Monday, June 17, 2013

The Power of words: Rise and fall of Al-Shabaab.

I can never think of a word that has changed the course of recent history in Somalia, brought a lot of misery, death and destruction to the poor Horn of African country like the word Al-Shabaab.

Coined from an Arabic word for youth, Al-Shabaab was until recently the biggest political, religious and youth group in Somalia’s history. Its might and repercussions was felt across the region as it went ahead to transform itself into an international movement consisting of almost every nationality and race.

Communications experts across the world often get hoary headed and literally lose hair almost every other night trying to find the right word or words for their key messages in a bid to try and either shape up their narrative or simply sell it to their desirable target audiences.

Whoever thought about the word Al-Shabaab whether by default or chance has suddenly and singlehandedly changed a nation’s course and rightly or wrongfully, depending on your point of reasoning made a huge stride or made the worst mistake of his life.

I vividly remember when the word Al-Shabaab was first started to be used by some officials of the Islamic Courts in late 2006 when the Islamist took over Mogadishu from US-backed warlords.

One of my earliest encounters with the word Al-Shabaab was around July 2006 when the Islamic courts union was recruiting a record hire number of youths – including soldiers switching sides from the government – all volunteering to face off with Ethiopian forces.

I can still remember one of those many gatherings and in particular one that was held at K4 area near Sahafi hotel at a former government hide and skin tannery (Hargaha iyo saamaha) where Sheikh Mukhtar Robow, who was the then Deputy Defense Minister, paraded scores of Somali pro-government militias from Bay region he claimed had switched sides to join the Islamic courts.

While addressing the mostly youthful militias he referred to them as “Al-Shabaab” and also sent out a message to “other Somali Al-Shabaabs” to come out and defend their country.


Today, nearly 7 years since their rebirth, the name Al-Shabaab still sends chills across people’s spine. Just like many Somalis I brushed the use of the word Al-Shabaab then telling myself the “Sheikh” had lost it and was trying to imitate Arabs as they often do whenever they speak the few Arabic words they've learned.

I was of course completely wrong as the name become so common among Islamist officials whenever they were addressing crowds and wanted to appeal to the young boys joining their so called Jihad against Ethiopian forces in Somalia.

Before long every teenager in Somalia had completely owned the name and simply wanted to be associated with it and even join the group, in order to learn how to fight and defend his nation from what they were made to believe is a holy war.

The brains behind Al-Shabaab knew the only thing that could easily unite Somalis is the religion and they made sure they used it to serve their own interest.

Their bad intentions paid off and the word they coined to rally the youths become so successful and actually helped them conscript so many youth who later helped them to take over almost the entire southern Somalia territories.

These expansions meant more money for the bosses and business was so good until they were ousted from major commercial cities like Mogadishu, Kismayu and Marka.

As a matter of fact, it is the same name and strategy that is keeping Al-Shabaab in its death bed now despite of the current economic and political turmoil amid irredeemable differences among its top echelon.

Al-Shabaab commander Ahmed Godane is said to be in a hide and seek game of throne with his onetime deputy and former spokesman Abu Mansur aka Sheikh Mukhtar Robow.

The two parted ways over Al-Shabaab’s tactical approach over implementation of the shariah and generally the group’s ruthless treatment of the public. Even their global icon Osama Bin Laden was dragged into this discussion on how bad Al-Shabaab was treating the public as reported by Wikileaks through a letter it claimed the Al-Qaeda chief had sent Godane in response to a previous letter the Al-Shabaab commander wrote to the then most sought man in the world.

Their woos actually started during the Al-Shabaab holly month of Ramadan offensive in 2011 when Mogadishu was slipping from their hands and they mounted their last attack in a bid to salvage some pride and control of the city from Somali government and their backers the African Union peacekeepers.

The Ramadan offensive marked the most deadly ever battles between Al-Shabaab militants and the Somali government forces and African Union peacekeepers. Unfortunately so many combatants and civilians died during the month-long heavy really heavy gun duels and Al-Shabaab lost so many young men during the time.

Unfortunately most of the young men they lost then were from Bay and Bakool region or the Rahanweyn clan of which Mukhtar Robow was their spiritual leader. He went ahead to pull out his remaining forces from Mogadishu and later on from Kismayu in a move that weakened the group. This is the main source of his conflict with Al-Shabaab commander Godane.

Ever since, Al-Shabaab’s vulnerability worsened and they have never recovered from that defeat and as a matter of fact have never since then ever pulled off any major military success -- Apart from cowardly suicide attacks and occasional ambush attacks -- in the battle field or even tried to successfully fend off any incursions by government forces and AMISOM peacekeepers in the areas they control.

As if to show how weak and vulnerable Al-Shabaab is getting, several incidents clearly point to tough times ahead for the group.

A former Somali trader in the Hiiran region -- where Al-Shabaab is still present in several pockets -- recently told my source how broke they were. The businessman told the Al-Shabaab man he only had $30 of which he send them only for the Al-Shabaab militia to call me saying how great they were as they had gone without food for a day.

And just recently this week, a security source in Baidoa, a south-central Somali town, reported of a racial division among some Al-Shabaab forces wrangling over collected taxes. The race division was between those with hard hair or Bantus and those will silky or soft hair. Both groups are Somalis.

This is so interesting because before the rise of Al-Shabaab the Somali bantus were actually looked down and in many occasions harshly treated by the majority soft or silky haired Somalis. As if to give the minority clans a breather, Al-Shabaab outlawed tribalism and treated everyone all equal. At least as PR gimmick as it has now emerged!

In reality, they went ahead to empower the minority clans by training, arming them and giving them an opportunity to revenge against past injustices. Talk of the hunter turned hunted or Tom and Jerry if you are into the animation movies!

The latest race division is a totally new development in the widening irreparable differences among Al-Shabaab, which is now simply a shell of the once dreaded group that called the shots in Somalia. After here, the only place they can go and are actually so fast heading to is oblivion and only to be read in history books for all the wrong reasons.