WASHINGTON — The president of Somalia carried to Washington last week plans for economic development and the hopes of his people to recover from the scourge of terrorism, capped off with a crucial message for America: the threat of Al-Shabaab and other al-Qaeda affiliates in North Africa is not Somalia’s problem alone.
“Boko Haram, Al-Shabaab, all of them, these are terrorist organizations — they are linked, they live for each other, they support each other and they are connected globally,” President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud told PJM in an exclusive interview on Friday. “It’s not just an issue of one country or one region — it’s a global phenomenon that needs to be addressed globally.”
“That’s why at the regional and continental level the African Union is supporting Somalia and, globally, that’s why the United States is supporting the African Union to support Somalia and defeat these terrorists,” Mohamud added.
PJM asked the Somali leader about comments made by leaders in Washington compartmentalizing Al-Shabaab as a regional threat instead of a risk to the homeland in need of an urgent response.
For example, in a speech a year ago at Camp Pendleton President Obama said al-Qaeda has been “decimated” yet “from Yemen to Iraq, from Somalia to North Africa, the threat today is more diffuse.”
“And while we are vigilant for signs that these groups may pose a transnational threat, most are focused on operating in the countries and regions where they are based,” Obama said.
Mohamud reiterated to PJM that “it’s a global phenomenon.”
“And the risk is always there, everywhere,” he said. “…We want to see the United States increase its support given to Somalia in terms of economic development so that the grievances that Al-Shabaab is utilizing right now are not there.”
Mohamud told a Brookings Institution event that the 24,000 African Union soldiers — mostly from Ethiopia, Burundi, Uganda, and Kenya — in his country are making headway against Al-Shabaab’s control of districts.
But driving the terrorists out of one region drives them somewhere else, and Somalis born at the start of the country’s long civil war are ripe targets for recruitment as they’ve grown up with little education and no civil institutions. Sixty-three percent of Somalia’s population is under 25 years old.
Mohamud said governing the country now carries the challenge of “building state institutions on one hand and fighting and winning the war on extremists on the other hand.”
“Al-Shabaab is a group based on an ideology, and we all know that ideologies have no citizenship and have no boundaries,” he said.
“Al-Shabaab is Somali for one reason only — they operate in Somalia, they have their base in Somalia, they have training camps in Somalia.” And, he added, they ably use Somalia as a transit hub for terrorists, linking Asia and Africa — “the terrorists move here and there.”
“And these organizations, although they have different names, they’re all linked in some way or another.”
The president stressed to the crowd the concern of Al-Shabaab and Nigeria’s Boko Haram training together even though they’re physically a continent apart.
“There are more non-Somalis than Somalis at the highest level” of Al-Shabaab now, he said. “We have people from North America, people from Europe, people from Asia, the Gulf… we have all kinds of people in place but still Somalia has the name associated with Al-Shabaab.”
The country’s instability left the nation “a vacuum for a long time,” Mohamud acknowledged. “This has been a breeding ground for them.”