Harun Maruf is the longest-serving editor of VOA Somali, the Somali-language service of the U.S. government-funded broadcast service Voice of America, which he joined in December 2007. He has reported on Somalia for more than 30 years and was one of the founders of independent Somali media in the early 1990s. He previously worked for Associated Press and BBC as a reporter in Somalia. In addition to his responsibilities as a senior editor at VOA Somali, he introduced hard-hitting programs at VOA Somali including investigative reports and series programs. In 2018, he launched The Investigative Dossier, a bi-weekly, groundbreaking investigative program and the first of its kind by Somali media. He is the co-author of the critically acclaimed 2018 book Inside Al-Shabaab, the Secret History of Al-Qaeda’s Most Powerful Ally. Twitter: @HarunMaruf
The views expressed by Harun Maruf in this interview are solely his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Voice of America or the United States Government.
CTC: To learn about what is going on in Somalia, many of us covering counterterrorism issues have for years turned to your extraordinarily insightful reporting. Tell me about your journey into journalism.
Maruf: Early on, I wanted to become a footballer. But when I went into high school, obviously my priorities changed. I very much enjoyed writing and following media. I used to carry my own transistor radio, which my father bought for me, and I would listen to the BBC and write down the names of all the world leaders, all the capitals in the world, every major story in the world.
My parents are from the Somali Region in Ethiopia, but because my larger family were involved with efforts, by Somalia, to take back this Somali Region, my family could not live in that region for security reasons. So when I was very young, we moved to Somalia. I have been to most Somali regions, but Mogadishu is where I spent most of my life. That’s where I studied, got my first job, where I got married, where my first child was born.
When the state collapsed in 1991, I was trying to go to university to study journalism. But that opportunity never came because of the state collapse. Nonetheless, I continued my interest in journalism, and I was one of the first journalists to establish the free press that emerged in the country after [President Mohamed] Siad Barre was gone. This was a very interesting period for journalism. We were exercising the freedom to write, to criticize for the first time. It was very exciting, but also a very dangerous time because at that time the country went into civil war. And it very quickly became very dangerous, really, to write critically about what was happening in the country. My first job in journalism was as a columnist. I was writing columns four days a week for our newspaper in Mogadishu. My columns were very critical, and I was threatened because of my take on things. My questions at press conferences to warlords and other politicians were always very pointed so I never had easy relations with politicians and warlords.
It goes without saying that there were a lot of security challenges working in Mogadishu as a young journalist. On one day, history was made in Somalia, and it would change the rest of my life. On December 9, 1992, President George H.W. Bush sent troops to Somalia to deliver aid to people who were impacted by the famine the country was then suffering, and I went to the airport—that’s where the United States troops landed; that’s one of the first areas they took over—and I went there just to cover it as a young journalist. I had my own notebook and a pen, and I met an American journalist who was working for the Associated Press. He was talking to a group of Somalis, and they could not communicate. I was able to speak at that time basic English—not very good, but basic English—and he saw me taking notes and he said, “What do you do?” I said, “I’m a journalist,” and he said, “Can you help me talk to these guys?” And so I translated for him, and then when we finished-up, he said, “Can you come with me? I’ll introduce you to my boss.” We went to the Sahafi hotel (the journalists’ hotel) in Mogadishu where hundreds of Western journalists were staying, and he introduced me to his boss and the rest is history. Associated Press made me their stringer in Somalia. That’s how I hit it off. That’s how in 1995, I got a job with BBC Somali service; that was my dream job. I always was listening to BBC as a young media fan. It was a dream job come true.
I worked for BBC and Associated Press all the way until 1999; when I went to the United Kingdom to study. I got my master’s in international journalism at City University of London, and then I worked briefly for the BBC World Service Trust,a as a consultant for a project that helped train many Somali journalists. Then I worked as a Human Rights Watch researcher for Somalia, and we covered the new conflict from the early period of the Ethiopia military intervention in Mogadishu from December 2006 into 2007 when the brutal counterinsurgency fighting broke out in the capital. In late 2007, while I was in the Dadaab refugee camps in northeastern Kenya interviewing Somali refugees who fled Ethiopian military operations in the Somali Region—my parents’ home region—I was called by a gentleman who was the head of the Voice of America’s [VOA] Somali Service, Fred Cooper, and he offered me a U.S.-based job. At that time, it was very dangerous in Somalia because of the fighting between Ethiopia and the Islamic Courtsb and later on al-Shabaab, and my work was becoming known to the local and foreign human rights violators who were not happy to have their human rights violations in Somalia investigated. It became increasingly dangerous for me, and I was briefly detained because of the investigations in Somalia. So I decided to take the job offer and to go back to journalism, and that’s how I ended up working for VOA.
CTC: When did you first start reporting on Islamist militancy in Somalia?
Maruf: In 1992, I witnessed as a journalist one of the first Islamic courts that emerged in Somalia. Many people don’t know that Mogadishu had an Islamic court in 1992. At the time, there was civil war in Mogadishu, and one of the community leaders, who later became a warlord, called upon the scholars and said, “I don’t want to see any looting, any disturbances in my neighborhood, and I want you to set up an Islamic court.” So an Islamic court was set up in an area called Medina near the airport in Mogadishu. After that, a group of Islamic scholars tried to set up more courts in Mogadishu, but they were immediately disbanded by one of the most powerful warlords at the time, General [Mohamed Farah] Aideed.
In 1994, the Islamic courts properly emerged in Mogadishu. Mogadishu was divided into two parts at the time: north and south. The south was controlled by General Aideed who was a sworn enemy of militant Islamist organizations. But the north was controlled by another warlord called Ali Mahdi, and Islamic courts emerged in his area. And they succeeded in restoring relative stability, and they were carrying out adjudications—chopping [off] hands of thieves and lashing criminals. So I also covered that, and I witnessed myself Islamic courts levying punishments on criminals. But it’s important to note these were not militant courts, and the motivation behind it was to fight criminals and keep peace. But these Islamic courts were, after maybe two years, immediately subdued and destroyed by the warlord because they were getting too powerful. But the Islamic courts reemerged in 1998, 1999, in the south this time, and they were supported by the business community who only wanted security in their area—businessmen and elders—and I witnessed that, too, as a journalist. So I had a very long history of covering Islamist organizations and Islamic courts, which have a very deep-rooted history in Somalia.
