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U.S. makes visible efforts to limit support for al-Shabaab in Somalia, but effect of policy is unclear

“So far as I understand, it does not have much of an impact,” said Michael Weinstein, a political science professor at Purdue University.

Somali fighters belonging to Ahlusunah warjama, a moderate sect fighting against the hardline al-Shabaab insurgents, display weapons during a parade in Mogadishu on July 31.
REUTERS/Omar Faruk
Somali fighters belonging to Ahlusunah warjama, a moderate sect fighting against the hardline al-Shabaab insurgents, display weapons during a parade in Mogadishu on July 31.

To aid the militant Somali insurgent group called al-Shabaab is to invite major legal trouble if you do it in Minnesota or any other U.S. state. That much, federal authorities have made clear with a string of indictments that grew considerably longer last week.

What’s less clear is whether the crackdown here deals any real blow to al-Shabaab’s operations in Somalia.

Unfortunately, say some observers, the answer is no.

“So far as I understand, it does not have much of an impact,” said Michael Weinstein, a political science professor at Purdue University and an analyst for Garowe Online, which is based in the Puntland, a self-governed region in northern Somalia.

Of course, there are other major reasons for the crackdown. Not the least of them is to prevent Minnesota from becoming a recruiting headquarters for what the United States says is a terrorist organization. Authorities say that fighters trained and radicalized in Somalia could seed a movement of home-grown militants here.

Still, the question of the impact on al-Shabaab is important for tens of thousands of law-abiding Somalis in Minnesota, for the stability of East Africa and for U.S. national security.

An all but insurmountable challenge
It defines a challenge that is all but insurmountable for the United States. There are no easy solutions to the problems posed by Somalia in general and al-Shabaab in particular.

Since 2006, this upstart group has created an African beachhead for Islamist militancy in utter defiance of attempts by the United States, the United Nations and the African Union to secure Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government. It also has shown a chilling ability to reach around the world — indeed, all of the way to Minnesota.

But many of the steps outsiders have taken to thwart al-Shabaab have backfired.

“Experts strongly caution that there is little the United States can do to weaken al-Shabaab,” said a backgrounder on the organization by the Council on Foreign Relations.

Who they are
The State Department’s latest country by country report on terrorism describes al-Shabaab as a militant force that “has used intimidation and violence to undermine the Somali government, forcibly recruit new fighters and regularly kill activists working to bring about peace through political dialogue and reconciliation.”

The violence has included stoning people to death, chopping off hands, slaughtering foreign relief workers, forcing children into military service and staging suicide bombings.

But other descriptions by independent analysts say al-Shabaab also has given to the poor, listened to the concerns of clan leaders in southern Somalia and won favor in some quarters by standing up to foreign forces.

Since the United States designated al-Shabaab a terrorist group in 2008, its leaders have seemed to swagger under that label. They have expressed allegiance with al-Qaeda and publicly praised Osama bin Laden. For example, last September they released a video titled “We are at your command, Usama.”

Now, the State Department says, foreign al-Qaeda operatives are working in Somalia under al-Shabaab’s protection. The highly unstable country, it said, is “a permissive environment for terrorist transit and training.”

Until last month, though, al-Shabaab’s attacks seemed focused on Somalia alone. Then, in July, bombs tore through crowds watching soccer’s World Cup finals in the Ugandan capital, Kampala.

Seventy people were dead. Al Shabaab claimed responsibility.

And the once rag-tag Somali group was a player on violent jihad’s world stage.

Minnesota connections
While the action had been local in Somalia, al-Shabaab’s recruiting arm reached into Minnesota at least three years ago. Some 20 young men, all but one of Somali descent, disappeared from the Twin Cities area and turned up in Somalia, where they trained with al-Shabaab, the FBI reported. One, Shirwa Ahmed, drove an explosives-laden Toyota truck into the office of the Puntland Intelligence Service in a suicide bombing.

Last year, authorities began arresting and indicting more than a dozen people who had helped recruit the men and finance their trips to Somalia.

Then last week, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced 14 indictments in Minnesota, Alabama and California. They alleged terrorism violations mainly connected with providing money and other support to al-Shabaab.

Attorney General Eric Holder, right, announces charges of terrorism violations against 14 people for providing resources to the foreign organization al-Shabaab. At left is Assistant Attorney General for National Security David Kris.
REUTERS/Larry Downing
Attorney General Eric Holder, right, announces charges of terrorism violations against 14 people for providing resources to the foreign organization al-Shabaab. At left is Assistant Attorney General for National Security David Kris.

