What you need to know about al-Shabab

How the militant Somalia group behind the deadly attack on a Kenyan shopping centre formed, and why it is attacking foreign targets now.

It didn’t take long for the Somali militant group, al-Shabab, to claim responsibility for this weekend’s deadly attack on the Westgate shopping centre in Nairobi. The group, which has a strangely active social media presence despite repeated attempts to close down its twitter feeds, claimed responsibility via twitter and said they were retaliating against Kenyan troops currently fighting militant groups in southern Somalia.

Al-Shabab, which means “the youth” in Arabic, was originally the militant, youth arm of the Islamist coalition the Islamic Courts Union. When Ethiopia invaded Somalia in 2006, al-Shabab gained prominence as part of the armed resistance movement. It flourished in the lawlessness that followed Ethiopia's withdrawal in 2009, bolstered by funding from Eritrea. In 2011 Somalia and African Union forces forced al-Shabab out of Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu, but large swathes of the country are still under al-Shabab control.

Those under al-Shabab rule are subject to the most draconian interpretation of Sharia law, which is violently enforced. Football and music are banned, women are forced to cover their faces in public, and are lashed if they don’t obey. Al-Shabab officially joined Al Qaeda in February 2012, but has long aligned itself with Al Qaeda’s narrative of global jihad, and was first designated by the US as a terrorist organisation in 2008. In 2010 it carried out its first overseas terrorist attack, when two suicide bombers killed 67 people watching the World Cup Final in Kampala, Uganda. Since 2011 al-Shabab has carried out a number of smaller attacks on bars, tourist resorts, churches and military sites in Kenya.

One puzzling aspect of al-Shabab’s latest attack is that many believed al-Shabab was weakening. In September 2012 it was forced out of the strategic port town of Kismayo. The same year,  Somalia's first formal parliament in more than 20 years was sworn in, a sign of improved security and confidence. On 16 September this year, the Somali government secured ₤1.5bn funding from the EU to rebuild the country.

Al-Shabab has also fallen victim to infighting. Its co-founder Ibrahim al-Afghani was killed earlier this year, and several high profile members fled or turned themselves in to government forces following a coup by Ahmed Abdi Godane. Godane is believed to be a keen advocate of closer association with Al Qaeda, and as early as July this year, analysts predicted that Godane’s leadership would lead to an escalation of violence.

As Simon Tisdall concludes in today’s Guardian: "The terrorists are divided and losing ground. But they seem determined to go down fighting."
 

An image grab taken from AFP TV shows Kenyan troops taking position on 21 September, 2013 inside the Westgate mall in Nairobi. Photo: Getty

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

Getty
Show Hide image

Martin McGuinness's long game: why a united Ireland is now increasingly likely

McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

In late 2011 Martin McGuinness stood as Sinn Fein’s candidate in Ireland’s presidential election, raising all sorts of intriguing possibilities.

Raised in a tiny terraced house in the Bogside, Derry, he would have ended up living in a 92-room presidential mansion in Dublin had he won. A former IRA commander, he would have become supreme commander of Ireland’s defence forces. Once banned from Britain under the Prevention of Terrorism Acts, he would have received the credentials of the next British ambassador to Dublin. Were he invited to pay a state visit to London, a man who had spent much of his youth shooting or bombing British soldiers would have found himself inspecting a guard of honour at Buckingham Palace.

McGuinness would certainly have shaken the hands of the English team before the Ireland-England rugby match at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin every other year. “I’d have no problem with that,” he told me, grinning, as he campaigned in the border county of Cavan one day that autumn. Though a staunch republican, he enjoyed the “Protestant” sports of rugby and cricket, just as he supported Manchester United and enjoyed BBC nature programmes and Last of the Summer Wine. He wrote poetry and loved fly-fishing, too. Unlike Gerry Adams, the coldest of cold fish, McGuinness was hard to dislike – provided you overlooked his brutal past.

In the event, McGuinness, weighed down by IRA baggage, came a distant third in that election but his story was astonishing enough in any case. He was the 15-year-old butcher’s assistant who rose to become the IRA chief of staff, responsible for numerous atrocities including Lord Mountbatten’s assassination and the Warrenpoint slaughter of 18 British soldiers in 1979.

Then, in 1981, an IRA prisoner named Bobby Sands won a parliamentary by-election while starving himself to death in the Maze Prison. McGuinness and Adams saw the mileage in pursuing a united Ireland via the ballot box as well as the bullet. Their long and tortuous conversion to democratic politics led to the Good Friday accord of 1998, with McGuinness using his stature and “street cred” to keep the provisional’s hard men on board. He became Northern Ireland’s improbable new education minister, and later served as its deputy first minister for a decade.

His journey from paramilitary pariah to peacemaker was punctuated by any number of astounding tableaux – visits to Downing Street and Chequers; the forging of a relationship with Ian Paisley, his erstwhile arch-enemy, so strong that they were dubbed the “Chuckle Brothers”; his denunciation of dissident republican militants as “traitors to the island of Ireland”; talks at the White House with Presidents Clinton, George W Bush and Obama; and, most remarkable of all, two meetings with the Queen as well as a state banquet at Windsor Castle at which he joined in the toast to the British head of state.

Following his death on 21 March, McGuinness received tributes from London that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago. Tony Blair said peace would not have happened “without Martin’s leadership, courage and quiet insistence that the past should not define the future”. Theresa May praised his “essential and historic contribution to the extraordinary journey of Northern Ireland from conflict to peace”.

What few noted was that McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation – albeit by peaceful methods – than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

The Brexit vote last June has changed political dynamics in Northern Ireland. The province voted by 56 per cent to 44 in favour of remaining in the European Union, and may suffer badly when Britain leaves. It fears the return of a “hard border” with the Republic of Ireland, and could lose £330m in EU subsidies.

Dismay at the Brexit vote helped to boost Sinn Fein’s performance in this month’s Stormont Assembly elections. The party came within 1,200 votes of overtaking the Democratic Unionist Party, which not only campaigned for Leave but used a legal loophole to funnel £425,000 in undeclared funds to the broader UK campaign. For the first time in Northern Ireland’s history, the combined unionist parties no longer have an overall majority. “The notion of a perpetual unionist majority has been demolished,” Gerry Adams declared.

Other factors are also working in Sinn Fein’s favour. The party is refusing to enter a new power-sharing agreement at Stormont unless the DUP agrees to terms more favourable to the Irish nationalists. Sinn Fein will win if the DUP agrees to this, but it will also win if there is no deal – and London further inflames nationalist sentiment by imposing direct rule.

McGuinness’s recent replacement as Sinn Fein’s leader in Northern Ireland by Michelle O’Neill, a personable, socially progressive 40-year-old unsullied by the Troubles, marks another significant step in the party’s move towards respectability. As Patrick Maguire recently wrote in the New Statesman, “the age of the IRA old boys at the top is over”.

More broadly, Scottish independence would make the notion of Northern Ireland leaving the UK seem less radical. The Irish republic’s economic recovery and the decline of the Roman Catholic Church have rendered the idea of Irish unity a little less anathema to moderate unionists. And all the time, the province’s Protestant majority is shrinking: just 48 per cent of the population identified itself as Protestant in the 2011 census and 45 per cent Catholic.

The Good Friday Agreement provides for a referendum if a majority appears to favour Irish unity. Sinn Fein is beginning to agitate for exactly that. When Adams and McGuinness turned from violence to constitutional politics back in the 1980s they opted for the long game. Unfortunately for McGuinness, it proved too long for him to see Irish nationalism victorious, but it is no longer inconceivable that his four grown-up children might. 

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution