Somalia’s civil war continues. The Transitional Federal Government (TFG), backed by African Union (AU) soldiers, continues to report gains in its offensive against the Islamic rebel movement al Shabab. But al Shabab has not been dislodged from southern Somalia, and indeed the movement has recently made several threats against other countries in the region. In the wake of last year’s bombings in Kampala, Uganda, for which al Shabab claimed responsibility, these threats deserve to be taken seriously.
Here is a rundown of the threats:
- Against Kenya: Around Easter, al Shabab “threatened to bomb public places such as shopping malls and places of worship over the four-day Easter weekend.” Following Osama bin Laden’s death, Kenya stepped up security, fearing that al Shabab would launch reprisals. Finally, in a threat that targets Kenya but also symbolically targets America, al Shabab has said it will kill Barack Obama’s grandmother, a resident of Kenya.
- Against Djibouti: With Djibouti planning to send troops to Somalia to fight on behalf of the TFG/AU force, al Shabab is promising to kill Djibouti’s soldiers. Al Shabab explicitly ties this threat to its enmity with other regional powers, saying, “We have already dragged the bodies of invaders like Ugandans and Burundians in the streets of Mogadishu and in case the Djiboutian troops arrive in our land, they will be dealt with in the same manner we have treated the invaders.” Al Shabab has not said it will carry out a strike within Djibouti’s territory, but the movement has now directly addressed Djibtouti’s government.
- Against Uganda: Al Shabab has issued a generalized threat against the Ugandan people, decrying the re-election of President Yoweri Museveni. This threat confirms that al Shabab sees Museveni, and Uganda, as one of its biggest regional enemies. Although the language of al Shabab’s warning was vague, it seemed to promise another attack inside Uganda. For its part, the Ugandan government has stayed on guard, and recently arrested several Somalis on suspicion of involvement with al Shabab.
- Against Ethiopia: I have not read of a recent, and direct, threat by al Shabab against Ethiopia, but the movement’s commanders continue to accuse Ethiopia of meddling in Somalia.
Al Shabab’s threats against foreign powers serve at least two functions. First, the threats strive to dissuade foreign governments from aiding the TFG/AU force. With Djibouti and Ethiopia, al Shabab does not appear to have plans in hand for attacks, but with Kenya and Uganda al Shabab may attempt to exact revenge for those governments’ involvement in Somalia’s civil war. Terrorism, I think, would likely not convince Nairobi or Kampala to stop intervening in Somalia, but further terrorist attacks outside of Somalia would further regionalize the conflict, opening “fronts,” in some sense, inside the borders of Somalia’s neighbors and near-neighbors.
Second, al Shabab’s threats against other countries act as fodder for the propaganda war between the TFG and al Shabab. Al Shabab’s propaganda keeps their movement in international news, even as they reportedly lose territory inside Somalia. Whether or not al Shabab carries out attacks, their statements are calling attention to the regional aspects of the conflict and are calling into questioning the motivations of different regional governments.
For several months now, al Shabab appears to have been in military retreat. By steadily issuing threats against regional governments, al Shabab may be showing signs of desperation, but the movement is also trying to highlight its relevance and its capacity to evoke fear within and beyond Somalia’s borders.