The United States has designated a Somali Islamic militant group as a terrorist organization. In making the announcement yesterday (Tuesday), the US said al-Shabab has had close links to al Qaeda and has invited foreign fighters to join them in Somalia. Al-Shabab has claimed responsibility for a series of recent bombings, as well.
To put the US State Department announcement into context, VOA English to Africa Service reporter Joe De Capua spoke to Professor David Shinn of George Washington University, a former US ambassador to Ethiopia.
“This is significant and it’s not particularly unexpected. I would imagine that the US government has been wrestling with this matter for quite a number of months as to whether to include it on the terrorist list or not and obviously has finally decided to do so,” he says.
What does this mean for US involvement in Somalia? Ambassador Shinn says, “It already is involved in Somalia in that there have been four aerial strikes that we know of against alleged terrorists inside Somalia since January of last year. In addition, my understanding is that there have been these small teams, probably of Special Forces personnel, who occasionally move around at least the border areas of Somalia. Those activities are not well known and certainly aren’t publicized, but to the extent that the United States has been effective in dealing with any terrorist elements inside Somalia, they probably have been more effective than these aerial strikes.”
Ambassador Shinn says al-Shabab certainly has contributed to the violence in Mogadishu. “I think al-Shabab has been responsible for a reasonable percentage of the violence in Mogadishu, certainly not all of it. There are other groups in Mogadishu and elsewhere in the country that are unhappy with the Transitional Federal Government and have been involved in some of this violence. But the al-Shabab is what you might call the point of the spear in that they are probably the most effectively organized. But having said that I guess my one concern with all of this is that one has to be careful about defining what al-Shabab is,” he says.
He explains why there could be some confusion over the make-up of the group: “The public information I’ve seen in the last several months suggests that the main al-Shabab organization has effectively broken with the former Islamic Courts (Union) structure. It used to be the militia that provided the muscle for the Islamic Courts when the Islamic Courts were in control in Somalia and made their way ultimately to Asmara, Eritrea, where they are in exile. The Islamic Courts, who now have joined the somewhat broader group known as the Alliance for the Re-Liberation of Somalia, which is based in Asmara, have announced that they do not control the main al-Shabab structure. And the al-Shabab leadership has confirmed that publicly, saying that it no longer takes instruction from this Alliance for the Re-Liberation of Somalia. But then it gets a little bit more confused. The alliance in Asmara has said there still are some al-Shabab personnel that do follow its leadership. So, the question becomes, what precisely are we talking about here?”
Questions about whether the rank and file are “ideologically committed,” or whether they’re “freebooters, who are joining whatever group happens to have the most power at any point in time.”
As for the US State Department’s accusation that the group has links to al-Qaeda, Shinn says, “Some of the al-Shabab leadership clearly has some ties to al-Qaeda. But to suggest that everyone who is in al-Shabab is affiliated with or linked somehow with al-Qaeda is probably not true. But there’s just enough of a connection there…that I think this was the element that caused the United States to put al-Shabab on this list.