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Terrorism and Somalia
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 15 - 11 - 2018

The Somali capital Mogadishu and neighbouring areas were deeply shaken by a string of bomb car attacks on Friday, 9 November 2018, near a well-known hotel and the Criminal Investigation Division (CID) police headquarters. The bombings killed and wounded dozens of people, mostly civilians, in this latest episode in the long train of terrorist attacks since the collapse of the Somali state in 1991 and the spread, in Somalia, of extremist takfiri groups affiliated with international terrorist organisations such as Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (IS) group.
Harakat Al-Shabab Al-Mujahideen claimed responsibility for the attack. Al-Shabab, as it is commonly known, is one of the groups that splintered off the Islamic Union, or Al-Ittihad Al-Islamiya (AIAI), in the late 1990s. After several defeats and setbacks, the old guard of the AIAI decided to renounce militant activity and re-assimilate into civilian life, a decision rejected by the younger generation and especially those freshly returned from Afghanistan. After the split, Al-Shabab Al-Mujahideen focused on training and recruitment and remained uninvolved in any of the conflicts in Somalia until 2005 when the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) came to power in southern Somalia. Al-Shabab's star rose as a major component of the ICU system and its members occupied most of the executive posts.
In 2006, Al-Shabab served as the military wing of the ICU when it seized control of Mogadishu. Al-Shabab forces also supported the ICU during its war against Somali government forces and the Ethiopian forces that supported them. However, it split off from the ICU in 2007 following the declaration of the Alliance for the Re-liberation of Somalia, led by Sharif Sheikh Ahmed who, at the time, was chairman of the ICU. Al-Shabab opposed the new alliance's decision to enter into UN-brokered negotiations with the Somali government.
In 2008 and 2009, the US and the UN designated Al-Shabab as a terrorist organisation with close ties to Al-Qaeda.
Civil warfare, the collapse of institutionalised government and, above all, the lack of viable military and security establishments in Somalia generated a fertile environment for jihadist groups that exploited the rampant poverty and famine in order to spread their influence through the country. Al-Shabab, a Salafi movement that aims to create a state ruled by a strict interpretation of Sharia Law, established links with Al-Qaeda through connections with some leaders of Al-Qaeda cells in eastern Africa as well as through the returnees from Afghanistan. The organisation has between 7,000 to 9,000 members including native Somalis and foreigners, primarily from Arab and African countries, as well as from Pakistan.
The movement has clashed militarily and staged military operations against the transitional governments headed by Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed and Sharif Sheikh Ahmed. It refused to recognise the presidency of Hassan Sheikh Mohamud whom it accused of being a US proxy and whom it tried to assassinate the day after he was declared the victor in the presidential elections. Al-Shabab would then carry out a number of terrorist attacks against government buildings and facilities during President Mohamud's term in office.
The movement refuses to recognise all Somalian electoral processes which it describes as an American-made deception. It has, accordingly, sustained its extremist positions against current Somali President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo and continued its violent activities against the state in an attempt to embarrass the government and portray it to the international community as weak and incapable of asserting its control over the country, including the capital.
Al-Shabab has a sophisticated media wing and the technological savvy to produce and disseminate professionally made footage of its terrorist operations and other such propaganda. Likewise, it takes advantage of social networking sites to screen and recruit new members both in Somalia or among Somalis living abroad, and it clearly has the networks of connections for the purposes of intelligence gathering, reconnaissance, sheltering operatives at home and abroad and training operatives on how to manufacture explosives, boobytrap cars or individuals, and engage in different types of combat.
In 2017, in the framework of its efforts to combat terrorism in Africa and especially in Somalia where extremely dangerous terrorist groups could spread their operations to neighbouring countries and threaten regional peace and security, the African Union created the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). An important part of the AMISOM is to support Somali government forces in their battle against Al-Shabab and, with the encouragement of some African Union members, it steadily increased its troop levels to about 22,000 soldiers drawn from Uganda, Ethiopia, Kenya, Burundi, Rwanda, Djibouti, Nigeria and Sierra Leone. AMISOM receives logistical support from the UN and financial support from the EU. The salaries of the soldiers and staff and the operating expenses of the mission's headquarters in Nairobi are financed by the African-European Peace Fund.
As a demonstration of its growing resolve to combat terrorism in Africa, in 2010 the African Union created a subcommittee on counterterrorism in accordance with the founding protocol of the African Union's Peace and Security Council (PSC). Terrorism has remained a permanent item on the agenda of the AU's Executive Council meetings and, in the Malabo Summit in 2014, it underscored the particularly grave threats of terrorism in the Sahara and the Sahel, in Somalia, Kenya and Djibouti, and in Central Africa.
In September 2014, a special summit on counterterrorism was held in Nairobi in order to discuss a mechanism for fighting terrorism in the continent, ways to cut off its sources of finance, the creation of an African counterterrorism fund, as well as a mechanism for cooperation between African security forces: the African Police Cooperation Organisation (AFRIPOL). The summit concluded with a declaration stating that a terrorist attack against one African country is a terrorist attack against the entire continent.
Because of the rise of terrorist attacks across the continent in 2015, terrorism-related issues topped the agenda of the 25th African Summit in Johannesburg that year. The subject would again dominate the agenda of the special session of the African Peace and Security Committee which was held during the 26th African Summit in Addis Ababa on 30-31 January 2016. The same would apply in the 30th summit in Addis Ababa on 30-31 January 2018, during which participants discussed Africa's readiness to deal forcefully with the approximately 6,000 African returnees from the ranks of the terrorist IS organisation because of the serious threat they would present to African security. In a similar spirit, the African Peace and Security Council summit discussed “a comprehensive approach to combat the transitional threat of terrorism in Africa” and how to handle extremist groups and dry up their sources of funding.
Despite the successes of the AMISON in Somalia, it was felt that the challenges to its sustainability may be too great. Therefore, in July 2016, the African Peace and Security Council adopted a plan for the withdrawal of AMISOM forces whereby, after helping the Somali state to assert its full control over Somali territory in 2018, the mission's authorities would be gradually transferred to the Somali army by December 2020.
Still, it should be borne in mind that terrorism in Somalia will not end unless the international community follows through on its pledges to establish genuine security and stability throughout that country and to give the Somali government the types of support it needs to rebuild the institutions of the state, to increase the rates of economic development and to rehabilitate the Somali people psychologically and physically. Also crucial is the need to ensure that the Somali army and security forces have the ability to assert sovereign control over all parts of the country so that terrorist groups can no longer find a safe haven there.
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The writer is an expert in national security affairs.


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