In 2006 the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) – of which al-Shabaab was initially part before becoming the remaining ‘faction’ – introduced a new chapter of governance in Somalia based on its interpretation of the Shari’a (Islamic Law). Using Islam as its foundation and claiming to introduce a ‘purely’ Islamic government in Somalia, al-Shabaab brought a different perspective to the Somali governance that dominated since 1991 (end of the government of Siad Barre) creating a foothold for clan and sub-clan aligned warlords. Although the clan system is too complex to explain in this very brief analysis, al-Shabaab had to find a way to manage and even manipulate clan politics engrained in Somali culture to its advantage. Depending on the situation, al-Shabaab initially presented itself as an organisation focussing on religious identity that extends well beyond ethnic/clan identity. In other cases, al-Shabaab reached agreements with clan elders to ensure support for the organisation. It is however not only al-Shabaab that managed to use clan politics to its advantage, but clans used al-Shabaab (often in return for support) to settle scores with other clans.
At the peak of al-Shabaab’s rule in 2011, an estimated 80% of the country was under its control, including Kismayo and larger parts of Mogadishu. Since then, al-Shabaab started to lose control after the international community, through bilateral and multilateral support to the Somali government and through increased commitment towards the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), started to regain territory. Initiatives and assistance to build and strengthen the Somali government and its security forces is gradually paying off in larger urban areas, although al-Shabaab is still capable to launch attacks and retake areas under Somali military and AMISOM control especially once security forces are being deployed to other areas. Geographically the Somali government does not have the capabilities and manpower to effectively govern a country of 637,657 km2. However, large areas in especially southern Somalia, with particular reference to Lower and Middle Juba and Lower Shabelle are still under al-Shabaab control. It is important to keep in mind that al-Shabaab’s main pull factor driving recruitment is its nationalist agenda to defend Somalia against foreign intervention from ‘Christian-dominated countries’ (despite being secular in nature). Considering that the main responsibility of any government is to protect the territorial integrity of the State against foreign intervention, al-Shabaab was to a large extent successful in presenting itself as defender against a ‘cross-border invasion’.
Establishing and enhancing institutions to provide security, justice, education, healthcare etc. without having legitimacy is however not the answer. Earlier, warlords provided some form of political goods to individuals under their control, but similar to the Somali government ordinary Somali citizens complain that access to these political goods is unequal and ‘expensive’. The latter particularly refers to the justice and administrative systems. With reference to the former, individuals living in areas controlled by the Somali government after being liberated from al-Shabaab complained and even called for the return of al-Shabaab to judicate over legal matters. Citizens would even travel to al-Shabaab mobile courts to get justice. While life under al-Shabaab control cannot be categorised as ‘easy’, everyone has equal access and do not have to ‘pay’ to be heard in both criminal and civil matters. People particularly complained that ‘justice’ in government courts will be in favour to the party paying the bigger bribe. Al-Shabaab judges have even been called to adjudicate over conflict between clans. Although rulings can be appealed, the execution of the verdict is almost immediate.
Tax collection is another area infamous for corruption. While al-Shabaab is particularly financed through tax collection, its tax collection and financial management system is organised and controlled. For example, rates are not only well known in advance, but individuals also receive receipts as proof to prevent double taxation. Al-Shabaab even have unmanned control points at which tax is paid into an account. Refusing to pay previously resulted in severe punishments that served as example to any individual considering defying these rules. Not knowing who an al-Shabaab member is, especially individuals associated to Amniyat (al-Shabaab’s intelligence) is sufficient to ensure compliance. In contrast, taxation is a source of income for Somali security forces that do not regularly receive a salary and clan militias manning checkpoints. Thus, implying that taxes are being collected for individual benefit and not that of building government institutions to provide services – the reasons why governments exist.
Similar to the monitoring of non-governmental organisations in any part of the world to prevent charities and humanitarian agencies being used to finance terrorist organisations, al-Shabaab equally allows certain humanitarian organisations, especially medical agencies to operate in areas under its control after agreeing to a number of preconditions. Furthermore, al-Shabaab even reached out to private charities from especially the Gulf to organise its own aid operations. More recently, al-Shabaab through its Coronavirus Prevention and Treatment Committee opened a COVID-19 treatment facility in 2020. An earlier example reflecting its social responsibilities in response to local challenges, al-Shabaab initiated a ban on plastic bags, even before governments in the region followed suit. The primary reason for this decision was motivated by a growing loss of especially camels after indigesting plastic bags due to pollution.
Education is however the area where al-Shabaab received main resistance from order Somalis, often verbalised by clan leaders. This came after al-Shabaab started to demand that children between 9 and 15 receive education at al-Shabaab-controlled schools before being sent to receive military training to fight for al-Shabaab. As a way to indoctrinate and recruit new members, al-Shabaab even institutionalised this policy by setting quotas clans under its control had to meet. Not able and/or willing to honour this commitment led to punishment that in itself forced stronger clans to initiate plans to get children from weaker clans to fill these quotas. These strategies include paying other clans to send its children instead of the ‘kidnapping’ of children.
While recognising the central role of clan-based identity in Somali political and social affairs in the country, al-Shabaab managed to manoeuvre through this minefield by placing an emphasis on what is similar, namely religion (although interpretations differ) and by focussing on a nationalist agenda.
The question remains whether there is a place for al-Shabaab in Somalia’s political landscape. Should al-Shabaab be capable to replace the current Somali government in the providing of services and justice, the short answer is that it already proved to be capable in areas previously under its control. Whether hardliners within al-Shabaab recognise the current political system and the Somali government and international community are willing to recognise al-Shabaab’s position is another question. Whilst the potential for negotiations as a solution to the conflict in Somalia have been raised on numerous occasions, recognising the ‘existence’ of the other – as the first step to initiate negotiations – and therefore a party to negotiate with remains to be seen. Till then, the Somali government can learn from al-Shabaab’s governance system especially when it comes to its administrative and judicial systems and the equal provision of services beyond clan affiliation that will remain a stumbling block towards some form of national cohesion.
Whereas the international community will remain sceptical towards the organisation’s tactics and human rights record, the question is not only for how long AMISOM will remain in Somalia, but also will al-Shabaab maintain its terror campaign if one of the main motivating factors for the insurgency, namely foreign interests, is removed from the equation. Potentially regarded as outrageous, one only has to recall examples where terrorist and insurgent groups became successful political parties bringing an end to bloodshed and continuous cycles of conflict with ordinary people paying the ultimate prize.