Key Takeaway: Al-Shabaab’s promotion of charitable activities and normalcy in its territories contrasts intentionally with the violence it brings to bear elsewhere. Though it may not have a “monopoly on violence,” it portrays itself as a majority stakeholder in military power and reliable service delivery in the country.
Separately through its Twitter account, the group justified increasing its military campaign during a period generally characterized by fasting and reflection by stating “what better way to observe Ramadan and offer gratitude to Allah than striking the necks of the invaders and destroying their might!”
Since the beginning of Ramadan, al-Shabaab has continued its spate of attacks across the country–which is not a surprise. Its 12 July 2013 attack on an AMISOM convoy–which killed several civilians and destroyed nearby storefronts–occurred near the area of the recent UNDP compound attack and may portend upcoming attacks in the area close to the international airport.
This area is subject to high-traffic of international diplomats and Somali government officials. An increase in attacks in this vicinity could yield al-Shabaab the prominent assassination it seeks to continue bolstering its reputation as a relevant force in the capital and a “premier” group among jihadis across the globe. (Note: Al-Shabaab’s Twitter account claimed without any confirming evidence that a CIA official was injured in the recent AMISOM convoy attack–making the claim likely more propaganda than truth.)
With Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys having surrendered and reportedly seeking exile in Qatar, Sheikh Mukhtar Robow and Omar Hammami on the run, and senior figures like Ibrahim al-Afghani killed in action by other al-Shabaab militants, the group enters Ramadan at a turning point. But as discussed previously, these divisions have not affected the group’s scope of operations.
Amid the likely competition between al-Shabaab factions over support from local communities, forces loyal to top leader Ahmed Abdi Godane continue efforts to “win hearts and minds.” In photos published online, al-Shabaab can be seen giving cash handouts to poor families in Galhareeri (Galgaduud region)–with children serving as the recipient to optimize perceptions of the group’s charity.
In the Lower Shabelle town of Qoryooley, al-Shabaab’s dawa activities involved handing out sacks of food to the community.
Other photos of Qoryooley showed ongoing construction, social services, and steady life. The intent perhaps is to highlight the apparent normalcy of the town in contrast with the alternating pivot of recovery and instability in Mogadishu (of which al-Shabaab is a major but not sole contributor.)
Relatedly, Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud appealed to businesses before Ramadan to lower food prices, but many families in Mogadishu are “feeling the pinch” as they buy goods to break their fast.
Al-Shabaab’s own efforts to show its concerns for the poor doesn’t negate its continued responsibility for civilian casualties or undercut the relevance of internal divisions.
It does, however, highlight one of the group’s dimensions that makes it resilient in a context in which there is rhetorical and violent competition over who should provide services and retain power in the country. At the end of the day, actions–both violent and charitable–speak louder than words.
*Contributed reporting by Daniel Oliver-Smith (@Dosethos)