Understanding Al-Shabaab

What you need to know:

  • Al-Shabaab fighters find hope and consolation in the promise of religious victory which, to most of us, seems misplaced

Following the brutal assault on innocent civilians at the Westgate shopping mall by Somalia’s Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen, or the Movement of the Striving Youth, the question is why would a group espouse such a vicious pattern of violence buttressed by spiritual tactics?

At a basic level, If – as is frequently stated – no religion supports violence as its mission, then what is the logic of violence and the function of religion in this group’s activities?

The case of al-Shabaab reflects a textbook situation of what one might call the paradox of external intervention. Fuelled by patriotic militancy against the abrasive counter-insurgency tactics used by Ethiopia’s intervention in 2006, al-Shabaab has since been waging a vicious war, against international attempts to set up a central government, based on the vanguards of Islamism and nationalism.

The self-proclaimed “Islamic” guerrilla army has continuously branded the several African and Western backed central governments in Somalia as “puppet” regimes, and their regional backers, the “invaders”.

The paradox is that international efforts to bring about peace and stability in Somalia have been exploited by al-Shabaab, not only to discredit internationally backed governments but also to promote the group as “freedom fighters”.

Following Kenya’s intervention, for instance, al-Shabaab’s legitimacy seemed threatened particularly with the loss of the strategic port city of Kismayo. It is on that basis that the group sought to inflame Somali emotions and rally support around “Kenya’s occupation and the killing of innocent” Somali civilians.

The recent attack on Kenya is seen in this light; to regain legitimacy inside Somalia. This is not new, for some time now, al-Shabaab has employed propaganda tactics, including the use of disinformation, in an effort to shape the trajectory of events or sway popular support inside Somalia.

Indeed, everytime the group’s legitimacy has seemed threatened, it has always shifted its political targets and tactics to retain the support of the people.

In terms of tactics, al-Shabaab have largely avoided direct confrontation with regular military forces and instead resorted to unconventional guerrilla tactics.

The group realises that it neither has the technical nor tactical advantage to fight a direct war with better-equipped regular forces. By using unconventional warfare tactics, al-Shabaab gains an operational advantage insofar as they can fight elusively, without trying to defend terrain against concerted attacks.

Their strategy seems to be to pursue a constant campaign of concealed attacks and inflict continual casualties among their superior opponents, demoralising them and eroding any semblance of legitimacy they might enjoy.

Given the frequently stated axiom that no religion supports violence as its mission, the question is, how does al-Shabaab reconcile its use of religion and violence?

Instructively, most of the Somali suicide bombers are educated people. Indeed, the group operates on a fundamentalist, if not duplicitous, religious agenda to justify or explain its political, and sometimes violent, acts or to gain recruits. Al-Shabaab uses religion to generate the support of a Muslim people “invaded by non-Muslim powers”.

Indeed, leaders of al-Shabaab have not missed an opportunity to manipulate pejorative religious statements and buzzwords, such as jihad and fighting for the Muslims against invader “infidels”, to their advantage.

They often use mosques to call for jihad, which is seen as obligatory. This jihad rhetoric has attracted support from external transnational networks of Islamic militants.

The group also raises revenue through taxes, which is often justified as a religious duty. The spiritual discourse has acted as a medium through which real and imagined political grievances are framed.

Those who engage in attacks and suicide bombings view themselves not as attacking others, but rather as defending themselves against foreign domination.

Al-Shabaab fighters find hope and consolation in the promise of religious victory which, to most of us, seems misplaced. In other words, the violent activities take on an eschatological dimension, in which the group’s brutality is deemed a religious conviction in the name of Sharia law while their opponents are demonised.

It is for the same reason that al-Shabaab often tries to sanctify suicide bombers and give them the status of martyrs.

In the recent past, there has been an increasing concern about al-Shabaab’s expanding reach and the fact that the group has been actively recruiting nationals from neighbouring countries and beyond to fight its cause.

While some observers have previously argued that al-Shabaab is not a transnational terrorist organisation, the 2010 attack in Kampala, Uganda, the Westgate Mall attack and the group’s recruitment including of hardened fighters from the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, conveys a message of an entity that is becoming predisposed to transnational goals.

It is difficult to gauge the group’s support within Somalia but its legitimacy has been questioned by those against its strict interpretation of Islam and notions of justice although there are others who support the group on the basis that it has contributed to the reduction of corruption and crime in areas it controls.

Overall, al-Shabaab has thrived on societal problems including poorly governed, or ungoverned areas, paucity of alternative sources of livelihood, aggravated by perceived cultural threats, often rooted in deeply held, existential notion of domination by external actors.

In a society where these problems, perceived or otherwise, are widespread and pronounced, it is easier for al-Shabaab to mobilise and radicalise their followers.

It is in this context that while al-Shabaab’s attack on the Westgate Mall is really hurting, it is important that Kenyans and our forces in Somalia guard against any acts of retaliation or the emotional approach of eliminating “suspected terrorists”.

Kenya certainly needs to improve its homeland security in intelligence gathering and improved policing but a long-term solution to dealing with al-Shabaab will depend on how Kenya and other regional and international actors manage to seize the moral and political legitimacy from the group by addressing the local population’s grievances inside Somalia.

As long as al-Shabaab maintains a semblance of support inside Somalia, it will retain all of its strategic advantages of mobility and legitimacy in its own eyes and in the eyes of its supporters, those killed will be easily replaced, and it will be very difficult for any regular forces to eliminate it.

Emmanuel Kisiangani is senior researcher, Institute for Security Studies

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