Al Shabaab is surviving because it is paying more attention to money than mayhem. Al Shabaab leaders have always paid attention to finances, something unsuccessful Islamic terror groups generally put less effort into. It’s a Somali specialty to pay attention to the financial opportunities and that is one of the factors that fuel corruption in the government. All that foreign aid is considered fair game for whoever can grab it. Donor efforts to reduce the corruption often meets with indifference masked by insincere agreement to cooperate. The money keeps disappearing before getting to where the donor specified it should go. The looting of the donor funds has become so lucrative that even al Shabaab is recruiting government financial officials to aid the Islamic terrorist efforts to get a share of the looted aid funds.
Many Somalis realize that al Shabaab is unlikely to gain control of the government or most of the country. But as a determined and heavily armed criminal gang, the financial opportunities are enormous. It’s like the ancient Chinese description of government bureaucracy; “the object is not to win or lose but to keep the game going.” Among Islamic terrorists who have survived for a while and operated in different countries, al Shabaab has a reputation of being more mercenary than a religious zealot. This is one reason al Shabaab has been hostile to foreign Islamic terrorists, who are more likely to find acceptance in the smaller, and much less prosperous and successful Somali ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) faction.
The Somali Army proved capable of pushing al Shabaab out of towns beyond Mogadishu and Kismayo (the major city and port further south) but the government has not been able to establish local government services like security and justice administration. This meant working out equitable arrangements with local clan leaders. These local elders were often crooks themselves but they were local crooks who had reached accommodations with the local population. Al Shabaab offered to cooperate because they tried it the other way and it did not work out. Taking Islamic radicalism to the extreme tramples on too many local customs and norms and never works in the long run. The federal government could have worked out deals with the locals to replace al Shabaab control with federal control but that did not happen. Army leaders weren’t equipped or authorized to do this sort of thing and federal officials were more interested in looting opportunities than in restoring administrative and government services the locals would accept. As a result, the army and peacekeeper efforts to maintain control of these areas is gone as soon as the large concentration of troops moves on.
Patience As Run Out
Meanwhile, the clock is ticking on how long the government will have foreign military assistance. Many foreign aid efforts in Somalia have been shut down because of the persistent, and extreme, corruption. That’s the main reason the 21,000 man peacekeeping force is going to start withdrawing in 2021. It is mainly about money and limited resources. Peacekeepers are expensive and over a decade of peacekeeping in Somalia has produced meager results. There is a demand for peacekeepers in other parts of the world, often in places where peacekeepers make more of a difference. Somalia is considered a wasted effort in a world of too much demand and too little supply. This is a common situation with failed states and Somalia is the worst of the worst. The Americans and UN have concluded that a more effective way to deal with Somalia is to pull out the expensive peacekeepers and provide more assistance to Somali neighbors Ethiopia, Kenya and Djibouti to deal with al Shabaab and Somali misbehavior in general.
The UN and AU (African Union) have been supplying Somali with peacekeepers and the money to pay and sustain them since 2007. Back then the plan was for 8,000 peacekeepers who would only be needed for six months. That force did not disappear by the end of 2007 but kept growing and quickly reached 22,000. It made some difference, but in the face of massive corruption in the Somali government and various Somali communities that demanded help from the peacekeepers, the operation proved far more expensive and time-consuming than expected.
The peacekeepers are all Africans from neighboring countries and their commanders understand the violent nature of Somalia, which has been sending raiders into neighboring areas for centuries. Somalis are more accepting of this sort of thing than the neighbors. That may explain why Somalia can be so corrupt while also have a population that considers themselves relatively well off.