I co-authored probably one of the first papers1 about the emergence of Islamic Courts and the little-known jihadist unit, al-Shabaab, that was embedded within the Islamic Courts Union. It was a much-circulated paper. That’s how, early on, I developed my interest in writing about the Islamist militancy in Somalia.
CTC: In the past 15 years or so, for Voice of America, you’ve been mainly based in the United States, correct?
Maruf: Correct. Security-wise, because of the nature of my work, I not only cover Islamist organizations and military organizations, but I also do some investigative reporting of corruption, mismanagement, bad governance, and that has created a lot of animosity for me on the ground.
CTC: Take us inside the reporting enterprise for VOA Somalia. How do you collect information on the challenge posed by al-Shabaab and other jihadi groups?
Maruf: Voice of America’s Somali service was initially launched in 1992 when U.S. forces were sent to Somalia by President Bush, but it did not last long. After a year or so, that program ceased to exist. VOA Somali was relaunched in 2007, so it’s a relatively new service. Within that very short period, we have succeeded really to compete with media organizations that have been covering Somalia for decades like the BBC Somali Service. We have a vast network of reporters and a very rich network of contacts throughout the country and in the region including government sources and independent sources on the ground. News is breaking every minute, so you have to have the capabilities to cover it.
When it comes to covering al-Shabaab, given it is a group that seeks to push out propaganda, VOA has strong editorial standards in place.
We used to interview al-Shabaab leaders when they were in Mogadishu in 2009, 2010, but since they left Mogadishu, they have largely stopped speaking and giving interviews to most media. They still give interviews to some of the media, but they are very selective on which media outlets they speak to. On occasions in which there are major developments involving al-Shabaab, we have made efforts to make contact to try to interview members of the group for legitimate news reasons to get their point of view, but it has not been successful so far. The last al-Shabaab figure we interviewed was the American jihadist Omar Hammami, just days before he was killed by the group.2
In covering al-Shabaab, we monitor their media platforms and websites. We also monitor their official radio station, Andalus, and another radio station called al-Furqaan, which portrays itself as a more independent radio station but nonetheless is located in al-Shabaab territory and defends and takes the line of the group, and so is essentially an al-Shabaab radio station. These two radio stations propagate and air al-Shabaab stories and speeches of their leaders.
And we also monitor al-Shabaab social media activity. A few years ago, Twitter tried to shut down al-Shabaab accounts,3 but there are still accounts that are very much affiliated with al-Shabaab because they very quickly and immediately post their statements and speeches. It appears those who run these accounts have access to the group immediately after an explosion; within a matter of minutes, sometimes even seconds, they publish al-Shabaab claims. So it’s an open secret that they are al-Shabaab accounts, so we also monitor those. We also talk to people who have contacts within al-Shabaab and people who defect from al-Shabaab who know the group.
CTC: More than a decade-and-a-half since al-Shabaab emerged in Somalia, the terrorist group has grown to become “Al Qaeda’s largest, wealthiest and most deadly affiliate.”4 It still has a significant presence in the rural areas of southern and central Somalia and still has the capacity to carry out large-scale attacks in almost any part of the country such as a twin car-bombing in Mogadishu in October that killed over 120.5 What has been the source of the group’s resilience?
Maruf: There are a combination of factors. The main factor is the environment. The Somali state collapsed in 1991, and civil war engulfed the country. Institutions collapsed. Warlords emerged and fought for power and territory. People were desperate. They were looking for some sense of normalcy, stability. They were looking for alternatives. So the environment in Somalia was very conducive for an organization like al-Shabaab to not only emerge, but also to organize itself, to equip itself, and to advance its agenda. All the ingredients were there. Somalia was referred to for a long time as a failed state. And although it was all the way back in 2000 that a transitional government for Somalia was established in Arta in Djibouti,6 today’s government still only has weak reach into many parts of Somalia. This means that al-Shabaab still has the space to mobilize, to organize itself, to train itself, and to carry out attacks. Somali borders are open, and al-Shabaab is still importing weapons from Yemen. This has been documented by the both the U.N.7 and the United States. In October, the U.S. Treasury designated al-Shabaab members who have been accused importing weapons for al-Shabaab from Yemen and facilitating al-Shabaab acquiring weapons in the region.8
So the environment has helped al-Shabaab emerge and rise as a very strong militant organization. The group was part of the Islamic Courts that emerged because of the popular backlash against warlordism, lawlessness, and anarchy. It was after the December 2006 Ethiopian intervention that al-Shabaab grew significantly as a force and recruited many members. Many Somalis, inside and outside the country, opposed the presence of Ethiopian forces. Ethiopia and Somalia had a long history of troublesome conflict, fighting over territory and borders because of the colonial history. So many people who were not necessarily supportive of al-Shabaab opposed the presence of Ethiopia. Al-Shabaab took advantage of that, and they became an organization very deeply rooted in society and to this day that continues to be the case.
You mentioned the word resiliency. Resilience may be an overused word, but not in the case of al-Shabaab. They have survived time and again. Although they lost Mogadishu and all the major cities in Somalia, they control large parts of the countryside and some smaller towns. The weakness of the central government and al-Shabaab’s roots in the local communities means they have been able to impose themselves in these areas. This has also allowed them to build up significant influence even in areas they do not control. They’re collecting taxation from Mogadishu and other major cities. When the ISIS branch in Somalia tried to collect taxation from businesses in Mogadishu and other towns, al-Shabaab posed as the defenders of the business community and tracked down and killed ISIS members in Mogadishu, including the deputy leader of ISIS in Somalia, Mahad Moalim, back in 2018.9 It was a very interesting development at the time.
So al-Shabaab are very much a part of the society in Somalia. Although they merged with al-Qa`ida in 2012 and are very much still part of the al-Qa`ida system, very proud of being with al-Qa`ida and have carried out attacks in Kenya, in Djibouti, very nearly in Ethiopia, in Uganda, they still portray themselves as a locally grown militant organization/resistance group that’s fighting ‘crusaders’ as they call it—non-Muslim countries who are in Somalia and are supporting the Somali government: Uganda, Ethiopia, Kenya, Burundi, etc. This is how they portray themselves, and that’s why they might still appeal to some people in the countryside and can still extort some people in the urban areas.
