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Book review: Inside Al-Shabaab

The Secret History of Al-Qaeda’s Most Powerful Ally 
by Harun Maruf and Dan Joseph

by Liban Obsiye
Saturday, December 15, 2018

This is one of those rare books that simply focuses on the subject from the beginning and keeps readers captivated. There is little philosophising and few assumptions because the authors employ authentic first-hand sources and interview those that really seem to know the inside workings of Al-Shabaab. The story is brought to light by sources including US diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks, letters taken from the Pakistani hideout of Osama bin Laden, case files from the prosecution of American Al-Shabaab members, emails from Hillary Clinton's tenure as secretary of state, Al-Shabaab's own statements, news coverage from reputable national and international media and recruiting videos as well as interviews with defectors and Somali government and intelligence agency personnel. There are in depth case studies of the key figures in the Al-Shabaab movement including the now deceased Godane, the first Emir who was killed by a US aerial strike as well as Mukhtar Robow, a former spokesperson and deputy leader. Yet, despite the details, this book shows that there is much that the world does not still know about Al-Shabaab, one of the most dangerous terrorist organization in the world. One of the reasons is because the group is so secretive, well organised and has a strong intelligence apparatus, as the book reveals.

The authors are exemplary for professional journalist writers because they are disciplined in their storytelling, focusing on the facts they have to weave an elaborate and complicated situation in which all groups are portrayed fairly through the use of very reliable sources. Where an assumption is made, it is based on evidence which is hard to dispute. The book explains that the strict Wahaabi ideology of Al-Shabaab is a new phenomenon in Somalia which has always followed the Salafi teachings and that the Somali people have not warmed to it as much as the Al-Shabaab leaders first thought. The micro-management of their lives and violence that continues to be used to enforce it in some Al-Shabaab held rural areas has driven the Somali people far from the group who many once supported in their stance against the Ethiopian invasion of the past. The book ends in an uncertain tone about the future of Al-Shabaab which depends largely on the Somali Security services ability to take responsibility for Somalia’s defence from AMISOM but it does strongly suggest that Al-Shabaab has reached a dead end. This dead end may also simply be a waiting game as the authors recognise but with their brutality and waning public support, Al-Shabaab will be on the fringes until they are eradicated or agree on a political settlement with the Federal government. This has proven fruitless thus far but going forward there may be enough people on both sides to agree a political settlement. 

Reading the book dispels many myths, especially, regarding AMISOM. Yes, the issue of Ethiopian soldiers within the contingent still raises tensions, but arguably without AMISOM the Somali government would not be in Mogadishu today. The courage of the Burundian soldiers fighting to liberate the symbolic Ministry of Defence, the Ugandan soldiers sharing their food with hungry, ill equipped Somali soldiers during street battles and the patience and continued commitment of the Troop Contributing Countries to stand by Somalia despite losses and increasingly hostile public opinion back home, should make us think. No, I am not saying AMISOM should stay forever, but as they agreed with the federal government, until the Somali security services are able to fully take over with the right training, equipment and financial and logistical support to secure and defend the country. More importantly, this book reminds the Somali people that much blood was also spilled by the brave Somali soldiers to ensure their safety and, despite their allegiances to clans and unprofessionalism at times, it was their courage and partnership with AMISOM that won the day in many famous battles against Al-Shabaab. Many Somali soldiers died hungry and without receiving a salary, this is the ultimate sacrifice which has paved the way for the recent stability.

This book does pose many questions regarding the Somali government and its international partner’s strategy for defeating Al-Shabaab. As the authors rightly recognise, Al-Shabaab is not dead because they still frighten people to pay protection money and are capable of launching devastating asymmetric attacks across Somalia. Though not ideologically far apart, they are still divided over strategic positions and choosing allies and now Al-Shabaab is fighting for prominence with ISIS in Somalia which they once thought exclusively theirs.

The Somali government is making some headway with the on-going security sector biometric registration program and the regular payments of the salaries and operational costs of the security forces which now includes their food and supplies. This is supported by the completion of the National Security Architecture, Operational Readiness Assessment, the Transition Plan and the adoption of a Preventing and Countering Violent Extremism (P/CVE) policy. However, there is still a long way to go before any of these corrective actions and well laid plans can be translated into the operational successes needed to win the day. A question which still puzzles many citizens and observers alike is why Al-Shabaab can still launch opportunistic attacks of the same nature in the Mogadishu and other cities.

