6 October 2013- In the poverty-stricken rural areas of central and southern Somalia, farmers pay taxes for owning land and transporting rice. They do not give this money to the Somali government, but to those responsible for the attack on the Westgate mall in Nairobi. Islamic terrorists control most of the rural areas in Somalia: they exploit farmers, hunt elephants for their ivory, trade charcoal with Arab companies and conspire with pirates. This is the land of Al-Shabab.

Just over two weeks ago, a small group of Al-Shabab militants brought the organization to front-pages worldwide when they attacked a shopping mall in Nairobi, killing over 60 people. Yesterday, a team of American Navy SEALs attacked the villa of a high-ranking figure within the ranks of Al-Shabab, presumably its leader, in an attempt to seize him. The American troops launched an amphibious assault on the seaside residence which resulted in firefight that lasted over an hour after which the SEALs were forced to retreat.

But what is Al-Shabab and who are its warriors? Somalia has been plagued by internal conflict and sectarian violence for decades. In 2006, an African coalition spearheaded by Ethiopian forces invaded Somalia to assist the Transitional Government against the Islamic Courts Union, a coalition of Sharia courts. Al-Shabab, was the youth militant division of the ICU (Shabab is Arabic for ‘youth’). The ICU was defeated and its members fled the country or reconciled with the Transitional Government. Al-Shabab refused to lay down its arms and has been wreaking havoc in Somalia and its neighboring countries ever since.  In 2011, Kenyan armed forces, fed up with the chaos at its borders, invaded Somalia and managed to seize Al-Shabab’s stronghold; the port town Kismayo. Although this was hailed as a great victory, the Islamist militias still control the surrounding port towns and hinterland.

After an hour of gunfight the US Navy Seals had to retreat.

Al-Shabab reportedly consists of 7,000 to 9,000 fighters, both Somali nationals and international jihadists. Its operations are funded by a wide array of different activities. Militants engage in kidnappings, piracy, poaching elephants in national parks and extorting civilians. But money also flows to Al-Shabab by more subtle paths. Its members have set up fake charity funds, supposedly collecting for the hungry, and the organization receives millions of dollars by trading charcoal with Arab businesses.

Despite being born as a national movement in the civil war, Al-Shabab is becoming increasingly international. In 2012, the Al-Shabab leadership announced that it had officially merged with Al-Qaeda and according to Western intelligence services, Al-Shabab has been recruiting foreigners for years. These jihadists are mainly drawn from poor areas in Kenya and the surrounding countries, but Americans and Europeans have been recruited as well. One of the most striking cases is that of the British Samantha Lewthwaite, also known as the White Widow. She was the spouse of one of the suicide bombers responsible for the 2005 attacks in London and has since joined Al-Shabab. She was named as one of the suspects in a grenade attack in Mombasa and she was even connected to the assault on the Westgate mall.

The attack in Nairobi has placed Al-Shabab in the spotlights all over the world, but they do not seem to mind about this attention at all. For an organization determined to impose traditional sharia law and to eradicate every bit of Western influence, Al-Shabab appears surprisingly modern, keeping its followers updated on twitter during the course of the Westgate attack. The Kenyan and the US governments have announced that they will hunt down those responsible for the attack, and the US already turned its words into actions in tonight’s raid. The question is what good it will do in a country ripped apart by famine, violence and poverty, where Al-Shabab still rules supreme in large areas and is more than willing to take the battle beyond Somalia’s borders.

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