Theme: Chaos in Somalia has created opportunities that have been exploited by
radical groups with links to al-Qaeda.
Summary: East Africa has been a sanctuary and base for Islamist terrorist
operations since the early 1990s and remains a priority area in
al-Qaeda’s global strategy. Geographic proximity and social,
cultural, and religious affinities between East Africa and the
Arabian Peninsula make the former susceptible to infiltration by
militants and ideologies from the Middle East. The chaos in Somalia
has created opportunities that have been exploited by radical groups
with links to al-Qaeda, in particular the Shabaab militia, which as of this writing has taken control of southern
Somalia and threatens to overpower the Transitional Federal
Government in Mogadishu headed by a moderate Islamist, Sheikh Sharif
Sheikh Ahmed, and backed by the US, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda and other
African countries. This is not to suggest that East Africa is
necessarily fertile soil for radical Islamism. Although Salafism has
made inroads among the educated elites, traditional and Sufi
practices continue to predominate among the mass of the Muslim
populations in the region. Despite the Shabaab’s advances in the last several months, it is by no means a foregone
conclusion that the radical Islamists will prevail. A plausible
outcome is the reassertion of anti-radical forces, leading to a
protracted struggle, with the ever-present risk of renewed external
intervention if the new Somali government falters.
Analysis: From the mid-1990s, East Africa –together with Yemen, which is
part of the same geopolitical region– has been a central theatre of al-Qaeda operations.
In 1992 and 1993, after the overthrow of the Somali dictator Mohammed
Siad Barre, al-Qaeda’s then-deputy military chief Muhammad Atef
made several trips to Somalia from al-Qaeda’s base in Khartoum.
The Harmony documents on Somalia suggest that while al-Qaeda’s
primary objective in Somalia appears to have been to establish
working relations with Somali militants and to establish training
camps in the Ogaden region of Ethiopia and in Somalia, Kenya was a
more conducive setting for carrying out operations. The documents
paint a portrait of al-Qaeda cells operating freely in Kenya without
concern about being monitored or detained by the authorities.
Al-Qaeda’s military chief, Ali al-Rashidi, alias Abu Ubadiah al-Banshiri,
drowned in Lake Victoria in May 1996 while preparing the bombings of
American embassies in East Africa.Planning for African operations continued after al-Banshiri’s death and al-Qaeda’s expulsion from the Sudan in 1996. In
August 1998, al-Qaeda carried out two of its most spectacular
pre-9/11 terrorist attacks: the suicide bombings of the American
embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. In November
2002, al-Qaeda conducted two nearly simultaneous attacks in Kenya:
the car bombing of the Paradise Hotel and the failed surface-to-air
missile attack on an Israeli charter aircraft taking off from Mombasa airport.
Although al-Qaeda represents the primary terrorist threat to US, Western and allied
interests in East Africa, it is only one component of a much larger
universe of radical Islamist groups and organisations in the region.
There are numerous indigenous radical Islamist groups in East Africa
with varying degrees of affinity with al-Qaeda’s agenda. There
are also missionary groups, many funded by Saudi charities, actively
propagating a radical Salafist interpretation of Islam that, while not necessarily violent, function as gateways to terrorism.
Al-Qaeda’s strategy, in East Africa as elsewhere, has been to incorporate local
militants into the global jihad. The global jihadist movement gains
strength to the extent that it can co-opt local struggles.
Nevertheless, even local groups with the greatest affinity for
al-Qaeda have their own parochial agendas. Therefore, it is important
to understand the nature and agenda of local Islamist groups, their
relationship to transnational movements –particularly al-Qaeda
and other components of the global jihadists movement–, the
considerations that might lead them to cooperate with al-Qaeda and
the contradictions and frictions that inevitably arise between
al-Qaeda’s global vision and the national agendas that many local groups naturally pursue.
The Influence of the East African Environment
Geographical proximity and social, cultural and religious affinities between East
Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, weak or collapsed governments,
porous borders and the prevalence of the informal economy make East
Africa susceptible to infiltration by militants and radical
ideologies from outside the region. Weak governments and political
and social disorder throughout the region create an environment in
which informal power structures –including armed Islamist
groups– flourish. The rise of al-Ittihad al-Islami (AIAI) in
central Somalia after the collapse of the Siad Barre dictatorship is a case in point.
