Politics and Society
Why do Somalis join al-Shabaab?
A new study reveals that religion and ideology aren’t the leading drivers of radicalisation in Somalia
Pretoria, South Africa – Economics and deprivation were as important, if not more so, than religious factors in explaining why Somalis joined al-Shabaab. This is one of the main findings of a new study released on 26 September that provides empirical data on radicalisation in Somalia.
Finn Church Aid (FCA) in partnership with the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) conducted the study among 88 former al-Shabaab fighters in Mogadishu in April 2014. Researchers examined the vulnerability of young people to being recruited by al-Shabaab, the radicalisation process, and fighters’ perceptions of government, religious identity and external roleplayers. It is the second in a two-part analysis that began with research into radicalisation in Kenya.
‘The study comes at a time when the entire globe is looking for strategies to defeat the Islamic State (ISIS) and other terrorist groups’, said FCA executive director Antti Pentikäinen. ‘We are convening religious leaders from 10 countries to share their experiences of responding to these threats as well as providing a platform to engage US policymakers.’
‘In the end it is up to these communities to determine their future. That is why their voices must be heard and their own responses supported,’ Pentikäinen said.
The need for tailored strategies is at the heart of the Somalia study. ‘To effectively counter radicalisation, we need to know why people join terror groups’, said Mahdi Abdile, deputy regional representative for East and Southern Africa at FCA, and co-author of the study.
‘There’s no shortage of information on the causes of terrorism, but we need to hear from the individuals concerned because each context in which radicalisation happens is different.’
The United Nations Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy says adverse political and economic circumstances, religious and ethnic discrimination, heavy-handed counter-terrorism operations, and perceptions about international injustices are the ‘push factors’ that cause radicalisation.
‘While useful to understand the problem, broad outlines of the conditions conducive to terrorism are not always helpful to those who must act against terrorism where it happens’ said Dr Anneli Botha, senior researcher at the ISS and co-author of the study.
‘Ultimately it is individuals who join terrorist organisations’, said Botha. ‘The key to radicalisation is understanding how individuals in a particular setting respond to the push factors outlined in the UN strategy’.
This is the crucial question considering al-Shabaab’s successful radicalisation of young men in Somalia. Over the course of seven years al-Shabaab has transformed itself from a rag-tag militia trying to overthrow the Western-backed government and force the withdrawal of African Union peacekeepers, to a fully-fledged army that has conquered, controlled and administered most of southern and central Somalia for some time.
Interviewers developed a profile of typical al-Shabaab recruits and identified specific factors facilitating their recruitment, including religious, socioeconomic circumstances and the need for a collective identity and sense of belonging. The results point to specific areas that counter-terrorism strategies should focus on.
While almost all the fighters interviewed said they believed their religion (Islam) was under threat, religious leaders played only a limited role in the recruitment process. And although the government in Somalia faces a serious legitimacy crisis, as many as 82% of interviewees said they trusted clan elders.
These findings indicate that religious and traditional leaders can play a critical role in combating radicalisation and violent extremism in Somalia.
Detailed recommendations are provided for the Somali government and security forces, regional players especially Kenya, and donors and external organisations working in Somalia.
For the full results, read the paper Radicalisation and al-Shabaab recruitment in Somalia.
This article was first published by the Institute for Security Studies and is republished here with their permission.