“There will be no safe place for Kenyans as long as their troops are in Somalia!” These were the words of Al Shabab spokesman Sheikh Ali Mohamud Rage following the Westgate Massacre, one of the organisation’s deadliest attacks in Kenya. On September 21, 2013, Al Shabab attacked Westgate Shopping Mall in Nairobi, Kenya’s capital. In the attack 67 people were killed and 175 were wounded. The siege lasted until September 24, after which Kenya was changed forever.
Al Shabab was also responsible for another massacre which shook Kenya on April 2, 2015, when the group raided the Garissa University’s campus and killed 148 people - mostly Christian students. Al Shabab claim that this atrocity was in retaliation for Kenya’s strong stance against it and the presence of the country’s military in Somalia.
During this attack Al Shabab gunmen killed only Christian students. However the group has also targeted and continues to target Muslims.
Background and Structure
Al Shabab is a militant group officially known as Harakat Al Shabab Al Mujahideen (Mujahideen Youth Movement) based in Somalia. They state that their main objective is the establishment of an “Islamic State” in Somalia. In 2014, Al Shabab was estimated to have a troop strength of roughly 7,000 to 9,000 militants.
It’s believed that the forerunner of Al Shabab, and many of its leaders, was Al Ittihad Al Islami (AIAI or Unity of Islam), a militant group that peaked in the 1990s after the fall of the Siad Barre regime (1969–1991) and the outbreak of civil war in Somalia. Many of AIAI fighters, including current Al Shabab commanders, fled the country and fought in Afghanistan in the late 1990s after being pushed out by the Ethiopian army and its Somali supporters.
In 2003, a clash developed between AIAI's relatively moderate old guard - who had decided to create a new political front - and hardliner younger members of the organisation who sought to establish a “Greater Somalia” under extremist Islamic rule. They later created Al Shabab as the youth militia of the alliance of Sharia courts, known as the Islamic Courts Union (ICU).
Al Shabab and the ICU wrestled over control of Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia in June 2006. These events mobilized neighboring Ethiopia. The group was defeated by the forces of Somalia’s Transnational Federal Government (TFG) and Ethiopia in 2007.
Despite the majority of Al Shabab’s members being of Somalian origin, the organisation is multiethnic. Most of its foreign members come from Yemen, Sudan, The Swahili Coast, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. In 2012, it was also reported that Al Shabab was attracting an increasing number of non-Somali recent converts from other African countries, especially Kenya, a predominantly Christian country.
In 2012, it “pledged allegiance” to Al Qaeda and suspicions emerged that it is also possibly linked to Boko Haram of Nigeria.
Al Shabab has been designated as a terrorist organization by the United States, United Kingdom, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and others. The US State Department has offered bounties for the capture of several of the group’s senior leaders.
While Al Shabab’s power has been reduced since the forming of the coalition against it by the Somali military and its African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) allies in 2011, the group has continued its efforts at recruitment and territorial control. It has training camps in the southern regions of Somalia.
Al Shabab carries out suicide bombings and also conventional military attacks against the Somali Federal Government (SFG), AMISOM peacekeepers, embassies and non-governmental aid organisations. In 2013 Al Shabab started its campaign against neighboring Kenya to force it to withdraw from AMISOM.
In July 2013, the Turkish Embassy in Mogadishu was hit by a suicide car bomb attack. One Turkish security officer was killed, 3 others were seriously wounded. Al Shabab claimed responsibility for the bombing on its Twitter account. They said that Turkey was targeted for “supporting the apostate regime [in Somalia] and seeking to suppress Sharia order.”
Al Shabab has frequently slaughtered Christians and Muslims alike, along with women and children. While advocating that they do so in the name of Islam, what they exhibit is a distorted version of the religion.
Al Shabab owns various media, such as Radio Andalus.
The group’s current leader has been Ahmad Umar (Abu Ubaidah) since 2014.
Turkey's celebrated presence in Somalia
“The fact is, Erdogan has done for Somalia what no other world leader has done in decades,” this sentence by Abukar Arman, analyst and Former Somalia Special Envoy to the US, summarizes Somalia’s feelings about Turkey’s aid campaign and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s efforts in Somalia.
