Rounding up al-Shabaab Militants

John Price (Ambassador to Mauritius, Seychelles and Comoros, 2002-2005)

Cross-posted from the January 6, 2012 blog post by Ambassador John Price


As discussed in my book, “When the White House Calls”, in July 2006 Osama bin Laden urged the mujahideen in Somalia to fight anyone who might weaken their grip on power. At that time the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) factions had strengthened their grip on the capital of Mogadishu, and surrounding villages as far south as the Kenya border, pressing for their control under Sharia, the strict Islamic law.

Backed by the United States, Ethiopia sent in troops to support the UN backed Transitional Federal Government (TFG). With the help of Eritrea the ICU militia attacked this coalition. Ultimately the fledgling TFG took control of Mogadishu in December 2006. Out of this chaos the ICU clans re-grouped, but never gained back their previous dominance. From the ashes grew an offspring youth group, called al-Shabaab, which were more brutal than their elders. These young men had no economic future, with only a strict Koranic indoctrination since birth. Recruitment into the ranks of the al-Shabaab organization was successful for these fundamentalist trained young men. Their Taliban style attracted many followers from far away haunts. In their mission to take control of Somalia many innocent Somalis died from starvation and their brutality. Forced to evacuate from their villages many were displaced, fleeing to refugee camps which swelled to several hundred thousand Somalis.

Ethiopian troops, supporting the weak TFG, were perceived more as invaders and occupiers (a familiar tone), with many innocent Somalis being caught in the crossfire. By 2009 the Ethiopian troops wore out their welcome carpet and were withdrawn. Conflicts, mistrust and hatred have existed between Ethiopians and Somalis for centuries. School children in both countries were taught about this eon old divide. No hugs, kisses or handshakes awaited these so called liberators.

The influence of al-Shabaab, al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups extends beyond Somalia, which has made the Horn of Africa and East Africa one of the most dangerous places in the world over the past twenty years. The Global War on Terror continues in this region. Terrorist tentacles have spread to other parts of sub-Saharan Africa, including attacks in Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania and western Africa in places like Nigeria, and Mali. As radical Islamists spread their influence, the Horn of Africa is becoming the epicenter for these extremist groups.

To assume that the re-entry of Ethiopian troops today, along side of African Union and Kenyan troops will route out the terrorists, may in the near term not be possible. Every day another child becomes a soldier, created by a radical Wahhabist imam’s influence. So if we capture or kill every al-Shabaab youth or al-Qaeda member there today, we still will not win the War on Terror.

If democratization only is our goal in these countries, tribal and ethnic cultures will trump our form of democracy. Patient diplomacy and full engagement of this region is the real answer. The Somalis need our humanitarian aid, but more importantly they need sustainable economic development programs, secular education for all children, village health care solutions, water and power sourcing, and agriculture experts to serve as mentors.

These long range solutions will take an active engagement by the United States— possibly taking another twenty years to take root. However, the United States has allowed the de-stabilization to continue, unabated, since we exited Somalia, closing our embassy in Mogadishu in 1991. We had a chance to make a difference there, when the more secular warlords defeated Somalia’s brutal dictator Siad Barre, who had ruled for over twenty years, until he was overthrown in January 1991.

It is not too late to fully engage this failed state. However, continued short term military actions are not the answer to accomplish a permanent peace solution. It is like putting a band-aid on a puncture wound.