Al Qaeda's Somalia Cell Is Fractured and Dangerous
Al-Shabaab is the terrorist group that’s been periodically ravaging and ruling parts of Somalia for the past six years and, in 2012, officially became a subsidiary of al Qaeda. I had a sit-down with one of its alleged former soldiers.
Members of the ubiquitous security force that keeps everything so oppressively quiet. Photos courtesy of the author.
Qawdhan slouches on the floor of the wicker-frame hut across from me, his back to the old UNHCR banners serving as a wall. He sits in silence, calmly chewing a bundle of khat while stealing the occasional glance at a TV on the other side of the dim and sparse room. My eyes dart back and forth from the TV as well—a gaggle of children cluster around it to watch English-language cartoons with Arabic subtitles, even though they all speak only Somali. But whereas Qawdhan just seems calm, my eyes are everywhere because I’m nervous. I’m about to start a sensitive conversation, and I can’t shake the thought that it could go very badly.
“Are you connected to Al-Shabaab?”
“Yes, I am affiliated with Al-Shabaab.”
Qawdhan and I sit in awkward silence for a moment.
A friend introduced me to Qawdhan a couple of weeks ago, saying that he’d be a good person to meet. It was the sort of connection that gets made all the time here in Hargeisa, the capital of the de facto independent but unrecognized nation of Somaliland. You sit at a café, shaking hands as your friends shoehorn new contacts into your network. But when that same friend claimed that Qawdhan was linked to Al-Shabaab, the terrorist group that’s been periodically ravaging and ruling parts of Somalia for the past six years and, in 2012, officially became a subsidiary of al Qaeda, my interest was piqued. After asking around several other acquaintances backed up the claim, and so my friend and I invited him to break the Ramadan fast with us so that I could ask him about this accusation. To my surprise, he agreed to join us.
I expected him to deny his involvement with Shabaab; it’s a dangerous affiliation for a Somalilander. Eager to differentiate itself from the violence of south-central Somalia and earn enough international credit to gain recognition of its independence, the nation has amassed a formidable security force and promoted public hostility toward groups, like Shabaab, associated with the notion of a violent Somalia.
The name Al-Shabaab literally means “the Youth” in Arabic, representing its origins as the militant youth wing of the Islamic Courts Union, a coalition of Islamically inspired entities of diverse ideologies and functions, which wrested power away from south-central Somalia’s warlords in 2006. But Qawdhan is an old man, somewhere in his 50s, with a droopy face and a skittish gaze.
“What was the nature of your affiliation with Al-Shabaab?” I ask, thinking he might just be a supporter or a funder, or maybe the father of a fighter.
“I was a soldier with Al-Shabaab,” He tells me. “I served in 2006 when the Court Union broke up, because I was in the Court Union. The Court Union and Shabaab are the same thing, their ideologies match.”
This makes some sense. The name Al-Shabaab is more reflective of a pre-2007 reality, when the group was a specialized wing of a diverse whole. But since the movement broke away, it’s sucked up fighters of any age wherever it could find them. The leadership even considered changing the name in 2011 to Imaarah Islamiya (Islamic Authority) to better reflect both a localized, nationalist mission of Somali liberation and the true demographics of the group (the name change was opposed by leaders who wanted to keep the movement explicitly tied to international jihad).
Qawdhan’s choice to join Shabaab seems to have been as much about clan as ideology. Qawdhan explains that one of the members of his clan (the Arab sub-clan of the Isaaq, the dominant kin group in Somaliland), Moktar Ali Zubeyr (AKA Godane), a former leader of the Courts Union, had become the leader of Shabaab, and many of his clansmen in the Union followed him over. By Qawdhan’s count, 90 members of his clan are still alive and fighting with Godane in the south.
It’s hard to square the kinship bond Qawdhan’s talking about with the fact that his clan hails from Somaliland, which vehemently denies that Shabaab or its sympathizers exist therein. But it’s clear that the government just means there is no official, public Shabaab presence. When one pushes the question with citizens and government officials, they will admit that perhaps individuals in Somaliland harbor pro-Shabaab sympathies, and that perhaps isolated, minor Shabaab foot soldiers live amongst them. But, stresses Haji Mohamed Haashim, the head of the avowedly apolitical religious organization blatantly named the Committee for the Preservation of Good Deeds and the Deterrence of Bad Deeds, these are mostly naïve, misled peoples. And besides, the fact that no one publically supports Shabaab is what matters.
Qawdhan eventually left the ranks of Shabaab and denounces elements of the current organization. But he still supports it as an abstract entity and ideology—the platonic Shabaab of his memories before its devolution.
The Committee for the Promotion of Good Deeds and Prevention of Bad Deeds, the anti-Shabaab group run by the religious elite.
I ask him how many people in Somaliland he thinks share his belief in Shabaab.