The American Response
U.S. SOCOM (Special Operations Command) and CIA intelligence gathering operations have local facilities in Djibouti (where the aircraft and some SOCOM personnel are stationed). There is a smaller satellite facility in Mogadishu, where a heavily guarded compound houses CIA and SOCOM operators who organize and run local intelligence operations and distribute information to peacekeepers, Somali military and trusted local allies. Details of how the intel collection operation works are kept out of the news but it does explain why al Shabaab targets Somali and foreign intel officials whenever possible. The intel and airstrike operations have been very effective and are one reason why there are now so few al Shabaab attacks in general and a growing list of al Shabaab defeats and retreats. But al Shabaab has adapted. This is a pattern that is by design not chance. Al Shabaab does not mention this sort of thing in their online propaganda but among themselves, it is a major topic of conversation and frustration. The U.S. recognizes the difficulty of operating in Somalia and refuses to station many military or intel personnel there. There are currently about 500 American troops in Somalia and only 5,000 (down from 7,500 in 2018) in all of Africa. These belong to AFRICOM and most of those troops are based in Djibouti, Somalia’s northern neighbor. The United States considers Russia, China and Iran as more important than local problems in corrupt corners of Africa. Somalia is considered low priority and the U.S. has concluded that the locals, like neighboring Djibouti, Ethiopia and Kenya are capable of dealing with Somali aggression and invasion.
Ethiopia has been particularly successful, for centuries, in dealing with unruly Somalis. Kenya has been less successful but that changed when during the 75 years Kenya was a British colony. Britain left Kenya independent in 1962 and with a professional military and police force that could better handle Somali aggression. This was not an ideal solution because many Somalis fleeing drought and famine (especially after 2011) more than Islamic terrorism arrived in Kenya and half a million are still living in foreign-aid supported camps near the Somali border. These camps are bases for al Shabaab and Somali gangsters, and Kenya wants them out of Kenya. The UN defends this Somali invasion and occupation on the grounds that Somalis would be worse off if forced back into Somalia. This angers Kenyans because the UN plays down the role the camps play in sustaining Somali violence in Kenya as well as the fact that the UN knows that it cannot deliver aid to the destitute Somalis in Somalia as easily as in Kenya because Somalia is more chaotic and unruly. In short, the Kenyans do not want to pay the price in lives and local resources to protect UN efforts to support Somali refugees who are hostile to Kenyans (and everyone not a Somali.)
January 28, 2020: Africa and the Middle East have long been recognized as the two most corrupt regions on the planet. The extent of this corruption c
an be seen in the international surveys of nations to determine who is clean and who is corrupt. For 2019 the most corrupt country was Somalia. In contrast, the least corrupt nation in the two regions was the UAE (United Arab Emirates), which ranked 21st out of 180 nations in international rankings compared with 23rd in 2018. Corruption is measured annually in the Transparency International Corruption Perception Index. Corruption is measured on a 1 (most corrupt) to 100 (not corrupt) scale. The most corrupt nations (usually Yemen/15, Syria/13, South Sudan/12 and Somalia/9) have a rating of under 15 while of the least corrupt (Finland, New Zealand and Denmark) are over 85.
The current Somalia score is 9 (versus 10 in 2018) while the UAE score is 71 (versus 70 in 2018) compared to 60 (61) for Israel, 13 (13 ) for Syria, 15 (14) for Yemen, 69 (71) for the United States, 35 (35) for Egypt, 26 (27) for Nigeria, 44 (43) for South Africa, 20 (18) for Iraq, 39 (40) for Turkey, 53 (49) for Saudi Arabia, 30 (30) for Ukraine, 45 (44) for Belarus, 58 (60) for Poland, 80 (81) Germany, 65 (61) for Taiwan, 39 (40) for Turkey, 41 (40) for India, 28 (28) for Russia, 57 (54) for South Korea, 41 (39) for China, 14 (17) for North Korea, 37 (35) for Vietnam, 85 (84) for Singapore, 73 (73) for Japan, 40 (37) for Indonesia, 38 (38) for Sri Lanka, 29 (33) for the Maldives, 34 (34) for the Philippines, 32 (32) for Pakistan, 26 (28) for Bangladesh, 26 (30) for Iran, 16 (15) for Afghanistan, 29 (30) for Burma, and 28 (28) for Lebanon.
