By succeeding, they fail: Al-Shabaab and its 'jihad dilemma'

“Most of their top strategic thinkers are now dead. So I think all they want at this point is to go out in a blaze of glory.”

KENYA is still reeling from the killing of 147 university students in Garissa University, about 300 kilometres from the capital Nairobi. Al-Shabaab, the terror group that has waged an insurgency in Somalia since 2006, claimed responsibility for the attack.

The horror is almost too much to contemplate – students desperately calling their parents before they were shot; the killers separating Christians from Muslims before shooting them, and one girl crouching in a wardrobe surviving on body lotion for two days before having the courage to crawl out.

Yesterday, it emerged that one of the gunmen was a law student at the University of Nairobi; 24-year-old Mohammed Abdirahim Abdullahi who was described as a bright student with a sharp legal mind, and a love for tailored suits.

It will inevitably draw questions as to why a young, intelligent man with a promising future would be more drawn to the life of murdering people in cold blood.

The common assumption is that terrorism is attractive to poor, socially excluded, angry young men.

But Abdirahim was an A-student, the son of a government official, and at ease in middle-class Nairobi. Researchers have failed to reliably demonstrate that poor, uneducated or unemployed individuals are more likely to join a terrorist group.

By contrast, a 2003 study showed that terrorist recruits tend to have relatively high levels of education and wealth.

So if it’s not poverty or lack of education that drove him to killing, the next plausible reason is that he was a psychopath. It’s easy to label him so – someone who picks up a gun and kills hundreds of defenceless people is surely not okay in the head.

But extremism emerges through a different – and sometimes altogether mundane – psychological profile.

Many stories of terrorists

Although the leaders of terror groups are more likely to be powerful, charismatic and even psychopathic people, their followers are not.

In fact, Canadian scholar Adam Moscoe argues that most terror groups are selective in their recruitment and look for those most likely to demonstrate loyalty, persistence and adaptability – traits not typically displayed by psychopaths.

According to the US Institute for Peace, the success of terror groups in attracting foot soldiers can be attributed to their ability to recognise and address the unfulfilled needs of each recruit. For example, “revenge seekers need an outlet for their frustration, status seekers need recognition, identity seekers need a group to belong to, and thrill seekers need adventure.”

It is unclear which category Abdirahim falls in, but he was obviously effectively persuaded.

Abdirahim’s (unclear) motivations could be termed the “micro” side of the Garissa story. But the “macro” side – what motivates Al-Shabaab in a broader sense – is, in a way, easier to understand.

The group has been starved of its supplies and financial resources when it was ejected from Mogadishu by African Union Mission in Somalia (Amisom) soldiers in 2011, and from Kismayo port in 2012 by a joint mission of Amisom and Kenya Defence Forces.

Since then, it has amped its attacks on civilians in Somalia, and exported terror across the region in a bid to rebuild its international notoriety.

It also needs to make Kenya’s presence in Somalia too painful to continue, and so pressure Kenya into withdrawing its troops, so that it , among other things, it can continue to enjoy the financial rewards of controlling the economy in southern Somalia, particularly Kismayo.

Much like the Westgate mall attack in Nairobi that left 67 dead, Thursday’s attack was “partly to get back at the Kenyan government, partly to show strength to Kenyan Muslims to gain recruits,” said Stig Jarle Hansen, associate professor at the University of Life Sciences in Oslo and author of ‘Al-Shabaab in Somalia: The History and Ideology of a Militant Islamist Group.’

Shabaab as ICU

But therein lies the contradiction at the heart of al-Shabaab.

The group, in its earlier incarnation as the Islamic Courts Union, initially had much support in southern and central Somalia when it brought peace and order in the war-torn region.

Also working in their favour was the fact that they were able to go around Somalia’s notoriously fractured clan dynamic that characterises political life; in their ranks, it didn’t matter if you came from a majority or minority clan, you could become a leader on your own “merit”.

“Losing Mogadishu was a blow, and that’s when these dare-devil acts of suicide bombs, killings, explosions and massacres started in Somalia and across the region,” says Abdi Latif Dahir, co-founder and editor of the Sahan Journal in an interview with Mail & Guardian Africa.

The rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has also deflated the group – Garissa gunman Abdirahim is himself said to have been planning to join ISIS, but did not have a passport.

“A lot of recruits are going to Syria and Iraq, even Somalis from the US and Europe,” says Dahir. “So they want a revival policy very badly, which is why they might pledge allegiance to ISIS just to get more traction both locally and internationally.”

But here is where the group’s ideology becomes incongruous. Al-Shabaab appears to be a guerrilla movement, opposing an unjust occupying force.

But it has framed its fight not as a nationalist cause, but as a global jihadist one, pitting Muslims against “non-believers.”

Guerrilla movements are hinged on converting locals and maintaining their support to the cause, but global jihadi ones necessarily have a bigger, broader aims, and actually focus on rallying the converted.

If al-Shabaab succeeds in gaining international infamy and notoriety, it will probably not give them much local political mileage as it does little to change Somali clan politics, assuming that governing Somalia is actually their ultimate goal, and their terror tactics are just the means to that end.

So by succeeding as a regional jihadist movement, they fail as a local guerrilla one.

Lessons from the Taliban

There’s a lesson from the Taliban in Afghanistan here. The Taliban emerged in the 1980s as a guerrilla movement against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. They were also an Islamic fundamentalist group, enforcing a strict interpretation of sharia or Islamic law.

But when it linked up with Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda – which had decidedly bigger, global goals in mind – it rapidly led to their downfall, and they were ejected from power with the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.

 The Taliban responded by acting out in violence against civilians, just like al-Shabaab; they were responsible for 75% of civilian casualties in Afghanistan in 2010, 80% in 2011 and 80% in 2012, according to the UN.

Lately, with bin Laden dead, the international sentiment is shifting as regards the Taliban, and is increasingly recognising them as a legitimate political player in Afghanistan. In 2010, the UN said sanctions against the Taliban should be lifted, and requested that some Taliban leaders be removed from terrorism sanctions lists.

In 2010, the US and Europe announced support for President Hamid Karzai’s attempts to negotiate peace with the Taliban.

But negotiating with the Federal Somali Government might currently be out of reach for al-Shabaab.

“I don’t think they have the capacity to sit at the table like the Taliban. By capacity, I mean the correct political thoughtfulness of knowing what you want, what you are ready to concede and how you can get it,” says Dahir.

“Most of their top strategic thinkers are now dead.”

Sadly, that probably means things will get worse before they get better, especially for Kenya.

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