State presence in border areas is marginal throughout the region. Kenya’s
border with Somalia, for instance, is thinly populated, largely by
ethnic Somalis. Although there are nominal customs checkpoints at the
main entry points, the rest of the border is rarely patrolled and
there are many smuggling routes. Maritime and coastal surveillance is minimal. The waters adjacent to the Horn
of Africa have become one of the most piracy-prone maritime areas in
the world. The informal sector (in some cases institutionalised by
corrupt customs, border and police officials) offers terrorist
networks opportunities to launder money, transport funds and carry
out the financial transactions that they need to operate.
This is not to suggest that East Africa is necessarily fertile soil for radical
Islamism. Although Salafism has made inroads among the educated
elites, traditional and Sufi practices continue to predominate among
the mass of the Muslim population. Somali Islam, for instance, is
strongly characterised by local traditions and syncretic practices,
such as the duco(intercessory prayer after salaatin the mosque), the ecstatic digriceremonies, the siyaaroor pilgrimages to the tombs of saints (practiced in particular by
Sufis) and the celebration of Mawliid(the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday).These practices are strongly opposed by Salafis and Wahhabis. Despite
the effects of such externalities as the proliferation of Gulf
charities in the region, the strength of traditional Islam rooted in local cultures acts to retard the spread of extremist ideas.
In assessing East Africa’s conduciveness to terrorism, a distinction must be made
between Kenya and Tanzania, which provide a different type of
environment for terrorist networks by virtue of their relatively high
degree of bureaucratisation, and Somalia, which has been in a
condition of statelessness since the fall of the Siad Barre regime in
1991. The large urban areas of Kenya and Tanzania, along with their
somewhat functional infrastructures and reasonably ordered societies,
give outsiders the anonymity and resources they need to build their networks.
In contrast, in Somalia, with its dense clan-based social connections, the
authorities (to the extent that they are present) have a capacity for
close surveillance of outsiders. This makes Somalia a difficult place
for outsiders, unless they have the protection of local groups.
Documents from al-Qaeda operatives in Somalia in the 1990s, published
in the Harmony series, present evidence that they found Somalia a
relatively inhospitable and challenging environment.Although outsiders might succeed in co-opting a local group, the segmentation of social groups and the nature of social relationships
would limit their capacity to extend their influence. This makes
Kenya and Tanzania more conducive to the development of terrorist
networks, even if Somalia becomes a refuge for some of them.
Growth of Radical Islam
The growth of radical Islam in East Africa in recent decades manifested itself in
the spread of Salafi and Wahhabi ideologies, which put pressure on
traditional and Sufi practices, and in the emergence of extremist and
terrorist groups influenced by these ideologies. The development of
radical Islam is due to the confluence of a number of socio-political
factors, some of which have been at work in the Muslim world at large
and others are specific to the East African region. At the source of
Islamist radicalism in East Africa is ideological infiltration from
the Arab world, particularly the spread of the Muslim Brotherhood,
which in its Sudanese variety became a major vector for the propagation of political Salafism in East Africa.
Islamic charities have played an important role in the spread of radical Islam in East
Africa, especially in Somalia and other areas where the collapse of
state institutions has left them as the primary providers of health
care, primary and secondary education, vocational training,
orphanages and other social services as well as, of course, Islamic
instruction. International NGOs have played a critical role in
rebuilding Somali civil society institutions, but in the process they
have also displaced traditional institutions. Moreover, some
charities also proselytise and promote an Arab-Islamist curriculum,
engage in political activism and advocate the establishment of
Islamic states. By providing social services, radical charities
foster the acceptance of Salafi or Wahhabi ideologies by local
populations, and in some cases legitimise, strengthen political
support for and facilitate recruitment by extremist organisations.
Two catalytic events in East Africa –the 1989 Islamist-military take-over in the
Sudan that brought to power the National Islamic Front (NIF)
government, and the collapse of the Somali state after Siad Barre’s
overthrow in 1991– opened up political space that was then exploited by radical movements and organisations.
