The Battle for Somalia


Source: Somali Real

Historical Background

Somalia is historically made up of a complex system of clans and sub-clans, to whom deeply entrenched loyalties are given, to the extent that people are traditionally identified not from where they come but to which clan they belong to. According to Martin Meredith, in his book The Scramble for Africa (p.466), “Somali politics tended to consist more of shifting allegiances and temporary coalitions of lineages, making the system inherently unstable.” What Meredith says is extremely important if one wants to understand the political developments in Somalia in the last two decades.

Somalia has recently elected its first effective government for twenty years, since Mohammed Siad’s dictatorial regime was overthrown by the United Somali Congress (USC), a Hawiye-clan dominated group – the Hawiye is the dominant clan in Central Somalia, and as a result in Mogadishu region. Right after overthrowing the regime, the USC imploded and disintegrated following a power struggle between two Hawiye leaders – each belonging to two distinct sub-clans. Several clashes took place between the two forces for the conquest of Mogadishu, resulting in famine, starvation and death. A power-vaccum soon followed.

This anarchical state was thus scrambled by competing warlords and inter-clan conflict. There was no stability nor single control over the territory, causing “soaring poverty rates, destruction of infra-structure, ethnic cleansing, near-continual armed conflict, the emergence of several semi-autonomous regions, and a series of severe famines.” (Rob Wise, p. 2)

In late 2004 a Transitional Federal Government (TFG) comprised of representatives from Somalia’s largest clans, was created, having the support of its Western neighbour, Ethiopia. On February 2006 it moved into the south-central town of Baidoa. However, the TFG was unable to overcome clan politics or exert any level of authority outside Baidoa’s region. In sum, the war and tragic situation continued unabated and worsening.

In order to tackle the rampant lawlessness, the late 1990’s brought about the creation of Sharia courts. Those courts based on the Islamic Law intended to restore a degree of law and order, being largely welcomed, for they provided people with much needed security and stability (Rob Wise, p. 3). Moreover, in 2004 eleven of the courts merged to form the Islamic Courts Union and, by June 2006, managed to crush the warlords, seized power in Mogadishu, and began expanding into the countryside. Some members also used this success to impose their own vision of strict Islamic law.

In the 1980’s a group of middle-eastern educated Somali Wahabis created a group called Al Itihaad al Islamiya (AIAI), which had as its main goal the establishment of an Islamic State in all of Somalia (David Childs, 2005). By 2000, the group disintegrated maintaining only its youngest militant members. Later the group was reformed, giving birth to al-Shabaab and was later incorporated into the ICU, representing the Court’s youth movement.

The growth of al-Shabaab

In early 2006, al-Shabaab fighters attacked Mogadishu as part of a campaign by the ICU to gain control of the capital from the warlords. Meanwhile, the ICU advances in Mogadishu and south-central Somalia were observed with great concern by Somalia’s long historical foe, Ethiopia. As a result, on December 24th 2006, the Ethiopian army entered Somalia, rapidly destroyingly the ICU and taking control of Mogadishu (Martin Plaut, 2007).

ICU leaders immediately fled the country. On the other side, members of al-Shabaab retreated to the south of the country, from where they started a guerrilla campaign against the Ethiopian military in Somalia. In addition, al-Shabaab began operating independently from the ICU, and as a result the group established as their main goals to expel the Ethiopian army from the country and create an Islamic state. Al-Shabaab began gathering wide support among the south-central population, ultimately holding control over a significant part of the country. Nationalist feelings among the population towards the ‘foreign invaders’ made recruitment easier. As a matter of fact, the aftermath of the invasion showed an exponential increase in al-Shabaab’s militancy from 400 to an estimate of 4,000 (Kathryn H. Floyd, 2010), transforming al-Shabaab into the single most powerful and radical resistance force in the country.

