Written by Kelsey Aulakh
On October 19, an al-Shabaab suicide bomber killed at least 16 people and wounded 40 at a restaurant near a military base in the city of Beledweyne, Somalia. This continued violence, particularly after the devastating Nairobi Westgate Mall attacks, illustrates the organization’s lasting relevance to countries in the region, and to the West.
Al-Shabaab (‘The Youth’ in Arabic), currently led by Ahmed Abdi Godane, surfaced as its own militant wing in the mid-2000s. The majority of its plots have targeted the western-backed Transitional Federal Government (TFG), which was replaced by the Federal Government of Somalia in August 2012. The TFG was largely seen as a corrupt and ineffective body. If the continued deep-rooted conflict in the country is any indication, this government is bound to face the same fate as its predecessor.
Al-Shabaab fighters in Somalia [Photo credit: The Associated Press]
In Somalia today, al-Shabaab has lost control of the country’s major cities to African Union (AU) peacekeepers backing the government, but it still controls many rural areas. In 2008, the United States labeled the group a terrorist organization because of its links to al-Qaeda, the orchestrators of the September 11attacks. In February 2012, al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri announced a formal alliance between al-Qaeda and al-Shabaab.
Somalia has been ridden with internal conflict for over 20 years. The West’s primary activities in the country have consisted of humanitarian aid and counter-terrorism efforts, but to no avail.
A new approach
As al-Shabaab has remained a major, increasingly relevant actor in the region, it may be time for the United States to take a new approach by allowing the organization to play a role in the new government. The U.S. sees the organization as a potential threat to its national security. The fact of the matter is that it currently is not one…yet. In any event, the U.S. government should attempt to reach out to the organization, for two main reasons.
First, al-Shabaab is regionally- focused. Despite the ‘international terrorist organization’ label that is attached to the entirety of the group, most members of al-Shabaab aim for domestic influence and seek little beyond that end.
Indeed, according to a recent statement by Seth Jones, an analyst at the Washington-based Rand Corporation, since 2007, 85% of al-Shabaab attacks have taken place in Somalia, and 12% in Kenya.
Moreover, in a recent New York Times article, Bronwyn Bruton, the director of the Africa Center at the Atlantic Council—a Washington think tank— notes that the organization has a divided leadership, primarily concerned with clan allegiances and determined to put their own faction in power.
Second, al-Qaeda needs them; they don’t need al-Qaeda. To be sure, al-Qaeda reaches out to al-Shabaab for a foothold in the East African region. Al-Qaeda is losing ground in Central Asia and is being forced out of Afghanistan and Pakistan. It seems clear that their aim in joining with al-Shabaab is to regain some control in the Arabian Peninsula and engage in more recruiting activities. Further, al-Shabaab does not share al-Qaeda’s principal goal of enacting global jihad.
A family outside a tent in a camp for internally-displaced people outside Mogadishu [Copyright: Tony Karumba, AFP Getty Images]
This last point may suggest that al-Shabaab may be more distanced from al-Qaeda than some may believe.
Avoiding the worse
True, the relationship between these two groups provides reason for U.S. concern. However, by disincentivizing al-Shabaab’s connections with al-Qaeda, and engaging the organization in the ongoing process of establishing a legitimate government, the U.S. government may further severe the ties between the two groups.
Instead of simply backing the Federal Government, the U.S. should begin reaching out to the more nationalist (and less radical) members of al-Shabaab who still consider al-Qaeda a foreign entity. This may be a difficult task, but if al-Shabaab’s main interest lies in their involvement within the new government, why not give it a try?
Because of their clan-based ties, the nationalist entities of al-Shabaab enjoy a degree of domestic support which should be harnessed. At the same time, the U.S. can attempt to reach the radicals through these nationalists. Ideally, it could be made clear to the radicals that they do not require al-Qaeda in order to achieve their ends.
Perhaps, instead of labeling the large and splintered al-Shabaab as a comprehensive “terrorist organization,” the U.S. should consider involving them in negotiations. True, this is still an unexplored, semi-feasible option.
The other option, however, would be to continue down the same path, let the situation run its course, and risk al-Shabaab becoming as extreme and supportive of al-Qaeda as al-Nussra is in Syria.