Abdirahman Ahmed, petrified, leapt for cover in his hotel as violence erupted in the adjacent street. ‘The blast was so huge and windows [were] broken everywhere… gunfire was outside.’ Having enjoyed a quiet afternoon at the Somali Youth League Hotel, Abdirahman, like so many Somalis before him, was plunged albeit briefly into the bloody epicentre of Al-Shabaab’s struggle against the UN-backed government.

Image courtesy of United Nations AMISOM © 2012, some rights reserved.

Image courtesy of United Nations AMISOM © 2012, some rights reserved.

This attack on Monday 29 February 2016—which left 14 dead and dozens more wounded—was by no means exceptional. Just three days later a twin bomb attack in Baidoa claimed the lives of 30 people and injured a further 61. Of greater international significance perhaps was Al-Shabaab’s assault on an African Union base in the town of El-Ade earlier this year. The Kenyan-administered base had hosted peacekeepers from the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud claims that up to 200 were killed. However, these three events capture only fragments of a much larger, violent story. Between Al-Shabaab’s emergence in 2007 and 2014, more than 4,000 were killed in over 1,700 terrorist attacks. Whilst there were 10 attacks in 2007, there were over 800 in 2014.

Al-Shabaab’s ignoble vehemence is not restricted to Somalia’s borders. Most notably, in April 2015 four gunmen from the Islamist group stormed the Garissa University College in Kenya and murdered 147 students. Surpassing even the victim-count of the tragic and high-profiled Westgate Shopping Mall attacks (September 2013), the university shootings stand as the highest terrorism-related death toll in Kenya since Al Qaeda’s 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings. Alarmingly, since 2008—when Al-Shabaab announced their arrival onto the Kenyan scene with a quite literal bang—the country has been subjected to over 330 attacks.

In light of Al-Shabaab’s fitness, some pressing questions come to mind: namely, how have Al-Shabaab come to represent this unfaltering force, and why are they consistently dealing out a grisly hand of indiscriminate violence within Somalia and beyond? This article serves to help answer these questions by introducing readers to the historical context of Islamism in Somalia.

Despite being the only country on the Horn of Africa with an almost entirely Muslim population, Somalian society has traditionally been organised around lineage principles and clannism, rather than by Islamic identity and affiliation. It would be wrong here to suggest that Islam has not always penetrated Somali culture to a significant degree. But, customarily, Islam represented less of a political outlet than a framework for community-, family-, and personal-level mediation within a patrilineal backdrop. Indeed, Somali women do not always veil, and xeer [clan customs] and civil law frequently supersede Sharia [Islamic law]. Furthermore, the veneration of ancestors as saints, as well as other pre-Islamic customs, thrive.

It was not really until the late 1960s when Islamism began to harvest support in Somalia. During the course of this decade a wave of Somali students and workers returned home from both Egypt and Saudi Arabia, bringing with them the notions of political Islam. Inspired by the Muslim Brotherhood’s impressive support base and the successful Wahhabi—House of Saud political alliance, similar organisations began to emerge on home turf. Waxda al-Shabaab al-Islaami and the Al-Ahli group provide two examples. Their ideological agendas mixed; they sought to liaise with and influence the government.

Somalia had been independent (from Italy and Britain) only nine years when General Mohamed Siad Barre executed a successful military coup. And so, with the Islamists finding their feet and General Barre cementing his authority, it became Somalia’s turn to host a familiar historical narrative: a thorn bush of secularism strangling the seeds of religious motivation. The day came in 1975 when Islamists publically condemned Barre’s Family Law for its advancement of the legal equality of women. Hearing for the first time a unified Islamist voice and fearing an accruement of popular momentum, Barre was quick to supress protests. Compassion and compromise in absentia, the consequent execution of ten prominent clerics fractured Islamist cohesion and drove them underground for a number of years.

An opening for Islamists came in 1991, when former diplomat and intelligence chief Mohamed Farrah Aidid led a successful rebellion against Barre and his regime. A Transitional National Government (TNG) was created the following October. Importantly though, the state was weak and considerably reliant on contributions by Somali business. Regional control and influence beyond Mogadishu was easily contestable. In January 1991, Islamist group Al-Itihad [the Islamic Union] took advantage of the national turmoil by swiftly capturing Kismayo seaport in the south. They were actually able to hold it for two months (handsomely profiting all the meantime from taxation on traded goods) before Aidid re-captured the harbour with his United Somali Congress militia. Some Islamists, clearly then, had resorted to military means to further their goal of creating an Islamic State.