On February 26th, 2008, the U.S. Department of State declared al-Shabaab as a ‘foreign terrorist organization’. Al-Shabaab answered in April 5th of the same year, by saying that (NEFA Foundation, 2008):

This American behaviour shows the close allegiance between the crusaders everywhere – and that they will spare no effort to extinguish the fire of Allah (…) We fight the Ethiopian crusaders on the territory of Somalia (…) In conclusion, we say to the patron and protector of the cross, America: the wager that you made on the Ethiopians, Ugandans and Burundians in Somalia was a failure (…) Allah willing, we will attack them, roam [through their ranks], cut off every path they will take, chase away those who follow them, and fight them as insects and wolves.”

Christopher Harnisch (p.28) clearly says that al-Qaeda and al-Shabaab have, above all, one major common goal: “the expulsion of perceived infidels—namely the American Crusaders and their partners—from Muslim lands, and the establishment of a global Islamic state.”

In the first months of 2010, al-Shabaab announced its intention “to connect the Horn of Africa jihad to the one led by al Qaeda and its leader Sheikh Osama Bin Laden” and vowed allegiance to al-Qaeda: “We await your instructions and we will act according to what you see in the coming stage to be in the interests of jihad and the Muslim Ummah” (Bill Roggio, 2011).

Although links were established between the two groups in the previous years, it was only on February 9th 2012, that Al-Shabaab’s intention to join Al-Qaeda was formally accepted by the most famous terrorist group in the planet (Agence France-Presse, 2012).

On October 28, 2008, al-Shabaab executed a series of five synchronized suicide attacks across Somalia killing 31 people (Xan Rice, 2008). This event marked a change in the group’s tactics, making it highly likely that these attacks were executed with al-Qaeda tactical advice (Bruton, 2010).

Foreign intervention

In March 2009, the Ethiopian army withdrew and was replaced by an African union peacekeeping force, named African Union Mission to Somalia (AMISOM) which is comprised mostly of Ugandan and Burundian peacekeepers. AMISOM was largely placed and concentrated in Mogadishu, aiming at supporting the TFG.

The African Union Mission in Somalia is mandated by the U.N. Security Council to “stabilize the situation in the country in order to create conditions for the conduct of Humanitarian activities and an immediate take over by the United Nations (UN)” (AMISOM, 2012). The mandate, extended on December 22, 2010, “requests the African Union to urgently increase its force strength to its mandated level of 12,000 uniformed personnel, thereby enhancing its ability to carry out its mandate”. It also “requests AMISOM to continue to assist the Transitional Federal Government in the development of the Somali Police Force and the National Security Force” and “stresses the need to continue to develop an effective Somali police force and welcomes the desire of the African Union to develop a police component within AMISOM.”

However, it is not only the U.N./African Union mandated AMISOM who is currently taking military action in the field. In November 2011, one thousand Ethiopian troops invaded central Somalia in coordination with Kenya, who attacked from the south. Rob Wise (p. 3) explains the reasons for Ethiopia’s intervention:

  •  “Majority-Christian Ethiopia grew alarmed about the potential for religiously motivated, ICU-sponsored violence within borders;

  • Radical voices within the ICU increasingly began to refer ‘jihad’ against the Ethiopian ‘crusaders’;

  • ICU forces began encircling and preparing to attack Baidoa, the seat of the Ethiopian-backed Transitional Federal Government.”

On February 22nd, 2012, the Ethiopian army took the city of Baidoa, al-Shabaab’s second most important stronghold (Pan-African News, 2009). Some months before, in the night of 6 to 7 of august 2011, al-Shabaab’s pulled out from Mogadishu after an offensive by AMISOM troops. Al-Shabaab was seemingly loosing power, influence and leverage over the country, due to external intervention.

Despite positive contributions, as we have seen, an Ethiopian incursion into Somali territory may have been unwise. Ethiopia, a majority-Christian nation, and Somalia, a majority-Muslim country, have clashed a number of times since Somalia’s independence in 1960. The attacks may most likely strengthen al-Shabaab’s support and recruitment capabilities, since it was this nationalist sentiment towards the 2006 Ethiopian invasion, which led to the group’s astonishing growth in strength, influence and numbers.

