Somalia: A Troubled Nation on the Horn of Africa

The Never-Ending Failed State-Building and the Rise of Al Shabaab

Civilians gather outside their makeshift shelters at the Kaxareey camp for the internally displaced people in Dollow, Gedo region of Somalia May 24, 2022. REUTERS/Feisal Omar
Civilians gather outside their makeshift shelters at the Kaxareey camp for the internally displaced people in Dollow, Gedo region of Somalia May 24, 2022. REUTERS/Feisal Omar

Somalia: A Troubled Nation on the Horn of Africa

Over many decades, external efforts at institution-building in Somalia have failed to resuscitate a functional central government there. Somalia had endured many conflicts and tribal battles and had no strong central government since the fall of Siad Barre in 1991. 

In May 2022, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud was elected as Somalia’s next president, following a long-overdue election in Somalia. All eyes were on the new government and hopes that it will bring security and stabilization to this very troubled nation on the Horn of Africa. 

However, and despite all the external efforts deployed in Somalia over the past years, the government has little control beyond the Somalian capital Mogadishu and is still battling political unrest, corruption, an impending humanitarian crisis, insecurity and terrorism. Reading into Somalia’s past since its independence, and given all the challenges, it is doomed again for this government to fail to bring security and stabilization to Somalia. 

Just months after Hassan Sheikh Mohamud took office, terrorists from Al Shabaab stormed the Hayat hotel in Mogadishu on Friday evening, 19 August. The militants seized the hotel, holding hundreds of people hostage and firing at security forces from inside the hotel.  On Sunday, 21 August, Somalian forces entered the hotel freeing 106 people. 

The Al Shabaab ambush resulted in the death of 21 people and the injury of over 117. Most likely the Hayat Hotel was targeted because it is a popular site for both national and international lawmakers, government officials and journalists. 

There was nothing shocking or new about this attack, except that it debunks the claim of those who say that Al Shabaab has been severely weakened in the recent years. In fact, the Hayat attack shows that Al Shabaab still remains a destabilizing force in Somalia with which the current government, like the previous ones, is incapable to deal with. 

The Somalian security forces are too weak to tackle this highly trained Al Qaeda-linked Islamist group. In December 2017, the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) started withdrawing its troops in phases and passing its security responsibilities to the Somalian security forces.  The presence of AMISOM was essential for stability in Somalia and this gradual transition of their tasks to Somali’s security forces was a blunder considering that Somalia still has a long walk to become a full functioning state.

In 2016, Al Shabaab killed more than 4,200 people, making it the deadliest Islamic terrorist group in Africa. In October 2017, they were credited with the worst terror attack in Somalia to date, a truck bomb that killed over 500 people and wounded hundreds in Mogadishu. 

More than a decade ago after its emergence, Al Shabaab is “on the threshold of becoming a genuinely transnational organization,” according to Matthew Bryden, the prominent Horn of Africa expert.

Without The Basic Foundations of a State, Elections will not lead to Stability

There are those who would argue that the birth of Somalia was premature and was doomed to fail. These critics also point out that the challenges that are facing Somalia can be traced to its inception – it is a country that was established despite the absence of a national consciousness and a proud feeling of cultural unity.

The Somalian society is largely tribal based which means that people’s identity and loyalty are primarily linked to others within the same tribe. This tribal identity is formed and strengthened through family and blood ties. The national Somalian identity is secondary.  This one of the main underlying causes why Somalia is often conflict ridden and groups like Al Shabaab can come to exist. 

Tribal dynamics played a role as being a determinant of successful Al Shabaab expansion into predominantly Muslim areas in neighboring countries. For instance, the tense relationship between the Kenyan state and the Somali Marehan clan has most likely enabled Al Shabaab to operate in the borderlands between Kenya and Somalia.

Decades of civil war, violence and poverty have led to millions of Somalis fleeing to neighboring countries and the West. There are large Somali communities in the US, UK, Sweden, Denmark and many other countries. Al Shabaab has managed to infiltrate and get important elements of support from these diasporic communities, not only financial support but also fighters have been recruited from countries like Sweden, US and UK etc. 


