As the world reels at the speed with which the Taliban retook Afghanistan, some are speculating that Somalia’s al-Qa’ida linked Islamist group, al-Shabaab, will be inspired to retake the areas of south and central Somalia it controlled, and then move onwards with its aim of establishing a ‘Greater Somalia’.
Greater Somalia would include Djibouti, the Ogaden region of Ethiopia – and the northern Kenyan provinces of Mandera, Garissa, Wajir and Lamu. Even the Somali-dominated areas of Nairobi, such as Eastleigh and South C, will soon be patrolled by jihadist fighters manning pick-up trucks armed with heavy machine guns (as they were in the 2015 film, ‘Eye in the Sky’, bizarrely).
Al-Shabaab and the Global Jihadist Movement
Al-Shabaab is part of the al-Qa’ida led global jihad, swearing allegiance to Osama Bin Ladin’s successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, in 2012. Some of its fighters, such as Ibrahim Haji Jama Mead ‘al-Afghani’, travelled to Afghanistan and fought alongside the Taliban against the Russians in the 1980s and then the US in 2001. In turn, al-Qa’ida rewarded the Somali terror group with weapons, money and specialists who taught the group how to make roadside bombs and how to run a propaganda campaign.
Later, Al-Shabaab remained loyal to al-Qa’ida when others drifted towards the so-called Islamic State and it is rumoured to donate somewhere between a tenth and a third of its significant revenue to the perpetrators of the 1998 US Embassy bombing in Nairobi and 9/11 (amongst many other outrages).
However, al-Shabaab is not a simple local franchise of the al-Qa’ida global operation: it is a Somali Nationalist Islamist movement, and some of the al-Qa’ida emissaries, such as Fazul Abdullah Mohamed, found that the group’s primary focus was on the first two of those words.
Fazul was killed at a Somali government checkpoint in Mogadishu in June 2011, which had apparently been tipped off that he was coming by the Somali leadership of al-Shabaab who had tired of the foreigner. The general consensus is that, while some of al-Shabaab’s leadership are fully committed to al-Qa’ida, the average foot-soldier and even some of the leadership have little interest in what goes on beyond the Somali heartland. Even recruits from the Somali Diaspora or from the non-Somali Muslim population in East Africa are made to feel decidedly unwelcome in the group. Some speculate that al-Shabaab pays so much to al-Qa’ida as part of a deal to be left to do its own thing.
Al-Shabaab Responds to the Return to Power of the Taliban
Al-Shabaab’s media outlets – and it has quite a few, two radio stations and three ‘news’ websites, in fact – have been filled with coverage of the return of the Taliban to power. Its preachers are promising a similar return to power in Mogadishu, which al-Shabaab occupied until 2011.
But saying and doing are very different things. For starters, al-Shabaab is generally reckoned to have around 5,000 and 7,000 fighters, along with a long tail of preachers, tax collectors and so on. But the African Union has nearly 20,000 heavily armed and very experienced troops, equipped with armoured vehicles and air support (al-Shabaab has neither).
The US and the Turks directly train and mentor elite units within the Somali security forces: the US also calls in frequent air and drone strikes on al-Shabaab. The remainder of the Somali security apparatus is, admittedly, a patchwork, ranging from the highly effective Jubbaland Security Forces (just across the border from Kenya) to ‘ghost’ units that exist only on payday.
More importantly, it is unclear if al-Shabaab would actually want the burden of running a country and being an international pariah state again. It has an extensive fund-raising machine that ranges from extortion (‘pay us this amount of tax or we will blow up your hotel’) to conventional investment, often in property abroad. In fact, Kenya, the UAE and Turkey are popular choices – Somalia itself is not, property prices are too unpredictable!
The situation on the ground in Somalia itself is fairly static – sometimes the government seizes a town from al-Shabaab, sometimes al-Shabaab seizes one back. Like borders, ‘front lines’ are often an abstract concept, and al-Shabaab members are generally free to move back and forth as they please. One al-Shabaab commander was even captured in a hospital in Kenya, trying to have battle wounds treated.
Back in Afghanistan, the Taliban now faces the problems of running a country with limited revenue and no foreign aid forthcoming. Al-Shabaab might say that, like Kabul, Mogadishu too will fall. But the reality is that this would disturb a delicate status quo and cost al-Shabaab money: and that is not going to happen. TAGS