The nationalist-religious fight against the ‘enemy’

As opposed to the ICU leaders, many of the Wahabi militants decided to stay and fight as part of al-Shabaab. The group immediately enforced a much stricter version of Sharia law than the one practiced by the members of the ICU. In addition, the lack of an effective government meant that typical governmental functions (maintain law and order through police, courts, and provide welfare) were carried out by al-Shabaab, mostly in the South (the region where the group’s presence is stronger), a factor which indeed contributed for the rise of support for the movement, even by some clan leaders themselves (Rob Wise, 2011).

Moreover, the invasion led al-Shabaab to opt for a nationalist strategy, “as the majority of Somalis were fixated not on religious struggle but on driving the Ethiopians from their country” (Rob Wise, P.5). In fact, while adhering to the al-Qaeda network, the group did not give up on its nationalist claims. Sarah Childress (2010), citing Roger Middleton (2010), argues that “the thing that gives al-Shabaab its punch is its national agenda”. It is these nationalist claims that help recruiting new militants, at the same time providing wider control over Somali territories.

Al-Shabaab also benefited from its relation with al-Qaeda. Christopher Harnisch (p.19) argues that “the statements by al-Qaeda’s top leaders in support of al-Shabaab have given al-Shabaab credibility and proven to be a valuable recruiting tool for attracting international fighters”. Nonetheless, the use of suicide bombs and attacks on civilians, a typical Modus Operandi by the international terrorist group, has damaged its image inside Somalia. Sarah Childress (2010) reports that “after a suicide bombing in December killed at least 19 people, most of them civilians, Somalis took to the streets in protest. Al-Shabaab initially denied any involvement. It later admitted the bomber had been an al-Shabaab fighter and a foreigner”.

Divisions within

Turning to the ‘inside politics’ of Al-Shabaab, experts say that the group is struggling with internal divisions between nationalist factions. A clear example is the internal division between the clan-based militia leaders who, according to Bruton and Pham (p.2) “are mainly determined to oust the TFG and put their own clans in power”, the likes of which “count upwards of 7,000 in their (clan-based militias) ranks”, comprising the majority of the al-Shabaab’s militants. Moreover,

As Ken Menkhaus (p. 3) argues, there is wide resistance to Islamic extremists posed by armed groups organized around clans and even around Islamic belief, the likes of which actively resisted al-Shabaab’s advances in Mogadishu. The author further argues that this resistance is a sign that, as Ethiopia pulled back in 2009, al-Shabaab lost the moral imperative for population support, since that ‘moral imperative’ from which the group originated – fight the ‘other’, the ‘foreign invader’ – had simply vanished.

An article in The Economist (Anonymous, 2012) strenghtens the argument that clan-based opposition is growing by saying that Clans are “entrenching themselves in their respective areas” – Somaliland, dominated by the Isak clan; Puntland, dominated by a sub-clan of the Darodclan; Galmudug under a feudal lord; Jubaland, in the southernmost region; and the pirates control the coastal area from Eyl to Haradheere. It is against their interests to be ruled by a religiously-led organization, while it can hold on to a its traditional territory being the higher authority.


Economist, 2012

Regarding opposition around Islamism, one of the main divisions within al-Shabaab is the indecision towards which path to choose: “one camp sees the group’s path as following that of other al-Qaeda affiliates toward global jihad, while the other holds a more localized Islamist agenda in the establishment of an Islamic state in Somalia” (Zimmerman, 2012). In what concerns to opposition from main-stream Islam within Somalia, most Somalis do not share the strict Saudi Arabian-inspired Wahabi interpretation of Islam which is the main ideology behind al-Shabaab. In fact, most Somalis are Sufi-Sunni Muslims, a moderate sect of Islam. The antagonization of Sufi Muslims led to an agreement signed between the Ahlu Sunnah Wal Jamahave (ASWJ), a paramilitary group comprised of Sufi Muslims in Somalia opposed to radical Islam, and the TFG on March 15, 2010. In a public show of its grievances towards radicals, the ASWJ stated that “these radical groups shed Muslim blood every day and they dig out and desecrate our graves. They are funded from outside and their Wahabi ideology is foreign and must be dealt with” (Mohamed Mohamed, 2009). The agreement established cooperation between the two parties in order to bring about a peaceful resolution to the conflict in Somalia. It would, in principle, allow the TFG government to expand its presence in the country.