This book exposes what appears to be a contradictory but deliberately taken position by Al-Shabaab. For instance, the book describes the story of a Somali group that seeks international jihadist dominance but raises many questions about the identity and values of the Somali people themselves. Most in Al-Shabaab support global jihad, welcome foreign fighters but sometimes claim to wanting a Somali led and owned Jihadi process. Yet, throughout the book what comes to light is that Somalia has never been governed by uniquely Somali values. Somalia has gone from clan centred nomads to colonial subjects, independent democrats with Italian and British governance structures to Soviet inspired Scientific Socialists, to civil war, warlordism and then, finally, ended up with a competition between Western backed democracy with firm clannish underpinning and religious extremism. What a long and painful journey of confusion and loss. Yet, the Somalis are hard to change as both sides of the argument have come to learn as the clan remains the dominant societal institution that the Federal government and Al-Shabaab have had to compromise on. Moving forward, inclusive politics, good governance and a greater ability to defend the Somali people and provide public services across the country will assist the government in overcoming the ever-present threat of terror from Al-Shabaab. Yet, attaining these enablers remains a challenge despite the determination of President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed Farmaajo and Prime Minister Hassan Ali Khaire.

This book was painful reading at times because missed opportunities led Somalia to where it is today. Somalia was forgotten and left to warlords and misery after the Black Hawk Down incident. Warlords filled the vacuum, abused the people and finally gave way to the Islamic Courts who the people of Somali supported strongly against the corrupted and violent warlords. The story of the young man Asad Yare, running away from the Madrassa and his family home to face his aggressors, the warlords, is truly inspiring and saddening in its desperation. There is no state to protect him and he and many others took the chance to liberate themselves from self-serving warlords. Yet, what started off with self- defence progressed to Asad fighting the Ethiopian soldiers and the Transitional Federal Government (TFG). His defection to serve a government Minister and return to fight for AlShabaab which led to his death inside Villa Somalia points to the challenges of rehabilitation and the dangers posed by lack of opportunity for ambitious young people who need direction, mentorship and opportunities. It is obvious that Asad had never seen a functioning government in his life. Like the authors, one wonders what the bright, ambitious young Asad could have done with his life with more support and opportunities. This should encourage the current government to focus more on skills and livelihoods alongside the religious re-programming available at the rehabilitation camps that exist to tackle the supply side of terrorism.

Like any organisation, especially those that want to expand, differences occur and Al-Shabaab is no different. This book has deep knowledge of the characters, reasons and causes of division and foreign ideologies that fuel it within the organisation. From Godane’s stubbornness, to Mukhtar Robow’s pragmatism, this book reflects the inner workings of an organisation continuously struggling to reconcile its values with the changing circumstances in Somali politics and society. Yet, this division and the defection of prominent members, is not capitalised on effectively by the Somali government. Despite, internal challenges, Al-Shabaab does not face any communications and public relations threat other than the ones it creates itself with its customary brutality. The Somali government and AMISOM appear to have won the military battle but are still behind in the communications war. The Somali people want peace and stability but remain frightened because of the weak government security apparatus. Hearts and Minds cannot be won when there is still so much public fear of Al-Shabaab. A new public narrative marrying the Federal Government security successes, ambitions and plans must be developed.  Arguably, this is the best time to put both the Ministries of Information and Religious Affairs to good use in combatting the ideology of Al-Shabaab and increasing public confidence in national security. There are many brilliant Somali Islamic scholars sitting idle and too much TV and radio Air time wasted on repeat programming which few even watch or listen to.

The future of Al-Shabaab depends on the Somali governments’ ability to strengthen its capabilities to accelerate the state building process with a focus on creating inclusive civic and political structures. The ballot box attracted the leaders of the Islamic Courts like Sheikh Sharif and even Mukhtar Robow, one of the founders of Al-Shabaab and its deputy head who was arrested this week. This gives rise to the hope that even those within Al-Shabaab once committed to extremism are now realising that this has no future. This must also be understood by international partners and more developmental support; job creation activities and private sector investment must accompany the military trainers and weapons given to the Somali government. Radical ideologies and violent extremism must be defeated with both hard and soft power if it is to be permanently eradicated. Well-meaning partners and donors must stop viewing Somalia through the lens of risk mitigation and dependence and, instead, focus on the available socio-economic opportunities for impactful development. This has a better chance of ending the “fluid stalemate” in Somalia.

This book is a must read for anybody seeking to understand Al-Shabaab and the history of failed governance in Somalia. The book will be one of the measures against which the successes of the policies of this and future governments can and will be determined against in terms of security, governance and inclusive politics.


I want to thank Eric Herring, Professor of World Politics, at the School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies (SPAIS) at the University of Bristol, UK, for his valuable advice   on the book review and for introducing me to the term "fluid stalemate." He was generous with his time, knowledge and experience.

The author can be reached through the below means:

[email protected]

@LibanObsiye (Twitter)



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