In the Sudan, in the early 1990s, the NIF sought to implement an Islamisation project
centred on a re-education campaign to spread a Salafi interpretation
of Islam beyond the intellectual and professional circles where it
had originally taken root, and to spread its ideology
internationally. For a time in the 1990s, Khartoum became the
epicentre of radical Islamist activity in Africa. Iran’s
Revolutionary Guards, Hezbollah, Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic
Jihad all were represented in Khartoum and Osama bin Laden and
several dozen ‘Afghan Arabs’ took up residence there. The
project came to an end in the second half of the 1990s when the
Sudan’s military ruler, General Omar al-Bashir, turned against
his erstwhile partner, the NIF ideologue Hassan al-Turabi and ousted him and his supporters from positions of power.
In Somalia, radical movements emerged as armed factions. Since its appearance in central
Somalia in the early l990s, the most active extremist movement in the
Horn of Africa was AIAI, a group that, although linked to al-Qaeda,
had its own separate agenda of establishing an Islamised Greater
Somalia –the lands in the Horn of Africa inhabited by ethnic
Somalis–. The AIAI was severely weakened in fighting with
Ethiopian forces in 1995-96 and some leadership elements of AIAI
morphed into the radical component of the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) militia that seized Mogadishu in June 2006.
The UIC came to power in Mogadishu with the support of Hawiye clan elders and
businessmen who welcomed the Courts’ use of Islamic law to
restore order in the city. The UIC’s promise to provide
security was the main reason for its popularity in the early stages
of its rule. The
courts removed the checkpoints, collected weapons from warlord
militias and promoted Islam as a unifying alternative to clan
loyalties. This arrangement worked for two or three months after the
UIC take-over of Mogadishu but then began to fall apart because of
tensions within the UIC between the mainstream and radical factions.
The mainstream faction was led by the UIC’s ChairmanSheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed. Sheikh
Sharif was educated in Mogadishu, Libya and the Sudan and was
associated with the Ahlu Sunna wal Jama’a, a traditional Sufi
association. The radical faction within the courts was led (with the
notable exception of the Shabaabmilitia leader Adan Hashi Ayro) by individuals formerly associated
with the AIAI. The radicals’ source of power was the Shabaab(‘the
youth’), a corps of fanatical young Somalis trained and indoctrinated by the
aforementioned Ayro with the assistance of foreign fighters.Other militias loyal to the UIC did not have the same level of
commitment; they were just clan militias paid to enforce the courts’
writ. As their name suggests, most of the Shabaabwere young men in their late teens or early 20s who grew up in the
civil war, held a rigid view of Islam and often acted in direct contradiction to the UIC’s stated goals and
objectives.The Shabaab also offeredan alternative to the clan, drawing instead on a wide base of
recruits from all clans.
Within the radical faction there were divergences in strategy between its leading
figure, Hassan Dahir Aweys, Deputy Chairman of the UIC, and his
protégé, Ayro. Aweys’ goal was essentially
nationalist. He wanted to reabsorb all parts of greater Somalia –the
lands in the Horn of Africa where ethnic Somalis predominate–
into a single state ruled by shari’a.Ayro’s goal was to link the struggle in Somalia to the global
jihad. This view is given credence by Ayro’s links to al-Qaeda
and protection, that he extended to senior al-Qaeda figures such as
Abu Talha al-Sudani (alias Tariq Abdullah) and Fazul Mohammed (‘the Comoran’).
The radicalisation of the UIC and its ever-stricter enforcement of Islamic law, which
infringed on traditional Somali values and customs, lost it support
among the population. The UIC’s efforts to ban the use of khat, a narcotic
leaf commonly consumed throughout the Somali cultural zone, provoked a great deal of opposition and even riots. Although the UIC was weakened by internal divisions and growing
unpopularity due to its religious coercion, its mishandling of
relations with Ethiopia led directly to its downfall. After the UIC
seized control of Mogadishu, it moved to extend its control to the
north and the south and threatened the internationally-backed
Transitional Federal Government (TFG), based in Baidoa, an inland town north-west of Mogadishu.
Ethiopia’s perception of the threat that the UIC government presented to its
vital interests, including the UIC’s backing of secessionists
in the Ogaden, ties to Ethiopia’s arch-enemy Eritrea and concern that
an Islamist government in Somalia might stimulate the radicalisation
of its own Muslim population led to the decision to invade UIC-controlled territory and install the TFG led by former Puntland
warlord Abdullahi Yusuf in Mogadishu in January 2007. Although driven out by the Ethiopian invasion, the core of the UIC fighting force,
the radical Shabaab militia, remained intact.
