Insurgency, Governance, & Legitimacy in Somalia: A Reassessment of Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahideen, its Rhetoric & Divisions
December 6, 2010 7 Comments
By Christopher Anzalone (McGill University)
On November 22 the media wing of the Somali insurgent group Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahideen (Movement of Warrior-Youth) released its newest video, Message to the Ummah (worldwide Muslim community): And Inspire the Believers, the underlying message of which is to attract new recruits from both inside and outside the Somali diaspora to come and join the group’s insurgency against the weak Transitional Federal Government (TFG). The video, which includes parts in Arabic, English, Swedish, Urdu, Swahili, and Somali is subtitled in English and, equally significantly, Swahili, the lingua franca of East Africa. The group’s media wing, the Al-Kata’ib (Brigades) News Channel, continues to produce a steady stream of highly polished and well-produced propaganda films, as it has done since September of last year. I have written in the past about the evolution of Harakat al-Shabab’s media wing in a guest article posted on Informed Comment. The new video’s intro screens clearly state its purpose: “An Invitation to the Lands of Jihad and Ribat…Clarify your banner, convert it into action, convey the message, and inspire the believers.” Ribat in this usage carries the meaning of guarding or protecting Muslim lands (Somalia) from non-Muslim aggressors (the African Union military force protecting the “apostate” TFG, which relies heavily on external support from the African Union, the United States, and the United Nations for support. The video includes a lot of interesting footage, including a segment with the Qa’qa, the Kenyan “martyred” during an ambush on Ethiopian military forces then occupying Somalia in an operation featured in the March 2009 Harakat al-Shabab video Ambush at Bardale, which was most notable for featuring the American Harakat al-Shabab commander Omar “Abu Mansur al-Amriki” Hammami for the first time without his face covered.
Message to the Ummah is significant in a number of ways, the most significant of which will be examined in this post.
First, the official English translation of the Form II imperative Arabic verb حرض as “inspire” is an interesting one. The verb can also mean “to prod, egg on, incite, rouse” and is often translated as “incite” or “rouse.” The Arabic phrase “wa harrida al-mu’mineen” is taken from a verse from the Qur’an, verse 84 of Surah (chapter) Al-Nisa’, which reads: “فَقَـٰتِلۡ فِى سَبِيلِ ٱللَّهِ لَا تُكَلَّفُ إِلَّا نَفۡسَكَۚ وَحَرِّضِ ٱلۡمُؤۡمِنِينَۖ عَسَى ٱللَّهُ أَن يَكُفَّ بَأۡسَ ٱلَّذِينَ كَفَرُواْۚ وَٱللَّهُ أَشَدُّ بَأۡسً۬ا وَأَشَدُّ تَنكِي”…“Thus fight in God’s cause for you are held responsible only for yourself, and rouse the believers. God may restrain the fury of the unbelievers, for God is the strongest in might and punishment.” It has been used in the past in a number of jihadi-takfiri media releases, including a video message from the the late ‘Abdullah al-Rashoud, an ideologue for Al-Qa’ida in Saudi Arabia, the original incarnation of Al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula, which is different from the current reincarnation of AQAP based in Yemen. The choice of “inspire” is not far from the other usual translations of the verb, but raise the question of whether the Al-Kata’ib producers chose “inspire” in order to play off the title of the new and widely covered English language magazine produced by the current AQAP’s Al-Malahem (Epics) Media Foundation.
Second, Message to the Ummah is the first video in which a relatively large number of Harakat al-Shabab’s foreign recruits are featured in speaking roles. The recruits hail from a number of countries but the majority of them are from countries in or around the Horn (East) of Africa (the numbers following the country denote the number of featured speakers from it in the video): Kenya (3), Tanzania (1), Ethiopia (1), Sudan (1), Britain (1), Sweden (1), and Pakistan (1). There is also an English speaker, possibly an American, whose country is not identified.
Although most of the attention in the European and North American press has been paid to Harakat al-Shabab’s recruitment of Western youth, most of them from Somali diaspora communities, anecdotal evidence has suggested that the group views the Horn of Africa as being an as or even more important area of recruitment than diaspora communities in Western Europe, Canada, and North America. There are significant Somali diaspora refugee communities in many Horn countries, including Kenya. For example, there is a large Somali area, Eastleigh, in the Kenyan capital city, Nairobi. The logistics of both Harakat al-Shabab recruiters and potential recruits is significantly easier from Horn countries than from Western Europe and North America given the former countries’ much closer proximity to the field of battle, Somalia and, most importantly, the country’s divided front line capital city of Mogadishu.
