What next for Al-Shabaab?
October 15th, 2013
09:14 AM ET

What next for Al-Shabaab?

EJ Hogendoorn, Africa deputy program director at International Crisis Group, answers GPS readers’ questions about the recent U.S. military raids in Libya and Somalia, how Al-Shabaab might respond and the implications of Africa’s “youth bulge.”

Do the two U.S. raids in Africa this month signal a shift from drone attacks?

It’s not possible to tell at this point. The two raids underscore one limitation of drones: they cannot be used in urban settings where the possibility of killing civilians is very high. This would not only violate international humanitarian law, but would be counter-productive, since it would turn the population against the United States and its allies and possibly radicalize others into joining jihadi groups like Al-Shabaab.

The raids also suggest that the U.S. government recognizes that capturing a jihadi leader is much more valuable than killing one, even if there are risks to U.S. servicemen. The intelligence that can be gleaned from these men not only allows governments to learn about impending attacks, but also about their organization, financing and networks. Even if a captured militant does not divulge any information, the possibility that he might forces groups to alter plans and change communication protocols and locations. It also sows suspicion and discord that will hamper operations and could reveal the location of other commanders. This disruption is more significant than the elimination of one, or even a small group, of leaders, who can often be quickly replaced.

Raids and drone strikes, however, can only achieve limited tactical aims. As we have hopefully learned in Afghanistan and elsewhere, it’s much more useful to support the development of effective and inclusive governments that are better able to combat jihadi groups and address the grievances that drive young men, and some women, to join them.

What do you see as the most likely reaction to the raid within the ranks of Al-Shabaab? Can they profit from a narrative of a “failed attack,” or do raids such as this affect the rank-and-file members, potentially reducing recruits due to increased risks even in perceived safe haven areas?

I suspect that the raid will put Al-Shabaab more on edge. Although the movement suffered a significant setback when its conventional forces were forced from Mogadishu, the capital, and Kismayo, a lucrative seaport in southern Somalia – covert guerrilla and assassination units remained behind – Al-Shabaab still controlled some areas. Baraawe, a port town midway between Mogadishu and Kismayo, was one such haven, and the compound targeted by the U.S. SEALS was apparently a well-known gathering place for foreign fighters linked to Al-Shabaab. Its leaders will now feel even less safe and will be forced to move frequently for fear of other attacks. This will further disrupt their operations and ability to recruit new followers.

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Al-Shabaab has been trying to trumpet the mission as a failure, but the U.S. military didn’t lose any people and apparently showed admirable restraint when faced with the possibility that many civilians could be killed if they continued their mission. In the end, I doubt this will have much of an impact in recruitment either way. Young men join Al-Shabaab for many reasons. A number do so because they want revenge for family and friends killed in the civil war (hence the importance of trying to prevent innocent deaths); some are true believers in its vision of a fundamentalist Islamic state; some join for money (for many years the movement paid fighters more than the government did); and, increasingly, fighters are forcibly conscripted.

Al-Shabaab’s greatest recruiting tools are revenge, nationalism and exclusion. That’s why it publicly claimed responsibility for the Nairobi Westgate Mall attack. It hoped that it would trigger a backlash against Somalis (and Muslims), in Kenya and in southern Somalia. In Kenya it would radicalize already marginalized Somalis, and in southern Somalia it would turn the local population against the “occupying” Kenyan forces (now with the African Union Mission for Somalia, AMISOM) that drove Al-Shabaab out of Kismayo. The movement was most popular when it was fighting Ethiopian forces that had intervened from 2006 to 2009.

On a related note, Al-Shabaab excels at recruiting members of marginalized minority clans. This is why the Somalia Federal Government and local administrations need to be inclusive and not allow majority clans to monopolize the political dispensation.

Can you envisage any outside intervention over Boko Haram? How big a threat does the group pose outside Nigeria?