The other factor that has allowed al-Shabaab to remain strong in Somalia is, as I mentioned, the weakness of the Somali state institutions. Yes, there have been a lot of positive developments in Somalia, and since 2000, there have been peaceful transfers of power, but nonetheless, there have been political squabbles every few years. Whenever there is an election coming up, the Somali political atmosphere really goes from bad to worse, and Somalis take their eyes off stabilizing the country, they take their eye off the main prize, which is to stabilize and deliver services to the population. At that moment, al-Shabaab portrayed itself as a viable alternative group. Whenever these political developments happen and it becomes very volatile and poisonous, al-Shabaab creates doubts in state issues in the eyes of the public, so this also contributes to their resilience and presence in the country.
CTC: Why have the Somali government, African Union forces, regional powers, and the United States been unable to significantly diminish the threat of al-Shabaab?
Maruf: The African Union forces’ initial mandate was to protect the government and government institutions. They succeeded in doing that. Then their mandate slightly changed, and they helped the government drive al-Shabaab out of the major towns. But Somalia is a big country, and African Union forces number about 22,000 troops, [though] that figure has gone down with the ongoing drawdown. Somali forces number between maybe 12,000 to 18,000. And for a long time, there were serious challenges for Somalia to expand the number of soldiers, to train a capable force that can not only take over responsibility from African Union forces, but also recover more territory from al-Shabaab. And because of the same political challenges and pitfalls we have just discussed, Somalia, despite all its attempts, is still on a journey to recruit and train and have a viable army. It seems it’s going to be a very long journey.
There have been serious challenges in getting funds to train its army, in paying salaries to the army, and in convincing the regions to become part of the national army and integrate their forces into the federal army. There was the so-called national security architecture that was reached in 2017 between the Somali government and Somali regional leaders, and this security architecture stated that Somalia should have about 22,000 forces—4,000 Special forces, 18,000 regular forces—and about 32,000 police forces.10 But all these benchmarks have not been reached, five years later, precisely because of lack of funding, because of the political shortcomings of Somali leaders.
This meant that from 2015 up until the new offensives against the militant group since the summer of 2022,11 al-Shabaab was not put under pressure. From the point al-Shabaab was driven out of Mogadishu in 2011, up until 2014, the government made gains against al-Shabaab, taking back territories and cities from al-Shabaab. But from 2015 onward, the operations against al-Shabaab were not consistent. Observers thought there was not a strategy and that there was no sustained effort to recover more territories from al-Shabaab. I’m sure administrations during this period will have different takes, but that approach did not work to diminish the al-Shabaab threat. This is partially why the Somali government and African Union, earlier this year, signed a new agreement, changing the name of African Union forces from AMISOM to ATMIS,c and this agreement, if it succeeds, will shift the priorities of African Union forces from defending bases to becoming more of a mobile force to help Somali forces go out and dislodge al-Shabaab from more territories, recover more territories. That’s what we have seen partially achieved lately by Somali forces, but without a significant contribution from African Union forces.
CTC: Let’s talk about the new offensive against al-Shabaab. After Somalia’s new President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud took office in May, he declared that defeating al-Shabaab was a top priority.12 After the militant group killed over 20 people in a brazen attack at the Hayat hotel in Mogadishu,13 he declared a “total war against al Shabaab.”14 According to the government, an uprising against al-Shabaab by Ma’awisley tribal farmers-turned-militia-fighters backed by Somali government forces and strengthened at times by heavy artillery provided by the African Union has dislodged al-Shabaab from large swaths of central Somalia including in the Hiran region.15 What is your assessment of this renewed counterinsurgency effort and strategy and its potential to result in enduring security gains? How has al-Shabaab responded?
Maruf: First of all, based on our reporting so far, this uprising—the local mobilization of local forces—and Somali government forces have been able to seize large areas in central Somalia—Hiran and Middle Shabelle (both in Hirshabelle State), and in Galmudug State, primarily. They have taken back large areas from al-Shabaab.
A former prominent al-Shabaab theological leader once said, ‘Somali militants are like a fish, and people are the water. Fish cannot survive without water.’ And what he was referring to is that this group really cannot survive without the community. They are very much entrenched in society. This is how they raise their funds. This is how they recruit. This is how they get information. They’re part of society. They cannot maintain their organizational structure and survivability without support and without being among the society.
In the decade or so that preceded the current uprising, Somali clans tried to launch uprisings against al-Shabaab, but they did not succeed because every time they tried to resist the militants’ demands in terms of extortion or donating livestock or recruiting their boys, al-Shabaab crushed this resistance because there was no capable central government really at the time to help them and support this local resistance. This happened in the west of Kismayo in 2012; it happened in Bay region, in Lower Shabelle region in 2013 and in 2015. In 2018, it happened in the Middle Shabelle region just to the north of Mogadishu.
This appears to have changed in the case of the ongoing uprising since June 2022 by the clans in central Somalia. Shortly after the new Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud came to power in May, he announced a strategy to confront al-Shabaab militarily, economically, and ideologically.
What helped spark the uprising was that al-Shabaab attacked some communities in late May. It started just spontaneously in central Somalia, in the Hiran region, and elders and clans dusted off their weapons, took up their guns, and drove al-Shabaab from several villages. Things escalated when al-Shabaab destroyed some water wells in early August.16
It’s very important to understand that while the new government was calling for an offensive against al-Shabaab, it was not ready to initiate it when the uprising in central Somalia started. The prime minister was only appointed on June 16 and only formed his government on August 2. It then took them a few days to take their offices. By that time, the fighting was taking place already in the Hiran region, so they were not ready for this, apart from the president’s call for a multi-front war. They did not have a very well-thought-out strategy to fight al-Shabaab based on discussions with security experts. Of course the government disputed this and insisted it had a plan from the beginning. But because of this organic rising that started in central Somalia—those are the words of the president, “organic rise up”17—the government publicly backed the uprising and sent the army to help the local forces fight al-Shabaab This is how this resistance, this uprising, has developed into a very serious effort against al-Shabaab.
The new offensive will have serious challenges. It has serious challenges, as we speak. As I just mentioned, it did not come about as a result of a very carefully planned strategy. The timing did not suit the Somali army. Somalia has been training about 5,000 soldiers in Eritrea who have not yet returned. I’m sure the government would have liked to have them return for the start of any offensive.
