12 October 2021 in Military

AL-SHABAAB: THE SWORD OF DAMOCLES OVER SOMALIA

Kismayo, the heart of Jubaland (southern Somalia), is a strategic port. Hodan Nalayeh, a BBC Somali Canadian journalist, lives there, back to her roots, her people. Kismayo and Jubaland are among the safest areas in Somalia since Ahmed Mohamed Islaam Madobe, who was already in charge of the Union of Islamic Courts in 2006, became governor in 2013[1]. Madobe has been working hard to expel from the region one of the most feared terrorist organisations on the entire African continent[2]: the Ḥarakat al-Shabāb al-Mujāhidīnal[3], known simply as al-Shabaab. The group was driven out of the region in September 2012, defeated by a coalition led by AMISOM (African Union Mission in Somalia) in collaboration with the regular Somali army[4].

Madobe succeeded in restoring a semblance of tranquillity to a country battered by war and famine; the jihad seemed to have disappeared, and with it the terror. The population is cooperating actively, submitting to very frequent controls[5].  It is in this atmosphere that on Friday 12 July 2019, late in the evening, many guests of the prestigious Asasey Hotel in Kismayo are having a drink at tables in the courtyard, until a terrible explosion destroys the closed gate of the main entrance. The guests flee: four armed men enter the hotel and carry out a massacre, which lasts 14 hours and ends with the elimination of the assailants, who kill 26 people, many of whom are foreigners, including Hodan Nalayeh herself, slaughtered with her husband, the first Somali woman in the world to be the owner of a newspaper[6]. The signal is clear and strong: Al-Shabaab is back, again bringing terror to Kismayo and Jubaland, as already in all Somalia (and not only).

The years of the Islamic Courts

Sheikh Ali Dheere, the pioneer of the Islamic Courts in Mogadishu

Al Shabaab was born in 2006: at that time, the Islamic Courts, which appeared in the first half of the 1990s as a response to the power vacuum created by the implosion of Siad Barre’s regime in 1991[7], dominated a substantial slice of the south of the country. Their sphere of influence was initially limited to the territory of Mogadishu: Sheikh Ali Dheere established the first Islamic Court in the capital in 1993[8], followed by others after successes against rampant crime. The courts, officially independent of each other, are part of the same movement and act particularly in the north of the city. The courts that, since 1996, have sprung up in the southern part of Mogadishu, are strongly influenced by former members of the terrorist organisation Al Ittihad Al Islamiya (AIAI)[9]: this is a group linked to al-Qaeda, based in Ogaden, situated in the south-east of Ethiopia. It was in these areas that AIAI carried out most of its attacks, before being defeated by the Ethiopian army; the dissolution of AIAI led some of its leaders to join the Islamic Courts[10].

Hassan Dahir Aweys, who will become one of the leaders of the council of the Union of the Islamic Courts and, subsequently, spiritual leader of al-Shabaab, founds an Islamic Court in the port city of Merca (70 km south-west of Mogadishu); this court emerges as a platform of Jihadist Islamism, having Aweys, by virtue of his past in AIAI, contacts with several young Somalis trained in Afghanistan[11]. One of these, Aden Hashi ‘Ayro, is involved in the murder of four aid workers, a British journalist and a Somali peacekeeper. The militia Ayro heads is known as Al-Shabaab[12].

The favour they find with the population is due to their ability to ensure the maintenance of order and the operation of essential public facilities such as schools and hospitals: The areas under their control, which after 2000 extend beyond the capital, enjoy a far better reputation than those governed by the warlords[13] who, after the fall of Barre, started the civil war: the United Somali Congress (USC), which leads the fight against Barre, establishes an interim government with Ali Mahdi Mohammed, which triggers splits among the various rebel groups[14]. Among these, the Habr Abgal clan of General Mohammed Farah Aidid emerges and takes control of the southern part of Mogadishu, while the northern part is under the control of Ali Mahdi Mohammed[15].

This is the beginning of the war: in March 1992 the capital has lost 300,000 people, who have died of hunger or disease, while the number of deaths directly related to the fighting is around 44,000[16]. The first UNOSOM humanitarian mission intervened to oversee the truce negotiated by the United Nations between Mahdi Mohammed and Farah Aidid, as well as to create humanitarian corridors useful for the distribution of aid; the mission, which ended in December of the same year, failed in both objectives[17]. The failure is due to the strategy of the UNO: the cycle of talks “Conference on National Reconciliation in Somalia” (UNITAF, Addis Ababa, 1993)[18], has the great demerit of having legitimized the warlords present (representing the 15 factions in conflict), considering them the only ones able to stop the hostilities, to the detriment of the clan leaders and politicians, also present at the conferences[19].

UNITAF and UNOSOM are also a source of enormous enrichment for the warlords. In the Mogadishu area they control the production of most goods and services: here officials and employees of the UN and international NGOs rent houses, hire cars (often armoured and with bodyguards), pay duties on shipments, on the planes that transport them – and sign contracts with local companies. Most of the services purchased by UN officials are in the area controlled by Mohammed Farah Aidid, officially their enemy[20]. The more money the warlords earn, the more they recruit soldiers, strengthen ties with clans (through bribery or threats), pay patronage – all to achieve a militarily hegemonic position[21].

