The Westgate shopping mall attack and Al-Shabaab in Somalia

“The bloody Shabaab attack on Nairobi’s Westgate shopping mall on September 21 was an act of desperation by a jihadi group beset by internal power struggles and plummeting support”, argues Somalia expert Ken Menkhaus in a blog post. The intent according to him is to stir up anti-Somali sentiments amongst Kenyans. Kenyans may thereby turn violent and target exiled Somalis in Kenya. If Somali’s are brutalized in great numbers Al-Shabaab hope to be seen as the true protectors of Somalis – in opposition to the Somali government which is seen as conniving with the Kenyan government. This is indeed a high risk plan by a movement that has over the past few years lost much of its previous power.

Very little is known of Al-Shabaab. There are many “experts” guessing, experts citing other experts’ guesses, thus producing a lot of half-truths. An exception to this is the recent book on Al-Shabaab in Somalia (Hurst 2013). It offers a deep and detailed reading of the movement. Below is a review that I recently did on the book. I am not seeking to legitimate the horrendous crime that the attack on the Westgate mall is, but see it as crucial getting a better understanding of what Al-Shabaab really is and Jarle Hansen’s book really helps us here:

Review of Al-Shabaab in Somalia: the history and ideology of a militant Islamist group, 2005-2012, by Stig Jarle Hansen


It is hard to imagine a more difficult research subject in Africa than Al-Shabaab. Certainly there are many opinion-makers, people with some firsthand research knowledge on the radical Islamist group, yet after reading this book I suggest that no one can match Stig Jarle Hansen. This book is a minutiae of Al-Shabaab; a source of details that probably even the very few within the Al-Shabaab would be able to muster.

As such it is a graphic view of the movement, leaving no room for speculation. This is what Al-Shabaab is according to Jarle Hansen, leaving little space for competing versions of history writing. And this is the one thing that one could be critical of. Indeed when collecting all this data Jarle Hansen, just as all of us who has collected histories about wars, must have come across many inconsistences in people’s stories. Al-Shabaab is a movement that is not too keen talking to westerners and it appears likely that they would have little interest in giving away the blueprint of the movement. Why would there not be more conflicting histories? Jarle Hansen does at times give examples of such, but they are remarkable few. In this regard I lack a methodological discussion in relation to data collection and sources used. The second point of critique is at the same time a source of strength: due to the book’s meticulous details and especially the bombardment of names, and use of alternative names of people, clans, sub-clans and sub-sub-clans it would have been appreciated to have a who’s-who section and an overview of the clan layout. Even if I have done some research on Somalia, Jarle Hansen’s accounts are at times too complex for me to follow, so how hard is it not to someone unfamiliar with the field? But despite this critique the book is worth all the praise.

Jarle Hansen shows Al-Shabaab in all its complexity; as a network organism constituted by loose ties, political/security alliances of clans, sub-clans, sub-sub clans, pseudo warlords and not the least global politico-religious movements/networks; strengthened by roomy religious beliefs and different constitutions and reconstitutions of Islam (religious renderings that are entirely new to the country). He shows with clarity that there is a constant battle within Al-Shabaab regarding ties and alliances, moralities and versions of Islam, but that a reason for Al-Shabaabs success has been its relative autonomy in relation to other political and economic entities inside Somalia. Jarle Hansen is clearly impressed by how Al-Shabaab has been able to navigate the Somali political landscape.

