You Can’t Beat Al Shabab Terrorists by Fighting Them
Somalia needs a political solution
Based on the numbers alone, the radical Islamist group Al Shabab should be history. Twenty thousand African Union troops—plus Somali soldiers and American advisers—are chasing just four or five thousand Al Shabab militants in Somalia.
Al Shabab’s enemies have technological superiority. They benefit from U.S. and European money, logistics and intelligence.
Still, Al Shabab hangs on. It’s lost control of many of southern Somalia’s larger towns, but still controls large swathes of the countryside. To make up for lost territory, it has stepped up its terror campaign of assassinations, Mumbai-style raids and bombings in the capitol Mogadishu.
Some observers forecast the group’s demise in 2011 or 2012, but today Al Shaba is stronger than it’s been in years.
Stig Jarle Hansen, author of the 2013 book Al Shabaab in Somalia, thinks that it’s just not possible to beat the Islamists militarily. “AMISOM can not secure the countryside,” Hansen says. “They are simply not large enough.”
AMISOM is the code name for the A.U.’s mission in Somalia.
The A.U. force’s advantages in numbers and technology make it easy for AMISOM to win battles, but Al Shabab rarely shows up for those. Instead, the insurgents slip away from towns whenever AMISOM approaches, leaving behind weapon caches … and informants.
The militants then attacks supply routes and cut off liberated towns, dramatically increasing the price of food and demoralizing the inhabitants. Al Shabab ambushes occasionally kill or injure AMISOM troops.
But it isn’t just these hit-and-run tactics make Al Shabab so hard to beat militarily. The group also is deeply integrated in Somali society..
More than any other warring faction in Somalia, Al Shabab has presented a coherent ideological and political agenda. It offers a compelling analysis and solution to the country’s perpetual crisis.
The root of Somalia’s problems, the group says, is that society has strayed from Islam’s values. That and the interference of foreign powers in Somalia’s affairs. The solution—adherence to Shari’a law, as Al Shabab’s clerics interpret it. And also violent resistance to outsiders and their Somali allies.
Al Shabab also has been able to make good on some of its promises. While its justice is violent and follows a moral code that few people share, the areas under Al Shabab rule generally enjoy a more reliable legal framework and better day-to-day security than other communities in southern Somalia.
And while Al Shabab forces individuals and businesses to pay religious taxes to finance its fighters, some of this money flows into social programs like basic education.
“People are weighing their pros and cons and at the moment our fundamental analysis is that the alternatives are no better,” says Cedric Barnes of the International Crisis Group. “The alternatives are not providing the basic services and security that Al Shabab has shown.”