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Al Shabaab: Between Ideology and Criminality – Professor Hussein Solomon

February 17, 2014


Al Shabaab: Between Ideology and Criminality

By Hussein Solomon

RIMA Occasional Papers, Volume 2 (2014), Number 2 (February 2014)

The dominant narrative regarding Somalia’s Al Shabaab terrorists is that they are Wahhabi Salafi-Takfiri inspired Muslim fundamentalists aiming to create an Islamic caliphate in the Horn of Africa. Their public announcement of an alliance with Al Qaeda central in 2012 reinforced this narrative.

Viewing Al Shabaab’s terrorist violence as a product of its ideology, various initiatives were launched focusing on discrediting the underlying ideology. In March 2010, for instance, various mainstream Muslim scholars and clerics under the leadership of renowned Sheikh Abdullah Bin Bayah and with the endorsement of the Organization of Islamic Conference issued a religious declaration condemning terrorism in Somalia whilst calling for peace and reconciliation. Moreover, these religious leaders pointed out that it was an Islamic obligation to obey legitimate authority – in this case the Somali Transitional Federal Government. Consequently, they argued that there can be no Islamic justification for the indiscriminate violence perpetrated by Al Shabaab[1].

It hardly needs mentioning that Al Shabaab ignored this religious ruling and continued acts of terrorism both within Somalia and indeed into Uganda and Kenya as evinced by last year’s atrocious murder of the innocent at the Westgate Shopping Mall in Nairobi. This, raises the intriguing question of what other factors motivate Al Shabaab members, if not religious ideology? In his incisive article, Said Samatar, eluded to another motivation, “Al Shabaab itself, despite its militant allure, largely consists of starving jobless fighters who are in it merely for the pay”[2]. Under the circumstances, it is understandable why Al Shabaab places such a high premium on profitable enterprises to generate the necessary income to pay monthly salaries to impoverished local youth recruited under its banner[3].

These profitable enterprises include extorting money from local businesses and setting up illegal roadblocks so to charge road users a “tax”[4]. In addition, Mohammed Ibrahim has also pointed out that Al Shabaab receives between 20 and 50 percent of the ransom money pirates receive on account of Al Shabaab controlling some of the ports, pirates operate from[5]. Ashley Elliot and George Sebastian Holzer, meanwhile, point out that even the rhetoric emanating from Al Shabaab may be less to do with their commitment to the Islamist ideology and more to do with opportunistic reasons. Thus they cogently argue, “ …the Shabaab deploys the language of jihad to attract international assistance and to provide a structure to government. The strategy is purposive, not merely ideological”[6]. The profit motive also provides the most convincing reason for the conflict between Al Shabaab and other Islamists for control of the lucrative revenues from the port of Kismayo[7]. Hence despite the underlying common Islamist worldview, these groups fought for control for reasons of profit.

This is not to argue that ideology plays no role in the character and composition of Al Shabaab. The point being made, however, is that a common Islamist ideology cannot be seen as the dominant motivation for the origins and trajectory of Al Shabaab. From a counter-terrorism perspective, it raises the intriguing possibility of co-opting the more materialistic members of Al Shabaab from the more ideologically minded.

[1] Mohammed Ibrahim, “Somalia and global terrorism: A growing connection,” Journal of Contemporary African Studies, Vol. 20 No. 3, July 2010, pp. 291-292.

[2] Said Samatar, “An open letter to Uncle Sam, America, pray leave Somalia to its own devices,” Journal of Contemporary African Studies, Vol. 28 No. 3, July 2010, p. 321.

[3] Ibrahim, op.cit., p. 285.

[4] Bronwyn Bruton, “ Clan and Islamic Identity in Somalia,” in Anthony Seaboyer (ed.) CEADS Papers Vol. 2: Somalia. Canada, Europe, America Dialogue on Security. Ontario, Canada. 2012, p. 53.

[5] Ibrahim, op.cit., p. 290.

[6] Quoted in Bruton, op.cit., p. 53.

[7] Ibid.

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