Somalia: Clan Loyalty Rules Them All


May 27, 2019: The EU (European Union) is leading an effort to slow or halt the planned reduction of the UN peacekeeping force in Somalia. The cost of maintaining the peacekeeping force does not attract enough donors, nor do calls for any Somali aid. The problem is the endemic and seemingly incurable corruption. Donors send their money to where they think it will do the most good and Somalia is at the bottom of that list.

The largely African peacekeepers and the AU (African Union) are essential because efforts to create an effective Somali army have been crippled by clan politics and corruption. Most Somalis do not trust any armed organization that does not have clear clan ties. The Somali army has to avoid that if it is to be a national force. Therein lies the core problem with Somalia; clan loyalty is seen by most Somalis, as more important than any other government or religious allegiance. That is why al Shabaab is not as “religious” as Islamic terrorists in other parts of the world. Somalis organize profit-making enterprises, usually under the patronage of a clan or a powerful warlord who knows how to respect and exploit clan allegiance. Al Shabaab is more warlord than religious fanatic. The national army is neither and is seen as a magnet for foreign aid that can be stolen. There are over a hundred clan militias and these survive by being clan-based and able to use clan loyalty to recruit and motivate members. While there is a region known as Somalia and people known as Somalis there is no Somali nationalism to unite the nation of Somalia. Clan loyalty is supreme.

Another recent example of this can be seen in the far north where an unexpected failure of the annual monsoon rains has caused severe drought, major crop failures and many people facing famine and starvation. Aid for this is difficult to obtain because of the chronic corruption that often cripples such aid efforts and enriches a few local officials and gangsters. These droughts and famines have always been present in this region but emergency foreign food aid is a late 20th century development that has saved a lot of lives and made a lot of local leaders and gangsters rich. Much of the food never gets to those who need it most (the ones who cannot afford to even buy food) but enough of the food does reach famine victims to make it worthwhile to keep trying.

The Culture Trap

Part of the foreign aid problem is the nature of Somali culture. It is very competitive, entrepreneurial, violent and resourceful. For most Somalis, al Shabaab is not so much a religious movement as it is an opportunity to make some money. Al Shabaab is very much a criminal organization whose main goal is to make more money so it can recruit more members, arm them and use violence, bribes and extortion to obtain still more power and wealth. This Somali outlook put al Shabaab at odds with al Qaeda and other international Islamic terror groups. In the end, the Somalis won that argument in Somalia.

The resourcefulness can be seen in how al Shabaab has overcome the problems with widespread cell phone use. Initially, this made it more difficult for al Shabaab to operate because people who opposed them could alert the security forces, or local militia when al Shabaab activity was spotted. Shutting down the cell phone systems was a common approach with Islamic terrorists but al Shabaab saw different opportunities. Cell towers and other cell phone assets were only attacked if the cell phone companies would not pay a “tax” to operate in an area where al Shabaab was active (and able to make good on threats). That done, al Shabaab was able to communicate, especially with their informants. Al Shabaab paid for useful information and becoming an al Shabaab informant was a good way to make some extra cash, as well as stay off their hit list. Al Shabaab isn’t the only group in Somalia that uses cell phones like this. Powerful clans maintain armed militias and an informant network among clan members. This is why the media regularly report the government or peacekeepers “consulting clan elders” to negotiate with al Shabaab (or another clan). Often al Shabaab will have to deal with the clan elders because al Shabaab has found that making an enemy of a powerful clan is bad for business. A current example of this is occurring in the south, on the Kenyan border, where al Shabaab has found its operations disrupted because of disputes with the powerful Marehan clan. Most situations where al Shabaab is having problems doing business it’s because they have run afoul of a powerful (and usually heavily armed) clan. Al Shabaab tries to intimidate clans into cooperating but failing that al Shabaab must either fight, make a deal or move somewhere else. Somalia is a patchwork of areas where al Shabaab tries to avoid because of the powerful clan organizations. These clans are usually the ones with “clan elders” who can negotiate with al Shabaab. An example of that is also down on the Kenyan border where clan elders are trying to persuade a local al Shabaab group to release two Cuban doctors they recently kidnapped in northern Kenya.

