Heart-wrenching images of emaciated and dying children in Somalia have brought the country back to the world's attention. The difficulty in delivering food to the needy because of the opposition of the Islamist Somali insurgents has also put a spotlight on Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahideen. Famine or not, al-Shabab's "jihad" continues.
Even before the United Nations declared famine in parts of the country, suicide attacks by al-Shabab on an African Union post in the Somali capital of Mogadishu drew world attention to the role of Somali diaspora in the insurgency. Of the two suicide bombers dispatched by the Somali Islamist-insurgent movement Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahideen, or Movement of the Warrior-Youth, one was 27-year-old Somali-American Farah Mohamed Beledi, killed before he could set off his device. In July, Omer Abdi Mohamed of Minnesota pleaded guilty to charges that he had facilitated the travel of young Somali-American men to Somalia to join the insurgent movement.
Now the famine may have given al-Shabab new opportunities. The insurgent movement has its own emergency drought-relief committee, currently headed by Hussein ‘Ali Fiidow, formerly an official in al-Shabab's governing administration in the district of Banaadir, where Mogadishu is located. This committee organized modest relief programs that included collection of food, water and medical supplies as well as refugee camps. Senior al-Shabab leaders, including Hasan Dahir Aweys, recently visited one of these camps in the Lower Shabelle district.
Despite these efforts, the massive scale of the famine has proved to be too much for the insurgent movement to deal with alone, leading al-Shabab leaders to state publicly that they would allow international humanitarian aid organizations to operate in territory under its control. However, some organizations, including the World Food Program, previously barred from distributing aid because they were allegedly disrupting sales by Somali farmers in 2006, remain banned.
Since its rise to public prominence following the US-supported December 2006 invasion of Somalia by Ethiopia, al-Shabab has sought foreign recruits to bolster its military strength. It emerged as the main insurgent group fighting Ethiopian military occupation of Mogadishu and other parts of Somalia.
Al-Shabab has aggressively recruited in Somali diaspora communities in Europe, North America, East Africa and the Middle East, estimated to be 1.5 million. Estimates suggest that al-Shabab has attracted around 1,000 recruits from the diaspora and several hundred non-Somali Muslim recruits. A controversial Homeland Security congressional hearing convened by US Representative Peter King produced a report that claims 40 Americans, most of Somali descent, have joined the movement.
It's difficult to draw a single general profile for al-Shabab recruits. A number of Somali-American recruits, including Beledi, came from single-parent households, leading lives of petty crime. Others, such as Abdisalan Hussein Ali, were enrolled in college before joining. Many of the Minneapolis recruits, including Beledi and Shirwa Ahmed, a Somali-American who carried out a 2008 suicide bombing in Somaliland, attended the city's Abubakar as-Saddique Mosque.
The lion's share of attention from Western media and law-enforcement agencies has focused on al-Shabab's ability to attract scores of men from Somali immigrant families in the United States, Canada and Western European. Evidence suggests, however, that the movement views East African recruitment a priority. There are several reasons for this: The largest Somali communities reside near East Africa, along the Kenyan-Somali border in places such as the Eastleigh district of the Kenyan capital of Nairobi. Travel logistics for regional recruits are simpler. Somali refugees in East Africa also endure economic hardships in countries such as Kenya, making them more susceptible to recruitment. Regional recruits typically require less time to adjust to the battlefront than those coming from Europe or North America. Finally, al-Shabab maintains a well-established support network throughout East Africa, useful for fundraising and potential refuge during battlefield setbacks.