Even without famine, Somalia is the world’s poorest and hungriest country, as defined by the Global Hunger Index. The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) is the world’s largest humanitarian network.  In its “Somalia Hunger Crisis Report for 2021-2022,” it wrote “an estimated 4.1 million people are currently in need of food assistance due to the compounding impacts of extended drought, flooding, desert locust infestations, the economic impacts of COVID-19 and conflict.” 

Somalia became independent in 1960. Until then, the northern part of the country had been under British colonial rule and the southern part under Italian colonial rule.  Somalia is bounded by the Gulf of Aden to the north, by the Indian Ocean to the east, by Kenya and Ethiopia to the west, and by Djibouti to the northwest. Somalia’s border was arbitrarily determined by the former colonial rulers who divided the lands traditionally inhabited by Somalian tribes. As result, we see today Somali communities scattered in Djibouti, Ethiopia and Kenya, and their borders remain a source of dispute and insecurity. In all those countries, especially in Kenya, there is a big Somali community, which is both politically and economically marginalized and faces discrimination, making them easy prey for Al Shabaab who is capitalizing on their grievances and using them for its advantage.    

Somalia’s important geopolitical location is the reason there has been a battle for control by the two superpowers, Russia and the US.  Let us take one example, Somalia’s northern coast borders the Gulf of Aden, which leads to Bab El-Mandeb, a narrow strait that controls all maritime traffic between the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean. Any disturbances at Bab El-Mandeb would mean that all goods from the Gulf, including oil, would have to go around the entire African continent to reach the European and American markets.  

The West has poured billions of dollars to help Somalia stand on its feet. However, clannism/tribalism and extended family loyalties and conflicts were social problems that all civilian governments failed to eradicate and to which they eventually succumbed.

In 1969 Commander Siyad Barre seized power in a military coup that was heavily supported by the former Soviet Union. He was an advocate of the Soviet-Chinese style of socialist government, with a strong sense of nationalism and an intention to unite all Somalis by creating a Somalian national identity. Shortly after coming to power, Barre introduced the Somali language (Af Soomaali) as the official language of education, and selected the modified Latin script. From then on, all education in government schools and offices had to be conducted in Somali and all government employees were ordered to learn Somali. Prior to his rule, government employees spoke either English or Italian. Additionally, Barre also sought to eradicate the importance of tribal affiliation within government and society. 

After 21 years of military rule, Barre was overthrown in a military coup in 1991. The United Nations Development Programme stated that “the 21-year regime of Siad Barre had one of the worst human rights records in Africa.” The Africa Watch Committee and Amnesty International said that the Barre-led government was characterized by oppressive dictatorial rule, including allegations of persecution, summary killings, arbitrary arrests, jailing and torture of political opponents. 

In January 1991, Barre was overthrown by opposition groups and armed militias who all worked together to fight him. But the overthrow of Barre’s regime had a very ugly turn resulting in a power vacuum that led to those groups who once fought together against him then fighting among themselves in a struggle for power. 

Barre’s fall led to Somalia’s entering into a process of political disintegration which erupted in a bloody civil war and lawlessness. Around the same time Somalia, was also to be hit by drought and famine. The combination of civil war and famine created a humanitarian crisis that prompted UN forces, led by the United States, to intervene in the conflict in the period 1992-1995.

In a testament to Somalia’s geostrategic importance, the US participated heavily in the UN peacekeeping mission there. But it would later reduce its military involvement after operation “Battle of Mogadishu” more commonly known as the “Day of the Rangers,” and in the Somali language the Maalintii Rangers. In that operation the US lost 18 soldiers and more than 80 were wounded. 

In 1995, the US and the UN withdrew their forces after sustaining massive casualties and a new power vacuum arose again in Somalia. The prevailing mayhem assisted each group to exert their control on lands they managed to take.

Quasi-independent “states” were to emerge, although officially they all remained part of Somalia. In the north-western part of the country, we have “Somaliland,” and in the north-eastern part we have “Puntland.” In the southern part of Somalia, often referred to as “South Somalia,” the war and lawlessness were at their worst.

Islamist armed militias were among the groups fighting for power, one of which was the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), which was in control of Southern Somalia in the 2000s. A radical extremist wing split from the ICU and went on to form their own organization/movement – Al Shabaab, translated to English as “The Youth.” 

