What’s With Al-Shabaab?

Consider, please, the Somali organization Al-Shabaab, which has been much in the news here in Minnesota following the indictments of several alleged members or associates, and was much in the news over the summer following the arrest of several alleged members in Australia (the Holsworthy Barrack plot.)

Conventional wisdom holds that they’re an Islamic terror group allied with Al-Qaeda, and a significant threat to Western interests both in Somalia and abroad.

I wonder, though, if that’s entirely true.

In the intelligence community there’s a bit of analytic tradecraft referred to as an “assumptions check”. It’s extremely basic, analysis-101 sort of stuff that doesn’t seem terribly important or useful when you first hear about it, but which I’ve found can be surprisingly useful if you take the time to do it properly.

The basic idea is that you lay out all the fundamental information on the topic at hand as declarative statements, and then go through and very meticulously examine each and every bit to see whether they’re actually true. The important thing to look for is evidence – rather than saying “this is the case because everybody says it’s true”, for example, you want proof… or at least reasonably solid evidence one way or the other.

Al-Shabaab has been around for about five years. They’re a Somali organization, militant, and have at least adopted the trappings of radical Islam. They, if the various affidavits and indictments can be believed, regularly train comparatively small numbers of expat Somalis from the United States and probably elsewhere. A number of those trainees have returned to the United States subsequent to their training overseas.

All of those are probably true, with greater or lesser degrees of confidence.

Do they actually pose a theat to the West, though? A real and imminent threat? I’m not quite so sure.

They’ve espoused the usual hardline death-to-America, death-to-Israel, blah blah rhetoric, there’s no doubt about it. But, strangely, all their activities to date have revolved around the country of Somalia, and the ongoing civil war there. I mean, there’s been kind of bugger all actual evidence made public so far in the Australian case from this summer, but that seems to be the only instance – even alleged – of Al-Shabaab trying to commit bona-fide terrorism outside of Somalia. (A large number of Somalis are alleged to have traveled to Lebanon in the summer of 2006, probably with the assistance of Eritrea; it’s not actually proven in open sources that these were Al-Shabaab members… or that it ever happened again.)

Look at their words – their propaganda videos and their press statements – and they look like your typical two-bit radical militant Islamic organization. Why, the United States Government even alleges they’re connected to Al-Qaeda! And, you know, their members have carried out the odd suicide bombing in Somalia, which must count for something, surely.

But look at their actions for a minute, and things seem a little bit off. What have they actually done? Taken part as a domestic, Somali faction in their country’s civil war, fighting against the invading Ethiopians and other occupying foreigners. Trained people in military tactics. (Read the various indictments – everyone is alleged to have learned how to use Kalashnikovs, and sniper rifles, and RPGs. There’s no mention of explosives, or sabotage, or chemical warfare, or dirty bombs, or…) Sent some of those trainees back to the West to recruit more members to go to Somalia and defend it against the invaders.

They talk a hard line about America and Israel and Christianity and the West, but they do fuck all about it. Sure, they’re an Islamic organization. And sure, they’re pretty obviously “militant”, and “extremist”, no argument there. But… a terrorist organization? That poses a threat to America, Australia, or the West in general? I’m really not all that convinced about that.

There are, realistically speaking, probably a few hundred solid supporters of the group in the United States. A dozen or two have been arrested or indicted or convicted of providing some degree of support to the group. Not a single person has been alleged to have tried to buy, steal, or build a bomb or weapon of mass destruction. Not a single person has been alleged to have planned any sort of terror attack. Not a single person has been alleged to have even recruited people specifically to participate in terror attacks overseas.

All Al-Shabaab has done – in the heart of the Great Satan, surrounded by churches and synagogues and banks and American military installations and government buildings and schools and airports and train stations – is recruit and fund people to go overseas to Somalia and take up conventional arms in the civil war there.

Does that sound like jihad to you? The actions of a radical group hell-bent on the destruction of the American way of life? It sure doesn’t to me.

So here’s what I kind of postulate, based on what I’ve read about them. Al-Shabaab today is not truly an international terrorist group, as everyone likes to allege, but a domestic Somali insurgent group with no material interests or ambitions outside that country’s borders. They have a network of supporters in expat communities throughout the world who raise money and recruit new would-be fighters to join the fighting in Somalia. Their hardline Islamic rhetoric about the West, and Israel, and so on is little more than a ploy to secure funding from bona-fide terror networks and financiers – a relationship that, yes, probably involves their lawless hellhole of a homeland becoming a bit of a safe haven for terrorists… which would, frankly, probably be true regardless of whether Al-Shabaab was there or not, or maintaining a relationship with Al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, et al.

Is what they’ve been doing here illegal under U.S. law? Almost certainly, yes. Are they a danger? Probably, albeit a very small one, and possibly only indirectly. Are the governments of the world overreacting to greater or lesser degrees to this menace? It’s hard to escape that conclusion.

Published in: Geekiness, General, History, Security | on December 2nd, 2009| Comments Off on What’s With Al-Shabaab?

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