Analysis: Down but not out: al-Shabaab still a threat

WEAKENED on the battlefield, Somalia’s al-Shabaab militants may yet survive – and could even prosper from a reinvigorated push by the West and African to rebuild arguably the world’s most deeply war-damaged nation.

But if there is a future for the radical Islamists, it won’t be thanks to the merger they announced on 9 February with al-Qaeda.

Instead, al-Shabaab’s fate depends on internal political struggles that have little to do with the West’s fight against militancy, or even with the multinational drive against pirate communities believed to have tactical tie-ups with some in the insurgency.

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The group’s prospects will gain in proportion to the degree of clan conflict stirred by the creation of a successor to the weak interim government, a task that must be done before its mandate expires just six short months from now.

Somalia’s nine million population is composed of dozens of clans and sub-clans, many with a history of armed rivalries over land, political power and businesses during 20 years of war.

Those communities left out of any administration hastily cobbled together to succeed the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) may resort to force to stake their claim to power – and al-Shabaab may be waiting in the wings to offer them support.

Others with vested commercial interests in turmoil may also turn to spoiling tactics, teaming up with disaffected communities to prolong the inter-clan conflict that has ravaged the country ever since the overthrow of dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991.

In a country full of young men with guns, where in urban areas there are few jobs apart from robbery and extortion, opportunities for stoking political mayhem are plentiful.

Whether al-Shabaab endures or fades into history is a matter of high importance for its Western and African foes, who view it as a terrorist threat and a cause, along with a host of lesser clan militias, of the poverty and chaos in which piracy thrives.

The TFG has said hundreds of foreign fighters have joined the insurgency from countries including Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Gulf, and Western nations such as the United States, Britain and Sweden.

The Islamists have launched cross-border raids into Kenya and have threatened Kenya, Uganda and Burundi with major attacks if the troops they have sent to fight al-Shabaab do not leave.

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Many Somalis, too, say they would like an end to the group, likened by some to the Taleban for its zealous persecution of individuals deemed pro-Western and to Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge in its taste for radical, agrarian-based self-sufficiency.

The group earned widespread criticism in Somalia for impeding the flow of international emergency food aid to famine-struck communities in 2011 – some of the many nationalists who flocked to its banner during an earlier Ethiopian incursion have deserted it, disenchanted by its actions during this period.

But experts say al-Shabaab may well spy opportunity in the peace process backed by the West, recalling that Somalia’s war has sometimes seen peace efforts fail when militias feel left out and resort to the gun or build a new set of alliances.

A notable example of thwarted clan ambition was Mohamed Farah Aideed, a general who helped bring down Mohamed Siad Barre, and whose goal of becoming president stirred a power struggle that helped to accelerate Somalia’s descent into chaos.

Aideed’s militiamen fought US forces in a celebrated 1993 battle, portrayed in the Hollywood film Black Hawk Down and widely remembered by Washington as a humiliating defeat.

For now, with the international community’s fight against al-Shabaab dominating the political landscape, clan infighting may seem a remote prospect – but the threat is still there.