Since 2006, the security situation in Somalia has relatively improved in the north-western and north-eastern parts of the country. However, the situation in the southern part (South Somalia) is far from stable. Al Shabaab still controls large areas and the recent Hayat Hotel attack proves they are still capable of conducting terrorist missions. 

The current Somalian government is both weak and corrupt.  Despite its receiving substantial support from EU countries and the US, Ethiopia and Kenya as well as from the UN and the African Union, it still unable to bring the situation in the south under control. It is important to highlight that there are other militia groups fighting against the Somalian government but primarily it is Al Shabaab. 


The Youth Al Shabaab, Harakat Al Shabaab al-Mujahideen, is an offshoot of the Islamic Courts Union which was established in 1996 by Ibrahim Haji Jaama’ Al-Afghani. They militarily oppose the transitional Government of Somalia and constitute a threat to peace and stability in Somalia and neighboring countries. 

Al Shabaab seeks to establish an Islamic state in Somalia and later expand to the whole Horn of Africa. Bronwyn Brutoon, an expert on Al Shabaab at the Atlantic Council, says hard-liners within the group have gained prominence in recent years. “People who are still calling themselves Al Shabaab are more and more committed to the idea of Sharia law,” she told the Council on Foreign Affairs. “The unifying idea of Al Shabaab is opposition to the Western-backed government.”

Al Shabaab follows strict versions of Islam, namely, Qutbist, Salafist and Takfiri, and in areas it controls, it has imposed a harsh version of Sharia, prohibiting activities like listening to music, smoking, shaving one’s beard, to stoning to death women accused of adultery and amputating the hands of thieves.

In 2012, Al Shabaab’s leadership declared allegiance to Al Qaeda (AQ). There are also numerous intelligence reports that AL Shabaab has formed links with other armed militias, such as Boko Haram in Nigeria, AQ in the Arabian Peninsula, and AQ in the Islamic Maghreb based in the Sahara Desert. It believed that the group has a mixture of Somali and foreign fighters, numbering between 8,000 and 10,000. 

Al Shabaab has managed to recruit dozens of American fighters, many from Minneapolis and Minnesota. It also has a similar recruitment drives in many European countries.

Doku, a Swedish independent foundation specializing on violent and radical Islamist activities in Sweden, reported that Fauad Mohamed Khalaf, aka Shongo, who came to Sweden in 1994, worked for a number of years in Mosque in Rinkeby, Stockholm. During his ten-year stay in Sweden, it was often reported that he preached violent jihadi propaganda and was heavily monitored by the Swedish Security Service. He left Sweden in 2004 and moved to Somalia, where he eventually achieved a high commanding position within Al Shabaab. Since 2010, he has been on the US government’s list of most wanted terrorists. Unverified reports have claimed that Shongo was killed on the Ethiopia-Somalia border on July 29, 2022. 

Counterterrorism experts say Al Shabaab has benefited from several sources of income over the years, including piracy, kidnapping, and extortion of local businesses, farmers, and aid groups. Al Shabaab agents have also raised funds internationally, with varying degrees of support from the Somali diaspora, locals, sponsors, and sustained dawa (proselytizing).  For example, in September 2014, prosecutors in Finland charged four people who allegedly collected “thousands of euros” for Al Shabaab between 2008 and 2011.

As recently as the beginning of September 2022, Al Shabaab claimed it has killed 22 Somali Special Forces in a counteroffensive in Mogadishu’s outskirts. 

International efforts to create a centrally governed nation state in Somalia have failed. The numerous attempts of international interference have also led to great deal of opposition which has been seized upon by various armed militias, including Al Shabaab, to stir up trouble.   

Maybe the international community should leave it to Somalians to sort it out among themselves, echoing a recent statement released by James Swan, Special Representative of the Secretary-General and Head of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Somalia. 

Mr Swan urges federal and state officials in Somalia to collaborate and use the stable political climate to address key national priorities from security to governance to the humanitarian crisis. “To capitalize on this opportunity, federal and state authorities must collaborate closely to achieve progress on the new Government’s goals, including improving governance and justice, effectively countering Al Shabaab, and responding urgently to the worsening humanitarian crisis,” he said.  

font change

Related Articles