Most interesting of the latest cases are charges that two Rochester, Minn., women — Amina Farah Ali, 33, and Hawo Mohamed Hassan, 63, — went door-to-door soliciting funds under the pretense of helping needy Somalis. In fact, the authorities allege, they sent more than $8,600 in money transfers to al-Shabaab.

“The indictments unsealed today shed further light on a deadly pipeline that has routed funding and fighters to the al-Shabaab terror organization from cities across the United States,” Holder said at a press conference.

“While our investigations are ongoing around the country, these arrests and charges should serve as an unmistakable warning to others considering joining terrorist groups like al-Shabaab — if you choose this route you can expect to find yourself in a U.S. jail cell or a casualty on the battlefield in Somalia,” he said.

The Minnesota women pleaded not guilty before a U.S. magistrate in Minneapolis on Monday, the Associated Press reported.

Still a mystery
For all of the commotion, al-Shabaab has caused in Minnesota and around the world, much about the organization remains a mystery.

The group’s precise numbers “are unknown,” said the State Department report. Some members may have trained and fought with al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, it said, but that isn’t clear either.

Even experts can’t agree on the organization’s status.

Some analysts say that al-Shabaab is torn by infighting. They also say its insistence on enforcing a harsh interpretation of Islamic law is increasingly unpopular with the Somali people.

The upshot is that al-Shabaab is “on the defensive and feels beleaguered,” said a briefing published in May by the International Crisis Group.

“The movement is forced to fight on many fronts and to disperse its assets and combatants through broad swathes of hostile territory,” the briefing said. Further, it said, Al-Shabaab’s “military troubles have been compounded by the steady erosion of its popularity and credibility.”

From that view, pressure applied to al-Shabaab’s support in Minnesota would seem to make a difference.

But other analysts debate that point of view.

Many sources of funding
Al-Shabaab has diverse sources of funding, said Weinstein, at Purdue University. And the sums allegedly collected in Minnesota would be comparatively small. The most important source is other Muslims who support so-called Salafist — or, violent — jihad, he said.

“They are not getting most of their money from the United States,” Weinstein said. “They are getting their money mostly from Arab Salafist networks throughout the Islamic world.”

Money also comes from port operations in the southern city of Kismayo, where al-Shabaab gained control in 2009. And al-Shabaab has devised other fundraising schemes such as demanding payment for allowing humanitarian aid to move through regions it controls — something the U.S. State Department dubbed a “terrorism tax” and refused to pay.

That is not to say that the Somali diaspora is not an important funding source. But most ex-patriot Somalis do not live in the United States — even given the tens of thousands who now call Minnesota home. Most of them live in Kenya, the United Kingdom, Canada and scattered Arab countries.

What’s true for money also is true for fighters recruited from Minnesota. Whatever al-Shabaab’s numbers are, a few dozen from this part of the world wouldn’t make that much difference on the ground in Somalia — except, perhaps, to parade them as American converts to al-Shabaab’s cause.

How to stabilize Somalia
If anything, this Minnesota connection stands as a powerful reminder that we live in a very small world where trouble festering in one place can race around the globe.

So this might be a better way to state the key question: What, if anything, can be done to help stabilize Somalia, to help ease its desperate poverty and build some new order from the wreckage of a failed state?

After ignoring the question for much of the 1990s, the U.S. strategy was to prop up the beleaguered transitional government in Mogadishu with outside troops — first by supporting Ethiopian forces and now with African Union troops acting as embattled peacekeepers.

Time is running out for that strategy. The transitional government controls only a portion of the capital city, and some of its members have quit, been fired or even defected.

Good riddance, say some analysts. If anything has bolstered al-Shabaab, they say, it has been the presence of foreign troops on Somali soil.

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Rather than back one troop buildup after another, there are better ways for the United States to prevent the rise of terrorist groups in Somalia, said Bronwyn Bruton, a former international affairs fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, in a New York Times opinion piece.

“A strategy of “constructive disengagement” — in which the international community would extricate itself from Somali politics, but continue to provide development and humanitarian aid and conduct the occasional special-forces raid against the terrorists — would probably be enough to pull the rug out from under Al Shabab,” Bruton said.

“The only way Al Shabab can flourish, or even survive in the long term, is to hold itself up as an alternative to the transitional government and the peacekeepers,” Bruton said. “If the Somali public did not have to face this grim choice, the thousands of clan and business militiamen would eventually put up a fight against Al Shabab’s repressive religious edicts and taxes. (Somalia’s sheer ungovernability is both its curse and its blessing.) And without a battle against peacekeepers to unite it, Al Shabab would likely splinter into nationalist and transnational factions.”

Sharon Schmickle covers international affairs, science and other topics.