Somalia’s Islamist insurgency, al Shabab, has recruited fighters from as far away as Minnesota, increasing concerns in Washington about the ramifications of instability in the Horn of Africa. Australia has also experienced problems with domestic terrorists linked to al Shabab.
Now the UK fears al Shabab’s reach:
British intelligence chiefs have targeted war-torn Somalia as the next major challenge to their efforts to repel Islamic terrorism, after scores of youths left the UK for “jihad training” in the failed African state. MI5 bosses have warned ministers that the number of young Britons travelling to Somalia to fight in a “holy war”, or train in terror training camps, has soared in recent years as the country has emerged as an alternative base for radical Islamic groups including al-Qa’ida.
The Independent on Sunday understands that the number of young Britons following the trail every year has more than quadrupled to at least 100 since 2004 – and analysts warn that the true figure (which would include those who enter the country overland) will be much higher.
However, the British authorities are particularly concerned about the number of people with no direct family connection to Somalia who are travelling to fight and train there. The diversity suggests Somalia is flourishing as a training ground for radical British Muslims, who could join the local terrorist militia al-Shabaab (“the youth”), go on to join conflicts including the Afghan campaign, or return home to pose a security threat to the UK.
The connections between Somalis abroad and the civil war destroying their homeland raise broader issues about the relationship between diaspora communities and domestic conflicts. Diaspora communities can supply factions at home not just with fighters but also with money and other kinds of support, like political lobbying in host countries on behalf of interests in their home countries. Policymakers and law enforcement officers in the US, the UK, and elsewhere are just beginning to grapple with the challenges that new, globalized conflicts present.
The recruitment of non-Somalis from Britain and America poses a different question: is Somalia, as has often been said in recent years, becoming the “new Afghanistan” – that is, a destination for jihadists of all stripes and a training ground for potential terrorists? Cries seldom ring out for armed intervention by western governments in the Horn, but Washington and London are devoting more attention and resources to Somalia – and to citizens and residents in the west who may be tempted to join al Shabab.
The place where al Shabab recruitment could have the greatest destabilizing effect, however, may be Kenya. Somalia’s civil war has long had the potential to expand into a regional conflict, whether a proxy war between Ethiopia and Eritrea, a re-occupation of Somalia by Ethiopia, or something even more chaotic. Terrorist attacks by al Shabab or its sympathizers in Kenya could introduce a new element of danger and unpredictability into the situation in East Africa. Already strained by drought and political turmoil, Kenya’s government might struggle to respond effectively to al Shabab incursions into its territory.
Despite Somalia’s instability, notes of caution about western policies toward Somalia are warranted. Doubtless, conflict in Somalia sends out ripples that rock boats in Washington and London. Nonetheless, western policymakers should keep in mind that while what happens in Somalia affects them, what they do can also affect Somalia – and not always for the better.