Al-Shabaab: The New Somalian Pirates
By Adnan Basrai On April 7th, the streets of downtown Nairobi swelled with Kenyan students marching to remember and honor those who died in a brutal attack on Garissa University by Islamic militant group al Shabaab. Arabic for “The Youth”, Al Shabaab is a Somali terrorist organization that has been carrying out bombings and numerous attacks in Eastern Africa for numerous years, focusing their efforts on Kenya and Somalia. Their most recent attack on Garissa University, 230 miles east of Nairobi, left 147 dead, and numerous others being held hostage by the terrorist group. The militants went through the buildings, singling out Christians and killing them on the spot. This attack is horrifyingly similar to their previous attack on Nairobi’s Westgate shopping center in 2013, in which the militants only spared Muslims, killing those who couldn’t recite verses from the Quran. This unwavering drive to massacre all non-Muslims is consistent throughout all of Al-Shabaab’s brazen and terrifying attacks. These savage practices stem from a warped religious, economic, and political agenda. So what is Al-Shabaab, and what does it want? Al-Shabaab emerged as result of decades of weak government and grinding poverty in Somalia. Their ultimate aim is to turn the country into a fundamentalist Islamist state. It began as the radical youth wing of Somalia’s now defunct Union of Islamic Courts allied with the Al-Qaeda. The group is believed to have over 8,000 fighters and is still drawing in more followers and supporters. Some fighters even come from Europe and the United States. Although most people in developed countries only hear about Al-Shabaab when they carry out yet another massacre, this terrorist group is in fact a powerful regional actor, exerting control over parts of Somalia for almost a decade. After an ideological rift between Al-Shabaab and its predecessor and now rival Al-Ittihad Al-Islami (was seeking to establish a new political order), Al-Shabaab allied with a group of Sharia courts in Somalia called the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), to jointly impose their fundamentalist Islamic militant order over the country. In 2006, the radical Islamist alliance succeeded in taking control of Mogadishu, Somalia’s nominal capital. Although they were removed from power by Ethiopian forces by the end of the year, Al-Shabaab continued to pursue territorial control in Somalia, and now exercises dominance over most rural areas in the country. A large part of Al-Shabaab’s power in Somalia and its neighboring countries can be attributed to the public relations arm of the growing organization. Its resources and capabilities for 21st century brand promotion include a website, a twitter account, and even sophisticated video production capabilities. Their short adverts and films match the production skill and finesse of reality TV shows. One of these videos is complete with a hip-hop jihad voice, rapping the words “Mortar by mortar, shell by shell, only going to stop when I send them to hell.”  Not only does Al-Shabaab use unorthodox methods of recruitment, but also adopts a ‘big-tent’ policy when looking for new members to join the organization. What this means is that they do not limit their potential militant workforce to only ethnic Somalis, and will go as far as even recruiting non-Muslims into the organization. This results in large groups of fighters who are often neither informed nor interested about what is happening in Somalia, shouting the words in Swahili “We are Al-Shabaab.” The organization has even mastered the art of recruiting in Kenya's Christian slums, offering money, weapons training and a quick conversion to Islam. Slick recruitment videos produced in the style of Islamic State’s films downplay Islamic fundamentalism and emphasize the corruption of Kenyan security forces, rallying Kenyan residents to join the fight for their country. And with over $70 million generated revenue in 2011 alone, Al-Shabaab is having no difficulty funding its operations and carrying out its Islamic fundamentalist agenda. So what can be done to stop, or at least slow down, the death and destruction that this militant organization wreaks upon Eastern Africa? The United States has been playing its part by consistently providing military aid since 2007, through the US Army, Navy Seals, and regular drone strikes on known terrorist locations in Somalia and Kenya. This strategy is relatively effective in halting Al-Shabaab’s operations in the short run. Still though, there must also be a counter-terrorist strategy for the long-lasting defeat of Al-Shabaab and other fundamentalist terrorist organizations in Somalia. As they were born due to Somalia’s weak economy and government, the only solution is jumpstarting the economy and reconstructing and establishing political order in the country. Both government and non-government officials agree that much of what drives recruits to Al-Shabaab isn't religious or cultural ideology, but rather things like a lack of food, water, and jobs brought on by the crumbling — if at all existent — infrastructure and institutions of the nation. The steps to create a paradigm shift for the better in Somalia can be best illustrated by the words of Somali Defense Minister Abdihakim Mohamoud Haji-Faqi. He says the main way to help the country lies in the jobs-creation, school-building and health-clinic opening after areas in Somalia are "liberated" from Al-Shabaab’s control. Whether this strategy will be taken to heart and effectively applied by all the international aid forces around the world is still unknown, and even then it is uncertain if it will work. 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