UNOSOM 2 troops in Mogadishu in 1995[22]

The power of the Warlords wanes after the withdrawal of the UNOSOM 2 mission in March 1995[23]. Their reduced financial resources generate a constant loss of soldiers, whose services are bought by members of Mogadishu’s new entrepreneurial class in order to create private militias[24]; from this new class comes support for certain Islamic groups that organise themselves to create islands of security, also carrying out functions of government, in the capital and surrounding areas: the Islamic Courts[25].

The Courts originate as part of the clan power in Mogadishu; they serve some specific sub-clans belonging to the Hawiye clan (of nomadic origin, it is, together with the Darood clan, the largest and most powerful in Somalia[26]) and are supported by the Hawiye middle class of the capital. After the first successes in the north of the city, the Courts begin to be opposed by Ali Mahdi (of the Abgaal sub-clan, belonging to Hawiye), who orders their dismantling[27]; in the south, the experiment of the Courts is not carried out until 1996, given the hard opposition of Ali Mahdi’s rival, General Mohammed Farah Aidid (of the Habr Gedir sub-clan, also belonging to Hawiye), proud enemy of Islamism[28].

In that year, Aidid dies, leaving the way clear for the creation, in 1998, of the first Islamic court in South Mogadishu by the Saleban (Habr Gedir)[29]. The following year two other Habr Gedir clans, Ayr and Duduble, founded their own courts; unlike those in the north, they are linked to Islamic fundamentalism because of the presence of former members of the AIAI[30]. Hassan Dahir Aweys (former colonel in the Somali army fighting in the Ogaden war of 1977[31]) is involved in the creation of the Ifka Halane Court[32]. In 2000, several Islamic courts in the south of the capital ‘consort’, giving rise to the Islamic Court Council, of which Aweys became lord, leaving Hassan Mohmmed Addeh, head of the Ifka Halane Court, as the official leader of the council; the clans, by uniting their militias, are the first group not controlled by the warlords to have a substantial armed force[33].

According to the scholar Robrecht Deforche, Somalia has a tradition of divisions that cannot be erased by nationalism. The unilinear and patriarchal structure of the clans has always been a divisive element, prevailing over unifying elements, such as belonging to the same ethnic and linguistic group or the common religious faith[34]. Since the early post-independence period, corruption and nepotism have been a trademark of clan interference in Somali politics; after the fall of Siad Barre, conflicts exploded with unprecedented violence, instigated by the power vacuum: society gathered around the clan to which it belonged, thus contributing to triggering the spiral of violence that led to the devastation of the country[35].

The creation of a common substratum, a key element in a process of pacification of the country, is attempted with the creation of federal governments – immediately delegitimised; thus, religious affiliation (the Courts) is exploited to respond not only to the power vacuum, but also to corruption and internal divisions between the clans[36]. So, the Courts prosper: in 2003, Sharif Sheikh Ahmed restarts the creation of Islamic Courts in the north of Mogadishu, dismantled in 1996 by Ali Mahdi, and at the end of 2004, all the Courts are united under the name of the Union of Islamic Courts[37], of which Sharif Sheikh Ahmed is the leader[38].

The role of al-Qaeda

The Paradise Hotel blown up in Mombasa by Al Qaeda in November 2002[39]

At the end of 2002, the CIA (the operation is headed by John Bennett, a veteran of the agency, future leader of the National Clandestine Service) initiates a series of contacts with the warlords still active in Mogadishu and other strategic cities, giving them considerable sums of money in exchange for the capture of the Jihadists hiding in Somalia[40]. The CIA believes that, protected by AIAI, the Comorian, Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, the Sudanese, Abu Talha al-Sudani and the Kenyan, Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, may find refuge in the country: the three names are linked to the 1998 attacks on the United States embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam[41].

Fazul Mohammed is believed to be the mastermind of those attacks, and despite US efforts to capture him, he remained free until his death at a Somali Transitional Federal Government soldiers’ checkpoint on the evening of 8 June 2011, following a firefight with the military[42]. At the time of his killing, Fazul Mohammed was considered the leader of al-Qaeda in East Africa[43], a position he had achieved through his organisational skills: in addition to the 1998 attacks, he planned the Mombasa attacks of 28 November 2002[44], when the Israeli-owned Paradise Hotel was blown up, killing ten Kenyans and three Israelis[45]. At the same time, two SA-97 missiles were fired at a Boeing 757 owned by the Israeli company Akria shortly after take-off from Mombasa airport, but missed the target[46].

No less important is his ability to raise funds for the organisation: concealed by some 40 false identities[47], facilitated by the fact that he speaks five languages[48], and with a face remodelled by plastic surgery[49], Fazul Mohammed is the key to al-Qaeda’s entry into the blood diamonds business, which allows al-Qaeda’s economic survival when the United States blocks other funding for the organisation[50]. From 1999 to 2001, Fazul Mohammed is active in Liberia and Sierra Leone, where he manages not only to launder twenty million dollars, but also to ensure that al-Qaeda has strong ties with important diamond traffickers[51]. He is a key man for al-Shabaab: as the person responsible for the recruitment of foreign fighters and volunteer militiamen, he