Wed, Oct 02, 2013 - Page 9 News List

Fight against al-Shabaab tests resolve of the African Union

Even as events in Keyna were unfolding, the African Union military is fighting a brutal and deadly war hundreds of miles to the north in Somalia

By Mark Doyle  /  The Observer

The men with AK-47 rifles ran fast in the other direction as the patrol by African Union troops I was with entered the village of Gobweyn, a stronghold of the al-Shabaab militia in southern Somalia, I had just crossed the frontline from Somalia’s southern port city of Kismayo, which was taken from al-Shabaab a year ago and is still held by the 17,000-strong multinational African Union force.

“Look! Over there!,” shouted a corporal from the west African state of Sierra Leone, one of the smaller contributors to the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). He pointed through the window slit of our armored car at some fast-moving, distant figures. “They are afraid when professionals come.” He was right, as far as this encounter went. Al-Shabaab avoids most direct confrontations with conventional armies.

AMISOM’s main role is to confront the al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Shabaab movement. The Somali government, although internationally recognized, is weak; its army is mostly a mixture of militias still loyal to quarreling warlords. Africa’s leaders did not want another Afghanistan on their doorstep, so they moved in with AMISOM — led by Uganda — seven years ago with a mandate and financial support from the UN.

The al-Shabaab militia, brought to world attention by its actions in Nairobi, is more than a radical Islamist group committing acts of terror. It is also by far the most powerful local army in Somalia. It controls more than half the country.

“If AMISOM left today,” said a Somalian journalist who asked not to be named for fear of reprisals, “al-Shabaab would take power in the capital, Mogadishu, tomorrow.”

A clue to understanding al-Shabaab, and why it has such influence, is in its name. It means “The Youth” in Arabic. Somalia is a nation of 8 million and one of the poorest in the world. The vast majority of people here are under the age of 20. Although the Somali people have a proud history of nomadism, drought and food shortages have forced millions off the land they once shared with their beloved camels and endless skies.

Somalia is now a part of the modern world where jobs and income matter — and jihadists are recruiting. Mostly unemployed, poor and disenchanted by corrupt governments, Somalian youths are relatively easy to manipulate. A story is told in the excellent study of Somalia by James Fergusson — The World’s Most Dangerous Place — of a group of schoolboys who were tempted into joining al-Shabaab by being given a piece of fruit every day.

CLAN WARFARE

The social and economic crisis in Somalia is exacerbated — and to some extent caused — by clan warfare. It was hardly surprising that a radical Islamist movement saw this cauldron of problems as a happy hunting ground for recruits. Al-Shabaab is undoubtedly strong. It is capable of press-ganging local recruits and attracting foreign jihadists. However, I have seen no evidence it is genuinely popular. The al-Shabaab-held village of Gobweyn was not a good place for me to make a judgment on this. Arriving in a cloud of dust in an armored car, and wearing a bright blue “Press” flakjacket and helmet is not the best way to find honest interviewees — in Somalia or anywhere else. The only man who would talk to me seemed nonchalant about our arrival and continued sitting by a roadside shack from the moment the soldiers and I arrived to when we left in another cloud of dust.

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