A former U.S. diplomat and a leading analyst on Somalia says the power and influence of the al-Qaida-linked al-Shabab group are diminishing, not increasing as some U.S. intelligence officials have recently warned.
In an article featured in this month's Sentinel magazine, published by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, Ambassador David Shinn says it is far from clear whether al-Shabab, designated as a terrorist organization by the United States, is continuing to attract support for its radical agenda and expanding its reach and influence in Somalia.
Shinn, who twice served as U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia, says he believes Ethiopia's troop withdrawal in January has hurt al-Shabab's image as a group fighting for Somali nationalism under the banner of Islam.
"Now that the Ethiopians have for the most part left Somalia, it has really undercut the al-Shabab argument and my guess is that you are going to see a decrease in interest by those Somalis, who may otherwise be tempted to join, because the main purpose for joining has basically disappeared," Shinn said.
Shinn acknowledges his argument in the Sentinel runs somewhat counter to latest U.S. intelligence reports.
Last week, several high-level intelligence officials told a Senate committee while the Ethiopian withdrawal may have removed a key rallying point for al-Shabab, it was recruiting Somalis from the United States and other countries and still expanding its operations. The officials also suggested that al-Shabab and its long-time ally, al-Qaida, may soon announce a merger.
But the former diplomat says recent developments in Somalia suggest that many of al-Shabab's grass roots supporters in the past two years have been nationalists, who have little enthusiasm for al-Shabab's ultra-conservative ideology and ruthless tactics.
With Ethiopia gone, he says, moderate Islamists leaders and clan elders, who traditionally have had the most influence in Somalia, appear to be no longer intimidated by al-Shabab. Clerics and clan leaders have publicly declared their support of the U.N.-backed government of moderate Islamist President Sharif Sheik Ahmed.
Increasing sectarian clashes between al-Shabab and an armed moderate Islamist group called Ahlu-Sunna Wal-Jama'a in central Somalia also indicate that al-Shabab's interpretation of Islamic law is not what most Somalis want to see implemented.
Shinn says the majority of Somalis do not approve of al-Shabab's association with al-Qaida or their strict interpretation of Islam, which include a ban on playing music and stoning to death girls and women accused of committing adultery.
"I think al-Shabab would be considered a more formidable organization if it did not emphasize any links with al-Qaida. The more al-Shabab uses tactics like suicide car bombings, if they allow themselves to be just an al-Qaida operative in Somalia, that will probably be the beginning of the end of them as a major organization in the country," Shinn said.
Shinn says with Somalia in a delicate period of transition, it is vital that Somalis be given the chance to fully chart their own destiny.