Even before September 11, 2001, counter-terrorism experts were becoming aware of how crucial money and other forms of material support are to even the most fanatical terrorist organizations. The intense scrutiny of Islamic terror groups in the last two decades revealed some other interesting angles to international terrorism. For example, after the Cold War ended, many in the West were surprised to discover the extent to which the Soviet Union had provided support for terrorist groups. There was not only an extensive network of terrorist training schools in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe but also cash subsidies, weapons, and specialized equipment, as well as technical advisors for terrorists outside the Soviet controlled countries. Western counter-terrorism organizations knew this support existed but not, until the Soviet Union fell in 1991 and their archives were opened for a few years, the extent of that support.
Islamic radical terrorists did not get much support from the Soviet Union because these groups considered the Soviets anti-Islam and prime targets for Islamic terrorism. The Soviets managed to keep the Islamic terrorists out of the Soviet Union and cut off from any Soviet support. The Islamic radicals learned to adapt by relying on pious, newly rich Arabs from countries with lots of oil to export. After the Arab led oil cartel was formed in the 1970s, and forced up oil prices, there was a lot more Islamic charity for Islamic terrorist groups to tap into.
This brings us around to Somali Islamic radical group al Shabaab. Originally, the fanatic wing of a more moderate Somali movement trying to impose law and order after more than a decade of chaos, al Shabaab soon became a major law and order problem itself. There are still several thousand armed al Shabaab men in Somalia after several years of fighting and losing to African peacekeepers and Somali troops. Al Shabaab suffered major losses last year and has scattered into smaller groups that hide out in remote parts of Somalia. At the moment al Shabaab is more interested in raising cash, as the group is broke following its expulsion from the lucrative cities of Mogadishu and Kismayo over the last two years. There are now fewer opportunities to kidnap foreigners and the pirates, who used to share ransoms with al Shabaab, have not taken a ransomable ship in over a year. In short, al Shabaab needs money.
The effort to further weaken (and eventually obliterate) al Shabaab has now shifted to the group’s finances. This is a battle that gets little publicity and is easy to keep out of the news because it is, well, stuff that mostly happens out of public view. Al Shabaab is believed to be seeking cash from wealthy Arabs in Arabia. These are men who like to donate to Islamic charities that support Islamic radicalism. For nearly a decade both oil rich Arab countries and their Western allies have been trying to stop this source of terrorist funding but have only been able to reduce it. The money still gets through to Islamic terror groups that have a lot of media coverage. For that reason, it is believed al Shabaab will try to carry out more spectacular attacks outside Somalia. That way al Shabaab can gain more media coverage and easier access to wealthy donors.
This strategy is easier now because a recent power struggle within the organization has left the “Foreign” faction in charge. For years al Shabaab had been divided as the “Somalia” nationalist faction opposed to the foreign volunteers who were eager for al Shabaab to carry out more terrorism outside Somalia. The Somalia faction wanted to hold off on this until they had all of Somalia under their control. But the Foreign faction believed that would take too long, especially once the foreign terrorists came to understand how fragmented Somalia was by clan and warlord politics. The foreigners concluded that Somalia would never be united, because it had never been united (for long) in the past. This is something most Somalis do not want to dwell on. Meanwhile, in the past year many prominent al Shabaab nationalist (keep operations inside Somalia) faction leaders were killed or driven away from al Shabaab, which now sees itself primarily as an international terrorist organization. Thus the eagerness of American, Israeli, British, and other European countries to help destroy al Shabaab in Somalia once and for all. As long as al Shabaab survives in Somalia the organization can reach out to Somali communities in other countries, especially the West, for donations, new recruits, and overseas targets.
The loss of Kismayo last year was a major blow to al Shabaab finances because that port could be used to smuggle illegal goods (especially ivory) out of the country. Al Shabaab also collected fees on anything leaving or entering via Kismayo. Now al Shabaab has limited, and irregular, access to smaller ports on the coast. The financial loss to al Shabaab has been huge. Al Shabaab charged fees (for protection from al Shabaab retaliation) to businesses in all areas it controlled. This covered an enormous amount of legal and illegal trade via Kismayo. Kismayo alone was worth over $50 million a year to al Shabaab. For every million dollars of income, al Shabaab could keep 400-500 armed men in action. Major operations, like suicide car bombings, can cost several thousand dollars (to get the car, build the bomb, and train the suicide bomber) and intelligence gathering costs money, if only because bribes are an easy way to find out things, but that can be expensive, even in Somalia.
With most of that income gone in the past year, al Shabaab has begun to unravel. The loss of income led to many desertions and the inability to make attacks within Somalia. This is a common pattern in Islamic terror organizations. The less cash they have the fewer senior staff they have. This group includes skilled leadership and technical experts (for building bombs, planning attacks, and working the media). These core members usually have families to support and need cash to do their work. Without the spectacular attacks, potential recruits and donors won’t know you exist and you will fade away. Counter-terrorism efforts now try to induce this form of natural selection and al Shabaab is one of the primary targets. Al Shabaab is adapting and trying to establish branches in nearby countries with ethnic Somali populations. Thus, al Shabaab becomes a more widespread threat and it becomes weaker overall. When the rats abandon a sinking ship the rats show up somewhere else.