September 27, 2010 | FDD’s Long War Journal

Critical Questions Regarding The Role of Foreign Fighters in Shabaab

Earlier today I served as a panelist at the Foreign Policy Research Institute's annual conference on foreign fighters, discussing the phenomenon in Somalia. The panel discussion was based around Ambassador (ret.) David Shinn's forthcoming paper on foreign fighters in Somalia; since it is still a work in progress, the paper is not yet available online. My comments highlighted four areas where researchers should explore critical questions concerning the role foreign fighters play in Somalia; this entry relates to these four question areas.

1. Why has Shabaab placed such emphasis on foreign fighters from the West?

The fact that Shabaab actively recruits foreign fighters from the West is well established. Shinn's paper, for example, explains that Shabaab recruiters in Minnesota paid cash for recruits' airfare to the region. This is exceptional, in that active recruiters are rare outside the context of Somalia. Why does Shabaab actively recruit foreign fighters from the West, while other jihadi groups do not?

There are two overarching possibilities in terms of organizational decision-making. One is that Shabaab's leadership believes there is an important strategic reason to draw foreign fighters to Somalia. The other possibility is that this is not an organizational decision, and is being orchestrated by a small group of people who see the recruitment (perhaps erroneously) as beneficial.

If it is an organizational decision, what strategic purpose does the recruitment of fighters from the West serve? There are at least three possibilities that are not exclusive of each other. The first is that the purpose is military and strategic gains. Here it should be noted that foreign fighters from the West (as opposed to battle-hardened al Qaeda operatives) are generally not valuable fighters. As Ken Menkhaus noted in Senate testimony in 2009: “Somalia is already saturated with experienced teenage gunmen and has no need to import more. In fact, evidence from the ICU [Islamic Courts Union] in 2006 suggests that Somali diaspora … as well as foreign fighters were as much a liability as an asset to the ICU. They were unfamiliar with the countryside, often spoke the Somali language poorly, were more likely to become sick, and required a fair amount of oversight.” They do offer some core skill sets that can benefit Shabaab, such as familiarity with computers and the Internet, and familiarity with English. But far more important militarily is the ability to make young men who have been cut off from their families and previous lives into suicide bombers. As Menkhaus noted, it is “in theory easier to isolate, indoctrinate, and control” such individuals “for the purpose of executing suicide bombings.”

Another strategic possibility is money: that by recruiting Westerners, Shabaab hopes to draw more attention to its cause. And a third strategic possibility is that the recruitment of Westerners (and other foreign fighters) is designed to expand Shabaab's transnational reach. Numerous Shabaab leaders have echoed the words of Omar Hammami, who is charged with financing Shabaab's foreign fighters, who criticized the ICU for having “a goal limited to the boundaries placed by the Taghoot [the impure],” while “the Shabaab had a global goal including the establishment of the Islaamic Khilaafah [caliphate] in all parts of the world.” The recruitment of foreign fighters could be part of this vision.

Understanding Shabaab's reasons for placing such emphasis on recruitment will help us to understand Shabaab's strategic outlook and doctrine, which are insufficiently understood by analysts.

2. The neglected non-Western foreign fighters

One strength of Amb. Shinn's paper is dividing the Islamist foreign fighters in Somalia into three categories: Somalis born in Somalia or whose parents were born in Somalia but carry a foreign passport; foreigners with no Somali ethnic connection; and Somalis born in Kenya and Ethiopia. This last category of foreign fighter often gets short shrift in the discussion.

Foreign fighters in Somalia pose twin problems: what they do while they're in the country, and what they do when they leave Somalia. The current investigation of Shabaab recruiting in the US (which is the largest domestic terrorism investigation in America since the 9/11 attacks) is largely motivated by the latter concern: that men who have trained or fought with Shabaab could pose a security threat upon their return.