“Three-fourths of the adult population,” he says, matter-of-factly and without missing a beat.
My Somalilander friends vehemently dispute that number. The refrain here is simple: there is no Shabaab here; we are anti-Shabaab.
But when one takes the name away and tries to express the ideology Qawdhan ascribes to Shabaab, things change.
I ask Qawdhan what he believes Shabaab, as he knows it and sees it, wants:
“We want to take power and rule according to Islamic tenants. These people [the rulers of the country] have given out [Somalia] to Western powers and when the Courts Union broke they took our leader and made him their own [Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, the former commander-in-chief of the Courts Union who later became the president of the internationally created and backed Transitional Federal Government].”
My friends Liibaan and Yusuf currently both dismiss Shabaab categorically, but their thoughts still resonate with Qawdhan’s. Yusuf expresses distaste for violently implemented Islamic rule, but fondness for it when properly administered; to him, Shabaab started out as just another set of freedom fighters against international interlopers. Liibaan admits to having supported Shabaab in its early days—before the al Qaeda influence, suicide bombings, and infighting—as did many people, because he believed the youths would revive the world of the Courts Union.
Liibaan is not alone in his disapproval of al Qaeda’s involvement in Shabaab. When I ask Qawdhan when and why he left the group, he tells me, “I left when they joined al Qaeda. I do not support al Qaeda and their principles. They have caused a lot of fractures in Shabaab. So I surrendered to my government.”
I push Qawdhan to tell me what these principles were.
“We had foreigners working with us—a lot of foreigners. But al Qaeda was against the white people [meaning Arabs as well as Americans and Europeans] and the outsiders. People I worked with and ate with started getting killed. There were many foreigners in general—Arabs, Asians, then Europeans—who were being killed.”
The infighting, mostly between those with nationalist goals and those with international jihadist goals, was inevitable. In its pragmatic quest for manpower, the group sucked in ideologies. As early as 2010, Godane promoted ties to al Qaeda. And in October of 2011, anecdotal reports suggest Shabaab solicited support from pirates—not a logical ally for a group whose hardliners violently oppose thieving. By the time that Qawdhan left, supposedly around 2012, tensions ran so high that a high-ranking jihadist from America, Abu Mansur Al-Amriki (nee Omar Hammami) expressed public fear that his fellow Shabaab members might kill him for his differing opinions. More recently, the infighting and danger has grown so severe that Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, a former Shabaab leader (of a more nationalist bent) fled the group, surrendering to arrest by the TFG.
Those who’ve lived in Mogadishu say there are people like Qawdhan still in Shabaab, trapped among ideologies hostile to their own by the threat of retribution for defection. But leaving the group—at least for residents of Somaliland like Qawdhan—isn’t as difficult as it once was. Somaliland’s Minister of the Interior, Mohamed Nur Arale Duur, offered an amnesty last year to members of Shabaab originally hailing from Somaliland. If they turned in their guns and renounced their ties to the group, they could live quietly, anonymously, and securely.
Yet when I ask Qawdhan about the 2008 attacks on the presidential compound, Ethiopian consulate, and UN offices in Hargeisa, which killed 28 and wounded more—the kind of violence against locals which disquieted him and alienated people like Liibaan—he tells me, “2008 just proved to me and to the world that we [Shabaab] are very strong here [in Somaliland],” blurring differentiation between his loyalty to the idealized Shabaab he joined and his disloyalty to the factional, violent Shabaab.
“So do you think that Al-Shabaab, the organization, still has agents in Somaliland?”
“Why would it [Shabaab] be absent?” Qawdhan laughs, for the first time in our conversation, at my naiveté. “Seventy-five percent of the senior command is from here. The people who facilitated the 2008 bombings are still around. The government can shout from the rooftops all it wants, but they’re still here.”
The entrance to the Presidential Palace, one of the places Shabaab bombed in 2008. The barriers are a poor attempt to mimic the anti-suicide-bombing barriers in Baghdad and outside new US embassies.
It’s unclear whether Qawdhan is referring to active agents of the current incarnation of Shabaab or remnants of the idealized group of his memories. I try to tease out a fuller picture.
“If that is true, why do you think there have been no major attacks since? There have been attacks in Puntland [the neighboring quasi-independent federal state of Somalia to the east], but not in Somaliland. Why is that?”
“Because there must be no strategic message to be sent by another attack in Somaliland for now.”
Shabaab actually threatened in February to carry out suicide attacks in Somaliland from bases in the Sanaag highlands in the east, but has yet to do so. I hoped that Qawdhan’s response might shed light on his knowledge of Shabaab’s operations or his differentiation between the activities of modern Shabaab and his idealized Shabaab. Instead, it just seemed that Qawdhan was unaware of these threats.
I try a different tact.