Al-Shabaab balances between pan-Islamism and local patriotism. This is especially obvious when it comes to its recruitment strategy. Global connections and religious/military strategies are interspersed with nationalism and localisms. Al-Shabaab is typically using “the clash of civilization” paradigm where the two civilizations are seen as specifically clashing on Somali turf (they take Huntington literally and he is used in training). But Al-Shabaab also recruits, and creates popularity, locally by overruling clan borders and creating nationwide legal systems and security. This latter is catering for the significant success of Al-Shabaab from 2007 and up to 2010. Jarle Hansen shows that some of the subsequent failures of the movement were due to Al-Shabaab’s increased incorporation in ordinary clan politics; he points out that, after the initial years of success, clan issues increasingly led to fragmentation and infighting of the movement. Yet still for quite some time Al-Shabaab had something that other movements in South/Central Somalia lacked: institutions and ideology, including facets of governance that could overrule clans as the key organizing factor. An important dimension of the book is that it shows how thorough Al-Shabaab has been, during a relatively short time span, in creating security, justice, an alternative educational system, structures for information and taxation (going beyond simple looting).

Jarle Hansen also successfully points out the complexity of the movement. He shows how shifting the motives behind fighting for Al-Shabaab are; pinpointing how some leaders and units are truly local protectors, others global religious ideologists, but that there are also leaders and units that are much more opportunists and even criminal. He furthermore points out how multifaceted the backgrounds of the troops are. How leadership has often lived abroad prior to them joining Al-Shabaab, and is a blend of Afghanistan veterans and political Islamists with roots in Europe, US and the Middle East. Also foot soldiers comply with this mix where locals are typically recruited for patriotic and security reasons, whilst migrant Somali’s blend such motives with radical Islam and anti-west opinions. I find it extra interesting that Al-Shabaab suicide bombers have almost all spent times in the Western world and have thus already become radicalized in Muslim pockets of the Christian/secular world – very few have been raised in Somalia.

A few years ago when I did some research in Nairobi on Somali diaspora businessmen I met up with a young informal fixer for the Somali transitional government. He described to me how he vacuumed the black markets in Nairobi and Addis Ababa for stolen passports fitting the profiles of international soldiers fighting for Al-Shabaab. He preferred Western passports from people originating from the Horn or East Africa, and Arab/Middle Eastern ones. These passports were later presented to US authorities as proof of how many international jihadist fighters Al-Shabaab had. The transitional government told US authorities that they had confiscated the passports in Somalia from fallen Al-Shabaab fighters. Stories like this one in combination with many experts obvious “wishes” (and hardly qualified guesses) to unravel ties between Al-Qaeda and radical groups on African soil have made me rather skeptical to the many sweeping accounts stating that radical Muslim groups on African soil is closely linked to Al-Qaeda. Here again Jarle Hansen’s meticulous material is able to convince me that ties are much closer and that many of Al-Shabaab’s activities are not just influenced, but also orchestrated by Al-Qaeda elements. I have to succumb. Yet the account is also free from suggestions that Al-Qaeda have financed much of Al-Shabaab’s activities. Jarle Hansen convincingly argues that Al-Shabaab has been able to finance itself through functioning taxation.

As said there is so much material wealth in this book which I could go on and praise, and there is actually not much I lack. In addition to the methodological concern I raised above I would however raise a few issues that I would like to further grasp. First I think it would benefit all readers with some pages of how Somali clans do work and how they are formally organised. Indeed many other researchers have done that, but linking it to Al-Shabaab would really help. Secondly I would have enjoyed reading more about daily life in Al-Shabaab, what are the nuts and bolts of this movement, and more directly what is the social glue keeping this creature together?

Lately I have been served with pictures from a reemerging Mogadishu. I friend of mine has moved back to his birth city. Many pictures are from the reconstruction of his house, but most recently he has taken up the habit of posting street pictures. These pictures are vividly different from the pictures of death, destruction and despair that up until recently came out of international media. These pictures indicate a newfound hope in Somalia. Peace is still fragile in Mogadishu and in other parts of Somalia even more so, but let’s hope my friend in Mogadishu can keep posting his new positive images of Somalia on his Facebook page.


  1. Henriette Bonnevie

    September 24, 2013 at 2:22 pm

    How are El-Shabaab likely to respond to a more peaceful development in Mogadishu if this development implies tighter links with Kenya?

  2. Cutting off the remittances lifeline will only strengthen Al Shabaab – it’s an exercise in self-defeating paranoia.

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