Hardline Islamist Militia Group Shabbab Emerges in Somalia

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 3 Issue: 31

Recent information emerging from Somalia indicates that a hard-line faction within the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) may have evolved into a new organization called Shabbab (Arabic for “youth”), where youthful die-hard elements of the Islamists are being trained for specialized assignments. An official from Kenya’s Embassy to Somalia (which is currently based in Nairobi), who requested anonymity, confirmed that there was such a youth wing in the ICU, but said its scope was not clear at the moment. Analysts of the current crisis in Somalia claim that this group is a part of the young Islamic courts supporters who have come of age in the ruthless and vicious life of modern day Mogadishu. They are known to be less educated and more dogmatic than the older clerics. They have not held formal jobs, apart from earning a living as bodyguards protecting foreigners or doing “dirty work” in exchange for payment.

The commander of the young fighters appears to be Adan Hashi Ayro, a militant trained in al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan, who is believed to be in his late 20s or early 30s (Terrorism Focus, June 13). The commander is thought to have undergone training in Afghanistan before the U.S. invasion. His group is largely seen as jihadist in nature and formed around 2003. Between that time and today, the group allegedly carried out a number of assassinations and attacks against foreigners in Somalia (International Crisis Group, December 12, 2005).

Ayro’s group was allegedly crucial in the ICU’s success in the recent battle with the warlords, known as the Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism (ARCPT), in Mogadishu. Ayro himself is said to have been valued for the insurgent tactics he learned from the Taliban in Afghanistan (Somaliland.net, June 16). He is reported to own battlewagons that are equipped with anti-aircraft artillery that are used as ground weapons, which penetrated even the best defended warlord positions.

He had been an insignificant actor until he and his fighters desecrated 300 Italian graves in Mogadishu in January 2005 to embarrass his clan for their failure to defend him against the forces of the ARCPT (Somalilandnet.com, June 16). ARPCT fighters, for example, had raided his house searching for al-Qaeda suspects believed to have been sheltered there. The international community has implicated Ayro in the killing of four foreign aid workers and at least 10 former Somali military and police officers.

Medhane Tadesse, of the Addis Ababa-based Center for Policy Analysis and Dialogue, an Ethiopian think-tank, says that the Ayro movement is very radical and displays extreme brutality. “Ayro is a young man, and during the past two years he has been known for killing foreigners,” Tadesse told the Addis Ababa Reporter on July 15. “They are fierce fighters, ruthless and the kind of fighting tactics they use are new to Somalia. On top of that, they have determination.”

Explaining the origin of the group, Tadesse said that for years people who were considered by the United States as terrorists came to Somalia. Upon arrival, according to Tadesse, Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, who is on the U.S. list of suspected terrorists, assigned young bodyguards to the “fugitives.” In turn, the fugitives went on to influence the bodyguards through Islamic teachings. As a result, in the process of providing protection, the group of bodyguards became more and more radical. Aweys is reported to have been assigned Ayro, who is also his relative, to guard some of these foreigners. It is not clear which individuals he guarded. “They have been killing foreigners and Somali secular intellectuals for the past two years in Mogadishu and other places, including Somaliland,” Tadesse explained.

Many of the fighters have been described as well-trained, ruthless warriors who can handle many different weapon styles. Although Ayro is reported to be the mastermind of the group, some analysts have described him as a portrait of a misguided young militant who is at odds with his own clan, and bitter over what he calls foreign meddling in Somalia.

Commenting on Shabbab, Abshir Warsame, a Somali journalist who is exiled to Kenya, said it is composed of young men between the ages of 20-30 years. Warsame explained that the Shabbab group of fighters were funded by businessmen opposed to the U.S.-backed warlord coalition, and used to receive final commands from Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, the ICU chairman at the time. “They were generally high school and university students from Mogadishu,” he said. Somali analysts agree that Ayro and his group cannot be ignored. It is further feared that if he splits with the ICU, he could easily form an extremist army ready to attack secular interests in the Horn of Africa.