Well it’s about time!
The Canadian government has added al Shabaab, an Islamist terrorist organization responsible for conducting dozens of attacks in the Horn of Africa, to its list of banned terrorist organizations.
This is good news. By banning al Shabaab, Ottawa not only helps Somalia’s UN-backed Transitional Federal Government survive another day, but it protects Canadians, too.
Al Shabaab emerged in 2006/7 following the collapse of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), an alliance of Islamist radicals that controlled parts of Somalia in the summer of 2006. Following the ICU’s ouster by American-backed Ethiopian troops, al Shabaab, under the leadership of late Aden Hashi Ayro, spearheaded a bloody Islamist insurgency. Emulating al Qaeda’s violence in Iraq, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, the group adopted suicide bombings as their modus operandi and has targeted Somalia’s government, Ethiopian forces, and Ugandan and Burundian African Union (AU) peacekeepers. By 2008, al Shabaab controlled areas of southern and central Somalia, and following Ethiopia’s withdrawal in 2009, gained control over most of Mogadishu, Somalia’s capital. Al Shabaab’s goal is to establish the Islamic Emirate of Somalia, which is to include all of Somalia and parts of Kenya, Ethiopia, and Djibouti.
The organization has relied on terrorism to achieve these political ends. Its bloodiest attacks include the December 2009 suicide bombing on a graduation ceremony for medical students (22 killed), the June 2009 car bombing of the Hotel Medina (20 killed), the February 2009 car bombing of an AU peacekeeping base (11 killed), a triple car bombing attack in October 2008 against offices of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), the Ethiopian Consulate Office, and the President’s palace (30 killed), a February 2008 bombing in the northern port of Boosaaso (20 killed), and the March 2007 missile attack on a cargo aircraft supporting AU peacekeeping efforts (11 killed).
But it’s al Shabaab’s global affiliations and aspirations that threaten Canadians directly.
In September 2009, al Shabaab formally pledged allegiance to Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda. Reports suggest further that Saudi Arabians, Pakistanis, and Sudanese are running al Shabaab training camps on al Qaeda’s behest. These foreign fighters act as “force multipliers”, directing al Shabaab’s local efforts and teaching them battlefield skills honed in Southern Asia and the Middle East. It’s not a stretch to assume that in exchange, al Shabaab has offered al Qaeda an African foothold.
Over the past two years, al Shabaab also begun recruiting Westerners from Europe, Australia, and North America, facilitating their travel to Somalia, and enrolling them in terrorism training camps. In the United States, at least 30 Somali-Americans from Minneapolis, Minnesota have joined al Shabaab since 2007. At least six of these recruits have died fighting, including Shirwa Ahmed, the first American to carry out a suicide attack in Africa, and Troy Kastigar, a Caucasian Muslim convert.
Europeans are also fighting in Somalia. The man who carried out the 2009 attack on the graduation ceremony was a Danish citizen. A similar story is unfolding in Canada, with reports suggesting half a dozen Canadians of Somali descent have gone “missing” in Somalia.
Al Shabaab’s recruitment drive is robust. In April 2009, it released a slick, rap-infused propaganda video in which a young, Caucasian, English-speaking jihadi, calling himself Abu Mansour al-Amriki (“the American”) extols the virtues of waging jihad in Somalia. “We’re waiting to meet the enemy,” he explains. The video is clearly meant to resonate with English-speaking Somali youths living abroad.
And finally, al Shabaab is sending its Western recruits back to their adopted countries to conduct homegrown terrorist attacks. In August 2009, five Australians of Somali and Lebanese descent were arrested in Melbourne for plotting to attack a Sydney-area military base. Though investigations continue, at least two of the men had travelled to Somalia to train with al-Shabaab.
We’ve reached a terrorism crossroad in which al Shabaab’s regional aspirations coupled with al Qaeda’s international goals facilitates homegrown terrorism in the West.
Banning al-Shabaab is a necessary first step in protecting Canadians. In making it a crime to join and/or assist al Shabaab, Ottawa makes it harder for Canadians to easily support its efforts. It also subjects the organization’s assets to seizer, assists Canada’s security services in locating and tracking its local recruiters, and realigns Canadian counterterrorism efforts with those of our closest allies.
What we need to do next is assist the African Union, the United Nations, and Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government to find permanent solutions to stemming al Shabaab’s regional popularity and military capability.