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Inside Al-Shabaab: The Secret History of Al-Qaeda's Most Powerful Ally

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One of the most powerful Islamic militant groups in Africa, Al-Shabaab exerts Taliban-like rule over millions in Somalia and poses a growing threat to stability in the Horn of Africa. Somalis risk retaliation or death if they oppose or fail to comply with Al-Shabaab-imposed restrictions on aspects of everyday life such as clothing, media, sports, interpersonal relations, and prayer. Inside Al-Shabaab: The Secret History of Al-Qaeda's Most Powerful Ally recounts the rise, fall, and resurgence of this overlooked terrorist organization and provides an intimate understanding of its connections with Al-Qaeda. Drawing from interviews with former Al-Shabaab militants, including high-ranking officials, military commanders, police, and foot soldiers, authors Harun Maruf and Dan Joseph reveal the motivations of those who commit their lives to the group and its violent jihadist agenda. A wealth of sources including US diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks, letters taken from the Pakistani hideout of Osama bin Laden, case files from the prosecution of American Al-Shabaab members, emails from Hillary Clinton's tenure as secretary of state, and Al-Shabaab's own statements and recruiting videos inform Maruf and Joseph's investigation of the United States' campaign against Al-Shabaab and how the 2006 US-backed Ethiopian invasion of Somalia gave the group the popular support it needed to radicalize ordinary citizens and become a powerful movement.

The audio book is narrated by Nicholas Smith. Produced by Speechki in 2021.

ISBN-13: 9780253037497

Media Type: Paperback

Publisher: Indiana University Press

Publication Date: 10-01-2018

Pages: 344

Product Dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.00(d)

Age Range: 18 Years

Harun Maruf is Senior Editor in Voice of Americas Somali Service who has been covering Somalia and its struggles with war, terrorism, piracy, and drought since the early 1990s. With more than 100,000 followers, Maruf is the most followed Somali journalist on Twitter and a primary source of news to many people in the Horn of Africa. Prior to joining VOA, Maruf worked as a reporter for the BBC and Associated Press in Somalia and as a researcher for Human Rights Watch. Dan Joseph is an editor in Voice of America's central newsroom and has headed up its Africa desk since December 2005.

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The Somali capital was once a jewel. In the 1970s especially, Mogadishu boasted a mix of culture, history, and beauty to outshine almost any city in Africa. Artifacts of Italian rule, such as the majestic Mogadishu Cathedral, stood near monuments to Somali pride, such as the 770-year-old Arab'a Rukun Mosque. Wide, tree-lined boulevards ran by thousand-year-old neighborhoods with streets so narrow that two people couldn't walk side by side. Women in short skirts and men in blue jeans shared the sidewalks with religious Muslims wearing hijabs and khamis. The overall vibe was relaxed and cosmopolitan, and tourists from across East Africa came to enjoy the cafés, hotels, and, above all, the beaches and warm, pure-blue ocean waters. The crowning touch was the paint job — many buildings had been whitewashed, giving the city's blend of Italian and Arab architecture a look of cool, coastal elegance. Even before Somalia won independence in 1960, Mogadishu earned a nickname that a few decades later would sound preposterous, but was 100 percent fitting at the time — the Pearl of the Indian Ocean.

Pearls don't form overnight. The map of modern-day Somalia was dotted with port towns from ancient times, including Sarapion, a forerunner of Mogadishu mentioned in Ptolemy's atlas circa AD 150. The future Somali capital emerged as a trading hub where merchants from East Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, Persia, and even distant Asia converged. The Persian influence was especially strong — the name Mogadishu derives from the Persian Maq'adishah, or "Seat of the Shah." Starting around 1100, the city experienced a golden age lasting hundreds of years. In 1331, traveler Ibn Battuta described it as a "very big town" with wealthy merchants, lots of camels and sheep, and a locally made fabric that was exported to Egypt. When explorer Vasco da Gama sailed by in 1499, a diarist noted that the city had buildings up to five stories high and numerous mosques topped with minarets. Another traveler, Duarte Barbosa, who visited in 1518, made Mogadishu sound like a giant horn of plenty. "Ships come there from the kingdom of Cambay [India] and from Aden [Yemen] with stuffs of all kinds, and spices," he wrote. "And they carry away from there much gold, ivory, beeswax and other things upon which they make a profit. In this town there is much meat, wheat, barley and horses, and much fruit; it is a very rich place."