Differences within the group may influence the splintering into a number of factions, giving rise to new groups and movements inside al-Shabaab, which in turn may or not prolong Somalia’s perilous situation. In other words, this situation may lead to the establishment of other organizations with the same characteristics, as the world’s attention shifts to other places in the world convinced that religious extremism in Somalia is defunct (Zimmerman, 2012). On the other hand, it also has the potential to benefit the government and groups fighting al-Shabaab, as the group becomes weaker and weaker. In fact, the nationalist faction can work as “influential spoilers or peacemakers in any emergent political order” (Ibrahim, 2010).

In addition, the growing influx of foreign jihadists since the group linked up with Al-Qaeda, can also pose a threat to the survival of Al-Shabaab. Bruton (p. 16) supports this claim by saying that “previous attempts by jihadist groups to govern Somalia have foundered against the Somalis’ hostility to restrictive, non-Somali religious edicts and the inability of foreigners to operate within the clan system”. In this way, it is probable that it may revive clan loyalties within al-Shabaab, thus spurring tensions. However, al-Shabaab has proved, up to this day, to be resilient and effective in moderating such loyalties.

Wars unavoidably bring misery, death and starvation with it. In the case of Somalia things have not been different. Although the United Nations have declared that famine in Somalia is over, it estimates that 2.3 million people – 31 percent of the Somali population – are still in a situation of food crisis (Jeffrey Gettleman, 2011). As the situation deteriorated in the country, al-Shabaab military and territorial losses, like the retreat from the Bakara market, the capital’s main trading hub, meant the lost of a major source of revenue for the group (Xan Rice, 2011). Coupled with this, a severe drought struck region, severed by the two-decade-long internal war and by al-Shabaab’s unwillingness to allow humanitarian aid organizations to enter the areas under its control. Al-Shabaab’s failure to make food and water available for the Somali population under its control is making it widely unpopular      amongst the populace.


The circumstances of the conflict between al-Shabaab and the TFG changed completely in 2006. It took a few days for the situation to change from an overwhelming domination by the al-Shabaab over the TFG into a total retreat by the group as soon as Ethiopia came into play. On the other side, this is a conflict that started as regular warfare and became a guerrilla/terrorist type.

Along with territorial and military losses came the dwindling of the groups’ revenues. The local alliances and constant defectors also meant loosing financial and people’s support. Moreover, the Ethiopia’s withdrawal in 2009 led to a further loss of people’s support. And with the lack of people’s support, the task of recruiting militants may become harder.

Therefore, the only solution found to keep al-Shabaab on the surface and avoid it to drown in Somalia’s crisis was for it to look for other sources of financing and support. It was finally provided by the ‘most wanted’ terrorist group in the world, Al-Qaeda.

Al-Qaeda’s support managed to provide al-Shabaab with the necessary skills and know-how to perform terrorist attacks and also an increased ability to lure foreign militants. However, it further diminished Somali support for it as the majority of the population do not see the radical view of Islam as the true Muslim belief. Abdi Elmi and Aynte(2012) argue that “Al-Shabaab has alienated the Somali people with its assassinations, attacks against innocent civilians, and poor management of last year’s famine.”

Despite having perpetrated attacks abroad, al-Shabab has largely turned its attention towards within its borders. In other words, as Bruton and Pham (2012) argue, the group has “invested more in the nationalist goal of removing AMISOM and the TFG from Mogadishu than in fighting a war with the rest of the world”. Notwithstanding, the danger of the movement to spread further across borders or entering in deeper cooperation with other foreign terrorist groups, is present and should not be ignored.

Afyare Abdi Elmi and Abdi Aynte (2012)argue that the international community should focus on reconciliation with the rebels and rely less on military action intending to crush them.This approach would, according to the authors, provide a chance to engage and reach a compromise with senior figures of al-Shabaab that are willing to negotiate with the government.