In short, al Shabaab is powerful but not omnipotent. They can be hurt by things you rarely hear about, like feuds with powerful clans. More visible things that hurt al Shabaab are American UAV missile strikes and the American intelligence gathering effort that provides the location of targets for the missile strikes. These missile attacks concentrate on doing major damage to al Shabaab leadership or operations. The peacekeeper force is another problem. The government security forces (army and police) are easier to deal with (via intimidation or bribes). Another al Shabaab asset is corruption in the Somali government, which means many officials are for sale or rent. This is one reason the Americans keep their local intelligence network separate from anything the Somali government is doing in that area. The Americans share some intel with the Somali government or the peacekeeper force. Some of this intel gets back to al Shabaab and the usual result is al Shabaab itself is impressed and intimidated at how much the Americans know. Most of the American intel comes from UAV video and electronic (of communications) surveillance.

May 24, 2019: In the south (Gedo), al Shabaab has run into problems on both sides of the Kenyan border with members of the Marehan clan, one of the more powerful down there and long allied with al Shabaab. But that alliance often comes apart because of disputes over “taxes” and other matters. The Mareham are not only powerful but aggressive with other clans, any government (Somali or Kenyan) or freelance groups like al Shabaab. The Marehan are Somalis who live on both sides of the border and control (or try to) several valuable smuggling routes. Al Shabaab frequently tries to use these routes without paying or asking permission. Al Shabaab activity along these routes often attracts the attention of soldiers on both sides of the border and that is bad for business if you are a smugger or a clan elder (who tries to keep armed strangers out). Al Shabaab has had problems with the Mareham before and these disputes will probably never end, although they are often settled for a while. Al Shabaab is often willing to settle because many of the local al Shabaab members, including some leaders, are Marehan and if forced to choose will usually side with their clan.

May 22, 2019: In the south (Baled Amin), an American UAV missile attack killed two al Shabaab men. This is the 33rd such attack this year. In the north (Somaliland), an attack against ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant)killed two of them. The increased American UAV activity this year has also resulted in more attacks on the ISIL group in the far north (Puntland and Somaliland). In mid-April, this resulted in American UAV missiles killing Abdulhakim Dhuqub, the ISIL second-in-command for Somalia. Dhuqub was in charge of planning attacks and general day-to-day operations. There are still some ISIL in Somalia but the few that remain are maintaining a low profile, especially in the Puntland highlands where most of them are. There ISIL is getting by as bandits, too busy with that to pose much of an international Islamic terrorist threat. Then there is the local politics angle. The ISIL operations in Puntland are run by a local fellow with ties to the powerful local Ali Salebaan clan. In return for clan patronage (protection), the local ISIL faction played by clan rules. Banditry is permitted but large scale attacks are not. Since 2015 ISIL has been trying to take advantage of local (Puntland and Galmudug) clan feuds to establish a presence in Puntland. This began in October 2015 when an al Shabaab faction declared that it was now the local branch of ISIL. The ISIL members up there were largely former al Shabaab men who wanted more violence or whatever. ISIL was more daring and dangerous than mainstream Islamic terror groups like al Qaeda (which al Shabaab associates with as well as seeks to destroy) but is also self-destructive as ISIL considers any other Islamic terror group a potential enemy (if the other group does not recognize ISIL as the leader). Between local militias, the UAV attacks and internal disputes ISIL has moved to the bottom of the threat list for Somalia.

May 21, 2019: In northeast Kenya (Mandera), the government has ruled out the payment of ransom for two Cuban doctors kidnapped a month ago by al Shabaab and held for a $1.5 million ransom. While the Cuban economy is a wreck the country does provide free medical school for nearly all Cubans who are capable of handling the demanding courses. While Cuba has lots of doctors it has little money for medications or medical equipment in general. Cuba does demonstrate that good primary care has a very positive overall impact. Cuba eventually had more doctors than they could use and found that renting out its doctors for foreign countries, especially in South American and Africa, could be lucrative. That business now brings in over $10 billion a year. The Cuban doctors involved are paid more than they receive back in Cuba and have opportunities to defect, which a growing number do. The Cuban government holds the kin of doctors’ hostage but that, and fact that kin will no longer receive part of the doctors’ foreign pay, is often not sufficient to prevent defection. The Cuban doctors are appreciated in foreign countries, where the local medical facilities are generally better than back in Cuba and the patients grateful for the specialist care and surgical skills the Cuban doctors often provide to people who would otherwise not receive much medical care at all.