There was, perhaps inevitably, a long, slow decline, but in the mid-twentieth century, Mogadishu enjoyed a second golden age of sorts. Like the rest of Africa, Somalia had been overtaken by European powers: Italy seized control of lands along the Indian Ocean coast, while Britain took most of the northern lands along the Gulf of Aden. Both countries forcibly suppressed self-rule movements, most notably the Dervish state that lasted for some two decades in the interior. But while Britain left its territory poor and undeveloped, the Italians, starting in the mid-1920s, began to modernize urban areas, constructing roads, railroads, and factories and giving Mogadishu — or Mogadiscio, as they called it — a grid-like street plan, an airport, and a modern seaport. They also decorated the capital with elegant gardens, villas, hotels, and administrative buildings, the most famous being Villa Somalia, a spacious art deco residence for the local governor, built on high ground that offered a spectacular view of the ocean. Years later, the residence would be turned into Somalia's presidential palace.

The Italians' misadventures during World War II resulted in British forces seizing all their African territories. The developments worked out well for Somalia on two levels. First, the Italians' tendency to retreat and surrender spared Mogadishu and other Somali cities from real damage. Second, the postwar creation of a United Nations trusteeship administered by Italy paved the way for independence and prevented the type of bloody liberation war that scarred Kenya and other African countries. Fueled by UN development aid, the 1950–60 trusteeship period saw steady economic gains, declines in poverty and malnutrition, and a smooth transfer of power to Somali politicians. Corruption was a major problem from the start, but development and stability continued in the early years of independence as Somali voters ratified a constitution and the government proved able to keep the country safe and orderly. When President Aden Abdulle Osman — "Aden Adde" — lost the 1967 election, he relinquished his post to the victor, Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke. It was the first time an African head of state had voluntarily given up power to a democratically elected successor.

The United States respected the new Somali state and tried to keep it in the Western camp during the Cold War. In March 1968, President Lyndon Johnson held a state dinner for visiting Prime Minister Mohamed Ibrahim Egal and toasted both visitor and country: "You have helped to found a true democracy, where each man has a voice in his nation's future."

Eighteen months later the democracy died, after President Sharmarke was shot and killed by one of his guards during a visit to the northern town of Los Anod. When parliament proved unable to choose a successor, army officers led by Major General Mohamed Siad Barre seized power. In a matter of months, Somalia became a military dictatorship with ties to the Soviet Union, nationalized banks, cooperative farming, and no democratic institutions.

Siad Barre — a man with a deep voice, outsized ego, and Hitler-style mustache — was able to win genuine popularity at first with successful campaigns to improve literacy and replace Italian with Somali as the country's national language. The army grew stronger, courtesy of Soviet tanks and advisers. Mogadishu was kept safe, clean, and growing, and the government showcased the capital when it hosted the summit of the Organization of African Unity — later known as the African Union (AU) — in July 1974. Future African presidents who attended the summit, such as South Africa's Thabo Mbeki, would look back fondly on that event. "This was the first and last time I visited Mogadishu," Mbeki wrote. "For many years afterward, Mogadishu and Somalia remained in our memories as African places of hope for us, a reliable rear base for the total liberation of Africa."

Siad Barre's mix of nationalism and communism reached its popular peak in July 1977, when he acted on long-simmering dreams of a "Greater Somalia" and sent more than thirty-five thousand Somali troops into Ethiopia to take over the Ogaden region and its ethnic Somali majority. By November, the army controlled 90 percent of the territory. But the dream disintegrated when the Soviets, who enjoyed good relations with both Somalia and Ethiopia before the war, threw their full support to the latter. Ethiopian forces backed by Soviet weapons and thousands of Cuban troops drove out Somali forces in early 1978. It was a loss from which Siad Barre would never truly recover. A group of government and military officials tried to overthrow him that April. The plot was instantly quashed, and the general later had seventeen alleged ringleaders executed by firing squad. But a handful of officials who escaped to Ethiopia formed the first of several anti–Siad Barre insurgent groups who would grow in strength in the following years.

The 1980s saw Somalia in an odd kind of limbo. On the surface, things in Mogadishu appeared fine. Videos posted to YouTube a quarter-century later — in tribute or in memoriam — show people walking and driving around an almost immaculate city. Car traffic flows smoothly, markets are busy, buildings of all kinds look well-kept and freshly painted, and nary a gun nor soldier is in sight. Off-camera, however, the state was beginning to crumble as people grew angry with a sputtering economy, corrupt officials, and waves of killings and terror against communities believed to oppose Siad Barre. In one notorious incident, Siad Barre's elite Red Berets destroyed water reservoirs around the arid city of Galkayo; as a result, an estimated two thousand people died of thirst. Ethiopia sparked further unrest hosting rebel groups that battled the Somali army in the north and along the Somalia-Ethiopia border. The general clung to power but his grip grew weak, especially after a May 1986 car accident that confined him to bed for six months.