Third, the decision of the video’s producers to subtitle it in both English and Swahili shows that Harakat al-Shabab is keenly interested in attracting recruits from Horn countries. Swahili, a Bantu language, is spoken by an estimated 35 million people in many countries both inside and outside the Horn of Africa. Countries with Swahili-speaking populations include Tanzania, Kenya, Burundi, Uganda, Mozambique, Congo, Oman, Rwanda, Somalia, South Africa, the United Arab Emirates, and even the United States. Swahili used to be written in Arabic script and includes a large number of words from Arabic but is today written in the Latin alphabet. ‘Ali Mahamoud (Mahmoud) Rage, Harakat al-Shabab’s senior spokesman, ends the video by saying, with a smile, “And we say to our family in East Africa: Welcome to Somalia, there are no worries.” Speaking in Arabic, he uses the Arabic word Ahl-naa (our family, our people) and then closes with the famous Swahili saying, Hakuna Matata, “there are no worries.”
Harakat al-Shabab’s desire and ability to recruit from Somali diaspora communities and among a much smaller known number of non-Somali Muslims is both a sign of both its strength and weakness. Its past or present recruiting networks in Europe and North America have been relatively successful in bringing a small number of “foreign” mostly Somali diaspora recruits from abroad to the battle front in Somalia. It must be highlighted here that the number of such recruits, while an issue worthy of attention and concern, is an extremely small number when compared to the overwhelming majority of Somalis living outside of their homeland. Harakat al-Shabab’s ability to do this shows its ingenuity and ability to penetrate Somali diaspora communities in a dozen or so countries both inside and outside the Horn of Africa. Many of the 20 or so American-Somalis who are known to have traveled back to Somalia left between 2007-2009 when the country was still occupied by Ethiopia. The possibility, indeed probability, is that many of them were influenced by popular nationalist sentiment against the Ethiopian occupation that was shared by many if not most Somalis both inside and outside of the country.
On the other hand, Harakat al-Shabab’s recruitment abroad may also be a significant sign of its domestic weakness, namely its inability to recruit an adequate number of fighters from inside the areas of southern and central Somalia that it controls. The foreign recruits featured in Message to the Ummah all urge Muslims from outside Somalia to come to the country and join the ranks of Harakat al-Shabab. There is a perhaps unintentional sense of urgency to their calls, suggesting that the insurgent group is in need of new recruits in order to push forward in Mogadishu against the African Union military force and the TFG headed by President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed.
Harakat al-Shabab is not alone in seeking to attract members of the large Somali diaspora, so has the Transitional Federal Government. Both the insurgency and the TFG have relied on members of the diaspora with various technical and bureaucratic skills from diaspora members. One of the dangers of relying too heavily on foreign, even from the diaspora, support is that a group’s domestic legitimacy is often weakened, as is the case with both Harakat al-Shabab and the TFG. This is the result of the groups being seen as too beholden to outside influences. The TFG also suffers from a lack of legitimacy inside the country because of its failure to develop a viable framework for good governance and encouraging rapprochement between the various factions inside the country. Indeed, without the African Union military support it is likely that the TFG would collapse and be overrun in its own capital city by Harakat al-Shabab and other militias and insurgent factions.
Some of the choice of language used by various speakers in the video suggest that Harakat al-Shabab’s leaders view its position as more potentially precarious than they admit in public. For example, the video’s narrative is built around selected audio clips from the August 2008 video message from the late Saleh ‘Ali Saleh al-Nabhani, a former Kenyan Al-Qa’ida Central operative in East Africa who was also closely affiliated with Harakat al-Shabab. He was killed in a United States military strike on September 14, 2009 in Somalia. Al-Nabhani calls for Muslims from abroad to come and aid the “Army of Difficulty/Hardship,” Jaysh al-‘Usra, in Somalia, using the name for Harakat al-Shabab’s military wing. In his call, there is an element of urgency, which is repeated by the new speakers featured in Message to the Ummah. One of them, Abu Ja’far from Kenya, uses the word “defense” in describing the front lines in Mogadishu: “…We have finished out training and are now stationed at the defense lines and our enemies, the Ugandans, Burundians, and Americans, are right here in front of us, not very far away.”
