For a very interesting and well-informed perspective on Al Shabaab and the recent terrorist attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, I recommend this report from the always-excellent Peter Greste of Al Jazeera English.
Greste suggests that my (when it was published) contrarian analysis of Al Shabaab as a declining rather than ascending threat is becoming more of a commonplace in Nairobi, where he is based. He then offers a refutation, which, in my typically insistent way, I see largely as a confirmation.
What’s my logic?
The picture he paints of Al Shabaab activity inside Somalia is of a once-aspiring revolutionary movement now descended into simple, if widespread criminality. The once alluring moral authority of Al Shabaab’s late predecessor the Islamic Courts Movement has devolved from religious fidelity into extremist puritanical tyranny. Gone, as in much of once Taliban-controlled Afghanistan (and northwest Pakistan), is all but a fragment of popular support. Discredited is a group that once claimed to be better, both in morality and efficiency, than the Government. What has replaced subscription or tolerance is just fear.
Al Shabaab’s wannabe prophets of a purer Islam are now seen just as dangerous criminals. Their success is simply extortion. They may still be a constant and menacing presence in Mogadishu, as Greste bravely reports from the scene, but almost everyone who lives there wishes only for their absence.
This in all the important terms of Al Shabaab’s one-time ambitions is devastating failure.
It must also be said, and seriously thought upon, that in today’s difficult world, noted in my previous pieces on the Kenya attack, a weak central government means lots of ungoverned spaces. And in those inchoate zones, there are many desperate and angry people who can still be mobilized into desperate and angry actions. And, worse, there is endless, easy access for these desperados to powerful, portable weapons, supplied by rich and irresponsible sponsors to fanatic criminals like those acting as Al Shabaab, who commissioned the Westgate Mall raid.
As presently constituted, the armed and police forces of the government of Somalia, and the visiting troops of the African Union, the Kenyan Army and the Ethiopian Army and Air Force, lack both the will or the capability to pursue and extirpate the urban extortionists or hidey-hole terrorist commanders out in the Somali bush.
That may change, as an effective response to the Nairobi attack is organized. Again, as I said before, attackers come with “jackets,” criminal and security files, so that, once identified, they and their contacts go up on military and intelligence radar screens. For them, the hunt is on. It will be long, slow and expensive, and alas, violent and often not-well-focused. But if Al Shabaab and its diminishing support network are not already on the run, they soon will be.
But for them, the revolution is over, and whatever battles they may win, the war is lost. Now (as always) the real job is to make government in Somalia, in Afghanistan, in Pakistan, (in Kenya and Ethiopia, Congo and Zimbabwe, and for God’s sake, in the USA) work.
This struggle will be longer and harder than eliminating Al Shabaab.