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.”
Within Somalia, Al-Shabaab has concentrated its tactics on asymmetrical warfare — assassinations and suicide bombings — as their physical territory of control in the country shrinks.
“The plan is by the end of the year there will not be a territory controlled by Al-Shabaab in Somalia — but that does not mean it’s the end of the war,” Mohamud said. “The war will continue.”
He stressed that in the early 2000s Somalis didn’t believe terrorism could take root there as their culture didn’t include more extremist beliefs such as honor killings. “We don’t have that type of history,” the Somali leader said. Still, in 2006 Al-Shabaab was born with the first suicide bombers in Mogadishu.
Now, Al-Shabaab is training young people for more diverse missions, such as the attacks in Kenya.
“It’s a very serious concern for the region, and for the continent, and for the world at large,” Mohamud said. “The problem of terrorism is not a Somali problem only. That’s why we’re seeking the support from the outside world.”
He acknowledges the problems within, such as deterring large numbers of untrained young people from accepting a job with Al-Shabaab or being recruited by the pirates.
“Are they employable?” he said. “Using the AK-47 gun does not need much training… Developing and providing an alternative way of life for that young generation is one of the challenges that the Somali government faces right now.”
Stressing the country’s developmental needs to international partners has been more challenging than soliciting support in the security sector. “The military campaign is only one part of the war.”
Mohamud noted that EU forces are conducting a training mission inside Somali, and the U.S. is supporting and training special forces. And even though the “seed of a national army of the future is now beginning,” they just don’t have enough equipment.
As they look at the map of areas where Al-Shabaab currently supplants the government, fewer than 15 districts remain under control of the terrorist group, the president said.
“But Somalia is a vast area — when you chase them away from the districts and the towns, they go into the rural area and that’s where they remain a threat to the community,” he said, as they seep back into the cities for their targeted attacks.
“Our war will continue in the urban places and this will continue for some time,” Mohaumd said. “The society understood that there is no future with Al-Shabaab — and they are fighting.”
After his D.C. trip for the U.S.-Africa Leaders’ Summit, Mohamud flew to Minnesota to urge Somali-Americans at a Saturday night event to not fundraise or in any way support Al-Shabaab.
“Somalis in Minnesota, you should also play your part,” the president told the crowd, according to MPR News. “The enemy that is in [Somalia] is also in here. Keep your children safe.”