The success of militant groups cannot be isolated from the weakness of the state
Somalia needs our support and our sympathy
At the beginning of this year, the streets of Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu, were filled with jubilant citizens celebrating the election of Mohamed Abdullahi Mohammed as the country’s new president. Somalia “is not a place falling apart”, said Michael Keating, the UN special representative for the country, in reaction to the election, “it is a place coming together”. Mr Mohammed called it “a new beginning for Somalia” and asked his compatriots to prepare for “the start of the war against terrorists”, referring to Al Shabab, the Al Qaeda affiliated terrorist outfit.
The hope and promise that pervaded Somalia’s air in February have given way to death and destruction. Blood runs in the streets of Mogadishu, which on Saturday became the site of the worst terrorist atrocity in Somalia’s history: more than 300 people are believed to have been killed when a truck packed with explosives exploded at busy intersection in the capital. The death toll keeps rising and hospitals overflow with hundreds of injured patients. The attack has been blamed on Al Shabab, and although the group hasn’t yet claimed responsibility for it, its history and avowed aims suggest that it is almost certainly the culprit.
Al Shabab has been a menace ever since it came to prominence as part of the Union of Islamic Courts that controlled Mogadishu in 2006. Since then, its footprint has extended to Eritrea and Kenya, where it carried out a series of attacks, most notably in April 2015, when Al Shabab gunmen stormed Garissa University and slaughtered 148 people. In 2012, it pledged allegiance to Al Qaeda and, driven out of cities, has flourished in areas where the state is absent. Its forces today are said to contain between 7,000 and 9,000 fighters. The very day that Mogadishu was attacked, Al Shabab took over Barirre, a town just miles from the capital. The Somali military had vacated it to focus on other areas, and Al Shabab was able to fill the vacuum without any trouble.
Al Shabab’s success is impossible to isolate from the weakness of the Somalian state. Seventy per cent of the country’s nearly 15 million citizens are under the age of 35. Overall unemployment rate is at 66 per cent. Among the youth, it is worse: seven out of ten young Somalis have no job. The country is riven by factionalism and famine is an ever-present spectre. Piracy thrives in such conditions. Somalia, despite being on the very edge of total collapse, remains one of the most underreported countries in the world – noticed only when its pirates succeed in seizing a vessel. But Somalia cannot be isolated from the world: its problems, if not fixed, will spread. There must be coordinated international action, not only to fight Al Shabab but also to create a strong and stable state that can meet the needs of its citizens. It is the only way to nullify the appeal of Al Shabab’s nihilism.