Another problem is that there has been mistrust among some of the Somali clans. At times, we have seen clans drive al-Shabaab from an area, then al-Shabaab goes into the territory of a different clan, and they hesitate to chase them into that territory because if they do that, fighting may break out between the clans. This is one of the challenges that is facing the current operation. Also al-Shabaab since 2011 has not been fighting to hold territory. What al-Shabaab does is when they see a powerful threat that’s coming, they withdraw very deep into al-Shabaab areas. They save their men for another fight. This is one of the tenets of guerrilla war. When troops move into a town, al-Shabaab gives them a few days, few weeks, and then they carry out a counteroffensive using very powerful explosives that cause havoc and chaos in the military camps. They have been carrying out this strategy for many years now, to deadly effect.
In response to the current operations against them, al-Shabaab has already launched one counteroffensive. In recent months, government forces have been very cautious not to go too deep into al-Shabaab areas, and in cases where they went too deep, they have retreated from at least one town. And this is part of the challenge.
So the Somali government needs to have a very thorough strategy so that when troops go to an area, they don’t retreat. Because al-Shabaab has been controlling the countryside for a long time, one of the factors that has been working against Somali government forces is they go to a territory and then they stay for a few weeks and they retreat. Same for African Union forces in recent years: They go to a territory, they stay for a few weeks, and then they come back. Most locals have wanted the government to reach their area, wanted services and education and an end to al-Shabaab rule, but what happens to the locals when they support government and African Union forces coming into their areas but these forces then abandon them? What happens is very serious repercussions for the locals. The president recently visited some of the frontlines, and I am told that he is very well aware of this. He will want probably to refine the strategy.
Notwithstanding these challenges, what we are seeing is a very serious offensive that really targeted the biggest vulnerability of al-Shabaab. What’s the Achilles heel of al-Shabaab? It’s their dependence on the support or obedience of the local population. And if the government really succeeds in bringing people onboard, they could go very far. Also, if this first phase of the offensive fails to completely drive al-Shabaab from Galmudug and Hirshabelle States, and move them from there into the deep south and southwest, the effectiveness of the strategy will be seriously questioned.
But very importantly, another challenge is that the current military effort by the government and the clans is only taking place in two states. South-central Somalia is four states, so this operation, this uprising has not expanded or spread to the whole of south-central Somalia or the southern regions. The government has said plans are underway to open a second front in the south. It is going to be more difficult in the south. Geographically, it’s very difficult. It has forests; it has valleys. Central Somalia is more of a plain area, not a lot of forests, so it is easier there for forces to spot al-Shabaab and dislodge them from territories. But as the fighting moves into the southern regions, it is going to be more challenging.
Even more importantly, other clans in other regions are watching what happens in Galmudug and Hirshabelle states. If the current uprising and offensive succeeds, the people we speak to locally believe that more clans will try to replicate this in their territories, in their areas, and they will be more encouraged to fight al-Shabaab. But if the efforts do not succeed, the uprisings will die down.
CTC: Somalia currently faces the threat of one of the worst famines in its history, according to the United Nations.18 The drought in Somalia appears to have motivated the Ma’awisley militia-farmers to take up arms against al-Shabaab in central Somalia out of anger caused by the group’s taxes and the expropriation of their food.19 But there is concern that severe food shortages can also create fertile ground for al-Shabaab recruitment. How do you see this issue?
Maruf: It’s a very serious situation. Drought is impacting millions. There is a shortage of food and a lack of water. There was not enough rain for several seasons, and this is deteriorating the situation. And the clans and locals are reporting that al-Shabaab has been destroying water wells in areas where they see clans supporting the government, in particular in the states of Galmudug and Hirshabelle. We have seen videos and pictures of water wells destroyed in these two states. In Adan Yabaal, which government forces captured December 5, al-Shabaab was accused of removing pumps from the water wells. Based on reports from ground, this has further deteriorated the already severe humanitarian conditions on the ground because water is very scarce now in Somalia. Al-Shabaab’s attacks on water wells is one of the factors that drove locals in Hirshabelle and Galmudug states to rise up against al-Shabaab. In Galmudug state, al-Shabaab was accused of destroying a local communication center,20 creating anger and suffering among the local population. These communication centers are a lifeline to the locals. Why? Somalia has not had the ability over the years to print and distribute paper money, so people rely on mobile money, so if the mobile network goes down, then they can’t get support from their relatives outside the country or their relatives inside the country.
Another incident that contributed towards the uprising was an attack in September by al-Shabaab on a convoy transferring food supplies from one town to another in Hirshabelle that killed about 20 people.21 It’s one of the factors that drove a lot of people into the local resistance and the local forces fighting against al-Shabaab.
During food shortages—like, for example, the 2017 famine—a lot of people tend to flee al-Shabaab areas because aid agencies, whether local or international, cannot reach them. They cannot deliver food because al-Shabaab early on in the conflict kicked out international NGOs from its territory, accusing them of things like spreading Christianity. This challenge for al-Shabaab is they don’t want everybody in their territory to flee and go to the government area. They need the population for recruitment and to extract funds and supplies. So what they do is they set up camps in their area, and they set up a drought committee. And then they take to the airwaves, the radio stations, and they raise funds and even sometimes contact local NGOs. They don’t allow them to go inside and distribute food. But they say, “OK, if you really want to bring food, give it to us, and we will redistribute.” So they slightly ease up on aid deliveries in order to keep the population in the area; that’s the goal. We’ve been getting some reporting recently that they are easing up in the south of the country, for example, by turning a blind eye to donkey carts coming in carrying food.
CTC: It’s a fine line for al-Shabaab because famine conditions can create anger against them, but it can also, in the areas that they control, create even more dependence on them because they’re the only power on the ground that can provide the food that the people so desperately need.
Maruf: The drought committee they set up has been distributing food in remote areas in the countryside and has been posting videos and pictures of their committee distributing food.
In response to the offensive by the tribal militias and the government, al-Shabaab held a conference, entitled Nuqaba Council of Wilayat, for clan elders supportive of decisions and fatwas issued by al-Shabaab’s clerics. They did this because they know clan elders have been instrumental in this latest uprising. So they said, ‘You have to issue a statement,’ and these particular elders issued a statement denouncing the offensive by the government, saying their respective clans are not part of it. They even went as far as showing pictures of elders and locals they said were clan fighters who wanted to oppose this local mobilization, in a move apparently intended to offset the local fighters supporting the government offensive. So they can be adaptable also in these situations.