Having been installed in power by Somalia’s traditional enemy, Ethiopia,
the TFG started its rule in Mogadishu with a significant political
disadvantage. In the view of most analysts, there was a window of
opportunity after the UIC fled Mogadishu for the TFG to demonstrate
its ability to provide security and prevent the re-emergence of warlordism, but the TFG squandered this opportunity.
Some of the more thoughtful regional government officials and analysts believed that
continued conflict could only be prevented by a political settlement
among the Somali factions. This would have required an agreement with
the moderate sector of the Somali opposition based in Asmara or, at
the very least, with Mogadishu’s dominant clan, the Hawiye, who
had largely been left out of the political process. Such an agreement
could have progressively reduced the popularity and strength of the
Islamists. Instead, Yusuf and the Ethiopians opted for a military
solution. Predictably, this effort failed and the Shabaab, which
led the armed opposition to the Ethiopian occupation, grew in strength.
An upsurge in suicide bombings, a tactic associated with al-Qaeda and affiliated
groups, but previously unknown in Somalia, indicated a change in the
character of the conflict. The first suicide attack reported in Somalia was in Baidoa in September
2006, targeting the TFG President Yusuf. The blast and a subsequent
gun battle killed Yusuf’s brother and 10 others. In May 2007,
Ugandan peacekeepers stationed at the port of Mogadishu arrested a
man who was attempting a suicide bombing. Another suicide bomber, ‘Martyr Adam Salad Adam’, made a video in which he is seen reciting from the Quran and urging Somalis
to defend their country against ‘invaders’. He later is seen driving off into the distance and exploding, apparently near
Ethiopian troops. In June 2007, a suicide bomber crashed a Toyota Land Cruiser loaded with explosives through the security gate of the TFG Prime Minister
Geedi’s home in Mogadishu and detonated them, killing six guards and damaging the building.
After the Ethiopian occupation of Mogadishu, the Shabaab intensified its operations in central and southern Somalia, importing Iraqi tactics of roadside bombs and targeted assassinations. The Shabaab militia also sought to draw TFG and Ethiopian forces from Mogadishu by capturing and briefly holding towns, while avoiding open
encounters with the Ethiopian army. Through these actions, the Shabaab and other radicals sought to harness Somali nationalism to their cause. Incidents such as the al-Hidayat mosque episode in Mogadishu in April 2008, in which, according to eyewitnesses, Ethiopian troops
entered the mosque and killed 11 civilians, including the imam of the mosque, played into the hands of the radicals.
The killing of the Shabaab’s military leader Ayro and several of his commanders in a US air strike
on their hideout on 1 May 2008 did not change the military balance.
By the end of 2008, the Shabaabadvanced from its stronghold in the southern Somali port of Kismayo
to the outskirts of Mogadishu. Three inter-related developments, a
UN-brokered agreement between Sheikh Sharif, the former UIC chairman
and leader of the moderate faction in the Alliance for the Re-Liberation of Somalia (known as ARS-Djibouti after Sheikh
Sharif, angered by Eritrea’s interference in the affairs of the ARS, moved his office to Djibouti), and
the TGS Prime Minister Nur Adde, the Ethiopian decision to withdraw from Mogadishu and Yusuf’s
resignation on 29 December 2008 and his replacement as TFG President by Sheikh Sharif on 30 January 2009changed the political dynamics in Somalia by broadening the base of
the TFG and removing a major justification for the Shabaab-led
insurgency. Sheikh Sharif’s efforts to form an inclusive
government were rejected by the Islamists, however. From Asmara, Sheikh
Hassan Dahir Aweys, head of the hard-line faction in the ARS (known
as ARS-Asmara), denounced his former associate, Sheikh Sharif, as a
traitor and an Ethiopian stooge. The Shabaab, in
turn, continued to launch attacks against the new TFG and a 3,500-strong African Union peacekeeping force from Uganda and Burundi
(AMISOM), the only international force left in Mogadishu after the
Ethiopians’ withdrawal(another 500 Burundian troops arrived in Mogadishu in March 2009, after two suicide bombings that killed 11 peacekeepers and wounded
The establishment of a unity government in Mogadishu initially brought about a degree of
stability to central Somalia. Despite the continued violence, around 40,000 refugees returned to Mogadishu, according to the UN refugee
agency (UNHCR). The Shabaab,however, continued its military offensive and in
February 2009 captured Baidoa, the former seat of the TFG. More
recently, the Shabaab took control of the town of Jowhar in the central province of Hiran,
provoking an incursion by the Ethiopian Army into Hiran. The Shabaab is currently contesting the control over Mogadishu (according to news reports, the Shabaab’s leader was seriously wounded and possibly killed in what appears to
be an accidental explosion at a safe house outside Mogadishu on 17
Although the TFG only controls parts of Mogadishu, there are several factors
that militate in favour of Sheikh Sharif’s government. One is
the strong support from the international community –including
the Ethiopians, who two years before had ousted Sheikh Sharif’s
UIC government, but who now regard him as a barrier to radical
Islamism–. At its meeting in Brussels in February 2009 the
International Contact Group (ICG) on Somalia recognised the need to
consolidate and support the new TFG. International donors pledged
funding for new and renewed support to AMISOM, the Somali Joint
Security Force, and the Somali Police Service, with a target of
10,000 police by the second quarter of 2010.
