The violence and insecurity in Somalia—the failed state on the edge of East Africa that serves as a gateway to the Arabian Peninsula—spread beyond its borders through piracy, arms deals, human trafficking, and terrorism. The weak transitional government backed by an African Union peacekeeping force is unable to exert influence outside the capital and is at risk of being toppled by Islamist insurgents. And fears recently rose that Somalia’s instability could directly threaten U.S., European, and African security after al-Shabab, a militant group with links to al-Qaeda, claimed credit for the brazen terrorist attacks in Uganda during the World Cup. 

In a Q&A, Ken Menkhaus, a Somalia expert and professor at Davidson College, and Christopher Boucek assess the danger of terrorism originating in Somalia, analyze Shabab’s links with the global al-Qaeda network, and detail how the United States should respond. Menkhaus and Boucek conclude that while Somalia is not a particularly attractive home for al-Qaeda’s main leaders, Shabab has demonstrated its ability to wage war outside the country and that Washington lacks good policy options to confront the threat. 

 

Who are the key terror groups operating in Somalia? What’s the history of Shabab?

Shabab is one of the most feared and powerful militant jihadist outfits in Africa and the only organization in Somalia designated by the United States as a terrorist group. There are other armed and radical Islamist groups, but they are not identified as terrorist groups—and Shabab is the only one of real consequence at the moment. 

Shabab was formed as a Sharia court militia in Mogadishu in the 1990s and then served as the militant wing of the short-lived Islamic Courts Union, a powerful force in southern Somalia that briefly controlled the capital prior to the invasion of Ethiopian forces in December 2006. Shabab was a small but effective fighting force and its leaders included committed jihadists, some of whom had served with the Afghan mujahideen. Until the Ethiopian occupation, the group answered to Hassan Dahir Aweys, a major figure in  the Islamic Courts Union.

By 2005, Shabab included 400 men and was probably the strongest single fighting force in Mogadishu. At the time, the devastated and impoverished capital was still divided into small fiefdoms of warlords, armed businessmen, and Islamists. Shabab was decisive in defeating the U.S.-backed coalition of militias when war broke out in 2006 and the Islamic Courts Union came into power in June. For the next six months, it controlled Mogadishu and much of southern Somalia. 

During this time, Shabab was led by a military commander, Aden Hashi Ayro, who had been to Afghanistan and leaned more heavily toward an affiliation with al-Qaeda than his political mentor Aweys. Shaykh Aweys was more of an Islamist nationalist and had been largely uninterested in the global agenda of al-Qaeda.  

When Ethiopia intervened in December 2006 and successfully ousted the Islamic Courts Union, the political leadership fled the country to Eritrea. Shabab melted into Somalia’s interior, but quickly regrouped. It became the leading insurgent group against the Ethiopian occupation. Shabab transformed itself from a militia taking direction from political leaders to operating on its own accord as the leading force in the armed liberation movement. And some of Shabab’s young and emerging leaders had a stronger interest than the old guard in pursuing a relationship with al-Qaeda. 

The group became a more radical Islamist movement and enjoyed a great deal of support from the Somali population during this time, even from the many Somalis who were appalled by its hardline interpretations of Islam and its affiliations with groups like al-Qaeda. Shabab capitalized on its role as a leader of the insurgency against Ethiopian military occupation, a cause that most Somalis rallied behind.

While the Ethiopian military occupation was designed to rid Somalia of a growing Islamist threat, the risk actually grew exponentially. Shabab was able to successfully conflate its radical Islamism with Somali nationalism. By 2008, the group had regained control of much of southern Somalia—from the Kenya border through most neighborhoods of Mogadishu. It inflicted heavy losses on the Transitional Federal Government, the interim parliament that was originally formed with international support in 2004 that had rode in on the Ethiopians’ coattails.  

But when Ethiopia withdrew in January 2009 after the two-year insurgency, Shabab lost the two things that it defined itself as being against—the Ethiopian occupation and leader of the Transitional Federal Government, Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed, who was pressured to resign. Still, the new coalition in the transitional government was unable to take advantage and Shabab successfully recast itself as a resistance to the African Union peacekeeping force. The terrorist group painted the peacekeepers as armed infidels occupying Somalia and portrayed the transitional government as apostates and puppets of the West. 

In 2009 and 2010, Shabab was able to consolidate control over most of Mogadishu and southern Somalia and was even able to extend its control into central Somalia. In the process, it deepened its affiliation with al-Qaeda. 

 

Does Shabab have links to al-Qaeda and global terror networks? Are Somali terror groups attracting fighters from around the world, including the United States?