It’s highly unlikely any country is contemplating direct intervention in Nigeria. Boko Haram is a threat to stability mainly in Nigeria’s North East. Because of the military crackdown there, many Boko Haram members have fled to neighboring Niger, Chad and Cameroon, where they might present a danger if the group is allowed to grow. It has some links to other Islamist militant groups, but Boko Haram remains largely focused on a Nigerian domestic agenda – the most important item being governance reform through full implementation of Sharia. However, it would be a mistake to think of Boko Haram as a homogenous, tightly managed group; it has a number of factions with somewhat different agendas. For example, Ansaru is a small but sophisticated Boko Haram splinter group that prefers to target foreigners and has a more regional agenda. This complicates the negotiations that a government committee has started with Boko Haram.

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Nigeria’s biggest problem (and to some degree that of its neighbors) is that it must address the root causes – bad governance, entrenched official corruption and lack of development – that have led to the rise of Boko Haram and other militant groups. There’s no military solution to this problem and the Nigerian army and police are already overstretched trying to deal with insecurity triggered by these grievances. Unless the federal government tackles these issues head on, which is highly unlikely as the 2015 elections approach, the problem of Boko Haram and groups like it won’t go away. The problem could even grow if such groups are used by politicians for advantage in Nigeria’s often violent political campaigns.

What kind of a role does Africa’s “youth bulge” pose to the continent’s security?

Africa’s “youth bulge” does present a demographic challenge that could trigger local unrest, which might then spill across borders. Simply put, there are too many young people and not enough jobs. This is especially frustrating for young adults who complete university but are unemployed or under-employed in menial jobs. Not surprisingly, many want to emigrate to places where there are jobs: North America, Europe and the Middle East. But there are few legal avenues to do so. Instead, many go to great lengths, and face great dangers, to travel illegally to Europe in hopes of receiving asylum or, at the least, under-the-counter employment. The recent tragedy off Lampedusa, a tiny Italian island in the southern Mediterranean, during which more than 300 people drowned trying to get to Europe, is only the latest reminder of how desperate many Africans are for work that can support them (and often their families back home as well).

Those who stay in their countries are bitter and angry – often rightly – at their governments for failing to prioritize economic development and jobs creation. Some turn to organized crime, such as drug smuggling, fraud and extortion, that undermines the state even more. In some cases, these youths may also be organized by politicians into militias used to intimidate opponents and swing elections. In weaker or failed states, like the Central African Republic, DRC, Libya, Mali, Somalia, South Sudan and Sudan, young people are easily recruited into armed groups that prey on the local population with impunity.

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It’s important to note, however, that most African countries have large numbers of youth, but only a small number have serious insurgencies. Unemployed frustrated youths are a recipe for lots of forms of violence, especially ordinary criminal violence, but their enrollment in organized armed rebel groups requires other factors which have to do with the nature and legitimacy of the state as well as its capacity to maintain law and order.

A number of readers noted the role of China, a significant investor in Africa. What impact is China’s investment likely to have on stability? Is its “no strings attached” approach a concern?

Like most investments, China’s can be a mixed blessing. If managed right, it can help provide desperately needed revenue (from oil and mineral extraction) and infrastructure – for transportation (roads and ports), for energy (dams and electrical grids) – that can help African countries develop. If managed wrong, it can lead to corruption, shoddy construction and little residual value.

Chinese investment and business is attractive to many African countries because China is seen as a formerly poor country that has developed tremendously and thus should be emulated. The Chinese central and provincial governments also provide concessional loans and grants to support their businesses’ activities in Africa and elsewhere. Chinese companies compete with Western ones on a number of fronts, including price, quality and strings attached (such as adherence to international best business practices). Some of these businesses are more responsible than others. Many African leaders are now becoming more sophisticated and no longer simply pick the lowest bidder (or the largest kickback) and the competition gives them more leverage with big multinational companies. Many businesses realize this and are offering better value for money. Large companies, with big fixed investments, are becoming increasingly aware they have a real stake in national stability, not just local capacity. This is a positive development. There are several African states that, if they get their policies, regulations and politics right, are in a position to “take off” and develop rapidly.