CTC: What insights can you share about their current capacity and structure of al-Shabaab inside Somalia?
Maruf: Based on my reporting, al-Shabaab structurally has two councils. They have the Executive Council, which they call the Tanfid and the Shura Council, or the Consultative Council. The Executive Council pretty much is the cabinet. They run all the operations. It’s led by Ahmed Diriye, the emir of the group who is also known as Ahmed Umar Abu Ubaidah,22 and he has a deputy, Abukar Ali Aden, who used to be the head of the defense department of the group for a long time. There is a third commander in the top three leaders of the group, Mahad Karate,23 who is a very experienced and controversial figure who has lately been commenting on al-Shabaab media about the group’s operations.
Al-Shabaab’s main power lies within three organizations: the Jabhat, their military wing; the Amniyat, which is their security and intelligence wing; and their explosives wing, the Sanaaca (explosives manufacturing department), staffed by experts and technicians who make and understand explosives. So these three departments are really very powerful. Their explosives department is led by Abdullahi Osman Mohamed, believed to be a former cameraman turned militant who is also known as “Engineer Ismail.”24 His deputy within the explosives wing is an American, Jehad Mostafa (also known as Ahmed Gurey). They are both part of the top leadership. The FBI recently described Jehad Mostafa as the most high-ranking American jihadist globally,25 and he’s very highly regarded in al-Shabaab. And then you have the head of the military wing, Yasir Jiis.26 You have the head of the Amniyat, Yusuf Ahmed Hajji Nurow (aka Geesa Ade).27 They have departments covering finance, politics and regions, da’wa and education, judicial, and others. After that, they have regional departments, governors; they have Hisba (police) department, the local taxation offices, and checkpoint controls. So it’s a very tightly run organization.
CTC: Let’s turn to drones and how they’re shaping the conflict in Somalia. It is well-documented in open-source reporting that the United States has long used drones in Somalia.28 In September 2022, Somalia’s interior minister, Ahmed Malim Fiqi, revealed in a television interview that Turkey’s Bayraktar TB2 attack drone was being used to carry out strikes and reconnaissance in counterinsurgent operations, with the operators of the Turkish drones being provided target coordinates by Somali commanders.29 d This represents the first time the Turks have actively become involved in the fight against al-Shabaab in Somalia.30 How significant is this Turkish drone campaign against al-Shabaab? Could this be a game changer? What does your reporting indicate?
Maruf: The role of Turkish drones in bombing al-Shabaab was confirmed by multiple security sources.31 It may be a little bit early to say it’s a game changer, but it’s a very significant development because in the recent operations in central Somalia, whenever Somali government forces and local forces came across a very strong resistance from al-Shabaab, they called for an air support and the Turkish drones were on hand to lend a hand. That has given them some reinforcement breakthrough, based on our sources locally. It should be pointed out there were also a number of U.S. airstrikes during these operations.32
More importantly, our sources on the ground are telling us that U.S. strikes are in the areas where U.S.-trained Somali forces are operating. The most significant job that the U.S. government has been doing in Somalia over the years is the training of a Somali military force called Danab (Lightning), which is the most capable Somali force. There is also a Turkish-trained Somali force called Gor Gor (Eagle). These American- and Turkish-trained forces have been giving support to the regular forces and the local forces. Whenever there is local resistance, they’ve been given support. So the drone strikes by Turkey have been a very significant part of the current operations, and Somali officials have really praised that. They feel it’s making a significant difference. That being said, there have long been drone strikes against al-Shabaab, but what was missing was the kind of ground offensive you are now starting to see. Without ground operations, you can’t significantly weaken or defeat a group like al-Shabaab.
CTC: There has been some concern about drones being used by al-Shabaab itself. It would be great if you could talk a little bit about that and the concern that they could move toward using attack drones.
Maruf: Al-Shabaab released purported aerial drone footage of the Manda Bay attack.33 e They have also filmed their fighters training with drones in the air. They use very widely available drones. When it comes to the techniques that help them acquire these drones, they can buy from Somali markets, they can also buy from China, they can buy from the Middle East. And they can use people who are affiliated with their businesses, who are affiliated with them to import these drones. And they can acquire drones that way. They also have ‘fanboys’ in various parts of the world who not only buy them technologies—computers, cameras—but also who can buy them these drones that they then use to shoot very sophisticated films that they can use for propaganda in order to recruit and also to propagandize their attacks.
Sources familiar with al-Shabaab tactics have raised fears the group could use suicide drones. Security sources reported fear that it was possible that al-Shabaab could attach a very small portion of explosives to these drones. And they said that because al-Shabaab always tries to change tactics to outfox its enemies, it was possible they would start deploying attack drones. When, for instance, it was difficult for them to bring in vehicles carrying bombs into the capital, what they did is they dismantled the bombs and they brought them in small pieces. Experts with knowledge of al-Shabaab believe if it gets to the point where al-Shabaab cannot bring operatives into the cities or the identity of their people in the cities becomes known to the security forces, then they would likely resort to other tactics, such as using attack drones, maybe by just attaching an explosive the same size as a hand grenade to their drones to detonate on a specific target or a moving vehicle, or a sports event or maybe a political event. The same concern about al-Shabaab using attack drones in the future was also raised by United Nations monitors in 2021.34 But we have not seen very concrete evidence that al-Shabaab has further developed this drone technology, that they are in a position to attach maybe machine guns or even to use attack drones to hit a plane. But the possibility is always there.
CTC: As you just mentioned, in July 2021, a U.N. report on the global terror threat stated that “Al-Shabaab has significantly increased its use of drones to conduct reconnaissance flyovers and record the activities of security forces. Member States expressed concern about the threat from weaponized unmanned aerial vehicles and the group’s intent and capacity to launch attacks on aircraft and civil aviation infrastructure. That concern was aroused by Al-Shabaab plans to target low-flying aircraft within Somali airspace and along the border between Kenya and Somalia, which is an important corridor for humanitarian flights and the main route for commercial aircraft landing in Somalia.”35 Are you able to speak a little more about what you have learned in the course of your reporting about how accessible drones are to al-Shabaab and how the group sources drone technology?
