they proceeded to flatten Mogadishu, causing three-quarters of its population to flee.[viii]
Soon after the Ethiopiansinvaded in 2006, the US could not afford another nation-building quagmire as it did in 1992 and as it was then facing in Iraq and Afghanistan, so, assembling African forces as peacekeepers was ideal both politically and financially. And in early 2007, the African Mission In Somalia (AMISOM) came into being. Over the years, the AMISOM Peacekeepers have shown their true colors.
Kristin Shimer mentions some of the tactics used by AMISOM upon arrival,
Throughout 2008-2010, AMISOM’s positions in Mogadishu often came under fire from al-Shabaab. AMISOM troops often responded to these attacks with indiscriminate small arms and mortar fire into civilian populated areas.[ix]
Again,Helen Epstein states some of their violent abuses:
AMISOM troops, particularly Ugandan ones, have committed numerous human rights violations, including the sexual abuse of Somali girls and women, and are notoriously corrupt. Often underpaid because their corrupt government is itself skimming their salaries or not paying them at all…[x]
Somalia expert, Ken Menkhaus, a professor at Davidson College, depicts a real dilemma: the US and EU are not satisfied with AMISOM’s poor military performance on the ground and its human rights violations and yet they cannot do without them.
The African union is in many ways a problem in Somalia. It has been abusive at times towards local populations, it is not welcome by most of the populations anymore and yet we cannot do without it.[xi]
In other words, for the greater good the Somali people must continue to bear the brunt of AMISOM transgressions passively. And by designating Somalia as an ‘area of active hostilities‘, like Afghanistan, this categorization will only amplify the misery of Somaliswhile being ineffective against Al-Shabab which has shown a persistent record of weathering various types of military operations. Tricia Bacon had this to say about the designation:
The United States has been increasing its military presence and expanding its rules of engagement in Somalia to counter al-Shabab. On June 11, the United States conducted its first strike under these new rules, destroying an al-Shabab training and command center, and then conducted a second strike on July 2, with still a third one on July 4. In March, at the urging of the Defense Department, the Trump administration designated Somalia as an “area of active hostilities,” which allows the United States to conduct offensive strikes that do not require interagency vetting.[xii]
As some experts have mentioned, the long term effects of these policies could actually be negative in terms of US interests and policy. Christopher Anzalone had this to add, illustrating the reality with one of the many recent tragedies of post Trump policy:
Increased U.S. military strikes in the country also run the risk of inflaming local tensions and have increased the chances that Somali civilians will be negatively impacted and even killed, as happened in a joint Somali government and U.S. raid in Bariire in August 2017 that killed 10 civilians including children and inflamed tensions between the Somali government and the large and influential HabarGidir/Hawiye clan.[xiii]
The bottom line is that brute force means more misery and chaos…for the Somali people. Helen Epstein stated:
If this means more fire power, it will mean only more misery for the Somali people and their regional neighbors. Over a decade of intense firepower and at times brilliant military tactics on the part of AMISOM have not made Somalia or its neighbors safer. In fact, lawlessness has only increased.[xiv]
In the media, Al-Shabab is characterized as a group of vicious lunatics who indiscriminately bomb civilians and military personnelalike, with suicide operations or improvised explosive devices. However, according to a recent study done by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point titled, “Targeted Terror: The Suicide Bombers of Al-Shabaab” written by Jason Warner and Ellen Chapin, Al-Shabab strictly targets AMISOM, Somali forces, and those who are serving them behind the scenes. The research paper studied operations over the past decade and clearly negates the widely-publicized notion that it targets civilians. The report says:
As the subsequent section details, we assert that al-Shabaab relies on suicide bombers in order to wreak maximum destruction on personnel and institutions—especially through assassinations of specific individuals—while generally avoiding targeting civilians and not explicitly seeking simply to engender a culture of shock and awe.[xv]
It clearly expresses that Al-Shabab avoids areas populated by non-combatants;
Our data shows that al-Shabaab largely avoids indiscriminately suicide bombing civilians and civilian spaces.[xvi]
The study goes on to attempt to explain the rationale behind this ‘phenomenon’:
One rationale for al-Shabaab’s tendency not to indiscriminately target civilians lies in the fact that the group seeks to serve as a viable alternative of legitimate governance to the Somali government.[xvii]
According to study, the second rationale is that Al-Shabab follows al-Qaida’s strict war ethics which prohibits civilian targets, contrary to the common perception that al-Qaeda encourages the wholesale slaughter of those who are not theologically in line with them. Interestingly, the study presents some of the al-Qaida war doctrine that its affiliates must adhere to:
- 1. Generally, avoid fighting or targeting those who have not raised arms against us or aided in any such hostile act and maintain focus primarily on the Crusader Alliance and then upon their local surrogates.
- 2. Refrain from killing and fighting against non-combatant women and children, and even if they are families of those who are fighting against us, refrain from targeting them as much as possible.
- 3. Refrain from harming Muslims by explosions, killing, kidnapping, or destroying their wealth or property.
- 4. Refrain from targeting enemies in mosques, markets, and gatherings where they mix with Muslims or with those who do not fight us.[xviii]
Islamic principlesstrictly prohibit shedding the blood of innocents and for groups like Al-Shabab, Quranic verses outweigh any political considerations.
