A string of attacks by Somali-based jihadi group Al-Shabaab over the past two months raise concerns about increasing instability in East Africa, and point to a shift in the geography of Islamist extremism.
On Sunday, 7 February, at least eight Somalian soldiers were killed in a roadside bombing north of Mogadishu in an attack claimed by Al-Shabaab. Among the dead was a senior intelligence commander for Somalia’s National Security Agency. This attack was made in retaliation to the Somali military forces’ killing of eight Al-Shabaab insurgents last Friday, 5 February, after a group of insurgents began firing mortar rounds at a government delegation holding a conference to discuss Somalia’s next elections. The elections have since been delayed due to a collapse in negotiations between the central government and the country’s semi-autonomous regions.
These are the most recent episodes in the Al-Qaeda affiliate’s recent terror spree, which began with the abduction and beheading of a local chief in Kenya on 23 December 2020. A suicide attack in Mogadishu followed on 2 January, which targeted a Turkish construction company and left 5 dead and over a dozen seriously injured, and a raid on a Mogadishu hotel on 31 January that left five dead, including a prominent retired Somalian military general, Mohamed Nur Gala. Al-Shabaab received international attention in mid-December, when a Kenyan member of the group was caught and charged in New York for planning a “9/11-style attack.”
Al-Shabaab had been relatively restrained in its activities since the height of its power in 2011. An increasingly catastrophic confluence of events in Somalia, however—including a central government on the brink of collapse, a locust invasion, and serious food shortages—has created the permissive conditions for Al-Shabaab to regain land, resources, and supporters.
Somalian society has been divided since the country’s 1991 Civil War, which created deep center-periphery tensions over economic resources and political power. 30 years later, distrust of the central government remains high among Somalis, especially in the country’s southern conflict zones, following a brief Shar’ia law interregnum imposed by the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) in 2006. Conflict between Ethiopia and Somalia produced the breakdown of the ICU, whose splintering gave birth to Al-Shabaab. The current political crisis threatens to trigger a complete unraveling of the fragile intra-regional cooperation that is present in Somalia, and create a massive power vacuum across the country.
Somalia has also declared a state of national emergency due to the locust invasion spreading across the Horn of Africa, and critical food shortages (which will be compounded by the ongoing locust infestation) are worsening the country’s already fragile economic and food security situation. A 2013 survey on radicalization and Al-Shabaab recruitment in Somalia conducted by the Institute for Security Studies found that 50% of radicalized individuals were unemployed, and that economic incentive was one of the most significant factors in recruitment. With the combination of a likely power vacuum and an impending economic downturn, Al-Shabaab is poised for success in radicalizing large numbers of disillusioned Somalis and expanding their geographic footprint.
The unfolding expansion in Al-Shabaab’s influence in Somalia is part of a broader deterioration in the regional security environment of East Africa and the Horn of Africa. Moreover, the Al-Shabaab phenomenon is a crucial indicator of the relocation of Islamist extremist groups from the Middle East proper to Africa, underway since the territorial defeat of the ISIS caliphate in Iraq and Syria. Ali Roba, the governor of Kenya’s Mandera County, stated that Al-Shabaab has “taken control of over 50 percent of the landmass of Northern Kenya.” Roba implored the Kenyan people to “stand up and help the government,” but also cited the difficulty in this sort of unity, saying that Al-Shabaab controls land through “the will of the public suppressed by terror.”
Meanwhile, the Islamic State in Mozambique (ISM)—an Islamic State affiliate—took control of the strategic port of Mocimboa da Praia in Mozambique in August 2020. Control over Mocimboa da Praia may be a turning point in ISM’s efforts to impose a Shar’ia state in Mozambique, and has generated a humanitarian crisis with over half a million Mozambiquan internally displaced persons in the last three years.
The recent spate of Al-Shabaab attacks in Somalia is a crucial metric of the embedding consolidation and expansion of a complex ecosystem of Islamist extremist groups on the African continent, which will be consequential for regional and transnational security in this new decade of the third millennium.