Maruf: In October 2021, the Somali government seized several drones at Mogadishu’s international airport being imported by a former member of parliament who claimed they were for use for agricultural company purposes.36 The incident raised all kinds of suspicions. The drones in question were slightly bigger than the DJI drone that al-Shabaab uses for its filming.
It is important to stress that the drones that al-Shabaab uses are freely commercially available, and so they can source them from anywhere that sells them, including Southeast Asia or from individuals in Somalia who originally bought them for legitimate purposes. It is also important to note that al-Shabaab is very much interested in technology; they have even thought about manufacturing a rocket.
CTC: And of course, al-Shabaab has significant financial resources to devote to such enterprises, with the United Nations noting recently that according to ledgers, the group has around “$24 million available annually for spending on weapons and explosives.”37 Let’s pivot now to the international terrorism threat al-Shabaab poses. Over the years, the group has launched attacks across East Africa. In 2016, al-Shabaab detonated a laptop bomb on a plane traveling from Mogadishu to Djibouti, but failed to bring down the aircraft.38 In December 2020, the U.S. Justice Department unsealed an indictment against a Kenyan al-Shabaab operative who allegedly plotted to hijack an aircraft and crash it into a building in the United States in a 9/11-style attack. According to authorities, the plot was directed by senior al-Shabaab leaders, including the mastermind of the 2019 Nairobi Dusit hotel attack and the operative obtained flight training in the Philippines between 2017 and his July 2019 arrest in the country.39 It has been reported another al-Shabaab operative getting flying lessons was subsequently arrested in an African country.40 What is your assessment of the regional and international terror threat the group poses and specifically the threat it poses to aviation?
Maruf: We have seen their ambitions. They attacked Kenya’s Westgate mall in 2013. They have attacked almost every country that sent troops to Somalia in order to send their message. Based on previous reporting, they have even expressed an interest in targeting shopping malls in the United States, Canada, and Europe.41 Based on our conversations with security officials in Somalia, al-Shabaab is very opportunistic, very ambitious, and also explores its options. What they lack is the capacity to carry out multiple attacks in places far away from the region, but the ambition is there. And we have seen examples of that, including the Philippines case just mentioned.
There has been a lot of work done on securing the airport in Mogadishu, but one concern Somali security forces have is that there are other less well-secured airports in Somalia where al-Shabaab could hijack an aircraft or get explosives onto a plane. A key task for the Somali government is to secure smaller regional airports. I have no intention to alarm the pubic, but it would not be wise to dismiss the possibility.
When it comes to the regional terror threat, beyond the attacks we’ve seen the group launch in cities such as Nairobi in East Africa, one significant concern is al-Shabaab’s presence in the Boni Forest on the Kenya-Somalia border; al-Shabaab still moves across the border between Kenya and Somalia, and they have tried to do the same in Ethiopia.42
CTC: The United States has been waging a long war against al-Shabaab and continues to target al-Shabaab leaders and fighters with airstrikes.43 In May 2022, the Biden administration redeployed hundreds of U.S. personnel into the country, reversing a withdrawal of ground forces ordered in the waning days of the Trump administration.44 Based on all your reporting, how effective have these strikes been in weakening al-Shabaab, and how important is the U.S. military presence inside Somalia to maintaining pressure on the group?
Maruf: Somalia is trying to restore stability inside the country, and they need all the support they can get. The presence of U.S. troops in Somalia has been very, very important. As I mentioned earlier, probably the most significant contribution the U.S. has made to Somalia was to train Danab forces, the most capable Somalia forces to date. They go into areas deep in al-Shabaab territory and then regular forces follow them and try to hold it. The Danab forces are not large in number; they are maybe close to 2,000 now, including a new battalion being trained. The initial idea was to train up to 4,000 special forces. The United States has been supporting this capable force not only through training, but also by mentoring, advising and assisting them.
The U.S. has also been carrying out targeted airstrikes against al-Shabaab leaders. During the Trump administration, U.S. airstrikes targeted the foot soldiers of al-Shabaab, and this created fear in the group. Their movement in large numbers became reduced; reportedly, their top officials also minimized using vehicles from one town to the other. There were not large gatherings of their fighters in one area in order, for example, to carry out large raids on Somali military camps, on African Union forces. It created a lot of fear. And you could tell that this was the case because the leader of al-Shabaab addressed this,45 and this is one of the reasons that he sent fighters in September 2019 to attack Baledogle air base, where U.S. soldiers were training Somali forces.46 So you could tell that these drone strikes were having an impact.
Based on the reporting on the ground, the Biden administrationf have continued in certain circumstances to carry out airstrikes against al-Shabaab foot soldiersg as well as leaders such as Abdullahi Yare (also known as Abdullahi Nadir) who was killed in a U.S. drone strike on October 1.47 Although the intensity and the frequency of U.S. airstrikes have decreased compared to the Trump era,48 you now have Turkey deploying attack drones as well. This means that there are multiple drones spending a lot of time over al-Shabaab territory. It’s going to discourage al-Shabaab from moving their weapons, their logistics, their assets, and their officials from one region to another. It’s going to further complicate that, and that is very significant. But the Somali government is going to need a more expansive ground operation across southern and central Somalia in order for this air support to succeed.
CTC: What do you think should be the lessons learned from more than 15 years of counterinsurgency efforts against al-Shabaab so that the Somali government can build on the current momentum against the group?
Maruf: The most important lesson is that really no country can survive or can defend itself against a militant organization without having it is own military, without having its own security force. A long time ago, there were even suggestions that Somalia does not need a military. I don’t think this notion was coming from Somalis. Somalia really needs a viable army, a strong army. The last few months have provided a sense of what Somali forces can be capable of. We’ve seen Somali forces with the support of local people taking and seizing territory from al-Shabaab without the presence of African Union forces. There has been progress made by Somali forces against al-Shabaab before, but the question always was ‘can they hold territory without the support of African Union forces?’ We have seen now that they can take territory and hold it without the support of African Union troops on the ground. So the key lesson is that Somalia really needs to boost and massively invest in its own army and build a strong army.
The Somali government has also learned a second lesson the hard way: They really need the support of the local population. It’s going to be very hard for any government to even secure the capital without the support of the locals. If the locals do not support you, they will not give you tips, they will not tell you where the people committing attacks are hiding, and then you are going to struggle in restoring security. So they need to get the public on their side. And al-Shabaab understood that very early on, and that’s why they massively entrenched themselves among the society. And so the Somali government needs to give the public confidence that government forces are going to come, education is going to come, water is going to come, services are going to come, that they are able to build local administration, police is going to go there. That’s a second lesson.