But “foreign fighters” from Kenya and Ethiopia are also a matter of concern. Though their existence has been noted by several analysts, not much is known about them relative to foreign fighters from Western countries. When Somalis have disappeared from the West to liaise with Shabaab, their families or community members often notify authorities. We do not know that this happens with the same kind of frequency for foreign fighters from Kenya and Ethiopia.

3. Non-Somali foreign fighters as “force multipliers”

Amb. Shinn noted in both his presentation and his paper that while the non-Somali foreign fighter contingent is small, the al Qaeda faction of foreign fighters provides Shabaab with expertise in bomb making, remote-controlled explosions, suicide bombing, and assassinations. This same force multiplier aspect is present in debates over al Qaeda in Afghanistan: many analysts (and I fall into this camp) argue that its impact is greater than its relatively small numbers would suggest.

The idea of al Qaeda fighters as force multipliers is not made up. There is a science to measuring TTP's (military tactics, techniques, and procedures), and the migration of TTP's from one theater of combat to another is rigorously measured. If bomb-making techniques that were perfected in Iraq are found in Somalia, that strongly suggests that foreign fighters are making an impact. (It's also possible that these TTP's were transmitted via the Internet, but my strong inclination is that in-person training is more valuable than “virtual” training.)

But Shabaab, which is engaged in hot combat on the ground, also has its own opportunities to develop combat expertise. So the story of the value of foreign fighters should not stop with the “force multiplier” argument. Relevant questions include whether the value of foreign fighters as a force multiplier diminishes over time, and how much. One metric for measuring this could be the introduction of new TTP's into the theater over time-but this would be an imperfect metric, since once Shabaab adopts the TTP's of foreign fighters, foreign fighters could still serve as valuable trainers in a now-established TTP. But measuring the impact of this force multiplier effect will help to better gauge Shabaab's sources of strength.

4. Why is Shabaab not an al Qaeda affiliate?

I have written before about the endorsement of a global jihadist outlook by Shabaab leaders, and their stated allegiance with al Qaeda. Similarly, al Qaeda leaders have issued favorable statements about Shabaab. But Shabaab has not been made an official al Qaeda affiliate; moreover, it was reported that after Shabaab's bombings in Uganda, al Qaeda recommended that Shabaab be more reserved in expressing ties between the two groups.

This is not what one would intuitively expect. After all, Osama bin Laden has boasted of his strategy for “bleeding America to the point of bankruptcy” by embroiling it in draining wars in the Muslim world. He most famously articulated this strategy in the video he released just before the US presidential elections in 2004, in which he explained mockingly that mere whispers of an al Qaeda presence could cause the US to mindlessly overreact. “All that we have to do is to send two mujahidin to the furthest point east to raise a piece of cloth on which is written al Qaeda,” he said, “in order to make the generals race there to cause America to suffer human, economic, and political losses without their achieving for it anything of note other than some benefits for their private companies.”

It is possible that Shabaab is not an al Qaeda affiliate due to al Qaeda's general conservatism about taking on new affiliates. But another possibility is that this has not happened because al Qaeda views Somalia as an important source of strength in the future, and does not want to jeopardize it.

The topic of foreign fighters and Shabaab is an important one, in which — somewhat frustratingly — there are more questions than answers. But developing a more nuanced and comprehensive understanding of Shabaab is critical to making the right policy decisions about Somalia.

UPDATE, SEPT. 30, 2010: A couple of readers took issue with my section querying why Shabaab is not an al Qaeda affiliate. Both of them interpreted it in a way that I did not intend, so I wanted to clarify. I am not denying the relationship between Shabaab and al Qaeda. In fact, Shabaab leaders and rank-and-file have explicitly vowed their allegiance to bin Laden and al Qaeda before; here is one example. The question I am asking is why Shabaab has not been officially named a branch of al Qaeda. And that would have been a better way to frame that part of this essay to avoid confusion: “Why has Shabaab not been named a branch of al Qaeda?” I can see how the wording that I employed engendered confusion.