A second factor is the lack of support among the majority of the
Somalian population for the Shabaab’s radical Islamist agenda. As in other traditional societies, Somalia’s
own culture and social institutions might prove to be the strongest
barrier to radical Islamism. With the Ethiopian withdrawal from
Mogadishu in January 2009, the Shabaab also lost the primary justification for its armed struggle. There are
already indications that clan-based militias have started to mobilise
to oppose the Shabaab. After Shabaab fighters were accused of destroying tombs belonging to sheikhs
revered by Sufis, clan militias fighting under the banner of the Sufi
group Ahlu Sunnah Wal Jamee’a ousted Shabaab fighters from the central Somalian region of Galgadud. Sheikh Sharif has sought to steal the Islamists’ thunder by
announcing that he would govern in accordance with Islamic law and
that AMISOM would withdraw once Somalia is stable. Despite their
advances in the last several months, it is by no means a foregone
conclusion that the radical Islamists will prevail. A plausible
outcome is the reassertion of anti-radical forces, leading to a
protracted struggle, with the ever-present risk of renewed external intervention if the new TFG falters.
While Mogadishu and southern Somalia are the epicentres of al-Qaeda-linked movements,
extremist groups are also believed to be present in other parts of
the Horn of Africa and in Kenya and Tanzania. Somaliland and Puntland
have experienced low levels of terrorist activity in recent years,
but their governments have weak law enforcement and intelligence
capabilities. Somaliland prides itself on its stability and the
absence of extremism, but some believe that there is a strong
underground Islamist movement there that could surface if the
political situation deteriorates. Ethiopia is 50% Muslim and religion
is a factor in the separatist movement in the Muslim-majority Oromo region as well as in the Ogaden.
In Kenya, radical Islamists are a minority in the Muslim population, but there are
disaffected sectors of the Muslim community that see themselves as
disadvantaged by the policies of the central government in Nairobi.
Although, except for al-Qaeda cells believed to be present in Kenya,
a locally-rooted terrorist movement has not yet emerged, there are
concerns that some parts of the Muslim population could become radicalised and turn to violence.
Conclusion:The short-term question is whether the TFG will survive. If the Shabaabgains control of Somalia, the West will be confronted with a reconstituted terrorist sanctuary in this critical region. However,
if the current Shabaabonslaught is turned back, the security situation in the Horn of
Africa could begin to stabilise. The counterterrorism assistance
programmes that are now being implemented in East Africa, with the
support of the US and other Western countries could help to lay the
groundwork for a more robust regime of counter-terrorism cooperation.
Counter-terrorism assistance alone, however, is unlikely to provide
an effective long-term solution to the challenges of Islamist
extremism and terrorism in East Africa. An effective long-term
solution would require attacking the conditions that make the region
hospitable to extremist and terrorist elements. The overall aim
should be to build a sustained national resilience that is intolerant
of, and effective against, terrorists and extremists. This can only
occur if hard security initiatives are linked to a broader array of
policies designed to promote political, social and economic stability.
Senior Policy Analyst at the RAND Corporation