The good old days: President Reagan with Somali President Mohammed Siad Barre, 1982. Source: Unknown.

Joe McKnight 

Ever since Somali President Siad Barre’s government was removed from power in 1991, Somalia has lacked an effective central government. For the past 20 years the country has been sacked by myriad civil wars between competing local clans (see Jeff Sharlet’s 2006 post here for more on the West’s religious proxy wars in the horn), and more recently trans-national wars, including the current one with Kenya.

It would be incorrect to say that Somalia is at war with Kenya, however. Kenyan troops have been fighting, rather successfully, the terrorist group al Shabaab in southern Somalia. Al Shabaab  (“youth” or “boy” in Arabic) emerged as an offshoot of the Union of Islamic Courts, which defeated the Ethiopian- and U.S-sponsored rulers of  Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu, in 2006. After the infamous “Black Hawk Down” incident in 1993, the U.S. opted to privately fund African troops (the Pentagon’s budget was $45 million in 2011) and, as in Pakistan, deploy drone strikes that targeted militants. Al Shabaab formally joined forces with al-Qaeda earlier this year.

 On May 30th, 2012 Reuters published a report highlighting al Shabaab’s growing influence outside of Somalia, into Kenya and beyond. The report cites a United Nations study, published in July, which found “extensive funding, recruiting, and training networks in Kenya.” Various attacks by al Shabaab in Kenya in the last three weeks (see here, here, here, and here) appear to confirm the UN’s findings, but the presence of Kenyan troops in southern Somalia has played no small part in the recent upswing of terrorism in Kenya.

Additionally, the Reuters report cites the cautions of researcher Paul Goldsmith and University of California scholar Jeremy Prestholdt–amplifying the threat of another terrorist group may only “justify budgets and expand surveillance powers” in the West.

As reported by the Revealer’s own Alex Thurston in the Christian Science Monitor, victories last week by both African Union troops near Mogadishu and Kenyan Defense forces near Kismayo in the south have exposed al Shabaab’s vulnerability. The Kenyans have expressed their desire to take Kismayo, considered al Shababb’s last stronghold, whence they generate a large portion of their revenues from port fees. With elections scheduled for August 20th of this year, Somalia is indeed progressing. Thurston, however, is cautious, noting that if reconciliation is not achieved with those clans who support al Shabaab, the long-term consequences could prove dire.

The Ethiopian defeat of al Shabaab in 2006 is Thurston’s case study. He writes, “They (Ethiopia) had been able to crush Shabaab in December [of 2006] in a very easy and very radical manner, because they fought face to face, and of course Shabaab couldn’t confront a professional army and therefore lost with many casualites. But then Shabaab shifted to an [sic] urban-style guerilla, and that created a new problem for the Ethiopian army.”

The question is political: what kind of franchise should be given to al Shabaab members in the wake of their defeat? If, like Ethiopia in 2006, the Kenyans or the African Union tries to drive al Shabaab into the ground, they can expect just that: an underground “problem” in Somalia, Kenya, and potentially, throughout East Africa.