The links between al-Qaeda and Shabab are largely ideological. Al-Qaeda has sent foreign advisors and in some cases political leaders to Somalia to offer political guidance—only a few years ago Shabab was seen as all muscle and no brain. But while Shabab defines itself as a partner or an affiliate of al-Qaeda, it’s not an expansion of al-Qaeda into Africa as the group’s leaders in Pakistan are not directing Shabab from abroad. 

Foreigners are coming from all over the Muslim world to join Shabab, but not in significant numbers. Estimates only range between several hundred and several thousand at the moment. Foreign fighters have never been decisive in the group, so it’s important not to exaggerate their significance on Shabab’s success or plans. 

Still, foreigners are coming to Somalia to join the fight. Back in 2007 and 2008, Somalia was one of the few places where an al-Qaeda affiliated organization appeared to be having success. In Iraq the situation looked terrible for them, in Afghanistan the struggle didn’t seem particularly promising, but in Somalia there was greater hope on the militants’ side. 

Shabab crafted an attractive message that the Christian infidels of Ethiopia, backed by the infidel United States, were oppressing Somalis. The images coming out of Somalia were horrific—700,000 Somalis were displaced by fighting in Mogadishu—so there was a sense of righteousness and anger from people sympathetic to Shabab that the group tapped into easily. 

The long stalemate between Shabab and the transitional government—backed by the African Union peacekeeping force—and lack of progress, however, created a fair amount of frustration on the part of the foreigners, causing some to go back home. 

Assessing the influence of foreigners also depends on who is included—there are non-Somali foreigners and the Somali diaspora. One million to 1.5 million Somalis live abroad, and some have returned to the country to play roles on both sides of the war. Some are in the transitional government and others have joined Shabab, including approximately 20 Somali-Americans who were known to have been recruited in 2007. 

Untrained foreigners who don't know the area or language can only play a limited role, but Shabab is undoubtedly interested in the diaspora for fundraising and as potential suicide bombers. One of the most important services that al-Qaeda has provided for Shabab is support for its propaganda and media outreach. The internet materials that al-Qaeda puts together—often produced or captioned in Arabic or English—are largely designed to recruit Somalis living abroad to support the movement. 

In September 2009, senior al-Qaeda operative Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan was killed in southern Somalia by U.S. forces. Nabhan, a Kenyan national, was wanted in connection with the embassy bombings in East Africa in 1998 and the 2002 Mombasa attacks. Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, a Comorian national wanted in connection with the 1998 and 2002 attacks, has also been targeted in Somalia. One such attack in June 2007 killed Yemeni national Mansur al-Bayhani, who fought in Afghanistan and Chechnya. Al- Bayhani fled Yemen after escaping in the infamous 2006 Sanaa prison break, where 22 other senior al-Qaeda operatives—connected to a range of plots and cases, including the USS Cole attack—also escaped.     

 

What are the root causes of Somalia’s failed state? 

When the government was overthrown in 1991, Somalia had all of the essential features of a failing state—high poverty rates, an authoritarian regime, deep fissures within society, and an extreme vulnerability to external shocks and natural disasters. But unlike many of the other failing states around the world, Somalia has suffered from complete state collapse—this is a different category of failure from countries like Afghanistan and Iraq. The real question is why Somalia has failed for twenty years. 

Somalia has been on a path of continued state failure ever since the government collapsed. There were several disastrous events that occurred in the first year of the civil war and after the fall of Mohammed Siad Barre’s government that made it much more difficult to revive a central state. The level of ethnic cleansing by the clans in the first month polarized the country in ways that make it extremely difficult to undo. And the complete destruction of the capital pushed the country into a whole new category of crisis. 

This all led to the rise of a war economy. Powerful political and economic interests are served by a perpetuation of chaos. Ironically, the Somali people are also extraordinarily adaptable—they’ve arguably adjusted too well and been able to provide enough local security, informal justice, and basic social services either through the private sector, clan, or nongovernmental organizations, reducing the incentive to build a new state. 

External meddling has also been an important factor. Either through incompetence or ill intent, the international community has made it more difficult for Somalis to pull together a state. A key example is the proxy war between Ethiopia and Eritrea that is being played out in Somalia. This proxy war has perpetuated violence by arming both sides of the conflict instead of seeking opportunities for compromise.  

 

How does Somalia’s insecurity spread beyond its borders and destabilize East Africa? 

Somalia’s unending chaos has long spilled over the border into surrounding countries. Kenya has taken the brunt of it as hundreds of thousands of refugees have poured out of Somalia. This influx of Somalis has brought both benefits—in the form of millions of dollars of investment capital—and trouble—in the form of instability, small arms, and criminal gangs. There is now a large Somali community in the neighborhood of Eastleigh, Nairobi, which in some ways amounts to a state within a state.  

