The Somali insurgent movement Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen (Movement of Warrior-Youth) has controlled nearly all of southern and central Somalia since 2009 and was in the process of consolidating its authority when the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), aided by Somali Transitional Federal Government (TFG) troops and fighters from the Somali Sufi militia Ahlul Sunna Wal Jamaacah, launched a major military offensive against them in mid February. As fierce fighting continues in the capital Mogadishu and the surrounding Banaadir district as well as border areas with Ethiopia and Kenya, it remains to be seen how the movement’s attempts at constructing the basic governing structures will fare.
The control and governance of territory presents an insurgent movement like Harakat al-Shabaab with a unique set of challenges. Its leaders must make decisions about how best to govern as well as the type of relationship it wishes to have with the subject population. Some insurgent movements decide to “strike a bargain” with the local population, even including local representatives some level of say in governance. Others, however, exclude locals from having any say in governance and do not care whether or not the subject population is supportive of it or not.
From the available evidence, which is often difficult to concretely verify, it seems that Harakat al-Shabaab falls between these two poles of insurgent governance. On the one hand, it has not established an inclusive system of governance and it enforces a harsh interpretation of Islamic law, including the carrying out of public executions, floggings, and amputations as punishments for a range of crimes from murder to rape, spying, and theft. On the other hand, Harakat al-Shabaab has not been completely oblivious to the need for it to establish some type of governance and outreach, or public relations, with the local population in territories it governs. Indeed, it has been active in publicizing its ongoing distribution of aid to the drought-stricken regions of southern and central Somalia.
Preventing United Nations-connected agencies from operating in its territory, the movement is attempting to reap the local public relations benefits for taking on the task of distributing aid to the affected areas. It has organized distribution points in districts under its control and has publicized these efforts through the issuance of press statements and the publication of photographs and participation in press interviews. Since the beginning of the year the movement has issued a series of press statements and sets of photographs showing the distribution of drought aid in multiple districts it governs including Banaadir, Hiraan, Middle Shabeellaha, Bay, and Bakool.
Harakat al-Shabaab has also been undertaking small and medium-sized public works projects since at least 2009. These projects include the repairing and construction of bridges, homes, and factories as well as the collection and distribution of zakat, the mandatory charity required of those Muslims who are financially able to contribute. Signs and banners at the sites of these projects announce that they are being sponsored by the movement.
Insurgent leaders are also keenly aware of the need to invest in social gatherings aimed at younger generations of Somalis, in the hopes of overcoming Harakat al-Shabaab’s legitimacy deficit. It now organizes and hosts public events such as communal prayers and festivals that mark the end of the Muslim holidays of Eid al-Fitr, at the end of Ramadan, and Eid al-Adha, at the end of the Hajj season. The holding of communal Eid prayers, attendance at which is considered mandatory by most Muslims, is a particularly important symbolic act, since historically such gatherings have been held under the auspices of the legitimate governing authority.
Preachers, imams (prayer leaders), and youth are key audiences that Harakat al-Shabaab has targeted and attempted to win over. In territory under its control the movement runs “academies” for the education of preachers, imams, and missionaries/propagandists. A Harakat al-Shabaab statement issued in May 2010 sheds some light on the curriculum at such schools. Books used include classical and medieval Islamic religious texts on hadith, the Qur’an, Qur’anic exegesis, and law, such as the thirteenth century hadith collection Riyad al-Saliheen as well as books on Arabic grammar and modern ideological texts by individuals such as the Palestinian-Jordanian jihadi-Salafi scholar Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi. The movement also organizes youth events such as Qur’an recitation and memorization competitions as well as fairs that feature athletic competitions such as footraces and archery. Children are also featured in many Harakat al-Shabaab videos, often shown playing with toy guns or marching along and shouting greetings at the movement’s fighters.
Harakat al-Shabaab has built a sophisticated media outlet, Al-Kata’ib (Brigades) and operates terrestrial radio and television stations in and around Mogadishu and other areas it controls. The evolution of the movement’s media has been remarkable with regard to the speed of its development and high technical production quality. Harakat al-Shabaab has been quick to point out instances when AMISOM and the TFG have misled the press. For example, in late October 2010 after the movement’s fighters conducted an attack on Ugandan positions in Mogadishu, AMISOM denied that any of its soldiers had been killed. Within days Harakat al-Shabaab issued a statement accompanied with photographs that showed a dead Ugandan AMISOM soldier and captured military equipment. (See this page on martyrdom videos).
Similarly, when insurgents captured a Burundian AMISOM soldier in late February it quickly issued photographs of their prisoner along with a press statement. Harakat al-Shabaab’s senior spokesman Ali Mahamoud Rage gave interviews to Somali media outlets and a short video was issued showing the prisoner. The movement has also publicly claimed that leaders of Somalia’s socially and politically important clans, with whom it has a complex relationship, have joined with it against AMISOM, backing up its claims with photographs and other media coverage issued online and via local networks. See the material at this site. See also this page.
Battlefield setbacks in Mogadishu and the western district of Gedo will likely reverse or stall the insurgent movement’s attempts to consolidate and expand its governing structures. It had begun to name new governors of districts under its control when AMISOM launched its most recent offensive with the TFG and Ahlul Sunna Wal Jamaacah. The public naming of local insurgent officials suggests that prior to the start of the offensive Harakat al-Shabaab was growing increasingly certain about its victory, particularly since the TFG’s United Nations mandate is set to expire in August. The results of the ongoing fighting will shed a great deal of light on how strong or weak the insurgents’ governing structures are. In the past Harakat al-Shabaab has proved to be remarkably adaptable and, barring sustained internal reform of the TFG, it is unlikely to disappear. The TFG was publicly rebuked recently by elders of the powerful Hawiye clan confederation after the transitional parliament voted to extend its own mandate despite having no real accomplishments. Military gains will ultimately be inconsequential if the TFG remains a figurehead institution that is beset with infighting and corruption. Until real reform occurs Harakat al-Shabaab will likely remain as a virulent force within the country.
Christopher Anzalone is a doctoral student in the Institute of Islamic Studies at McGill University.