To the US and the International Community:

  • The nationalist branch of al-Shabaab should be dealt with: this branch has the implementation of an Islamic state in Somalia as their main goal, opposed to a global Jihad defended by the radical Islamic branch (Bruton and Pham, 2012). This interaction could lead to an agreement between the TFG and nationalist leaders, culminating in a cessation of hostilities from the part of some of those leaders, and safeguarding the integration of these leaders in a possible future inter-clan agreement.

  • The Somali Diaspora, which has been one of the main sources of finance to al-Shabaab and a relevant source of militants, should be part of the strategy in order to discourage such actions.

  • Promote a type of Federal system: A single sovereign state seems unlikely to be achieved. Therefore, in trying to stabilize Somalia one should interact with clan leaders and promote a federation-type of state. As it is said in an article by the magazine The Economist (Anonymous, 2012), rather than put their faith in the new internationally recognised government, whose writ extends barely beyond Mogadishu, despite recent advances, one should be aware that the various regional leaders have spoken for the creation of a somewhat federal system.

  • Develop and modernize Somali national forces: part of the tragic events since independence tells the world that a foreign force cannot peacefully be in Somali territory for long. Therefore, as the country cannot afford the immediate withdrawal of AMISOM – it would only benefit al-Shabaab -, the decision issued by the UN mandate extension “to assist the Transitional Federal Government in the development of the Somali Police Force and the National Security Force” must be a high priority, as Elmi and Aynte (2012) also state.

To Ethiopia and Kenya:

  • Withdraw their force: There is danger that the same nationalist sentiment that formed al-Shabaab may reappear, thus reinforcing the group or even creating other resistance groups.


Additional Information:


  • Abdi Elmi, A., and Aynte, A., 2012. Negotiating an End to Somalia’s War with al-Shabaab. Foreign Affairs.

  • Agence France-Presse, 2012. Terror groups: al-Qaeda, Al-Shabab officially merge: Zawahiri. National Post.

  • Anonymous, 2012. Somalia’s future: A ray of hope. The Economist.

  • Bill Roggio, 2011. Somalia’s Shabaab vows allegiance to new al Qaeda emir Zawahiri. The Long War Journal.

  • Bruton, B., 2010. Somalia: A New Approach. Council on Foreign Relations. Available at:

  • Bruton, B., and Pham J., P., 2012. The Splintering of Al-Shabaab. Foreign Affairs.

  • Childress, S., 2010. Somalia’s Al-Shabaab to ally with Al-Qaeda. The Wall Street journal.

  • David Childs, 2005. In the Spotlight: al-Ittihad al-Islami (AIAI).

  • Floyd K., 2010. Somalia’s Stability and Security Situation in Review. International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research.

  • Gettleman, J., 2011. Somalis Waste Away as Insurgents Block Escape From Famine. The New York Times.

  • Harnisch, C., 2010. The Terror Threat from Somalia: The Internationalization of al-Shabaab, Critical threats.

  • Ibrahim, M., 2010. In Somalia, Signs of Discord Appear in a Militant group. The New York Times.

  • Menkhaus, K., 2009. Somalia After the Ethiopian Occupation: First steps to end the conflict and combat extremis, ENOUGH.

  • Meredith M., 2006. The State of Africa. Sydney: Free Press

  • Mohamed, M., 2009. Somali rage at grave desecration. BBC News.

  • NEFA Foundation, 2008. “Shabaab al-Mujahideen” announces new campaign of terrorism in Somalia.

  • Pan-African News Wire, 2009. Al-Shabab Overruns Baidoa; Parliament Expanded; AU Forces Vow to Fire Back.

  • Plaut, M., 2007. Ethiopia in Somalia: One year on. London: BBC News.

  • Rice, X., 2008. Suicide attacks kill dozens in Somalia. The Guardian.

  • Rice, X., 2011. Somali troops move to secure Mogadishu as rebels pull out. The Guardian.

  • Rob Wise, 2011. Al Shabaab. Washington D.C: Centre for Strategic & International Studies.

  • Zimmerman, K., 2012. Al-Shabaab in Decline? Critical Threats.


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