What next for al-Shabab?

The decision to launch a terrorist attack abroad might reflect its inability to mount a successful offensive against African Union troops on the ground but it is also a mark of al-Shabab’s enduring strength.

It didn’t take long for the Somali militant group al-Shabab to claim responsibility for the deadly siege on the Westgate shopping centre in Nairobi. The group, which maintains an active social media presence despite repeated attempts to close its accounts, announced on Twitter that it was carrying out the attack in retribution for Kenyan troops now fighting militants in southern Somalia.
 
Al-Shabab, which means “the youth” in Arabic, first emerged as a radical youth arm of the Union of Islamic Courts, an Islamist coalition, and gained prominence as part of the armed resistance to Ethiopia’s invasion of Somalia in 2006. It flourished in the lawlessness that followed Ethiopia’s withdrawal in 2009, bolstered by funding from Eritrea. In 2011, African Union troops forced al-Shabab out of the Somali capital, Mogadishu, but swaths of the country are still under al-Shabab control. Al-Shabab officially joined al-Qaeda in February 2012 but has long aligned itself with al-Qaeda’s narrative of global jihad. In 2010 al-Shabab suicide bombers killed 67 people in the Ugandan capital, Kampala, and since 2011 it has carried out smaller attacks in Kenya.
 
The group’s latest and most ambitious strike on a foreign target reflects its changed circumstances in Somalia, as well as a shift in al-Qaeda’s global strategy. Militarily, al-Shabab’s position in Somalia is weakening. In September 2012, it was forced out of the strategic port town of Kismayo. The same year, Somalia’s first formal parliament in over two decades was sworn in, and just five days before the Nairobi attack the Somali government secured a pledge of €1.5bn from the EU to rebuild the country.
 
The decision to launch a terrorist attack abroad might reflect its inability to mount a successful offensive against African Union troops on the ground but it is also a mark of al-Shabab’s enduring strength.
 
“I’ve seen a lot of commentary that says this has been one of the dying throes of the organisation,” says Raffaello Pantucci, a senior research fellow at the defence and security think tank the Royal United Services Institute. “But really the organisation is showing that it still exists and is able to carry out complex operations.”
 
The Westgate siege follows a period of infighting. Al- Shabab’s co-founder Ibrahim al-Afghani was killed earlier this year and several highprofile members fled or turned themselves in after a coup by his leadership rival Ahmed Abdi Godane. Godane is seen as a keen advocate of greater foreign involvement and closer association with al-Qaeda.
 
Meanwhile, there’s al-Qaeda’s organisational structure following Osama Bin Laden’s death. “Al-Qaeda, with al-Shabab as a key affiliate, wants to set up an East African arm,” says Jonathan Russell, a Middle East analyst at the Quilliam Foundation, which researches counter-extremism. “There’s a high proportion of Muslims there, plus the power vacuum in Somalia offers a real strategic opportunity for al- Qaeda.” This mirrors a broader trend, with al-Qaeda evolving from a monolithic organisation into looser groupings of regional affiliates.
 
The Westgate attack was a chilling reminder of al-Qaeda’s global reach and the disastrous consequences of Somalia’s civil collapse, but Russell believes al-Shabab has “bitten off more than it can chew”. A nephew of Uhuru Kenyatta, Kenya’s president, was killed in the attack, adding a personal dimension to his pledge to redouble his country’s military offensive in Somalia. The US, UK and Israel have already announced their support.
The spokesperson for Somalia's Al-Shabaab militant group, Robow Abu Mansur (C), is escorted on December 14, 2008 by bodyguards to a press conference just outside Mogadishu. Image: Getty

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 30 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory Game of Thrones

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“Journalists are too scared to come”: Refugees on the forgotten war in Yemen

Only the few who have managed to flee the war-torn country can reveal the suffering of those left behind.

Last weekend’s BBC Our World report on the humanitarian crisis caused by the Yemen civil war highlighted that not only is the conflict a forgotten war, it is also an unknown war. Since war broke out 18 months ago in March 2015, surprisingly little has been written about the conflict, despite its similarity to ongoing and widely-reported other conflicts in the region, such as the Syrian crisis.

The main conflict in Yemen is taking place between forces allied to the President, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, and those loyal to Zaidi Shia rebels known as Houthis, who forced Hadi to flee the capital city Sana’a in February. The loyalties of Yemen’s security forces are split, with some units backing President Hadi and others his predecessor Ali Abdullah Saleh, who is seen as the leader of the Houthi forces.

While these two forces have been at war, separate terrorist groups have been gaining more and more influence on the ground. Opposed by both the Houthis and Hadi’s forces, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) have staged deadly attacks from strongholds in the south and south-east. They are also opposed by Islamic State, which has claimed responsibility for a number of suicide bombings in Sana’a.

After rebel forces closed in on the president's southern stronghold of Aden in late March, a coalition led by Saudi Arabia responded to a request by Hadi to intervene and launched air strikes on Houthi targets.

I have spent the last couple of months working in the “Jungle” refugee camp in Calais, home to refugees from Sudan, Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Eritrea, Somalia – to name just a few. Having heard very little about the civil war, I was surprised to meet a handful of Yemeni men living inside the camp.

Hussein*, 28, is a film producer and dancer from Yemen who fled the country two years ago and has travelled through 11 countries to reach the Calais camp, where he has been living for just over a month. In a mixture of English and French, he tells me how groups of Houthi militia forcibly try to confiscate cameras and notebooks from both local and international journalists. He knows local journalists, friends of his, who have been threatened, tortured and even killed by Houthi forces.

He pulls out his phone and shows me a picture of his friend, Mohammed, who worked as a photojournalist, documenting brutality as a result of the war. Mohammed’s friends and family have not heard from him since April; the best-case scenario is that he is being detained, but Hussein seems pretty certain that he is dead. As a result, many who otherwise would have reported on the conflict have fled from besieged cities such as Sana’a, Aden and Taiz to the relative safety of the countryside in the north of the country, or have left Yemen altogether.

His friend Jamil, with whom he shares a tent, adds: “from other countries journalists [they are] too scared to come”. He claims that there are only “five or seven” foreign journalists in the capital city, Sana’a and tells me about journalists from the UK, France and the US who, after spending days being held up by countless militarised checkpoints while trying to reach the main cities, are then interrogated and detained by Houthi forces. If they are let go, they are harassed throughout their visit by National Security officers.

After watching his mother die during an airstrike in the city of Hodaida in January, Jamil took the decision to flee Yemen and claim asylum in Europe. He is worried about his father and his friends who are still in Yemen, especially after hearing reports that random border closures and cancelled domestic flights have been preventing crucial aid convoys of food, medical supplies and trained aid workers from accessing the citizens who are desperately in need of humanitarian assistance. Jamil reminds me that Yemen was in economic crisis even before war broke out, with widespread famine and limited access to healthcare or clean water.

Movement within the country is restricted and dangerous, and in the last twelve months alone, four Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) facilities have been attacked and destroyed by airstrikes. Writing on 15 September 15, MSF head of mission in Yemen, Hassan Bouceninem spoke of:

“Other health centers, schools, markets, bridges . . . [that] have been attacked and destroyed by airstrikes, shelling, or bombs. Such attacks create direct victims but the war (economic failure, access problems, closing of hospitals, no health staff etc.) also causes a lot of indirect victims within the population.”

Such widespread instability and the resultant lack of access for journalists and aid workers means that it is difficult for the world to know how much Yemen is suffering. Only by speaking to the few who have managed to flee can even begin to grasp the realities of daily life for those left behind.

*Names have been changed to protect the identities of our sources.

Neha Shah has been volunteering in the Calais camp.