Heart-wrenching images of emaciated and dying children in Somalia have brought the country back to the world’s attention. The difficulty in delivering food to the needy because of the opposition of the Islamist Somali insurgents has also put a spotlight on Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen, or Movement of the Warrior Youth. Famine or not, Al-Shabaab’s “jihad” continues.
Even before the United Nations declared famine in parts of Somalia, suicide attacks by Al-Shabaab on an African Union post in Mogadishu, the Somali capital, drew world attention to the role of the Somali diaspora in the insurgency. Of the two suicide bombers dispatched by Al-Shabaab, one was 27-year-old Somali-American Farah Mohamed Beledi, killed before he could set off his device. In July, Omer Abdi Mohamed of Minnesota pleaded guilty to charges that he had facilitated the travel of young Somali-American men to Somalia to join the insurgent movement.
Now the famine may have given Al-Shabaab new opportunities.
- The insurgent movement has its own emergency drought-relief committee, currently headed by Hussein Ali Fiidow, formerly an official in Al-Shabaab’s governing administration in the district of Banaadir, where Mogadishu is located.
- This committee organized modest relief programs that included collection of food, water and medical supplies as well as refugee camps.
- Senior Al-Shabaab leaders, including Hasan Dahir Aweys, recently visited one of these camps in the Lower Shabelle district.
Despite these efforts, the massive scale of the famine has proved to be too much for the insurgent movement to deal with alone, leading Al-Shabaab leaders to state publicly that they would allow international humanitarian aid organizations to operate in territory under its control. However, some organizations, including the World Food Program, previously barred from distributing aid because they were allegedly disrupting sales by Somali farmers in 2006, remain banned.
Since its rise to public prominence following the U.S.-supported December 2006 invasion of Somalia by Ethiopia, Al-Shabaab has sought foreign recruits to bolster its military strength. It emerged as the main insurgent group fighting the Ethiopian military occupation of Mogadishu and other parts of Somalia.
Al-Shabaab has aggressively recruited in Somali diaspora communities in Europe, North America, East Africa and the Middle East, estimated to number 1.5 million people. Estimates suggest that Al-Shabaab has attracted around 1,000 recruits from the diaspora and several hundred non-Somali Muslim recruits.
It’s difficult to draw a single general profile for Al-Shabaab recruits. A number of Somali-American recruits, including Beledi, came from single-parent households, leading lives of petty crime.
The lion’s share of attention from Western media and law-enforcement agencies has focused on Al-Shabaab’s ability to attract scores of men from Somali immigrant families in the United States, Canada and Western Europe. Evidence suggests, however, that the movement views East African recruitment as a priority.
Many recruits from Somali diaspora communities are wooed by Al-Shabaab’s mixing of a relatively simple creed composed of a peculiar form of militant Islamism with appeals to Somali nationalism.
The movement’s media foundation, the Al-Kataeb, or the Brigades, continues to produce increasingly polished propaganda films that serve as recruitment vehicles.
- Young Somalis in North America and the United Kingdom have been targeted since 2007, as evidenced by the appearance of multiple English-speaking young men in insurgent films released in 2007 and 2008.
- A lengthy video recruitment message released in August 2008 from Saleh Ali Saleh al-Nabhani, an Al-Qaeda operative in East Africa with Kenyan and Yemeni citizenship, was subtitled in English.
- More recent Al-Shabaab videos have also included subtitles or narration in English.
In its recruiting appeals, Al-Shabaab’s methods vary depending on the audience.
- For the Somali diaspora, appeals rely on a mix of Somali nationalism and militant Islamism that painted first the Ethiopian military and now the African Union Mission in Somalia, a 9,000-soldier force in Mogadishu, as foreign interlopers propping up a corrupt government.
- Al-Shabaab’s call to non-Somali Muslims is largely transnational. For example, Swedish recruit Abu Zaid in “Message to the Ummah” speaks about Lars Vilks, the controversial Swedish cartoonist who drew derogatory cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed that offended many Muslims around the world.
- These calls are not Somalia-specific and are aimed at a wider audience of discontented Muslims.
- Similar religious exhortations, combined with Somalia-centric messaging, are also made to the Somali diaspora.
Al-Shabaab’s desire and ability to recruit from outside the country signals both strength and domestic weakness. On the one hand, its recruitment networks abroad have been relatively successful in attracting recruits through diverse recruitment appeals based both on a virulent interpretation of Somali nationalism and militant Somali Islamism, influenced by militant Islamic trans-nationalism. However, the insurgent movement’s need to recruit abroad is also a sign that it is incapable of meeting its manpower needs domestically.