Arman’s words reference to a very comprehensive campaign of which Ankara has started to implement in 2011. Turkey has offered technical and humanitarian aid to Somalia since then.
In fact, Erdogan was the first non-African leader to visit Somalia for almost 20 years (since 1991).
On August 19, 2011, Mr. Erdogan came to Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia, as Prime Minister of the Turkish Republic. He was accompanied by his family, ministers, artists, aid workers and representatives of civil society organisations. During the trip, Erdogan explained Turkey’s plan to build a major hospital, six field hospitals and a road from the airport to Mogadishu. Four years later, he returned to Somalia to show that he had fulfilled these promises.
Al Shabab’s reaction to Turkey’s aid campaign, which came to Somalia when the entire Horn of Africa was in a drought, has been deadly. The group attacked an office full of Turkish embassy staff with a car bomb on July 27, 2013, killing 4 people and injuring several others. One of the dead was a Turkish security officer.
On Twitter, Al Shabab stated that it had carried out the operation, which targeted a group of Turkish diplomats. It added that it will increase the frequency of its attacks during Ramadan. Erdogan said that the attacks were carried out by “supposed Muslims” suggesting that the militant group is contradicting Islam’s teachings and values, and added that the group attacked the Turkish government simply because it was aiding Somalia.
Development plan for Somalia: Turkey’s soft power
Turkey began sending flights to Somalia on March 2012 via Turkish Airlines (THY). Furthermore, according to the IMF, since October 2011 Turkey gave more aid to Somalia than any other country as a proportion of gross national income.
Turkey’s official aid to Somalia reached over half a billion dollars, including aid from Turkish institutions such as TIKA and Turkish Red Crescent.
Mehmet Ozkan, President of The International Center for Terrorism and Transnational Crime (UTSAM), said that the brightest and most successful era of Turkish-African politics has been that of the current Justice and Development Party (AK Party) regime in Turkey.
There are often claims that Turkey’s Somalia presence is a strategic step to strengthen Turkey’s influence in the area and boost its economy, however Turkey’s government says it has purely humanitarian motives.
According to Dr. Ibrahim Kalin, Deputy Secretary General of Turkish President Erdogan, the aid to Somalia has a purpose, and that is to help the country rise as a nation. He emphasises that Turkey is also paving the way for talks between Mogadishu and Somaliland.
Nevertheless, Ankara’s efforts to help Somalia have created a new form of friendship and cooperation between the two nations’ people. Kalin also stresses that African nations do not need exploitation, but instead fairness and opportunity, and perhaps that is what Turkey is providing Somalia with.
Erdogan: ‘The hero of Somalia’
With the explosion at Turkey’s embassy in Mogadishu in 2013, Turkish presence in Somalia became a target. A suicide car bomb exploded at the gate of a Mogadishu Hotel where Turkish delegates were meeting on January 22, just a day before the visit by Erdogan to the Somali capital.
The attack was unsuccessful in damaging its target, however it did manage to kill 5 Somali policemen and a civilian. Al Shabab claimed responsibility for the attack.
Erdogan did not cancel the visit to Somalia, vowing to go ahead with it despite the attack, but first visited Saudi Arabia to attend King Abdullah’s funeral. He was given a hero’s welcome when he landed in the country on January 25, and respected Somali ex-diplomat and political analyst Arman dubbed Erdogan, “The Hero of Somalia” in his opinion published by Al Jazeera English on January 21, 2015.
Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, who greeted Erdogan at Mogadishu Airport had kind words to say about Turkey’s achievements in his country: "Turkey has invested in infrastructure, building hospitals, rebuilding destroyed government property and digging wells. It has provided training to our doctors, teachers and civil servants. Turkey has set up more than 1,000 scholarships to enable our young people to study abroad. It has brought in businesses that changed the face of Mogadishu and encouraged its entrepreneurs to come to the city and transform state enterprises, including returning the port and the airport to profitability.”
Mohamud added that the Turkish people are changing the face of Mogadishu.