A third lesson is that Mogadishu needs a long-term strategy to defeat al-Shabaab. Of course, the zeal and courage we’ve seen from the government forces and the clan militias in recent weeks is important, but you really need to have a strategy, you need to have planning. You need to be able to manage expectations. You need to assess how you are going to sustain operations from a financial point of view and anticipate the cost of the war in terms of destruction and lives lost. You also have to minimize the risk to your forces and also make sure you don’t lose the public going forward. That’s very important.
A fourth lesson is that it is crucial that counterinsurgency efforts contain both airstrikes and ground offensives. All these are based on conversations with experts and locals on the ground.
A fifth lesson is the need for good operational security. One of the secrets of al-Shabaab in succeeding for such a long time is that they keep their secrets to themselves. They don’t allow their fighters to carry gadgets and mobile phones. They execute suspected spies within their own ranks. And they control the movement of their fighters. This is why Somali intelligence, despite getting tips that attacks are in the works, has been struggling to predict what government buildings and installations al-Shabaab is going to attack, even in the capital.
The Somali government needs to learn to better keep its secrets. You see Somali officials going to the airwaves, talking on their personal account, saying ‘We’re going to attack this place’ or ‘there’s going to be an operation very soon.’ Or you see government soldiers on the frontlines with smartphones taking pictures on farms in the countryside, providing al-Shabaab with opportunities to geolocate them and target them. The government really needs to instill discipline within the army so that their secrets are not on TikTok and Facebook.
CTC: Al-Shabaab’s control of large swaths of territory has for many years provided it with the ability to raise significant funds. According to a U.N. report published in July 2022, al-Shabaab earns between $50 million and $100 million annually, with significant funds raised from its “taxation of all aspects of the Somali economy.”49 What do you think it will take to diminish this terrorist financing? Will it only dry up when al-Shabaab is removed from the remaining large areas of rural southern and central Somalia that it controls?
Maruf: You have to go back to the state collapse. If you want to stop al-Shabaab financing, you have to go back to how this organization came to be. They came to be because there was a power vacuum. State government and its functions were not operating. So al-Shabaab found an opportunity to equip, to train, to advance their agenda. If you really want to disconnect al-Shabaab from its financing, you need to have a very strong government that can have an oversight on private banks, that can give security to businesses across the country, because the reason that the businesses and the wealthy Somalis are giving money to al-Shabaab is not out of love. It’s because they’re scared; that is what they tell us. It’s because al-Shabaab can send truck bombs to their businesses and blow them up. So, the government has to be able to provide security not only for the wealthy people, but also for all citizens.
Through its threats, for example by sending threats over text message, al-Shabaab is able to exercise significant influence in areas they do not practically control, so the government needs to impose itself and provide security, offer strong oversight on financial services. But you can’t stem the flow of funds to al-Shabaab by just cutting off transfers through the banking system. Based on what we hear, people are physically going to al-Shabaab areas to pay fees so that they can have security, and the government needs to address this. The president has made clear he’s going to prioritize cutting al-Shabaab’s funds, and there have been a lot of meetings to this effect in Mogadishu on reforming the banking system and also raising the necessary awareness.50
One thing I want to go back to is the communities in regions where there currently are no uprisings or local mobilization against al-Shabaab. They are watching what happens in the Hiran, Middle Shabelle, and Galgudud regions and to see if it succeeds. If this succeeds, they will also start mobilizing themselves. If a group of wealthy individuals, businesses in Somalia say, ‘We’re not going to pay al-Shabaab; we’re going to protect our buildings. We’re going to take the risk,’ that’s all it needs for a snowball effect to build up against the group. It’s then very likely that other businesspersons in the country, other wealthy individuals in the country would also do the same. It just needs somebody to start; again, this is based on conversations with locals and experts. But who’s going to take the risk and start the ball rolling? This is an organization that can exact revenge on their businesses and on their lives, and also their loved ones. CTC
[a] Editor’s Note: The BBC World Service Trust was founded in 1999 by the BBC as its international development charity. In 2011, it was renamed BBC Media Action.
[b] Editor’s Note: “The Islamic Courts Union (ICU) originated as a loose association of Islamic courts in Somalia, which provided security and managed crime after the fall of Siad Barre’s authoritarian regime in 1991. Around 2000, the courts first united to form what would be called the ICU. It later evolved from a judicial system to a governing apparatus, eventually providing social services and implementing Shariah law in the territories under its control. The ICU maintained a powerful militia, which included the group that would later become known as Al Shabaab, and conquered Mogadishu and much of Somalia in June 2006. After ruling for several months, the ICU was defeated in December 2006 by troops from Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and Ethiopia, and the group was disbanded.” “Islamic Courts Union,” Mapping Militant Organizations, Stanford University, last modified February 2019.
[c] Editor’s Note: In April 2022, the African Union replaced the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) with ATMIS—the African Union Transition Mission in Somalia.
[d] While neither Turkey nor the Somali defense ministry has officially confirmed or denied the Turkish drone deployment, in late November Maruf reported, citing Somali security officials, that “Turkish drones were involved in airstrikes in Lower and Middle Shabelle regions in recent weeks.” Harun Maruf, “Somalia Military Rebuilding Shows Signs of Improvement,” Voice of America, November 30, 2022.
[e] Editor’s Note: In January 2020, al-Shabaab attacked the Manda Bay air base in Kenya, killing three Americans and destroying six American aircraft and one Kenyan aircraft. C. Todd Lopez, “At Manda Bay, Investigation Finds No Single Point of Failure, But Many Recommendations for Improvement,” U.S. Department of Defense, March 10, 2022.
[f] Editor’s Note: In May 2022, The New York Times reported that President Biden had “approved a Pentagon request for standing authority to target about a dozen suspected leaders of Al Shabab” and that U.S. airstrikes in Somalia carried out during the Biden administration had up until that point “largely been limited to those meant to defend partner forces facing an immediate threat.” The newspaper reported that “on its first day in office, the Biden administration suspended a permissive set of targeting rules put in place by the Trump administration, instead requiring requests for strikes — except in self-defense — to be routed through the White House. (Africa Command also invoked that exception for strikes undertaken in the ‘collective’ self-defense of Somali partner forces.)” Charlie Savage and Eric Schmitt, “Biden Approves Plan to Redeploy Several Hundred Ground Forces Into Somalia,” New York Times, May 16, 2022.
