Despite the establishment of a new government in what was for twenty years a stateless, war-ravaged Somalia, peace in the country and increasingly more so for the whole region of the Horn and East Africa is still fragile. On April 14th 2013, 29 civilians were killed by an al-Shabaab suicide bomb attack followed by shootings at the Benadir Court Complex in Mogadishu, as well as 5 more people who died after the detonation of a car bomb outside the airport. The acts were named as acts of terrorism and desperation by the new president, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, sworn in in August 2012, implying that the anti-government militia group is on the verge of being annihilated and therefore reacts with a ‘last-stand’ act against the government. The al-Shabaab has – in theory – been defeated, at least in the major towns. Yet, the actual events of April 14th signify that the militia group is very much powerful and still present in the country. This attack at the very heart of the capital is the deadliest since the al-Shabaab were driven out of Mogadishu and other important towns in 2012 by the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) in collaboration with the Ethiopian forces and their allied armies. Therefore security in Somalia still remains fragile.
Investigations by legal bodies, international monitoring and human rights groups highlight that the newly-formed government army, essentially made up of former militiamen, remains largely clan-based with allegiances to various warlords still exerting influence despite their EU training. What is more, the army’s soldiers are poorly-paid with wages coming from the European Union, and have been repeatedly accused by rights groups to have abused their power and discriminated against marginalized, vulnerable populations (especially the displaced that came to Mogadishu following the famine in 2011-2012) by use of sexual, physical and other forms of violence.
Although the country has in fact made great steps in stripping away its “failed-state” label since last year, critics fear that the situation in Somalia is still worrying mostly because it threatens to destabilize neighboring Kenya and the already widely unstable Sudan and Yemen or even far-flung Mali, to which fragments of Somali Islamist militias are believed to be currently dispersed and seething.
The arms issue is another looming problem for the region. The Somali government has requested that the UN lifts its arms embargo, in place since 1991 (when the civil war broke out). The Security Council agreed to partially lift the embargo for a year, in March 2013, in order for the Somali army to equip itself against the al-Shabaab. Yet, with the army still being a nebulous institution, most probably still infiltrated by clan allegiances and warlord-based tactics, the arms embargo is, according to many analysts, an indifferent or perhaps even dangerous move. David Shinn, former US ambassador to Ethiopia and current professor of International Affairs at George Washington University, believes that lifting the arms embargo will not really make a difference because an excess of arms is already overflowing the region. Pockets of resistance - and very well equipped ones - still operate at the southern and coastal borders of Somalia, and towards the north in Somaliland and Puntland, fuelled with arms from Yemen and, as has lately been advocated, Iran. Arms have been proven of leaving Yemeni ports towards al-Shabaab strongholds in northern Somalia, caught by US-led investigations, that the Sana’a government says were sent by Iran.Although this fact has raised a storm in the international media as well as intensified the fears of the US, Peter Kagwanja, Director of the Africa Policy Institute, points his finger to a troubling, and very true, fact:
"Somalia is a country caught between a transition from a war economy, dominated by warlords and other criminal networks, and a peace economy which is now beginning to evolve around the new government in Mogadishu. So what you see is not a coordinated process of exporting arms to Somalia, it is basically a way of networks of Somali warlords finding sources of arms and this is where Iran becomes one of the major sources. Iran is facing global sanctions and it naturally looks for whichever way is available to make a dollar or two in order to keep its economy soaring ... It's a natural trend by countries facing embargos or sanctions."
Through this statement, the irony is very well apparent: The US is trying to safeguard western interests and keep Islamic fundamentalism away in East Africa, while at the same time fuels a burgeoning radical Islam via its steadfast economic wars on Iran, its support for Ethiopia and its connection to Israel. It could be therefore said that Africa, the Horn (and the Sahel) especially, is once more becoming a stage in the new version of the Cold War. Only, this time, the Soviet Union has allegedly been replaced by radical Islam. The western-backed policies of the United Nations in East Africa and the French-led operations in Mali, added with the steady counterattacks by Islamist militias against the western-led interests in the region have ultimately exacerbated the instability in the Horn of Africa to a point where little or nothing can be done to ensure complete stability not only in Somalia, or Sudan, or Mali, or the Horn; but Islamic Africa as a whole.
Africa is a prosperous ground for such confluence of chaos, since some parts of the continent (Somalia contemporaneously being the first among them) have been left twisting in the vertigo of postcolonial tribal politics, ethnic divisions, and historical wounds. In Somalia particularly (as was the case for Ethiopia, and Eritrea) today’s war-economy is directly linked to the remnants of the Cold War period, when the country became a proxy, interchanging between the Soviet and American sides. Now, developments between Sudan and South Sudan also affect the whole of the East African region, as has the Libyan war and the Arab Spring (through the renewed and widespread dispersal of arms), as well as the (longstanding) Yemeni influence in Somalia. The recent conflict in the Sahel has also been one the latest additions to what can no longer be called a ‘Horn problem’, but a general, looser, Islamic African problem, spreading to East Africa, too. Foreign mingling in the Horn of Africa has never seceded, as the region has been and will continue to be an area of great geostrategic importance due to its significant position connecting the Arabian Peninsula to North and East Africa, and due to the possibility of standing on untapped oil, mineral and natural gas reserves.
