Following the upending event of September 11th in New York City, and the ensuing global campaign against terrorism, the broader security dynamics of almost every region of the world have transformed drastically. Tactics employed by splinter groups today have taken on a new face – one dominated by intense guerrilla warfare aimed at instilling fear and intimidation among the masses. It’s a war where the public is implicitly exposed and the stakes are high. Africa, as a whole, is no exception to this change. Recently, a plethora of armed groups have found thriving sanctuaries.
A major player in this league of outlaws, undoubtedly, is Somalia based Al-Shabaab. An organization that was initially a youth dominated militia wing of a popular, and relatively moderate, domestic Islamic movement, it bludgeoned its way to greater prominence in the global security landscape. In particular, the safety of East Africa has been the most impacted following the foray of Ethiopian armed forces inside Somalia in late 2006. Historians and experts point to this invasion as the pivotal cause for lending Al-Shabaab the impetus to grow and increase its influence and operations within their native land, and eventually evolve into an organization with transnational terror ambitions and reach.
A few landmark events should be examined in order to provide some insight into this organization as it regards to its philosophy, methods, and ultimate goals.
The saga of Al-Shabaab and the ongoing episodes of violence unleashed by the group can be generally traced back to the socio-economic crisis plaguing Somalian cities in the early 1990s. The former military dictator of Somalia, Muhammad Siad Barre, was overthrown in 1991 causing the conditions on the ground to severely deteriorate. Rival clans, warlords, and opposing factions fought one another for several years without the emergence of a conclusive authority that could accumulate enough military and political support to unequivocally rule over the entire country. This situation was compounded by famines that, along with chronic civil war, led to the death of several hundred thousand human lives. At this point, Somalia was fraught with lawlessness and anarchy. Murders, torture, robbery, and rape had become commonplace. In the late 1990’s however, matters took a rather unexpected turn when an atmosphere of order started to crystallize at the most basic social level in the wake of the establishment of neighborhood Sharia courts. Ineffective conduct, the non-existence of a police structure, and a system of justice were the key factors responsible for triggering this new social development. In 2004, these local courts coalesced to give birth to a united and more powerful organization by the name of Islamic Courts Union or ICU, led by Sheikh Ahmed. Owing to the growing power of ICU and the potential threat it posed to the inter-fighting clans, it was perceived as a threat by contesting parties, and conflict ensued. After a series of swift military triumphs ICU managed to take control of Somalia and restore an environment of order to the country, one that Somalia had not seen in more than a decade. In the backdrop of the rise of ICU as the most powerful entity within the country, elements from the organization found unprecedented opportunity to impose their own dictations of the Islamic code of Governance and Justice to the public on large scale. One such offshoot, known for its harsh conduct was Al Shabaab or, The Youth.
These developments were being closely watched by Ethiopia, a neighbor of Somalia and predominately Christian country. Ethiopia viewed the growing strength of ICU as a possible future threat to its national interests along with the fears of a religiously motivated Al-Shabaab backed violence spilling across the border into Ethiopia. These apprehensions led to grand preemptive intervention by Ethiopia inside ICU controlled Mogadishu, using thousands of ground troops, artillery, tanks, and aircrafts. With ICU crushed in the capital, the result was a decisive victory for the invading army. Al-Shabaab, however, was not completely eliminated. Traces of its leadership retreated to the central and southern parts of the country. Replenished and reorganized, the militia waged a campaign of attrition against Ethiopian forces, killing hundreds of soldiers. This eventually forced Ethiopian troops to withdraw and transfer the control of Mogadishu to peacekeepers under the African Union Mission to Somalia (AMISOM), whose presence is currently limited to a few sections of the capital city, focused on propping up the Transitional Federal Government.
Al-Shabaab, possibly one of the deadliest terrorist outfits in Africa may have a long list of murders, killings, and abductions under its name but it’s certainly not the only group operating in East Africa. A host of other similar and equally violent organizations have recently made news with their heinous acts against humanity. It is in this context that we’re seeing a spate of violence in a wide range of African countries today.
In 2013, dozens of churches were attacked in Kenya and Tanzania in a series of bombings. Two worshipers were killed and thirty others injured in a bomb attack at the Roman Catholic Church in Arusha, Tanzania in May 2013.
Currently, Cameroon is reeling under the horrors of brutality perpetrated by the infamous Boko Haram.
In Uganda, militants from al-Shabaab killed over 70 people in bomb attacks in venues which were broadcasting the World Cup final in 2010. In September 2013, the same group murdered at least 67 people at the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, the Kenyan capital. In April 2015, Al-Shabaab claimed responsibility for the massacre that killed 147 people and wounded dozen others at a Kenyan university.