Somalia's al-Shabab: A Global or Local Movement?

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Marcv Hoafer / AP

A man attends to an injured woman on July 11, 2010, after a bomb went off in a restaurant in Kampala's Kabalagala district

When Somalia's al-Shabab militia claimed responsibility for the July 11 suicide bombings that killed 76 people watching soccer on TV in Uganda, the media described the event as an al-Qaeda attack on the World Cup. That's a misrepresentation, of course, but one that illustrates many of the problems with viewing and reacting to events in Somalia through a war-on-terrorism paradigm.

The Shabab certainly has a relationship with al-Qaeda, but it is an independent organization, and the Kampala bombings were motivated not by some global jihadist agenda but by the Shabab's ongoing struggle against foreign military intervention in Somalia. That primarily means Uganda, which is a key component of the African Union (A.U.) mission in Somalia. That mission props up the beleaguered remains of a government that is widely seen as corrupt, greedy, inefficient and illegitimate. The Shabab perceives that government as a foreign-imposed regime; in fact, it does not even qualify as a regime, simply the faction that controls the airport and the presidential villa — buttressed by Ugandan arms.

The Shabab's current credibility in Somalia is rooted in the deep unpopularity of foreign intervention, including the U.S.-backed Ethiopian invasion of 2006-09 and the A.U. forces that went in after to keep the peace. Ethiopian gunships flew missions over Mogadishu, strafing civilian neighborhoods and returning to the airport, which was held and protected by A.U. troops. In the eyes of many Somalis, the two forces were one and the same. Indeed, Somalis sneer at Uganda's claim that its soldiers are peacekeepers. Those troops clearly take the side of the ruling faction in the civil war. The day after the soccer bombings in Uganda, the A.U. bombarded civilian neighborhoods in Mogadishu more fiercely than usual. In all of July, close to 200 civilians were killed in the capital by A.U. shelling.

The declared motive for the Uganda bombings was revenge for the thousands of Somali civilians killed by A.U. forces. Another motive was the Shabab's frustration at the stalemate in which it finds itself. While able to prevent the so-called government from being effective, the Shabab is not strong enough to take power outright or even to overrun a Ugandan position.

That is because the Shabab is militarily very weak. Nowhere close to a highly sophisticated jihadist network, the Shabab is composed of dedicated fighters as well as criminal gangs involved in kidnapping. While its forces operate in more territory than anybody else, they do not control much of it, on occasion meeting their match in rival Islamist militias. The Shabab leadership is also aware that attacking Somali targets may cost it popular support. Some clans in central Somalia recently expelled the Shabab from their territory; its presence in others shouldn't be confused with control.

The Shabab may have been prompted to reach further afield for targets because it has reached the limits of its ability to extend control in Somalia. It is likely to be plotting attacks in Ethiopia, Djibouti and Kenya, perhaps as part of a retributive cycle in the mistreatment of expatriate Somalis. But even its capacity to export its struggle is limited and not particularly well organized. In 2008, during the peak of its struggle against the Ethiopians, one Shabab faction couldn't guarantee the security of foreign journalists from other Shabab factions.

The Shabab certainly has some foreign fighters in its midst, and some of the group's Somali leaders earned their stripes fighting as volunteers in Afghanistan. Some of its members consider themselves part of Osama bin Laden's movement, but they don't take orders from it. In fact, a major motivation for the Shabab declaring al-Qaeda allegiance is attracting funding from al-Qaeda's Arab donors, in the same way that its local enemies use the discourse of counterterrorism to win backing from the West. Even there, the Shabab faces a problem in that its Islamist rivals in Somalia are better known and respected in Salafist circles abroad.

While some of the Shabab rank and file may think they are fighting for God and glory (much like the average U.S. Marine), their leaders are more pragmatic — and domestically focused. The leadership of the Shabab is entirely Somali, drawn from a number of different clans. Indeed, in order to survive in the chaos of Somalia, the Shabab has had to become skillful in taking advantage of clan conflicts. The primary form of identity among Somalis is the clan, and while Western policymakers might like to imagine the Somali conflict as pitting Islamist extremists against moderates, in reality it's a complex struggle of clan rivalry between merchants, traders, farmers and cattle herders, over issues including loss of property, fear of disenfranchisement, access to aid money, social inequality and political power — anything but a jihad.

Still, the Shabab has to tread carefully, even though Islam has, in some cases, begun to compete with clan identity as a trust mechanism. Clan leaders sometimes tolerate the Shabab's presence on their turf not because they identify with its goals, but to signal to the government that they're unhappy over official distribution of resources or political positions. Indeed, if all of the clan leaders turned on the Shabab, it would be reduced to a small hard-core jihadist group incapable of imposing its will on any portion of the country.

The irony is that the Shabab was originally the youth wing of a short-lived Islamist regime that promised to overcome the dominance of the warlords and the clans. Now, it has to navigate through those factional dynamics. It is quite the balancing act. Somali clans don't have one leader: influence is in the hands of numerous elders, businessmen, militia leaders and others. If too much influence adheres to one prominent clan member, the clan will split, rivalries will develop and carefully calibrated agendas come unglued. And at this point, the Shabab seems to be able to rely only on minority clans or weaker ones with grievances.

These extremely local factors make it a problem to view Somalia as a conflict between moderates and jihadis. But, oh, the Shabab does have a main foreign backer. That would be Eritrea, a decidedly secular state that is in the game because it is a mortal enemy of Ethiopia. And there is another big outside source of funding. Whatever support the Shabab receives from foreign governments and organizations, its biggest overseas backers are members of the Somali diaspora, who send support not because the Shabab emulates al-Qaeda but because its members are their cousins, friends and clansmen.

Rosen is a fellow at the New York University Center on Law and Security and author of the forthcoming book Aftermath: Following the Bloodshed of America's Wars in the Muslim World