[g] Editor’s Note: For example, “at the request of the Federal Government of Somalia, U.S. Africa Command conducted an airstrike against al-Shabaab terrorists who were attacking Somali National Army forces near Buulobarde, Somalia, on Sept. 18, 2022. The command’s initial assessment [was] that the strike killed 27 al-Shabaab terrorists and that no civilians were injured. U.S. forces are authorized to conduct strikes in defense of designated partner forces. The defensive strikes allowed the Somali National Army and African Union Transition Mission in Somalia forces to regain the initiative and continue the operation to disrupt al-Shabaab in the Hiraan region of central Somalia.” “Federal Government of Somalia engages terrorists with support from U.S. forces,” U.S. Africa Command, September 21, 2022.
 Editor’s Note: Cedric Barnes and Harun Hassan, “The Rise and Fall of Mogadishu’s Islamic Courts,” Journal of Eastern African Studies 2 (2007).
 Editor’s Note: See “Al-Shabaab Twitter account shut down for second time,” Guardian, September 6, 2013.
 Abdi Sheikh and Abdiqani Hassani, “Car bombs at busy Somalia market intersection killed at least 100, president says,” Reuters, October 30, 2022; Harun Maruf, “Death Toll Rises to 121 in Somalia Al-Shabab Attacks,” Voice of America, November 1, 2022.
 Editor’s Note: See “UN Somalia Monitor Aug 2000,” United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, August 18, 2000.
 Editor’s Note: See Harun Maruf, “Picture of what’s purported to be Mahad Moallim Jajab’s dead body is circulating on social media …,” Twitter, October 23, 2018; Abdi Guled, “Deputy chief of IS-linked group in Somalia killed: Officials,” Associated Press, October 23, 2018; and Harun Maruf, “Unconfirmed reports say a senior official with the pro-ISIS militants in Somalia has been killed in Mogadishu …,” Twitter, October 23, 2018.
 Editor’s Note: See Harun Maruf, “Full details: Somalia’s new ‘National Security Architecture’ …,” Twitter, April 18, 2017.
 Editor’s Note: For more on the early phases of the uprising, see “Africa File: Clan Uprising Bolsters anti-al Shabaab Offensive in Central Somalia,” Critical Threats, September 15, 2022.
 Ishaan Tharoor, “The climate news is bad. The climate reality is worse,” Washington Post, October 28, 2022; “Somalia faces worst famine in half a century, UN warns,” Al Jazeera, October 18, 2022.
 Editor’s Note: See “Somalia: At least 20 killed in convoy attack,” Deutsche Welle, September 3, 2022.
 Editor’s Note: See “Ahmed Diriye,” United Nations Security Council, n.d., and “Rewards for Justice – Reward Offers for Information on Key Leaders of al-Shabaab Ahmed Diriye, Mahad Karate, and Jehad Mostafa, and the Disruption of its Financial Mechanisms,” U.S. Department of State, November 18, 2022.
 Editor’s Note: See “State Designates Two Al-Shabaab Leaders as Terrorists,” Voice of America, December 11, 2020.
 Editor’s Note: See “Rewards for Justice – Reward Offers for Information on Key Leaders of al-Shabaab Ahmed Diriye, Mahad Karate, and Jehad Mostafa, and the Disruption of its Financial Mechanisms.”
 Editor’s Note: See “Terrorist Designation of Al-Shabaab Leaders,” U.S. Department of State, October 17, 2022.
 Editor’s Note: Ibid.
 For more on reported U.S. drone strikes in Somalia, see “The War in Somalia,” New America, accessed December 13, 2022.
 Bashir Mohamed Caato, “Somalia: Turkey’s Bayraktar TB2 drones join offensive against al-Shabab,” Middle East Eye, October 1, 2022; “Turkey’s drones taking part in military operations against Al-Shabaab in Somalia: minister,” Somali Guardian, September 25, 2022.
 Editor’s Note: For details on recent U.S. airstrikes against al-Shabaab in Somalia, see “Federal Government of Somalia engages terrorists with support from U.S. forces,” U.S. Africa Command, September 21, 2022, and “U.S. forces conduct strike in Somalia targeting al-Shabaab leader,” U.S. Africa Command, October 3, 2022.
 Editor’s Note: See “The Blessed Manda Bay Raid,” al-Shabaab, January 29, 2021; Calibre Obscura, “#Somalia So we just got another video from AS about this attack …,” Twitter, January 30, 2021.
 Editor’s Note: See the “Twenty-eighth report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team submitted pursuant to resolution 2368 (2017) concerning ISIL (Da’esh), Al-Qaida and associated individuals and entities,” United Nations Security Council, July 21, 2021.
 Editor’s Note: For more on this incident, see “Somalia: Farmaajo’s ally linked to importation of drones from Turkey,” Garowe Online, November 17, 2021, and Ekene Lionel, “Al Shabaab drones, and the African conundrum,” Military Africa, September 15, 2022.
 “Thirtieth report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team submitted pursuant to resolution 2610 (2021) concerning ISIL (Da’esh), Al-Qaida and associated individuals and entities,” United Nations Security Council, July 15, 2022.
 Harun Maruf, “Somali Officials: Man Killed in Plane Bombing Given Laptop Before Flight,” Voice of America, February 6, 2016; “‘Somalia plane bomber given bomb in laptop’ on CCTV,” BBC, February 8, 2016; “Daallo Airlines blast: Somalia sentences two to life in prison,” BBC, May 30, 2016.
 Eric Schmitt and Abdi Latif Dahir, “Al Qaeda Branch in Somalia Threatens Americans in East Africa — and Even the U.S.,” New York Times, March 21, 2020; Benjamin Weiser, “Kenyan Planned 9/11-Style Attack After Training as Pilot, U.S. Says,” New York Times, December 16, 2020.
 Editor’s Note: For more on this incursion into Ethiopia, see Caleb Weiss and Ryan O’Farrell, “Analysis: Shabaab’s multi-day incursion into Ethiopia,” FDD’s Long War Journal, July 25, 2022.
 Savage and Schmitt.
 Editor’s Note: See “The War in Somalia.”
 “Thirtieth report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team.”