Despite its short existence, Al-Shabaab has a relatively complex history. HIS Jane’s World Insurgency and Terrorism database shows Al-Shabaab was originally founded in 2002 by several radical Islamic fundamentalists who fled Afghanistan. At its origin, the group functioned as a militia group under the directive of The Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) which at the time was vying for control of Mogadishu from other warlords present in the region.
However according to IHS Jane’s, in late 2006 Ethiopia staged a military intervention in Somalia installing a new pro-Ethiopian Transitional Federal Government (TFG). Ethiopia’s occupation all but destroyed the UIC while leaving Al-Shabaab weak and isolated from its parent organization. Instead of withering away, however, Al-Shabaab declared itself an independent group from the now heavily secularized, exiled UIC and presented itself to the population of Somalia as the vanguard of traditional Islamic values against the secular TFG.
Furthermore, the withdrawal of Ethiopian troops in 2008 allowed Al-Shabaab to consolidate its power and begin a ruthless campaign of ‘purifying’ Somalian society, which according to The Council on Foreign Relations, was done by imposing strict Sharia law on the citizenry of Somalia.
Ideologically, Al-Shabaab falls under the Sunni branch of Islam and adheres to Salafist doctrine. The group’s ideology therefore consists of two overarching goals as outlined by IHS Jane’s. First, Al-Shabaab strives for the liberation of all Muslim lands from non-Muslim occupation. Second, Al-Shabaab believes Muslim society requires purification. This is to say that the group rejects all notions of religious innovation and seeks to return Muslim society to a perceived golden age modeled after the first three generations following the death of Muhammad.
Al-Shabaab’s ideology represents a warped interpretation of Islam. The group uses the so-called liberation of Muslim lands as an excuse to conduct attacks against civilians within other countries in the region such as Kenya and Uganda (these include the 2010 terror attack in Kampala Uganda and the 2013 Westgate Mall crisis in Nairobi Kenya). Meanwhile, locally within Somalia innocents are left with the consequences of Al-Shabaab’s ‘purification process’. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, Al-Shabaab prohibits various ‘un-Islamic’ activities including selling or watching different movies or music, shaving, drinking alcohol and smoking. Worse than the inherent limitation of liberty is the punishments that follow partaking in the for-mentioned activities which can include amputation, stoning and beheadings.
From a Canadian perspective, these bloody and terrible actions committed across the world at first appear to be a depressing headline on the evening news and nothing more. However, Al-Shabaab’s actions do have real consequences for Canada and its citizens.
Take for example the sophisticated and devastating attack on a Mogadishu Courthouse in April of 2013. According to Stratfor Global Intelligence, two car bombs and nine suicide bombers armed with rifles assaulted the courthouse killing thirty five government officials, security personal, African Union peacekeepers and innocent civilians.
According to Michelle Shepherd, National Security Reporter writing in the Toronto Star, the organizer of the attack was a Canadian citizen of Somalian background who was radicalized and recruited by Al-Shabaab. His name was Mahad Ali Dhore and he grew up in a suburban neighbourhood near Toronto. A university student at the time, Mahad left Canada in 2009 to pursue violence with Al-Shabaab in Somalia. The multinational team who carried out the attack was also believed to have a second Canadian in its ranks, although unconfirmed.
This of course is not the first time Canadian citizens have participated in foreign terror activities. In the same year as the Mogadishu courthouse attack several Canadians were involved in the Algeria Gas plant crisis. More recently, a Canadian has been identified as part of ISIS, publicly burning his passport and threatening Canada in a video featured on the CBC website.
While an objectively negative situation, it can be argued that it is marginally beneficial to Canada for our extremists to go off and fight and die in far off battlefields. Is this situation not ideal, opposed to them staying in Canada?
The Canadian Security and Intelligence Service (CSIS) does not agree. According to an Environmental Threat Report published by the organization on the topic of Al-Shabaab, the phenomenon of Canadian extremists fighting in foreign terror groups is harmful to Canada despite geographical distance.
According to the report, CSIS warns of two negative consequences associated with the exportation of Canadian extremists. First is the negative message associated with a terror exporting country. CSIS argues that a country cannot unwittingly export terrorism without suffering damage to its international reputation. Moreover, Canada has a legal obligation in promoting global security to assure our own citizens are not committing acts of terror, whether they be at home or abroad.
Second is the possibility that Canadian extremists will return to Canada. CSIS fears individuals who go off to conduct acts of terror may be highly motivated with new found skills and contacts upon their return to Canada. These battle-hardened individuals then could both radicalize their fellow citizens and conduct the same acts of terror on Canadian soil as they did elsewhere.
Speculation aside, it is clear regarding Al-Shabaab’s history and their connection with Canadians that a continuation of the current situation is not palatable to anyone. It should simply not be acceptable to Canadians for a country such as ours to be exporting violence and extremism around the world. Yes, Canada is a safe place when compared to the violence we see in the world around us. However, our borders are not impenetrable and we must stay mindful of groups like Al-Shabaab along with the violent legacy that follows them.