The kidnapping in northern Kenya had an immediate impact. Local tribal elders and others with contact or clout with al Shabaab began negotiations to get the doctors released. After all the doctors also treated Kenyan Somalis and refugees from Somalia. Clan elders report the two doctors are across the border in Somalia and safe. In fact, the two doctors are treating patients there. Meanwhile, other Cuban doctors working near the Somali border withdrew to safer areas until their colleagues were released and Kenya increased security for those Cubans working in areas where al Shabaab is known to operate.

May 20, 2019: In Mogadishu, an al Shabaab bomb set off near the presidential compound left nine dead and 13 wounded.

In the north (Puntland), al Shabaab was believed responsible for the murder of the port manager of a UAE financed operation in Bossasso. Al Shabaab was trying to extort regular payments from the port management company to prevent al Shabaab violence. In this case, the killer was shot dead before he could escape.

May 14, 2019: In Mogadishu, hundreds of high school students protested because the results of their recent exams had been declared invalid when it was discovered that the test answers were being sold. Such mass cheating is common in many countries and it had been made easier with the availability of cell phones and the Internet, as this allows the test information to be quickly distributed to students about to take the test.

May 13, 2019: The Yemeni government is again accusing the UAE (United Arab Emirates) of supporting southern separatists in Yemen and continuing to expand its military presence and influence in the Yemeni Socotra Islands. The main island is in the Gulf of Aden, 380 kilometers south of Yemen and 240 kilometers from the northeast tip of Somalia. The population is 60,000 and the island (and a few much smaller ones) lies within busy shipping lanes from the Indian Ocean to the Red Sea. The UAE sees these islands as worth investing in. The UAE is doing the same thing in Somalia and Djibouti. Yemen accuses the UAE of seeking to support Socotra separatists (which are currently few in number) to demand more economic links with and investment from the UAE. Saudi Arabia sides with Yemen on this issue. Exactly a year ago the UAE began withdrawing its troops from Socotra. The UAE forces had been there for two weeks, which angered many of its Yemeni allies who felt the UAE was trying to annex Socotra. Saudi Arabia stepped in and agreed to take over the economic development program for Socotra which the Yemeni government saw the UAE turning into an effort to make Socotra economically and politically dependent on the UAE. The UAE has always been more aggressive in this regard while the Saudis have not.

May 12, 2019: In Mogadishu, a bomb planted in the car of a Turkish engineer went off and killed the Turk. Al Shabaab was believed responsible and this was probably another extortion effort that was being resisted.

May 8, 2019: In the north (Somaliland), two American UAV attacks against ISIL bases in the Golis Mountains left 17 Islamic terrorists dead.

May 2, 2019: In the south (Lower Shabelle region), peacekeepers and soldiers spend two days chasing al Shabaab out of an area 63 kilometers west of Mogadishu that included key roads and prosperous towns and farmland that al Shabaab had extorted cash from. Al Shabaab will try to regain control of this are but until they do they will be at a disadvantage have lost bases and sources of income.

May 1, 2019: In Sudan, the AU agreed that the military control had to go and changed their demand for the military to give up power within three months to two months. In April leaders and representatives from Egypt, Ethiopia, Chad, Djibouti, Somalia, South Africa, Kenya, Nigeria, South Sudan and Uganda urged the AU to make the appeal to Sudan’s military leaders who had recently helped remove a dictator who had been in power for decades. Egypt and Ethiopia are Sudan’s most powerful neighbors and they are concerned about Sudan’s long term stability. The two year transition Sudan’s military has proposed has failed to satisfy Sudanese pro-democracy groups and opposition political parties. Sudan has long been a sanctuary for Islamic terrorists and was once close to al Qaeda then Iran. The recently deposed Sudan dictator, after suffering pressure from the U.S., Egypt and Israel, backed away from its Islamic terrorism support. Israel encouraged this with some long-range airstrikes against smugglers transporting Iranian weapons to Gaza via Sudan and Egypt. The Sudan government still supports a lot of clandestine nastiness and the military is involved with a lot of that.




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