Why does al-Shabaab still exist? Al-Shabaab

Ben Rawlence Correspondent
Why does al-Shabaab still exist? It is five years since Kenya invaded Somalia, declaring war on al-Shabaab.

Five years since the African Union military Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) wrested territorial control of Mogadishu from the militia and a decade since the Ethiopian invasion to destroy the Islamic Courts Union — of which al-Shabaab was a major faction.

A small, mobile force of between two and three thousand permanent members is still capable of pushing AMISOM out of Somalia’s Merca port, surprising — and massacring — up to 200 Kenyan soldiers and striking at will in areas supposedly under the control of the government, in particular in the capital, Mogadishu.

The AMISOM contingent numbers over 22 000 soldiers, including over 3 000 Kenyan troops and many aircraft. Ethiopian units are present all across the border with Somalia and the Somali National Army has been funded, armed and trained by Western advisors for a decade.

Unknown numbers of US and British special forces and drones are also frequently active against al-Shabaab, and yet the shadowy militia continues to operate with wide licence.

To some extent, ideological militias like al-Shabaab are impossible to defeat, since ideologies cannot be defeated on the battlefield. But the reach and success of al-Shabaab has defied the resources deployed against it. Why can it not be better contained?

Numerous analysts predicting the demise of al-Shabaab have been proved wrong, time and again, while others have warned with equal regularity of the need to prepare for a long war. But such analyses focus on trying to read the runes of the caprice of al-Shabaab.

In fact, the long war that is proving so intractable in the Horn of Africa is sustained by all parties through a mess of contradictory and counter-productive policies, many of which end up creating incentive structures that reinforce al-Shabaab’s position.

Forces deployed to combat al-Shabaab have entered into a conflict economy that benefits the militia. Peacekeeping strategies have calcified into poorly funded garrison activities that present targets for al-Shabaab while posing little threat.

Counter-terrorism policies aimed at restricting al-Shabaab’s influence end up inflaming support. In short, a political economy based on counter-terrorism needs a terror group in order to survive.

Understanding the conflict dynamics of the war in the Horn of Africa is important for those that genuinely want to see an end to the fighting, and is essential for anyone interested in appreciating the whole field of regional politics. And lastly, the political economy of terrorism in the Horn offers lessons for other regions.

In a new book, “The Real Politics of the Horn of Africa”, Alex de Waal shows how political and economic power in the region is increasingly directed less towards state-building and more towards the capture and control of “political markets” for the benefit of a corrupt elite.

It is a process that resembles the operation of mafia cartels and criminal networks more than democratic politics. Indeed, de Waal argues, borders matter little. And in this struggle for loot, national governance structures simply become another site of competition for factions seeking resources to control and reward their loyalists. In that competition for loot, a national army is a valuable asset. So is the flag; in this scheme of state capture, it becomes little more than an instrument to legitimise factional control over a state’s international treaties and contracts — especially its arms deals with powerful foreign states — the attendant proceeds of which can then be deployed to supply particular patronage networks.

In a world, and a region, where foreign policy is dominated by the terrorist discourse, it is no surprise that generals and defence departments have come to set the agenda.

In Washington DC, London and Nairobi, it is the generals that make foreign policy in Africa rather than the diplomats. And in hollowed-out governments like Kenya, where the fabric of the state is so thin and the opportunities for graft so tempting, the flow of valuable assistance and contracts is good for their counterparts. It allows the Kenyan generals to play an even larger political role, as godfathers and kingpins.

Add to this picture, the prospect of an illicit trade in sugar and other goods, moving from Kismayo in southern Somalia into Kenya.

The gravy train is worth an estimated $400 million a year: you begin to understand the rationale for the Kenyan invasion of Somalia in 2011.

The rout of the business community of Kismayo, Somalia and the new alliance between the Kenya Defence Forces and the Ogaden clan of Ahmed Madobe personified in the Jubaland government has been an unmitigated success for those involved.

The profits flowing up the chain to the political masters in State House and the Ministry of Defence in Nairobi have been considerable; “a political slush fund”, someone in State House told me. The Kenyan domestic sugar industry remains depressed, and as the gap in demand persists, these operatives continue to make a windfall for as long as the KDF remains in Kismayo.

A serious strategy to defeat al-Shabaab in Somalia would focus on tackling the group’s financing — as outlined in various UN resolutions and sanctions — but the reality is that in a conflict economy, it is cheaper and easier to simply participate in the status quo rather than attempt to re-engineer the system at the cost of much blood and cash.

Peace holds no dividends for the cartel served by the KDF. And so the KDF operate their smuggling scam, Jubaland run theirs, the Federal Government cries out for more and more funds to defeat al-Shabaab and keep its fragile administration alive.

Meanwhile al-Shabaab taxes sugar on its way to Kenya, charcoal on its way to the Gulf states and runs protection rackets in all the major economic centres in Somalia, while the federal government looks on helplessly.

AMISOM are technically peacekeepers but there is no peace to keep. There is instead a kind of militarised status quo, where each player in the conflict has learned how to maximise its interests while losing sight of the overall goal of nation-building. That is because, despite whatever the UN and African Union mandates may say about their goals in Somalia, the main troop-contributing countries to AMISOM, together with Ethiopia, are there for their own reasons, not out of any concern for a peaceful Somalia. In fact, an unstable Somalia is in their interests.