Both Somalia and UAE’s corruption score have not changed much since the 2011 Arab Spring revolution when it was 8 for Somalia and 68 for the UAE. The UAE achieved the most favorable corruption score in the region because it has long depended on foreign trade to survive and to make money in that business you must be known as an honest trading partner. The UAE is also different in that it is a federation of formerly independent “emirates” that realized the wisdom of joining forces. Laws and customs vary somewhat among the emirates and some are more gangsters than others. But overall the UAE is a place where foreigners feel comfortable doing business. The UAE has also partnered with Turkey to provide foreign aid to Somalia. This has proved very difficult to carry out and Somalia is definitely not a place most foreigners want to do business in.
Somalia still makes the top ten of states with a major Islamic terrorism problem. Yet it was the plight of ISIL in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia and elsewhere is one reason why global Islamic terrorism-related deaths have fallen by over 50 percent since 2014 when there were 35,000 fatalities. The decline was largely attributable to one Islamic terror group, in particular, ISIL that suffered major setbacks in the last few years. As a result global terrorism deaths fell to 19,000 by 2017, less than 16,000 for 2018 and the decline continued into 2019. This activity is most visible in the GTI (Global Terrorism Index), which counts all forms of terrorism. But Islamic terrorism is the main cause and for years ISIL was the deadliest practitioner. That led to a curious situation in Egypt which in 2018 dropped out of the top ten as they suppressed most of the ISIL activity in Sinai. In 2017 Egypt was number three but now it is at eleven.
The top ten consists of Afghanistan, Iraq, Nigeria, Syria, Pakistan, Somalia, India, Yemen, Philippines, and Congo. India, Philippines, Yemen and Congo all have Islamic terrorism accounting for a minority of the deaths. Somalia is one of the areas where there have been fewer deaths in the last few years. Al Shabaab has learned that the most profitable approach is to carry out fewer dramatic, high visibility attacks and otherwise conserve your manpower and resources. Thus the emphasis on spectacular attacks in major cities like Mogadishu or against an American military base.
There is resistance to admitting that Somalia is a failed state, one of those areas (like Yemen and Afghanistan) that were never united for long and are basically several smaller entities that are not really interested in unity with their neighbors who are supposed to be their countrymen. And then there is the corruption problem.
January 27, 2020: In the south (Jilib), an American UAV used a missile to kill at least one al Shabaab member who was considered vital to the Islamic terrorist group.
January 22, 2020: Zubair Al Muhajir, a native of Ivory Coast living in Britain who traveled to Somalia and joined al Shabaab in 2006 has defected to the government. Muhajir rose in the ranks to become a member of the al Shabaab ruling council. He caused internal problems by criticizing the al Shabaab shift from enforcing sharia (Islamic) law in areas it controlled and instead concentrating on making money and basically behaving like bandits. As a foreigner Muhajir never really grasped the Somali attitude towards Islamic radicalism and like many foreign members left, or was killed by Somali al Shabaab members who generally don’t trust foreigners under any circumstances. Some disaffected al Shabaab members go to the government and defect to them in the hope of obtaining amnesty. Others just desert and try to disappear somewhere outside Somalia.
January 18, 2020: Outside Mogadishu, al Shabaab used a car bomb to attack a Turkish highway construction effort. The explosion killed two Turks and twenty other Somalis and Turks. Al Shabaab is particularly hostile to the Turks because the Turks will not pay protection money to the Islamic terrorists to avoid violence like this.
January 16, 2020: In Kuunyo-Barrow (330 kilometers southwest of Mogadishu), an American airstrike killed two al Shabaab men.
January 13, 2020: In the south, across the border in northeastern Kenya, al Shabaab killed three Christian teachers but just kidnapped a Moslem teacher. This group of al Shabaab raiders also fired on a police outpost and a communications tower before returning to Somalia.