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Topics: Africa • Terrorism

soundoff (15 Responses)
  1. Joseph McCarthy

    I don't know what this E.J.Hogendoom means by "we can't use drones in urban areas because they may inflict high civilian casualties". We've been inflicting civilian casualties in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen for years on end with those cursed drones of ours! At least 70% of those who were killed with these cursed machines were civilians and don't let the right-wing media tell you different!

    October 15, 2013 at 10:32 am |
    • Rick

      Interesting how drones are the scape goat / blame from Muslim extremist behaviour now days, but drones did exist a short while ago....Yet still then just like today, the facts remained the same....Nobody kills more Muslims than Muslims do.

      October 16, 2013 at 1:36 am |
  2. Towel Heads

    How about Towel Heads on a stick.

    October 15, 2013 at 11:04 am |
  3. Yinka Abosede Adeshina President Hopefully 2016

    screen always. I'm unhappy with this unrest. Africa must stay a barest of its political storm. You know, a nation cannot stand without strength. Africa is visible world wide, ensures a voice in global stability and must stabilize soon. A rich for the United States at this time is impossible. But all the embassies are aware of her current stance. I think, a return to the books is necessary. How we as a people stayed strong, relearned and perhaps we can move into the future carefully, slowly. My extreme knowledge for that ready for change and I expect to be there and available for discussions and any enquiries. The drones were put together in the turn of the new millennium, 1999 going into 2000. These drones could be dangerous, so stop its use. People see and feel human compassion immediately. This is better for today's conflict. Thank you. I hope all take heed immediately.

    October 15, 2013 at 11:11 am |
  4. rightospeak

    We can not fight the whole world while being bankrupt. What the aggression in Africa is all about is neocolonialism under the smokescreen of terrorism just like in Libya and Iraq. The terrorism is proportional to the value of natural resources. It is just my humble opinion. If our media was not dysfunctional maybe we would have some truth about it. All we can do is speculate and connect the dots.

    October 16, 2013 at 8:24 am |
  5. rightospeak

    By the way, nice propaganda picture !

    October 16, 2013 at 8:27 am |
  6. j. von hettlingen

    Although al-Qaeda leadership is said to be in the tribal areas of Pakistan, most of its fighters are now in the Horn of Africa. Al-Shabab, whose leader Ahmed Abdi Godane pledges allegiance to al-Qaeda's global jihadism, has cemented his power over the group, which is very active among Somalis in Kenyan exile. The attack on the Westgate Mall sent a strong message that they strike, when they have a chance.

    October 16, 2013 at 10:18 am |
  7. Rick McDaniel

    They will try to take control of all of Africa.......of course.

    October 16, 2013 at 12:42 pm |
  8. Cann Ron

    About the publisher who wrote wherther the raid of U. S servicemen who invaded some areas of al-shabaah and terrorist across africa as good or bad.i will say it is some how good,because it will bring fear to those who want to be recruited because of money.
    but not 50% good because let take this case:a graduate in africa or i`m in west africa so let's take west africa whom his poor family has seen through school with all their money.with the expectation that their ward will complete tertiary to come and take them from poverty,but after completion no job.the ward will go and depend on the poor family again,whiles they're having other children to take care of,the parent will begin to fustrate the graduate,so what will the graduate do?leave his pen and skills down and look for other ways and means to survive,in so doing will end up in the hands of the terrorist who pay ransom moneys.for him to prove to his parent that he is not lazy,he will join them.So what i think will help this continent is that the UN should let African leaders to establish factories so that educated and uneducated citizens to get job to do.For if they've job they will never join any rebel organisation.thanks.

    October 17, 2013 at 10:44 am |
  9. Chris

    Why did these Islamic murders dare not to reveal their faces?

    October 17, 2013 at 12:48 pm |
  10. My Blog

    C'est une merveilleuse idée, merci !!


    February 13, 2016 at 8:26 am |

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