For Uganda, a discredited president is able to retain a useful role on the world stage, and being a key player in Somalia means a ready income for his generals. Without that foreign subsidy, his army would be poor, poorly trained and possibly unruly. And the West, I suspect, might be happy to see his government succumb to the opposition pressure that is becoming almost impossible to ignore.

For Kenya, too, having a significant KDF presence within AMISOM is a good insurance policy against a deteriorating image abroad or troublesome legal cases at the Hague. Not to mention the aforementioned benefits in terms of cash and contracts with Western defence interests.

For Ethiopia, the memories of the 1977 war are fresh. Ethiopia’s Somali Region, comprising the restive Ogaden, was of course traditional Somali grazing land with no connection to the highlands, and unfairly granted to Ethiopia by the British and Italians in the 19th century.

The numerous wars to re-unite it with Somalia mean that Ethiopia has a strategic preference for a weak Somalia.

What is curious is that Western policymakers know that Ethiopia and Kenya are not honest brokers in Somalia, and yet continue to give both major seats at the table, to tolerate their excesses in the country and fund their activities. But no nation is keen to send peacekeeping troops to Somalia, a country that, after all, humbled even the US Delta Force in 1993. While there is no political alternative to al-Shabaab in the country without the protection of AMISOM, the West will continue to need partners and will continue to foot the bills of whoever is willing to do the dirty work.

Within this complex context, the small and powerless Somali Federal Government is trying to make its way. The fact that it needs AMISOM protection well demonstrates its crisis of legitimacy. With no domestic revenue base, it relies instead on Western handouts. Given the dominant discourse and the al-Shabaab threat, this aid is primarily concerned with security: training and equipping the Somali National Army (SNA).

The assumption for nearly a decade has been that faced with a regional military onslaught, al-Shabaab will be progressively pushed to the periphery and gradually, the SNA will assume more control, ultimately returning Somalia to order. This is not happening.

Instead, AMISOM is staying in its bases in garrison mode (its interest served by merely being there, not going on the offensive). The SNA fails to develop because the government embezzles the funds in order to fund patronage needed to stay afloat and to pay off al-Shabaab to avoid being killed. Meanwhile al-Shabaab continues to strike, the government calls for more funds, the West, making massive savings from the absence of Western boots-on-ground in exchange for the relatively low price-per-head on the AMISOM troops, complies. The merry-go-round continues.

Under such circumstances, all the actors have reconciled themselves to the existence of al-Shabaab and have trimmed their operations to match. Perversely, it is in no one’s interests to incur the costs of undermining and dismantling al-Shabaab. Worse than that, in some lights you could say that it was in their interests for al-Shabaab to endure: not necessarily to thrive, but to continue to be active.

To be active, al-Shabaab’s main requirement apart from finance is recruits. And it is here that the terrorism discourse is most contradictory. Nearly 15 years after 9/ 11 changed the terms of American foreign policy, many analysts in the US now freely admit that most counter-terrorism policy ends up creating more terrorists – especially the highly controversial practice of drone strikes. This is true of high-precision US drone strikes with minimal collateral damage; the potentially much larger numbers of innocent civilians hit by far less precise Kenyan air strikes are fuel to that fire.

The other area in which the US military has learned painful lessons is that heavy-handed policing, torture and extrajudicial killings are equally counterproductive. But these are lessons that the military is slow to adopt and, beyond some pilot projects in Afghanistan, is yet to apply.

In the Horn of Africa there has been very little substantive sociological research into the drivers of extremism, despite it being the subject of endless conferences and much foreign policy funding. The only two serious studies to date that have actually interviewed former al-Shabaab fighters in Somalia and Kenya have been done by the Pretoria-founded Institute for Security Studies. In both cases the finding is clear: a majority of the Shabaab combatants say that they joined the extremist group after experiencing brutality at the hands of security forces.

It is a terrible irony that as soon as a state starts looking for terrorists, it inadvertently creates them by the methods that it employs. Counter-terrorism and terrorism are evil twins, locked in a deathly embrace. As long as there is one, there will be the other.

In this sense Kenya and Somalia are no more victims than other countries: the US, UK and many EU countries engaged in Somalia have the same problem. This inability to respond to terrorism in anything but military terms has created huge distortions in policy and budgets. A very small number of people around the world have thus been able to dictate and shape the foreign policy, and the military strategy, of the most powerful countries in the world.

A very small tail is wagging a very large dog.

Rather than changing or challenging this discourse, other nations, especially poorer, dependent ones like Kenya and Somalia, have adapted to this discourse. It now determines the nature of their relationships with the US and the EU.

The counter-terrorism agenda colours all aspects of the relationship: from social spending to tourism to money laundering to international crime and domestic politics, terrorism is a trump card and a cheque to be cashed. As outlined above, there are strong interests within Western military and foreign policy establishments which are vested in looking for terrorists and are, thus, forever doomed to keep creating them.

Those truly wishing to reduce the influence of al-Shabaab, both inside Somalia and in the marginalised north and east of Kenya, should instead direct their attention to primary education, healthcare, a fair and equitable justice system and to a police force and military that obey the rule of law. This difficult work of state-building is hard and slow. It is much easier, and more lucrative for nearly everyone involved to play the terrorism game and blame their favourite bogeyman: al-Shabaab. NA

Ben Rawlence’s City of Thorns: Nine Lives in the World’s Largest Refugee Camp is published by Portobello Books. This article is reproduced from New African magazine.

You Might Also Like


Take our Survey

We value your opinion! Take a moment to complete our survey