In May 1988, open warfare erupted when the insurgent group the Somali National Movement (SNM) seized control of the northern city of Hargeisa. Siad Barre's forces responded with weeks of aerial and artillery attacks that killed about five thousand people. The army retook the city, but Siad Barre's star had begun its final descent. By 1990, his government was fighting four different rebel groups — all secular — in various parts of the country and was losing ground to every one of them. The Red Berets developed itchy trigger fingers, killing forty-nine people following riots resulting from the assassination of the Roman Catholic bishop Salvatore Colombo on July 9. Demonstrations escalated and the government was accused of killing an estimated four hundred fifty more people eight days later when Muslim protesters demanded the release of jailed spiritual leaders. The US ambassador to Somalia, James Bishop, tried to encourage peace talks between the government and the rebel groups. At the same time, Bishop later recalled, he was preparing US embassy staff for the worst. "We conducted drills with increasing sophistication — e.g., mass casualty drills — so that the staff would be familiar with what it might have to do," he said.

Amid all the shooting, no one noticed that an entirely different kind of opponent to Siad Barre had slipped into the country and had begun building the foundation for a very different type of insurgency.

* * *

In January 1990, as unrest moved the country toward civil war, a young Somali man returned to his homeland after spending nearly nine years abroad. For much of that time, he had lived in Washington, DC, where he'd been an ice cream server, a waiter, a taxi driver, and, at times, an economics student at the University of the District of Columbia. But the man born as Ibrahim Jama Me'aad did not return home planning to work in any of those fields. He had taken an executive position that came with heavy responsibilities, frequent travel, sky-high goals, and no perks of any kind. The job also had no real title, though if pressed for a description, Ibrahim could say he was in sales. His product was jihad, or holy war; his supplier was an Afghanistan-based outfit, just over a year old, that called itself Al-Qaeda.

Ibrahim's main sales tool was a series of videotapes glorifying the mujahideen, the Islamist insurgents who had fought to expel the Soviet army from Afghanistan. Soviet forces that once numbered more than one hundred thousand had left Afghanistan just eight months before, after nearly a decade of trying to prop up a procommunist Afghan government. The tapes declared that the withdrawal was the result of mujahideen persistence and power, making little or no mention of the US funding and weapons that put the steel in their punch. Video clips focused on rifle-toting militants, draped in bullets and wearing Afghan pakol hats, launching assaults on airports and military bases. Other scenes showed the fighters in fierce battle with Soviet and Afghan government troops, with some using the shoulder-fired, US-supplied "Stinger" missiles renowned for shooting down enemy helicopters and planes. The VHS tapes were primitive compared with the slick, high-definition productions turned out by later radical Islamist groups like ISIS. But they effectively portrayed the war as the most heroic resistance a Muslim group had ever mounted against a modern power. Each time an 82- or 120-millimeter rocket was fired, voices off-screen exclaimed "Allahu Akbar!" — God is great.

Twenty years earlier, anti-Soviet propaganda like this would have been banned in Somalia. Now, with many Somalis still bitter at Moscow for having betrayed them during the Ogaden war, the tapes found a receptive audience. Supporters made hundreds of copies. Cinemas screened them. People bought them to watch in their homes. When someone shouted "Allahu Akbar!" in the video, those watching would often shout it back. And so in some small measure, the concept of jihad gained a foothold in Somalia.

Me'aad was no doubt highly pleased. He had fully committed himself to his new mission, going so far as to take on a new identity. He would be Ibrahim al-Afghani — Arabic for "Ibrahim the Afghan." Never mind that this "Afghan" was a native Somali, born in 1960 in the northern city of Hargeisa and raised in the same area, one of seven children (two boys and five girls) in a religious family. A childhood friend and schoolmate — who, like many associates of Al-Shabaab members, speaks on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal — says Me'aad/Afghani showed a passion for Islam at a young age. "As early as grade eight he studied Islamic culture and was able to pass the knowledge to his peers. His Islamic knowledge was far ahead of his peers," says the friend.

As a teenager attending Hargeisa's Farah Omaar High School, the future Afghani belonged to a group called Al-Wahdat al-Shabaab al-Islam, or Solidarity of Islamic Youth. The group promoted Salafism, the idea that Muslims must follow a purist interpretation of Sharia, or Islamic law. Al-Wahdat members believed that many Somalis were on the "wrong" side of the Quran and sunna, the way of life prescribed as normal through the teachings and practices of the prophet Muhammad, and they pushed for what they considered necessary changes to Somalia's laws and customs. However, the childhood friend does not describe the young Afghani as militant. Instead, he uses words such as friendly, ethical, modest, generous, and direct, as well as an "always concerned Muslim" and "hard to forget."

