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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How to end the Gulf stand off? The West should tell Qatar to reform its foreign policy

Former defence secretary Geoff Hoon on the unfolding crisis in the Gulf. 

Only one group stands to benefit from a continuation of the crisis in Gulf: The Quartet, as they are now being called. Last week, The United Arab Emirates foreign minister tweeted that Qatar and its Gulf Cooperation Council neighbours are heading for a "long estrangement". We should take him at his word.

The European political establishment has been quick to dismiss the boycott by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt as naïve, and a strategic mistake. The received wisdom now is that they have acted impulsively, and that any payoff will be inescapably pyrrhic. I’m not so sure.

Another view: Qatar is determined to stand up to its Gulf neighbours

Jean-Yves Le Drian, France's foreign minister, was in the region over the weekend to see if he could relay some of his boss’s diplomatic momentum. He has offered to help mediate with Kuwait, clearly in the belief that this is the perfect opportunity to elevate France back to the top table. But if President Emmanuel Macron thinks this one will be as straightforward as a Donald Trump handshake, he should know that European charm doesn’t function as well in the 45 degree desert heat (even if some people call him the Sun King).

Western mediation has so far proceeded on the assumption that both sides privately know they will suffer if this conflict drags on. The US secretary of state Rex Tillerson judged that a Qatari commitment to further counter-terrorism measures might provide sufficient justification for a noble reversal. But he perhaps underestimates the seriousness of the challenge being made to Qatar. This is not some poorly-judged attempt to steal a quick diplomatic win over an inferior neighbour.

Qatar’s foreign policy is of direct and existential concern to the other governments in the Gulf. They will not let Qatar off the hook. And even more than that, why should they? Qatar has enormous diplomatic and commercial clout for its size, but that would evaporate in an instant if companies and governments were forced to choose between Doha and the Quartet, whose combined GDP is almost ten times that of their former ally. Iran, Turkey and Russia might stay on side. But Qatar would lose the US and Europe, where most of its soft power has been developed. Qatar’s success has been dependent on its ability to play both sides. If it loses that privilege, as it would in the event of an interminable cold war in the Gulf, then the curtains could come down.

Which is why, if they wanted to badly enough, Le Drian and Tillerson could end this conflict tomorrow. Qatar’s foreign policy has been concerning for the past decade. It has backed virtually every losing side in the Arab world, and caused a significant amount of destruction in the process. In Syria, Libya, Egypt and Yemen, Qatar has turned a blind eye to the funding of Islamic revolutionaries with the financial muscle to topple incumbent regimes. Its motives are clear; influence over the emergent republics, as it had in Egypt for a year under Mohamed Morsi. But as we review the success of this policy from the perspective of 2017, it seems clear that all that has been achieved is a combination of civil unrest and civil war. The experiment has failed.

Moreover, the Coalition is not going to lift sanctions until Doha suspends its support for the Muslim Brotherhood. When Western leaders survey the Gulf and consider who they should support, they observe two things: firstly, that the foreign policy of the Quartet is much more aligned with their own (it doesn’t seem likely to me that any European or American company would prefer to see a revolution in Dubai instead of a continuation of the present arrangement), and secondly, that Qatar would fold immediately if they applied any significant pressure. The Al Thani ruling family has bet its fortune and power on trans-Atlantic support; it is simply not credible that they would turn to the West’s enemies in the event that an ultimatum was issued. Doha might even welcome an excuse to pause its costly and ineffective programmes. Even if that involves some short term embarrassment. It is hardly going to lose support at home, with the highest GDP per capita in the world.

It would be necessary to make sure that the Coalition understands that it will have to pay a price for decisive Western intervention. The world will be a more dangerous place if our allies get the impression they can freely bully any smaller rival, knowing that the West will always come down on their side. That is however no great hurdle to action; it might even be a positive thing if we can at the same time negotiate greater contributions to counter-terrorism or refugee funding.

Unfortunately the reason why none of this is likely to happen is partly that the West has lost a lot of confidence in its ability to resolve issues in the Middle East since 2003, and partly because it fears for its interests in Doha and the handsome Qatari contributions in Western capitals. This cautious assessment is wrong and will be more harmful to Qatar and the aforementioned interests. The Quartet has no incentive to relent, it can’t afford to and will profit from commercial uncertainty in Doha the longer this drags on. If the West really wants this to end now, it must tell Qatar to reform its foreign policy or face sanctions from a more threatening ally.

Geoffrey Hoon was the UK defence secretary from 1999 to 2005.