By this point, those of us who had plans to see “Captain Phillips” have probably seen it already. In honor of a great new film that details the 2009 hijacking of the Maersk Alabama by Somali pirates, let us take a look at the East African state that is known for its piracy and is becoming increasingly more important for its terror group.
More than 20 years after Operation Gothic Serpent, which was made famous by the 2001 film “Blackhawk Down,” Somalia has become once again a hotbed for homegrown terrorism.
Al-Shabab, a Somali based group that came to power following a 2006 war with Ethiopia, has gained immense power in southern and central Somalia. Unlike the members of parent group al-Qaida, al-Shabab’s members show little interest in a global jihadi movement; rather, the group spends most of its time waging war against Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG) headquartered in Mogadishu. The al-Qaida and al-Shabab relationship has been a long time coming, with many senior leaders of the Somali group believed to have fought against coalition forces in Afghanistan Ayman al Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden’s successor, and senior members of al-Shabab, officially announced their alliance in February 2012.
Designated a terrorist organization in 2008 by the United States, al-Shabab’s reach took off through an influx of finances gained from piracy, hijackings and off-the-radar funding from the governments of Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Iran and others. Although al-Shabab’s primary focus is on the TFG, its battlefield is often transnational. The Somali terror group has claimed responsibility for the 2010 suicide bombings in Kampala, Uganda, as well as the September 2013 attack on the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya, leaving 72 dead and an estimated 200 wounded.
A recent attempt by the U.S. to kill an al-Shabab fighter poses a very unique situation. The fighter was not Somali, but Kenyan. With financiers handling tens of millions in illicit funds, the allure of a few dollars has drawn thousands of would-be fighters from Kenya to join the Somali group. This poses a serious problem for the United States. Unlike Somalia, whose state of anarchy has not been recognized by the United States in decades, Kenya has strong diplomatic ties with the U.S. Similarly, thousands of U.S. citizens and ex-patriots alike live and work in Nairobi and Mombasa. Just as the Ethiopian invasion led to a massive spike in the number of al-Shabab’s members, the Kenyan government’s response to its citizens has seemingly only encouraged more to join the group, according to an Oct. 9 article from the New York Times. The same article quotes a fundamentalist cleric in Mombasa following the murder of a fellow, prominent cleric.
“A day after the killings, a group of boys came to me and they said, ‘Sheik, find us a way to communicate with al-Shabab. We want to help, but we don’t have weapons,’” the cleric told the NYT.
Somalia’s state of anarchy has been a critical proponent to the growth of al-Shabab. Looking at history, we can safely assume that the Obama administration will continue to use drone strikes along with carefully calculated raids by special operations forces to wear down the Somali group. I would not hold my breath waiting for a strong, stable government to emerge in Mogadishu, a factor that could prove to be a critical blow to the expansion of terror in Somalia. Unlike al-Qaida, which has major followings in nearly all of the Arab world, al-Shabab is a more regional group with the vast majority of its followers coming from the Horn of Africa, the Lake Victoria region and the Somali Diaspora around the world. Nonetheless, al-Shabab will continue to grow so long as fighters are willing to trade their lives for the cause.
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