The crisis in Somalia clearly poses a major security burden for Ethiopia. The country shares a long, lawless border with the failed state and Somalia has long claimed territory controlled by its neighbor. Yemen is also becoming an increasingly important site for refugees and the influx has been extremely burdensome on the Arab state. And thanks to the prominent role that its peacekeepers are playing in the African Union force, Uganda is a major player in Somalia. The recent terrorist strikes in Kampala are directly tied to Uganda’s involvement in Mogadishu. 

The insecurity also spreads past Somalia’s coasts as piracy has garnered a great deal of international media attention. Concentrated around the northeast coast, mostly in Puntland and parts of central Somalia, piracy is an extremely lucrative new source of income. It has attracted financial backers from Somalia’s political and economic elite. While recent activity is not linked to Shabab, the group certainly gets a cut one way or another as money in Somalia is particularly fungible. The difficulty for international actors trying to tackle piracy is that some of the same people who are complicit in backing it are allies in the war on terror groups. 

 

 

Will terror groups gain a stronger foothold in the region?

The East Africa cell of al-Qaeda has long had a foothold in the region. The network’s central leadership relocated to Khartoum from 1991 to 1996 when Sudan welcomed Osama bin Laden. During this time it established a cell in Kenya with the original intent of reaching out to groups in Somalia. 

With attacks on the U.S. embassies in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and Nairobi in 1998, al-Qaeda found Kenya to be a suitable base. The group later targeted an Israeli-owned hotel and plane in Mombasa. But al-Qaeda was frustrated in Somalia as its outreach to Somali groups did not go smoothly. 

Shabab is now the new addition to the broader portfolio of al-Qaeda activities in the region. Until recently, Somalia had a relatively limited role in al-Qaeda’s playbook as it was primarily a place through which to move money, men, and materials into East Africa. And this doesn’t take true believers as money can easily buy movement through Somalia with no questions asked. 

While there are fears that Somalia could serve as a more important location for al-Qaeda, the country is not a particularly attractive place for a safe haven. Al-Qaeda figures have been using Mogadishu and other areas controlled by Shabab as a hideout on and off for at least seven years, but only for a limited number of people. With the exception of the far North, Somalia does not have the inaccessible mountain ranges that are easy to hide in. Instead, Somalia is open and flat and there are no foreigners, so outsiders stick out like a sore thumb—it’s not easy to keep secrets. 

Al-Qaeda’s past experience in Somalia was negative, so it’s not seen as an attractive option for a major training base or the relocation of a large number of al-Qaeda operatives. As a fallback, however, it’s useful. If al-Qaeda ended up in Somalia because it was pushed out of Pakistan, that would be a problem for the Horn of Africa but actually a positive sign for the war against al-Qaeda and its allies. 

Most Somalis see al-Qaeda as indifferent to the interests of Somalia—its agenda is not their own. The propaganda doesn’t have much resonance inside Somalia and there is residual bitterness between Somalis and the Arab world that further compromises al-Qaeda’s messaging. But the country’s young population—nearly 45 percent of Somalis are under the age of 15—could be more open to al-Qaeda’s arguments in the future. Still, even if al-Qaeda wanted to relocate to the failed state in East Africa, it would face an uphill battle ideologically. 

 

 

What is the regional reach of terror groups operating in Somalia? Is Shabab a threat to African security?

The regional reach of Shabab is clear—it can strike throughout East Africa. With the low capacity of its police and an easily penetrated border, Kenya is the most vulnerable to attack. Shabab can essentially enter and leave Kenya freely, opening the door to hit the country’s soft targets more or less at will.  

We suspect that the reason Shabab has yet to wage a coordinated campaign in Kenya is because there are enormous Somali investments in the country. This is one of the explanations offered for why Shabab hasn’t taken its war beyond Somalia’s borders—it fears blowback from Somali communities. A major terrorist attack would damage Somali investments and the ability of Somalis to live abroad would be compromised.

It is also important to note that Shabab is now quite unpopular in Somalia. Since 2009, it has found it more difficult to rationalize its harsh control. The group’s draconian interpretations of Sharia law and al-Qaeda affiliation are out of step with the local population. Shabab doesn’t want the Somalis to completely turn against it. 

The terrorist attack in Kampala could be an indication that Shabab has passed the point of no return. Now they’ve crossed the line, and the consequences will slowly become apparent. Shabab was counting on a response from the African Union, regional powers, and the West that would play into its hands and drive Somalis into their arms. This did not happen, But with more attacks, they run the risk that other players can drive a wedge between Shabab and Somalis. 

 

 

Is Shabab a threat to U.S. and European security? 

The principal threat for the United States and its allies are to its sites, investments, and people in the region. While the risk of a terrorist attack by a sleeper cell in the United States is something that law enforcement officials need to be alert for—Shabab members have attempted to infiltrate via Mexico—the danger would be extremely high for Shabab to carry out an attack in the West. 