However, there are signs that Harakat al-Shabab’s leaders are keenly aware of their domestic weaknesses. The group has undertaken and publicized a number of small-scale public works projects and social services in the areas of southern and central Somalia that it controls. Recently, the group distributed charity (zakat) to needy Somalis in its territory and held an ‘Eid al-Adha fair for residents of Mogadishu. It has also repaired roads, factories, and small bridges. Press releases announcing these projects are usually accompanied with photographs. The group also holds large ‘Eid prayers on ‘Eid al-Adha and ‘Eid al-Fitr, the two major Muslim religious holidays, that are a traditional way of showing legitimacy and authority. Harakat al-Shabab also cleverly tied the recent controversy over planned Qur’an burnings by the American evangelical preacher Terry Jones with United States-backed African Union military presence in Somalia, attracting a large crowd to a rally held after ‘Eid al-Fitr communal prayers this year. It is also targeting Somali youth by holding competitions for which significant prizes in money, books, and school supplies are awarded.
Although some of the foreign recruits featured in the video are possibly from Somali diaspora communities in the Horn of Africa, they are not identified. A number of the foreign recruits urge the target audience(s) to view Somalia as a legitimate field of jihad against non-Muslim aggressors and occupiers of a Muslim country, aided by the treachery of “apostate” Muslims such as Sheikh Sharif, or, as the Sudanese recruit Khalid al-Sudani calls him in the video, “the apostate Sharif.”
For example, in his call for “hijra (migration) and jihad (struggle)” the Pakistani recruit Abu Muthanna says: “I want to greet my mujahideen brothers whether they are in Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine, Turkestan, Pakistan, Islamic North Africa, Indonesia, Chechnya, the Arabian Peninsula, or [those who are] waging jihad in any other part of the world…I want to inform you, my brothers, that it is for the same reason that you fighting that we are waging war here in Somalia.” In his words there is a sense that the ongoing civil war-insurgency in Somalia is not viewed as being as “legitimate” as, say, Afghanistan/Pakistan, Yemen, or Iraq in the eyes of those Muslims abroad who are considering taking part in a conflict. Abu Muthanna urges them to see the insurgency in Somalia as a legitimate religious war: “Do not forget why this war is being waged, brothers, [or] the reason why God sent Prophet Muhammad…[it was] so God’s name reaches every corner of the world and that this religion becomes supreme and that worship becomes due only for God alone and not in the name of any tyrant [Arabic-origin word Taghut). Because of this war the world is divided into two camps, with Islam on one side and Kufr (unbelief) on the other.”
The ongoing civil war in Somalia, which is essentially an insurgency against a weak central government that relies on the United States, United Nations, and African Union for its survival, is described in border-less, transnational religious terms. This is a frequently-used tactic in Harakat al-Shabab’s propaganda videos and press releases. Although a number of the group’s leaders have publicly stated similar views, I suspect that for at least some of them there is an element of rhetorical strategy in such expressions. Similarly, there is a strategic reason for including audio clips in Message to the Ummah from Al-Qa’ida Central leaders such as Usama bin Laden and Abu Yahya al-Libi, as well as ‘Abdullah ‘Azzam, the late father of the “Afghan” Arabs during the 1980s jihad against Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. In short, there is an element of using border-less descriptions of the Somali conflict as a cleverly-employed tactic that aims to attract a wider pool of an already relatively small number of recruits. This is not to say that there is not a cadre of Harakat al-Shabab’s leaders who do subscribe to a transnational-type jihadi ethos. What I am arguing is that a greater deal of nuance is needed in analyzing an insurgent group like Harakat al-Shabab. Divisions in the views held by the group’s leaders and, as importantly, between the leadership(s) and rank-and-file members, many of whom probably do not share the transnational element of the group’s outlook, are important. Differences between foreign recruits (or some foreign recruits) and in-country recruits is also possible and should be further studied, though this is admittedly not an easy task given conditions on the ground inside Somalia.
