Recent activities by US citizens of Somali decent are setting new records in the US security arena. Last weeks’ unveiling of terrorism-related charges against 14 US nationals who allegedly helped 20 young Americans to join the Somali al-Shabaab movement is the largest group of Americans suspected of joining an extremist movement affiliated with al-Qaida since 9/11.

More infamously, the first known US citizen suicide bomber, involved in the simultaneous terrorist attacks in Somaliland and Puntland on 29 October 2008, was of Somali descent.

However, this development is not confined to the US, which has an estimated 200,000-strong Somali diaspora concentrated in the Minneapolis-St Paul area in the midwestern state of Minnesota. Most recently, Britain’s MI5 was warning ministers of an increased number of young Britons travelling to Somalia to fight a ‘holy war,’ some of whom do not have direct family connection to the country. The official estimate gives a number of 100 young Britons, but the true figure could be higher when counting those entering the country overland.

The biggest surprise to counterterrorism analysts concerned with Somalia might yet have been an incident in Australia, a country with no significant diaspora. In August this year, the police claimed to have foiled a suicide plot by four young men of Somali and Lebanese descent to storm a Sydney military base and kill as many soldiers as possible. It is unclear if they hatched the plot on their own or with the connivance of al-Shabaab.

The next Afghanistan?

Taking into account the enduring state failure and the rise of radical Islamic movements that now control most parts of south/central Somalia, many ask if the country might resemble Afghanistan in the 1990s, becoming a save haven and training ground for jihadists from Somalia’s huge diaspora and others.

In fact, this is a question Osama Bin Laden himself was already contemplating when he was looking for his next stop after leaving Khartoum in 1996. It is said that the Somali clan militias were too untrustworthy to provide security, and the country’s Islamist groups were left in the cold by al-Qaida’s global vision, leading bin Laden to opt for Afghanistan instead.

Bin Laden’s conclusions might still hold true today. “Due to poor infrastructure and the prevalence of local warlords and the hundreds of concomitant armed checkpoints, moving men, information and material is slow and requires the frequent payments of bribes [making] Somalia a costly and difficult place for outsiders to operate,” Bill Braniff, FBI program manager and instructor at the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, told ISN Security Watch.

In addition, “many of the most well-established Islamist training camps are not Salafi-jihadi training camps, but camps run by nationalist Islamists that want to see an Islamist government in Somalia for all ethnic Somalis. These nationalist camps are championed by pragmatic, seasoned Somali leaders who do not want to see Somalis become the cannon fodder of an abstract and cosmic foreign ideology, nor do they want to see al-Qaida or its affiliated al-Shabaab organization undermine their chance of political primacy in Somalia,” Braniff said.

In contrast to the Taliban, which at a certain point fought for al-Qaida, and according to some analysts, is merging in part with it, the nationalist Islamists in Somalia share their training infrastructure with al-Shabaab for pragmatic reasons.

“If al-Shabaab is seen as a liability moving forward, however, these erstwhile benefactors will not feel obliged to continue hosting Shabaab if they are strong enough to desist,” Braniff said.

Getting local: Somali Islamist movements

Talking to ISN Security Watch, Michael A Weinstein, professor at Purdue University in the US state of Indiana, makes clear that al-Shabaab can not be seen as a unit: “It is, after all, a Somali group and shares the standard characteristics of Somali political groups (decentralization), although it is more ideologically coherent than its competitors.”

While it is difficult to determine with certainty the leadership structure, one thing appears to be clear: “It is not a top-down, hierarchical organization with a predictable chain of command. Wherever the group is dominant, its local leaders have a great deal of latitude and have alliances with local sub-clans,” Weinstein said.

Overall, al-Shabaab represents a rather complex picture – therein resembling the current state of Somalia itself, which is a country in open conflict between factions of armed Islamist opposition groups, Islamists outside the armed opposition with their own militias, clan families, sub-clans, regional power centers, micro-political interests at the local level, legitimate and criminal business interests, and the Transitional Federal Government as just one armed actor among many others.

Al-Shabaab has a clan dimension – its western wing is aligned with the Rahanweyne, its eastern wing with the Hawiye and Darod – but its ideology of transnational jihad and pan-Islamism is fairly well fixed for Somali standards.

According to Weinstein, al-Shabaab’s western and eastern branches have different agendas: “The western branch, centered in the Rahanweyne regions of Bay and Bakool, is associated with Sheikh Mukhtar Robow’s strategy of consolidation and building functioning authorities as a prelude to extension of Islamist emirates. The eastern branch, extending to the Jubba regions to the south and through the central regions, especially Middle Shabelle, to the north, is led by Sheikh Godane with a more militant transnationalist agenda, although I believe the greatest concentration is on Somalia.”

Besides al-Shabaab, the other important Islamist movement on a regional level is Hizbul Islam. It represents the usual Somali movement: It has been and remains nationalist, and is a coalition of resistance groups based on clan membership, in particular Darod Ogaden (Ras Kambooni Group), Darod (Muskar Anole Group) and Hawiye (the faction dominated by Sheikh Aweys). With the exception of the Ras Kambooni Group, the only transnational design concerns the Ethiopian Ogaden region.

Looking for a trigger

In any case, the increased movements of young members of the Somali diaspora to fight in their country of origin have to be put into context. Most of the 20 Americans joined al-Shabaab in 2007 and 2008 when Somalia’s ‘Christian’ archenemy Ethiopia invaded and subsequently occupied the country with US encouragement and logistical help.

Al-Shabaab was perceived as the only resistance force willing and able to confront the Ethiopian military, thereby developing a large domestic constituency as well as strong support from the diaspora. With the Ethiopian troop withdrawal, this polarizing effect of foreign occupation led to diminished grievances, making it ever more difficult for al-Shabaab to motivate members of the diaspora to join their fight.

David H Shinn, former State Department coordinator for Somalia during the UNOSOM intervention and now professor at the George Washington University, told ISN Security Watch that he thinks “this recruitment activity may have peaked in the Somali diaspora of western countries.”

Looking at the self-regulating power of the clans, Shinn points out that “the families of these young men now understand the threat to their children, and they are paying closer attention to the problem.”

In any case, according to Braniff, a strong rationale based on cost benefit analysis might prevent al-Shabaab from terror attacks abroad, referring to the large Somali diaspora: “Remittances provide 10 times the income than does the next closest industry in Somalia, so the world’s largest humanitarian crisis would be infinitely worse should foreign governments prevent Somali communities from sending money back home. As a result, any nationalist actor would have to be willing to risk societal suicide should they decide to attack western interests directly.”

If true, this might be an indicator that fighters coming from the Somali diaspora – who are still small in numbers compared to those from ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan – might rather resemble the men that fought in Afghanistan in the 1980s and returned home after 1989. Although several were identified of those who started military activity again in their homelands, most just reverted to their civilian life.

In spite of this, there might be an intrinsic dynamic directly linked to the attention the conflict in Somalia gets in the context of the global war on terror and the motivation of foreigners to sacrifice their lives for a higher cause in Somalia.

As Roland Marchal, senior research fellow at the National Center of Scientific Research in Paris, points out to ISN Security Watch, “[there is] also missing an international attention to Somalia that would provide a reward for foreigners to get involved in Somalia. The success of [Somalia becoming a training ground for jihadists] will be limited up to the time Somalia becomes the place for a major confrontation against the West.”

Stay Informed

Sign up to receive updates from CTC.

Sign up