Is al-Shabab dying or resurgent?

There is a growing view from Nairobi that al-Shabab’s Westgate Mall attack was an act of desperation

There is a growing view both from Nairobi and the cloistered, heavily defended corridors of Villa Somalia – the Somali government’s main compound here in Mogadishu – that al-Shabab’s Westgate Mall attack was an act of desperation.

It was, says the theory, a lashing out by a movement on the ropes a last-ditch attempt to prove its legitimacy and win supporters in the face of continued military pressure on the ground, a brutally damaging internal power-struggle, and a growing sense of irrelevance abroad.

The theory looks and sounds encouraging, particularly when it comes to an organization that all of a sudden looks very frightening indeed. And in a lot of respects, it seems to join the bits of evidence into a coherent narrative, particularly when it is seen from afar.

But up close, the theory seems dangerously optimistic. What’s happening on the ground suggests that the opposite is probably true, and that we are facing a far more dangerous organization that has used the past year of relative calm to reorganize, refinance and rearm its self.

Take Mogadishu, for example. For most of the past year, diplomats and media reports have looked at the city’s booming economy, the reconstruction and the streetlights, and seen a community in recovery. But all this has happened because there is no war. That isn’t the same as saying there is the presence of security.

The authorities won’t release official “incident reports” of alleged al-Shabab attacks in Mogadishu describing them as “classified”, but the anecdotal evidence from people who’ve lived here for the past few years suggests that security in the capital is now far worse than it has been since al-Shabab was forced out almost two years ago.

It isn’t that al-Shabab continues to control territory in the conventional sense. African Union armored vehicles are still able to drive almost unhindered across the city (though roadside bombs remain a constant threat) there are no al-Shabab checkpoints to pass through, or sandbagged barriers that carve the city into districts belonging to one side or another. And the Mogadishu City Council still “administers” things here in the traditional sense of organizing rubbish cleanups and maintaining roads and water supplies.

But that doesn’t mean al-Shabab has vanished. Far from it. Across most of the western and northern districts, women complain that the radical group is forcing them to cover up. Al-Shabab has also reportedly banned men and women from travelling in the same vehicle. And businessmen say they are being forced to pay the militants “protection” to avoid being attacked. In other words, the group has realized that it doesn’t need to waste time, money and fighters on defending frontlines. It is enough to operate underground, quietly enforcing their radical views of Islam, extorting money and when it is convenient, attacking targets that suit their agenda.

On a recent visit to one of the safer market districts in Mogadishu, where we have often filmed in the past, local traders were noticeably more nervous. One hurried us along, urging us to leave quickly before someone could roll a grenade under our car, or pull a pistol from under his garments.

One Mogadishu-based analyst said the government seems to have focused its security and intelligence work on defending a de-facto “green zone” around the airport, the seaport, the administrative Villa Somalia complex, and the neighboring commercial districts. The rest, he said, has been all but ceded.

The same seems true of the wider, national battlefield. In a recent briefing, senior African Union officers said that while they have the resources to hold and supply key provincial centers with 17,000 troops at their disposal, they can’t go any further. Al-Shabab has freedom of movement across the countryside, and even if the AU forces were able to strike out into the country, they have neither the men nor the equipment to stay there.

It is true that the organization has lost physical control of some of the most lucrative sources of revenue such as the Bakara Market in Mogadishu and the southern port city of Kismayo. But al-Shabab was never in business itself. It raised finances by taxing businessmen who operated in their areas. Those businessmen are still there, and so are the connections. It is hard to judge just how much money the movement is able to raise, but to suggest that al-Shabab is somehow starved of finance is to grossly misunderstand the situation.

The idea that al-Shabab has somehow been weakened by internal power struggles also seems dangerously misguided. The frightening reality seems to be that the more “moderate” nationalist faction of al-Shabab has been either sidelined or murdered, freeing up the radicals from any restraining influence, and allowing them to operate without having to wade through messy internal debates over policy or ideology.

The movement also seems to be working the back channels, putting pressure on Somalia’s extraordinarily durable clan networks to not only raise funds, but also infiltrate the government and disrupt its security and intelligence work.

Somalis themselves are not instinctively radical. They hold tightly to their traditional Sufism which is relaxed, forgiving and mystical – a world away from the reactionary “takfir” ideology of al-Shabab and al-Qaeda. But equally there is growing public anger at the government’s failure to, well, govern. People in Mogadishu continually complain that administration is absent that its corrupt officials are more interested in making money than running a new, emerging nation. It isn’t that Somalis are ready to give al-Shabab another chance but equally they don’t seem willing to cooperate with the authorities to risk exposing the organization that seems far more present in their daily lives.

Of course determining al-Shabab’s real strength and influence is going to take time and more intensive intelligence work, but to suggest that theirs is a movement on its knees seems dangerously deluded.

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