The civil war and internal strife left a strong impression on Somalis and, having lost all hope, many grabbed hold to their religious identity which overstepped the tribal barriers; Sharia law became as a shield against aggression and violence, bloodsheds were forgotten, and animosity turned into friendship, and Al-Shababwas the bearer of such a pure constitution. Since Sharia spreadduring the ICU era in 2006, it became a source of peace in an environment that was rife with violence. It ended a quarter century old bloodshed in a matter of days which the world could not do in years. In addition, it amended the wounds and transgressions in the society with Quranic verses, and having seen its dynamic effectiveness, many seeit as the only way that Somalia can outgrow its present difficulties, a system that addresses the symptoms as well as the root causes.
Unfortunately, many, including experts, know little about Islam and Muslims except a narrow view that yields a disfigured perception in the eyes of Westerners and this deep-rooted prejudice attempts to sever the relation between Islam and the West. And America, which openly lost its religious tolerance on September 11th, 2001, is attempting a counter-revolution campaign to eradicate the Sharia which provides peace in Somalia by supporting a secular government that is characterized as “…corrupt and not serving their ends,” by those who brought it into being.
It is obvious that this ambition shall not materialize in the face of people’s resistance, not that Somalis are opposed to reform but an imported doctrine prompts the fear of losing their religion, their traditional way life, the historical continuity between the past and the present, andthe anxiety ofcultural deformation in an irrevocable way – a proposal that does not correspond to the Islamic scheme of life. For many, Somalia is on the right path, in a process of healthy development and under the Sharia which reconciles the tribes that scarcely have anything in common except Islamic faith to a new plane of unity.
As documented by various experts, there is a wide gap between propaganda and reality in Somalia. They have noted that Al-Shabab is not a bloodthirsty monster but an organization that is fighting for anoteworthy cause: the reestablishment of Sharia law in Somalia, a conviction that is widely popular among the Somalis reinvigorated by the bloody civil war and the ongoing deployment of foreign troops in Somalia. In addition, it provides public safety, basic social services, a fair judicial system, and educational programs for Somalis of all tribes. Some people claim that it benefits from the Somali federal government’s inability to exercise its authority, while in fact, the Somali people are the true benefactors of the government’s incompetence because its security forces are a serious threat to the public, and Al-Shabab controlled areas have become a safe-haven for those who are seeking sanctuary. Finally, as noted by the West Point research study, Al-Shabab does not intentionally target civilians but only those who it considers foreign invaders and their local allies.
In conclusion, thisessay has attempted to givethe concerned readersa glimpse of truth through the smokescreen by looking at Al-Shabab through factual spectacles, a snapshot of AMISOM and government forces’ misconduct and violations from Western sources, and by evaluating the US’s fruitless more-firepower policy in Somalia.Hopefully, this trend will continue and more of the fog will be lifted throughincreased efforts by the remarkably courageous journalists and the unprejudiced researchers. Keeping all factors in mind, the USis combatting a group whose ideology is deeply rooted in the Islamic faith and as it seems, the US will be in this marathon for many years to come. But if it ever hopes to come to a serious solution in East Africa, it must truthfully seek to see through the smokescreen that it took part in creating. It must come to terms that Al-Shabab is a grassroots movement with firm principles that is deeply ingrained in the Somali people and that one man’s terrorist is inevitably another man’s hero.
Mohammed Haji Dhobley
Caroline Houck. “We’re Finding It Difficult to Hold Territory in Somalia,” Defense One, March 2, 2018.
Tricia Bacon. “This is why al-Shabab won’t be going away anytime soon,” Washington Post,July 6, 2017.
Christopher Anzalone. “Black Banners in Somalia,” March, 2018.
[iv]“Report on Somalia,” Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea, UNSC, November 2017, p.38.
[v]Tricia Bacon. “This is why al-Shabab won’t be going away anytime soon,” Washington Post,July 6, 2017.
[vi]“Report on Somalia,” Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea, UNSC, November 2017, p. 17.
[vii]Alex Perry. “Kenya Invades Somalia. Does It Get Any Dumber?” October 19, 2011.
[viii]Helen Epstein. “Negotiating with Al-Shabaab will get America out of Somalia,” The Atlantic, October 16, 2017.
[ix]Kristen Shimer. “The Successes and Failures of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM),” March 30, 2017.
[x]Helen Epstein. “Negotiating with Al-Shabaab will get America out of Somalia,” The Atlantic, October 16, 2017.
[xi]Ken Menkhaus. A speech given at Syracuse University Maxwell School, 56th minute, 2016.
[xii]Tricia Bacon. “This is why al-Shabab won’t be going away anytime soon,” Washington Post,July 6, 2017.
[xiii]Christopher Anzalone. “Black Banners in Somalia,” March, 2018.
[xiv]Helen Epstein. “Negotiating with Al-Shabaab will get America out of Somalia,” The Atlantic, October 16, 2017.
[xv]Jason Warner and Ellen Chapin. “Targeted Terror: The Suicide Bombers of Al-Shabaab,” February 2018, p. 16.
[xvi]Ibid., p. 19.
[xvii]Ibid., p. 19.
[xviii]Ibid., p. 20.