Yet, now freed of suppression and faced only by a new government with blatant disability, the Islamist’s tussle for territory and influence continued. In 1992 Al-Itihad tried to capture key commercial points in Bosasso, but was again defeated, this time by the Somali Salvation Democratic Front (SSDF), drawn from the Darod clan. The Islamists later found themselves in control of Luuq and Dolo towns. They soon after established a Sharia Court to administer justice and replaced the police force with an Islamic militia. The consumption of qaat (a popular mild narcotic leaf) was forbidden and the veil was enforced. Eventually, however, Al-Itihad was defeated again. The neighbouring Ethiopians feared a bastion of Islamic radicalism and launched repeated offensives in 1996 and 1997 to push Al-Itihad back to the west banks of the Juba River. It was this string of defeats which forced the Islamic Union to reconsider their tactical approach of taking up arms.

It should be noted here that not all Islamists in Somalia adopted violent means. Al-Islah [reconciliation] represents one such contrasting example. This group, in short, seeks to infuse politics with a liberal reading of Islamic values through entirely non-violent means. Membership is largely drawn from the educated elite of the Hawiya clan (including former politicians and civil servants) and activities are focused around Islamic education. Groups such as Al-Islah, however, are visited only briefly here as—despite attention adding to the Islamist picture in Somalia more generally—they are not directly relevant to the development of Al-Shabaab.

Al-Itihad’s multiple defeats meanwhile had taught them two key lessons regarding the capture of fixed territory. Firstly, this tactic transformed them into static targets for powerful external adversaries such as Ethiopia. Secondly, holding an area actually had the potential to undermine the movement’s social cohesion. This was because holding fixed territory invariably meant controlling one clan’s land or town over another’s. By consequence, the multi-clan Islamists became highly vulnerable to clannish charges of being an ‘occupying force’ of ‘outsiders’. In a noteworthy change of approach, the weakened Islamists therefore withdrew form direct military activity and began to concentrate on grassroots support. Moreover, Al-Itihad began to build strong ties with key players within the hawlidad [remittance system of banks and traders] and network of Sharia courts (dominated by Hawiyes), especially in south Mogadishu.

Just as Al-Itihad began its assimilation into the courts system in Mogadishu, a new organisation began to develop. In 2000, the various ‘independent’ courts in the capital united to form a Joint Islamic Courts Council under the chair of Sheikh Hassan Mohammed Addeh. This amalgamation began to expand beyond the capital to include members of the Habr Gedir- and Ayr sub-clans. By 2004, Islamic courts in the north of Mogadishu had also been brought into the fold, and former school teacher Sheikh Sharif Ahmed was elected as the new chairman. But with alliances came stronger political and ideological undercurrents; the ruling Hawiye warlords felt threatened.

Fear was not unwarranted. By 2006, what had started as a rivalry for power over Mogadishu’s only seaport (El-Ma’an) ended up as a complete take-over of the capital by the Islamic Courts Union (ICU). The Islamists had efficaciously deployed the armed Islamic factions under their provision—including a newly formed force called Al-Shabaab [the Youth]—to unite Mogadishu for the first time in 16 years. Unsurprisingly the ICU set about implementing sharia and ridding the government of inefficiency. More daring, though, was an immediate dissemination of criticism pointed towards a meddling Ethiopia. Rhetoric climaxed in December when the ICU issued an ultimatum: Ethiopia must leave Somalia or face forcible expulsion. Indeed, Ethiopian troops were still very active in the west of Somalia in its support for the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) based in Baidoa.

What resulted was another chaotic tip in the balance of power. The ICU’s Islamic militias proved no match for the Ethiopian-backed TFG in the inevitable physical clashes toward the end of 2006. Facing possible obliteration, Al-Shabaab amongst other militant groups retired and retreated to fight another day. The administrative system of the ICU was not so fortunate though and disintegrated almost immediately. Somali government forces walked into Mogadishu virtually unopposed and took back control of the capital.

It is within the historical context of repression, continuous power struggle, and foreign interventionism, therefore, that Al-Shabaab has emerged. Although the group ascended from the grit of Islamist vision over the last 50 years, the circumstances now are seldom propitious for political manoeuvre. Born in the boom of the Islamic Courts Union; violently struggling in the depression of the Transitional Federal Government. Al-Shabaab relies on grotesque violence because they quite simply have no other voice. Secularists have come and gone, yet the support behind Islamism has remained relatively consistent. The government has to tread carefully: corruption and ineptitude will not suffice. To defeat Al-Shabaab, the trust of Somalis must be won not by foreigners or fanatics, but by their kinfolks who represent them in the corridors of power.