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The Blowback that Created al-Shabaab

The terrible attack at the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi has put a spotlight on radical Islam coming from Somalia. The as of yet unconfirmed reports of Americans being involved has put an added emphasis on the Somali American community, the largest of which is here in the Twin Cities. What has been lacking in much of the coverage of the attack, unsurprisingly, is context.

Jon Lee Anderson wrote this for the New Yorker:

The culprit here, beyond poverty and lack of education and all the rest of it, is political Islam and its aberrant variations, which together have taken a religious faith and turned it into a tool of warfare and a toxic adjunct of modern day globalization. The answer has to include a thus-far undetectable bout of soul-searching, especially among political, civic, and religious leaders in the Muslim world.

Well all that might be true, I guess, at least an to an extent. But it’s reactive. It doesn’t tell us much, or further our understanding at all. Who, exactly, is al-Shabaab? Somalis have been dealing with abject poverty since the fall of Siad Barre in the early 1990s, why has Islam suddenly been fused so violently with the politics of the area?

If we remember back to the summer of 2006, Ethiopia was planning on invading Somalia in order to “protect” their borders. This meant getting rid of the scary sounding Islamic Courts Union. The ICU had been capturing territory and establishing stability not seen in Somalia in over two decades, something the western backed, and warlord composed, Transitional Federal Government of Somalia had not been able to do. For their part, the Bush Administration sounded like Jon Lee Anderson. Ignorant of, or ignoring, the history between these two long time adversaries, they sent in a small group of special forces to “advise” the Ethiopians and the TFG. This was a key moment, and one I remember having conversations about with many Somalis around the community. There was some skepticism within the Diaspora surrounding the ICU, but almost everyone agreed there should be dialogue as opposed to war. War would certainly make things worse.

They were right. The Ethiopian invasion is essentially what created al-Shabaab. It was, and is, the perfect recruiting tool. (Over 20 Minnesotans have even went back to fight.)

The ICU was made up of many factions. Instead of allowing the internal debate within the ICU to continue, which very well may have ended up with a power-sharing deal between the ICU and TFG (not to mention give the Somali people a much needed break from war), the invasion marginalized the moderates so much so some actually switched sides and joined the TFG (which certainly suggests they would have been open to talks). When they started losing the areas they controlled to the invaders, the militant factions, those preaching the West and its proxies were at “war with Islam,” were emboldened.

This moment contributed to the attack at the Westgate mall, much more tangibly than an abstract ideology of political Islam, and a lack of “soul-searching“ on the part of Muslim leaders. Instead of talking to a somewhat loose grouping of factions, who had managed to bring stability to a long chaotic area, and who were ruling over a traditionally moderate populous- we opted for the military solution and the blowback created one of the region’s most notorious terrorist groups.

The situation remains intensely complex with past rivalries, ethnic differences, sectarian fighting, autonomous and independent areas in the north, etc., all adding to the confusion and our lack of understanding. Our involvement in Somalia is less direct than the “Black Hawk Down” days, but it’s still part of the problem. We had a genuine opportunity to at least try for a relative peace, but we didn’t. Not only have we not learned from this lost opportunity, we don’t remember it, choosing instead to label this latest deadly shooting spree as simply another example of global jihad that fits neatly into our “extremist Muslim” narrative.

Graeme Anfinson lives in St. Paul, Minnesota.

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