“But does Shabaab really need to be active here? This country is Islamic. The government claims to be inspired by sharia and Islamic studies are taught in schools.”
“No, there is nothing like sharia law here. It is just in the books. In reality, they are using colonial penal laws and courts. It’s like how Arabic is the second language in Somaliland and English is the third, but in truth English is the second language and they don’t even really teach Arabic in the schools.”
“Then do you think you would be able to establish an Islamic government, if people do not receive adequate training?” I ask. “Could you have qualified qadis [Sharia judges]?”
“Despite everything, people still have the knowledge, so it will not be hard to establish a government. We will take the good from English law and sharia. Most of the laws, they rhyme.”
I’d hoped this might prompt Qawdhan to talk more about his beliefs and his grievances, to see how his interpretation of sharia holds up to statements of current and past Shabaab spokesmen. But, as my friend reminds me, Qawdhan was a foot soldier, not a qadi.
When he speaks of Shabaab’s presence, power, and popularity in Somaliland, I want to believe he’s talking about the sentiments and concept of the old-school Shabaab he joined. I suspect he’s projecting the potency of his beliefs into his reality and denying the ownership of the term Shabaab to the factions he fled, downplaying their relevance. But you never know with foot soldiers. I push forward.
“Would you be willing to negotiate with the government here? If they were to agree to pay more attention to Islamic education and governance, would you work with them?”
“There is no way to negotiate with Somalia, but in Somaliland we can enter into a deal. We have tried, but we have received nothing. Al-Shabaab’s existence is a sign of the failure to work together.
The flag of Somaliland.
“But at least we have a common history, and common enemies in Mogadishu [the Transitional Federal Government, which periodically asserts its sovereignty over Somaliland as nothing but a federal state of Somalia]. We can work with Somaliland.”
I suspect the appreciation of Somaliland is based on Isaaq clan affiliation and its origins in solely Somali activism, versus the TFG, which is a wholly international construction. There’s a clear nationalist bent to this image of Shabaab.
“What about the foreigners? What about my people? Could you work with America?”
“Yes, government to government, we could work with them. We have the same principles, but they see us in the wrong way. It’s the British and the Americans who have the problems.
“The Turks and the Egyptians [often used here as a collective term for all Arabs] are big here now, but we prefer the USA to those people. We know each other and we can sit down and negotiate. These Egyptians are newcomers and they have their own intentions that are unknown to us. But American intentions are known. The first thing we would do in an Islamic government is establish good relations with the USA and keep the Egyptians at bay.
“Our organization is forced to be violent with the world. But I would urge the Americans to talk as we have talked tonight. Right now, whenever we make something good, they spoil it, but when they leave us alone we will make our own good government.”
This condemnation of international Islamic powers and predilection to negotiate with familiar actors smacks of a nationalist agenda. Qawdhan seems to live with two simultaneous conceptions of Shabaab: One that accords with the Somalilander reality of a factional, socially cannibalistic, and irredeemable entity; and one that inspired the loyalty of people like Liibaan and Yusuf, and which most believe is dead, but which Qawdhan appears to believe still has acolytes and power.
Of course, this might just be me projecting.
A stock photo of responders following the 2008 bombings.
Throughout our conversation, Qawdhan periodically turns to my friend, who acts as an interpreter, and asks why I am so interested in Shabaab. He gets wary and leery-eyed.
He asks if I have any affiliations with intelligence agencies, and why I want to know so much.
At first I laugh the question off with a simple “no.” But he remains anxious, and I find myself going to great lengths to explain that I am no threat: Look at me. I’m a tiny, weak man. No intelligence agency would hire me. I’d be incredibly incompetent. Apparently, though, protestations couched in self-deprecating humor are of no avail here.
Suddenly, an hour and a half into our conversation, Qawdhan just leaves. My friend and I sit for a moment. Then, only half in jest, he turns to me and says, “Maybe we should be going now. I don’t know that I trust this. He just gets up and puts on his boots and leaves without a word. I don’t want to be picking up your pieces later today.”
So we leave. And I’m still a little unsure of just how Qawdhan walks the line between two Shabaabs—if it’s possible to maintain a devotion to the ghost of Shabaab past without falling into the gravitational pull of the current Shabaab. I suspect that the Shabaab Qawdhan joined is dead. People like him are probably trapped within Shabaab by decaying bonds of fear and inertia, but even if they were to wrest control from the competing ideologies that dominate them, the name Shabaab is too sullied to be revived. Qawdhan’s nationalist-Islamist sentiments, in abstract, still have potency and popularity. But a man like Qawdhan, who frames these ideas in terms of Shabaab, is only a memory of a recent yet antique phase of Somalia’s ever murky history, desperately trying to impose the orders, terms, and ideas he knows onto a reality he split from long ago.
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