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These days the Shabab, the hardline Islamic group battling for control of Somalia, are not only losing territory on the battlefront but are apparently losing part of their trademark: the fear and intimidation. You know things are not going well for a terrorist organisation when it can no longer intimidate people as it used to.
Earlier this month, the Shabab ambushed a public van on the road between Mogadishu and Afgoi, which was carrying more than a dozen people including two Transitional Federal Government (TFG) soldiers. Witnesses told me that, “The Shabab could only see the two soldiers” and shot at the van like there was nobody else there. Almost everybody in the van was either killed or wounded.
While the Shabab do not seem to have an official policy of indiscriminately shooting at vehicles carrying few government soldiers among a crowd of civilians, the group’s guerrilla units nevertheless sometimes do just that.
This, among many other questionable and violent tactics, has negatively affected the group’s popularity among the Somali people, especially those living outside the areas under its control. This has in turn emboldened some people to condemn the group in public gatherings.
Just a year ago when the Shabab withdrew from their fixed positions in Mogadishu, few people would dare talk about the group negatively in public.
Not only are the Shabab appropriately condemned for things they have done, but it seems now that even false stories about the group’s operations are openly propagated by rumour mongers. Some of the stories are so incredible that I was surprised people would believe them. However, given the things the Shabab have been doing in recent months, people kind of expected anything from them making even false stories believable.
One of these far-fetched stories is the one about the Shabab finishing-off their wounded fighters, which was taken as fact by anyone who would listen. The story further claimed that since the Shabab fighters “have been programmed” to die or win, they don’t care for their wounded and instead finish them off and leave them at the battlefield.
This is simply false. The Shabab have both public and secret hospitals in their areas of control; the more important members are cared for in the secret hospitals. Besides, they would get few willing fighters if the group had a policy of finishing off fighters.
The most interesting Shabab story that is 'mostly true' is that its fighters are very loyal no matter the difficulties faced by the group or its individual members – this, say the propagators of the more negative stories, explains why the group is not having a serious drain of members.
Two stories illustrate the loyalty of individual Shabab fighters:
One is about a 16-year old kid in my area of Mogadishu who had been tricked by his mom into coming home for a visit. She promptly tied him to a pole at her house, and tried to convince the boy to change his mind about his loyalty to the Shabab.
However, the boy was said to bite his lips when he heard of any mention of the TFG, and loudly wish that he would be untied “only once” so he could go and kill some government members.
His mother then turned him over to his enemies “for rehabilitation”. Good luck with that (to be released, he shall have to renounce the Shabab).
Another story is about a fighter from Beledweyne in Hiran, central Somalia, who had been wounded in Mogadishu in 2010. The Shabab are said to have refused him visits from his mother (maybe because he was in a secret hospital), and eventually had to amputate one of his hands. Nonetheless, despite “mistreating his mother and not saving his hand”, he is still loyal to the Shabab.
While some argue the boys are fueled by a 'drug' addition, the truth is that an equally powerful, addictive force keeps them hooked to the group and what it has to offer them: an ideology that glorifies sacrifice, pain, death, and promises rewards in this life and the hereafter the more one sacrifices.
Of course, not all in the Shabab subscribe to this ideology as many have successfully defected or surrendered.
It is this kind of loyalty and dedication to the Shabab by many of its members that Somalia’s other administrations such as the TFG should maybe try to imitate and be loyal to the nation.
Hoping for loyalty to the nation by the TFG officials is hoping for way too much: even the National Security Agency – the agency that is supposed to lead counter terrorism in Somalia – is a victim of embezzlement and fraud.
According to the leaked UN SEMG July 2012 report the then-head of the agency, General Mohamed Sheikh, had wanted a “share” of funds meant for the agency. He claimed he only got US$10,000 (of 3 million donated by the Omanis as security assistance).
The same report goes on to explain that the US$3 million donated by the Omanis were shared among President Sheikh Sharif, Parliament Speaker Sharif Hassan, and then-Prime Minister Omar Abdirashid.
In a government where the top officials only think of ways of stealing public funds and international donations even before they reach the national coffers, diverting them instead into their own personal accounts, one can only dream that there will be loyal government soldiers. I don’t think anybody would want to die in the name of corruption.
With elections coming supposedly in less than a month, the top thieves may try to buy their way into government by bribing the couple of hundred people who shall vote for the next president. They should therefore not only have their assets frozen, but be barred from running for office. Only then can we hope to have a new group of leaders who may not be as shameless and unpatriotic as these are. Until then, we can lie to ourselves that the Shabab misfortunes on the battlefield and the Somali street will lead to their defeat.
The sad truth: even if the Shabab were extinct today, Somalia would be held back not by pirates or feuding clans, but by corrupt politicians whose conscience – or lack thereof – allows them to steal from one of the poorest governments in the world.
These people could never honestly run a chicken farm, let alone a country. If the international community is really interested in stabilising Somalia, the corrupt Somali leaders – and the corrupt NGO heads too – should be severely prosecuted for their fraud and embezzlement.
Mubarak is a Somalia Report weekly columnist. You can follow Mubarak on Twitter at @somalianalyst.