Studies of insurgent movements from around the world have shown that many rank-and-file members of insurgent groups do not join with a strong or fully-formed ideological outlook but rather are educated with one once they have joined. In the case of Harakat al-Shabab recruits this education process once joining may play off a “pre-radicalization” process that some of the recruits have undergone prior to joining. Abu Dunaja, the recruit from Britain, speaks of the “God-less” society from which he came: “I’d like to use my time to talk about the blessings of living in one of the lands of jihad. First of all, before some of us came here [to Somalia] we were living in a society where people were enslaved by their desires, a place where people were made busy with worldly affairs and hardly anyone took time to think of the Hereafter, a place where what God has made forbidden was sometimes an obligation and what God has made obligatory was sometimes forbidden. Then God, the Praised and Exalted, guided us to come into this land [Somalia] so we may have a chance in establishing a society where the laws of God will be implemented, a place where forbidden is what God has forbidden and obligatory is what God has made obligatory, and lawful is what God has made lawful, a place where enjoining the good and forbidding the evil is encouraged and not prevented…”
Similarly, Abu Zayd (Zaid) from Sweden raises the subject of Lars Vilks, the Swedish cartoonist who drew derogatory cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad that offended and angered many Muslims around the world. After encouraging his “brothers and sisters” in Sweden to make “hijra” (emigration) to Somalia, he sends a warning to the cartoonist: “I want to send this warning to Lars Vilks, who was behind the caricatures defaming our Prophet, upon him be peace and blessings…and I saw to Lars Vilks that wherever you are, if not today or tomorrow, know that we haven’t forgotten about you. We will get hold of you and, with God’s permission, we will catch you wherever you are and in whatever hole you are hiding in, God willing, knows what awaits you, as it will be nothing but this: slaughter, for that is what you deserve! And to my brothers and sisters, I call you to make hijra and if you can kill this dog called Lars Vilks, with God’s permission, then you will receive a great reward from God.” Abu Zayd’s call is directed at Muslims outside of Somalia. Indeed, the cartoons affair(s) was and likely remains an issue of little importance to them as they expend their energy on the more practical and immediate concern of trying to stay alive and protect their loved ones in a country that has been torn apart by civil war and foreign interventions since 1991.
Harakat al-Shabab, like other insurgent groups, is attempting to create a type of closed, self-sustained community, a proxy “family,” for recruits in order to ensure their loyalty and attract wayward, confused youth from abroad. The recruits featured in Message to the Ummah all emphasize the unity among the group’s members. Muhammad, a young man from Tanzania, says: “My dear Muslim brothers…we are waiting to confront the enemy and we are calling you, our brothers, those of you who are in different places, to come and join us here so we [can] attack the enemy together.” He and other featured speakers emphasize the communal aspects of the insurgency. A section of the video is also dedicated to showing “Mu’askar (military camp) moments…at the training camp: life and leisure.”
Harakat al-Shabab spokesman ‘Ali Rage pledges the group’s support and protection to those muhajireen (emigrants) who come to assist the insurgent group: “Almighty God has blessed us out of His bounty with a handful of noble mujahireen…We rejoice in their arrival and are happy to honor them. We are comforted by their gatherings and we pledge to God that we will protect them with our blood and [we pledge] to carry them upon our shoulders and to protect them from that which we protect ourselves and our families from. And by the grace of God, Somalia has become a popular destination for all emigrants in the way of God. So, may God protect you, O’ muhajireen…” In closing the video, Rage says: “And I ask God to make us the best Ansar (hosts, helpers) for the best of mujahireen…”
My central argument in this post has been that the often subtle differences among various segments of Harakat al-Shabab’s membership, both at the leadership and rank-and-file levels, deserves much more careful examination and analysis than much of what has been produced about the group thus far. I have also argued that the group is, at its heart, an insurgent movement, though certainly one with militant religious characteristics. However, despite its transnational rhetoric, its recruitment of foreigners and fundraising abroad has been aimed at strengthening the insurgency at home. Even the group’s bombings in Kampala, Uganda were aimed at achieving a domestic goal, the withdrawal of Ugandan and other African Union military forces from Mogadishu, without which the Transitional Federal Government would fall. This is not to rule out the possibility that the group in the future could be fully transformed into a mostly or fully transnational militant movement. I believe, though, that one of the best ways to prevent this is to pay closer attention to the divisions of opinion within the Harakat al-Shabab movement, as others have argued with regard to the Afghanistan “Quetta Shura” Taliban (or Talibans). Rumored divisions among senior Harakat al-Shabab leaders Ahmed “Mukhtar Abu al-Zubayr” Godane and Mukhtar “Abu Mansur” Robow, which have yet to definitively pan out, have nonetheless persisted. Such divisions, if they prove to be real, are significant and should not be ignored or summarily written off.