At Large

The Really Bad Guys

Meet Al Shabaab, the al Qaeda-linked jihadists based in Somalia.

By 9.3.10

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The Presidential Palace in Mogadishu, Somalia, continues to exist only because 6,000 African Union troops are assigned to guard it and nearby government buildings. Al Shabaab, the al Qaeda-linked rebel group. is the current "really bad guy," as one aide official has explained while attempting to classify the many murderous gangs that proliferate that impoverished country.

The Islamist Al Shabaab has been brought to the attention of the world not only because of its well-reported ambitions of taking over Somalia, but for its wider goals of jihad internationally. This Somali terrorist group and its allies controls a large portion of the capital, Mogadishu, and most of the rest of the country. In declaring its allegiance to al Qaeda, al Shabaab has gained a guarantee of world press attention. The actual number of al Shabaab fighters has been estimated by British military sources to be around 7,000. Of these about 3,000 are reportedly organized guerrillas and the rest act as local police for both civil and religious control.

The recent bombing of the Muna Hotel in Mogadishu located near seaside less than a mile from the heavily fortified Presidential Palace was a favored meeting place for government officials and parliamentarians. Of the approximately thirty killed, six were officials. It was a carefully planned operation aimed at intimidating government supporters. To insure security before government forces could capture them, two of the attackers committed suicide by detonating their explosive vests. The coordination and unrestricted killing is the mark of typical al Shabaab fighting tactics that apparently have been influenced by various veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

While there is a tendency to view al Shabaab's structure as a unified command, it is divided geographically into three relatively autonomous units, with the strongest in Mogadishu and south-central Somalia. Juba Valley, a long time hot bed of insurgency, represents a fourth group aligned with but not a member of al Shabaab.

There is little evidence that al Shabaab has yet reached an operationally unified approach. On the contrary, there remains considerable disagreement tactically among the several elements based on clan and ideological differences. There is little sign of material support from al Qaeda, though its links with the Somali organization are strengthened by strictly personal relationships and frequent travel to and from Yemen.

Money continues to flow into Somalia through the traditional hawala personal transfer system and with increasing international links to the Somali diaspora. Certain elements in the immigrant African and general Islamic community in the U.K. and U.S. find exciting the prospect of assisting what they envision as a "revolutionary" al Shabaab. There is, of course, considerable speculation over the money extorted through piracy and an al Shabaab connection. For the most part, however, there is a consensus in intelligence circles that the proceeds of piracy first pass through a clan hierarchy.

The religious orientation of al Shabaab appears to be one of convenience. Although it embraces a form of Wahhabism that is Sunni derived, it applies this ideology as it finds convenient in order to accomplish its purpose of jihad and recruit followers. Local units of al Shabaab apply their own interpretation of Sharia law in the belief that they are both the true civil and religious authority. There have been reports, however, coming out of central Somalia of orthodox Sunnis banding together to counter al Shabaab's drive to dominate the religious application.

To create an effective buffer against Somali insurgency of all hues, it will be necessary to provide substantial and consistent aid to President Sheik Sharif Ahmed's Transitional Federal Government. This means a program that will enable the TFG to offer the basic services that are the responsibility of all governments. Increasing the size of the African Union Force (AMISOM) to twice it current size to a total of 12,000 troops would allow the TFG at least to gain administrative and security control of Mogadishu from al Shabaab.

There is the view, of course, that the divisions in the country have been exacerbated by Western recognition of the TFG and that such action should be shelved in favor of "constructive disengagement." This would be followed, in theory, by acceptance of an al Shabaab Islamist state "as long as it did not engage in violence or terrorism."

With al Shabaab seeking to rule through intimidation by the gun, there is no way to institute civil authority other than to surrender to or outfight them. The Somali terrorist group has announced through its bombings last July in Kampala, Uganda, that killed 76 innocent civilians that it was "just the beginning" (as al Shabaab put it in a statement) of the internationalization of its ambitions.

The signs are clear that al Shabaab intends to expand its operations even while consolidating its domestic position. The Somalis of al Shabaab are descendants of those outlaws and murderers known for generations throughout Somalia and nearby regions as t'era-shifta. At various times in the recent past these shifta have sought to operate under the guise of political change. Nonetheless they continue today their ancient practice of robbing , maiming and killing indiscriminately while taking no prisoners except to enslave or sell them. It has been thus for hundreds of years -- and remains so today. "Constructive disengagement" is not in their DNA.

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About the Author
George H. Wittman writes a weekly column on international affairs for The American Spectator online. He was the founding chairman of the National Institute for Public Policy.