Me'aad/Afghani left Somalia for the United States in 1981, apparently lured by the desire to work and study in a foreign land. He settled outside Washington, DC, the only American city at that time that had a significant number of Somali natives. There, despite the US capital's mix of nationalities and cultures, his commitment to fundamentalist Islam deepened. A view into this period comes from Mahdi A. Mohamed, a.k.a. Jamal Guddoomiye, a fellow student from Somalia who met Afghani in 1984. Guddoomiye became Afghani's roommate in the Summerfield Apartments, a building in Silver Spring, Maryland, where a group of Salafist-minded Somalis had gathered, their rent subsidized by activist groups. "Twenty of us lived in the same area. Six of us lived in the same apartment, myself and Ibrahim included," Guddoomiye says.

The future Afghani had an I-20 student visa, he recalls, but seemed to spend the bulk of his time at the Islamic Center, in northwest Washington, one of the oldest and largest mosques on the US East Coast. "He liked religion very much. He was very emotional and used to cry [about it]. He was serious," Guddoomiye says. "There were academics who graduated from Georgetown and Howard Universities who were more knowledgeable [about Islam] than him, he could not take leadership [positions], but he was more ambitious. He was taking Islamic studies and lectures all the time. He was at the Islamic Center on Massachusetts Avenue twenty-four hours a day. His goal was to spread religion and follow it strictly in life [in terms of] personal features like clothing and beard and staying in mosques most of the time."

So stringent were the young Afghani's beliefs that he would almost never allow his photo to be taken. "I don't have a picture of him because we hated pictures, we believed pictures were haram [forbidden]. Unless government forced us and necessitates, we would not take pictures," says Guddoomiye. Indeed, no confirmed photos of Afghani have publicly surfaced to this day. His future aide in Al-Shabaab, Abu Ayan, says Afghani stood about 180 centimeters tall — about five feet, ten inches — with a "strong, well-built body, big legs, long nose, flat chest." He went bald as he grew older, but in Ayan's evaluation "he was a handsome man."

While he was in Washington, Afghani's interest in politics came to the fore. "Sometimes he would surprise us and visit anti–Siad Barre rallies organized by the Somali National Movement [SNM]," Guddoomiye says. "For us Siad Barre and SNM were the same — two non-believers — but Ibrahim would attend." More broadly, Guddoomiye says he and Afghani hated Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak, who was suppressing the Muslim Brotherhood movement, and "we disliked America. We believed it was creating all the troubles for Somalia."


Excerpted from "Inside Al-Shabaab"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Dan Joseph and Harun Maruf.
Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.


What People are Saying About This

JM Berger

Inside Al-Shabaab is the definitive history of the Somali militant group, rich with newly disclosed details about the group's genesis and its ties to al-Qaeda. It's a great introduction for those new to the topic, but it's also a landmark work and absolutely required reading for those who study and work to counter terrorism.


A compelling and deeply researched history of Al-Shabaab that lifts the veil on one of the world's most dangerous and resilient terrorist groups. Harun Maruf and Dan Joseph have drawn on their extensive experience reporting on Somalia and on interviews with key former figures in Al-Shabaab to produce one of the most important books ever written on jihadi militancy in Africa. This book is essential reading for everybody interested in Somalia and the evolution of global jihad.


Clinton Watts

For years I studied and assessed Al-Shabaab in Somalia, and Harun Maruf was my go-to source on the terror group and the Horn of Africa. This book reveals insights I've never seen during my 15 years in counterterrorism—an excellent work.

Paul Cruickshank

A compelling and deeply researched history of Al-Shabaab that lifts the veil on one of the world's most dangerous and resilient terrorist groups. Harun Maruf and Dan Joseph have drawn on their extensive experience reporting on Somalia and on interviews with key former figures in Al-Shabaab to produce one of the most important books ever written on jihadi militancy in Africa. This book is essential reading for everybody interested in Somalia and the evolution of global jihad.

Table of Contents

Part 1: Origins and Rise
1. Jihad Arrives in Somalia
2. The CIA, Warlords, and Ethiopia
3. "The Real Jihad Has Just Started"
4. Godane
5. American Al-Shabaab
6. Radical Organization

Part 2: The Battle for Mogadishu
8. "We Want Anyone"
9. Zenith and Stalemate
10. The Ramadan Offensive
11. Withdrawal

Part 3: On the Run
12. Divisions and Purge
13. The Road to Westgate
14. No Place to Hide

Part 4: Resurgence
15. Arresting the Decline
16. The ISIS Incursion
17. The Future of al-Shabab