Shabab would run the risk that members of the sleeper cell could be caught and then start talking openly to U.S. law enforcement agencies or that any successful strike would cause blowback from Somali-Americans. A terrorist attack would focus an enormous amount of attention on the Somali community and Somalis may hesitate or find it more difficult to send remittances back to Somalia. 

The entire economy in Somalia relies on the remittances sent by the diaspora—over $1 billion per year. Without this inflow, the country would sink even further. So, anything Shabab does to threaten the flow of remittances increases the chances that the Somali people will completely turn on them. This is one of the possible reasons why Shabab hasn’t attempted a major strike beyond the region so far. 

 

How does the threat coming out of Somalia compare to that emanating from other states of concern?

Somalia is not as big a threat as Afghanistan, Pakistan, or Yemen. While Shabab has clearly demonstrated its ability to mount attacks beyond Somalia’s borders, U.S. security officials are more concerned with containing the threats emerging out of South Asia and Yemen. Still, Somalia is undoubtedly a state of concern and the problems could continue to rise. 

The head of Britain's security service MI5, Jonathan Evans, recently argued that the threat is increasingly coming from Somalia and Yemen. "Somalia shows many of the characteristics that made Afghanistan so dangerous as a seedbed for terrorism in the period before the fall of the Taliban," Evans said.  The United States and Europe, however, are hamstrung by a lack of good policy options to tackle the roots causes of the country’s insecurity and instability.

 

How is Somalia linked to the Arabian Peninsula and Middle East?

Somalia’s links to the Arabian Peninsula largely run through Yemen and there are fears that terrorists can penetrate Africa from there. Yemen is playing an increasingly important role in Somalia and the Horn of Africa. There are well-developed organized crime links between Yemen and Somalia, including human trafficking and smuggling of diesel and arms. Somalis, Ethiopians, and Eritreans are trafficked out of the Horn into Yemen, in some cases before they head further north into Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states. 

Yemen is the only place in the world where Somalis receive automatic asylum status; according to some estimates there are close to 200,000 Somalis in the country. Following the increased attention that Yemen has received since the failed Christmas Day bombing, Yemeni authorities have stated that they intend to do more to curb the migration of Somalis and indicated that part of the Somali community in Yemen may be repatriated.  

There has been talk of small groups using the undergoverned spaces in Yemen for training purposes, and Yemenis and other Arabs have gone to fight in Somalia. Still, there doesn’t appear to be a strong relationship between al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the Yemen-based affiliate of al-Qaeda, and Shabab. There has been movement between the two groups and Shabab offered to send personnel to Yemen to support al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, but the offer was declined. At this point the ties are largely incidental, but there is a potential for the relationship to grow stronger. 

 

What should the United States do to contain the violence?

The U.S. government currently supports the Transitional Federal Government and looks at the internationally backed process of reconciliation between Somali factions in an inclusive government as the best way to find a long-term solution. But Washington has been mired in a year-long policy review process on Somalia and it has been stymied for the same reasons that everyone else has been—there are no good policy options. 

The transitional government is exceptionally weak, venal, and corrupt. Somali leaders approach U.S. problems and concerns as their opportunities for personal gain. From the failed state to the humanitarian crisis to terrorism to piracy, Somali officials express interest in joining the programs designed to combat the problems, but have little interest in actually solving them—they are just after the money. With this in mind, Washington is trying to broaden its contacts and partners in Somalia—not to decertify the transitional government but to include additional sources of authority. 

There are two sides to developing a strategy on Somalia—the United States can work to strengthen the transitional government and try to weaken Shabab. Washington has devoted most of its attention and energy on constraining and degrading Shabab, because the opportunities for working with the government are extremely limited. And this emphasis on containing Shabab is the best option available. 

Financial pressure has played a key part in trying to squeeze Shabab, but this has also increased the pressure on aid agencies trying to operate in Somalia. Organizations are not delivering food aid in areas where they cannot guarantee that Shabab will not benefit and this continues to be an extremely controversial issue in the U.S. government. At the moment, however, development aid can’t play a major role in solving Somalia’s ills. The situation on the ground does not allow for effective humanitarian assistance or development projects with many items in danger of being stolen. 

The prevailing wisdom is that Shabab is only strong because there is no viable alternative. Shabab is ridden with internal divisions and susceptible to fragmentation, but no one is in the position to challenge it. While many Somalis would like to see Shabab marginalized, few are willing to step into the line of fire. Shabab is particularly well skilled at intimidation and assassinations. 

The United States has made it clear that it has no interest in allowing Shabab to Americanize the conflict. This is not a war between the United States and Shabab; it’s an internal struggle. Shabab is trying to play it as a global conflict. They win if it’s framed as a conflict pitting Somalis against foreigners, but lose if it’s seen as an internal struggle over the future of the country.