But how did Islamic fundamentalism prosper in East Africa? During the 1990s Somalia was judged to be a key entry point for Islamic militants into East Africa, and the apparent growth in Islamic militancy in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda is attributable to this continuous immigration flow. Each of these countries in East Africa has seen widespread political repression, economic crises, rapid change and urbanization, and has experienced extensive economic, social and political problems. Therefore the populations are largely dissatisfied and disillusioned. According to Ted Dagne, an American analyst, al-Qaeda was able to exploit the circumstances of widespread poverty, ethnic and religious antagonism and conflict, poorly patrolled borders, and often corrupt and inefficient government officials to create a regional 'terror centre' in East Africa. He adds that “from 1991, when Osama bin Laden was based in Sudan, al- Qaeda has been building a network of Islamist groups in both the Horn of Africa (Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia) and East Africa (Kenya,Tanzania and Uganda)”. Further, there are suggestions and some evidence that some transnational and local Islamic NGOs abet the growth of Islamic militancy in the sub-region. They pursue this goal by blurring distinctions between social, economic, political and religious functions and goals in directions that are commensurate with the objectives of the militants.
Islamic fundamentalism arose in Somalia in the 1990s with the formation of al Itihad al Islamiya, a group of several Islamist units operating throughout the country and which held as their ultimate goal to unite the whole of the Horn (Ethiopia, Djibouti, Eritrea, Somalia) under one Islamic State. They embarked on a mission to reclaim Ogaden (the Somali region in Ethiopia) and succeeded in seeing through a number small-scale operations in Addis Ababa as well, before being pushed back by the Ethiopian army. Then came the rise of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) which was a different entity yet blended into the ideology of al Itihad al Islamiya, which introduced Sharia Law and loosely governed the country until 2006, when AMISOM entered the country and installed the Transitional Federal Government (TFG). Following their defeat in Mogadishu, the ICU splintered into several smaller factions, of which the most prominent is the al-Shabaab, whose members regrouped to continue fighting the TFG, Ethiopian, and Western presence in Somalia.
Today, the al-Shabaab are thought to have been dispersed and rendered more powerless since they were driven out of the capital as well as the port of Kismayo and other key towns. Sources in the media claim that the al-Shabaab are found in a crisis situation and a letter, sent to Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda’s leader, on April 12th 2013, by a member of the al-Shabaab is circulating on the internet is a cry for help. It reads, among others “we are walking in a dark tunnel, and don’t know what is hiding for us in it” and “the jihadi spirit has receded and the motives for creation and production have been destroyed”. No mentions or comments have been made on this letter by the al-Shabaab on their twitter account, as an article mentions, and even though the group is certainly facing difficulties since they have lost their urban strongholds, the credibility of the publication is obscure and the recent attack on Mogadishu obviously questions their total loss of power.
In conclusion, Somalia may have succeeded into ending a 21-year-long civil war, but it remains the problematic locus for the whole of East Africa. Yet, as Terje Østebø points out, the gains made by Islamic militant groups are neither due to their military superiority nor their successful guerilla tactics alone. Islamic extremists succeeded in filling the vacuum left by the absence of effective government control. Radical Islamic groups took the chance to provide education, health, protection, welfare, justice, employment and other services to a large number of disadvantaged populations throughout the past two decades (and even before the ousting of the Siad Barre government in 1991). Since the culture of relying on autonomous power groups and warring clans is deeply rooted in Somali history, preceding colonialism, asserting that a newly-formed government today will successfully unite all factions of a broken society with insignificant funding from external sources is, at best, a far-fetched illusion.
 Al Jazeera, Inside Story, “Somalia’s Peace Running on Empty?” 16/04/2012 http://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/insidestory/2013/04/201341671734679286.html
 Human Rights Watch, “World Report”, Accessed 16/04/2013 http://www.hrw.org/world-report/2013/country-chapters/somalia
 Al Jazeera, Inside Story, “Somalia: Arms Race vs Arms Embargo?” 12/02/2013 http://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/insidestory/2013/02/2013212732567777.html
 Haynes, Jeffrey, ‘Islamic Militancy in East Africa’, Third World Quarterly, Vol. 26, No. 8 (2005), pp. 1321-1339 http://www.jstor.org/stable/4017717
 Ahmed, Majid, ‘Open Letter to al-Zawahiri rocks foundations of al-Shabaab’, 12/04/2013, Accessed 17/04/2013 http://sabahionline.com/en_GB/articles/hoa/articles/features/2013/04/12/feature-01
 Østebø, Terje, ‘Islamic Militancy in Africa’, Africa Security Brief No. 23, November 2012, http://africacenter.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/AfricaBriefFinal_23.pdf
 Sii’areg, A. Duale, ‘The Birth and Rise of Al-Ittihad Al-Islami in the Somali Inhabited Regions in the Horn of Africa’, 15/11/2005, http://wardheernews.com/articles/November/13__Alittihad_Sii'arag.html
Ahmed, Majid, ‘Open Letter to al-Zawahiri rocks foundations of al-Shabaab’, 12/04/2013, Accessed 17/04/2013 http://sabahionline.com/en_GB/articles/hoa/articles/features/2013/04/12/feature-01
AMISOM, ‘Brief History of AMISOM’, Accessed 16/04/2013 http://amisom-au.org/about-somalia/brief-history/
Human Rights Watch, “World Report”, Accessed 16/04/2013 http://www.hrw.org/world-report/2013/country-chapters/somalia
Østebø, Terje, ‘Islamic Militancy in Africa’, Africa Security Brief No. 23, 11/2012, Accessed 17/04/2013, http://africacenter.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/AfricaBriefFinal_23.pdf
Sii’areg, A. Duale, ‘The Birth and Rise of Al-Ittihad Al-Islami in the Somali Inhabited Regions in the Horn of Africa’, 15/11/2005, Accessed 17/04/2013 http://wardheernews.com/articles/November/13__Alittihad_Sii'arag.html
West, Sunguta, ‘Somalia's ICU and its Roots in al-Ittihad al-Islami’, Terrorism Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 15, The Jamestown Foundation, 04/08/2006, Accessed 17/04/2013, http://www.jamestown.org/single/?no_cache=1&tx_ttnews%5Btt_news%5D=854