Mohamed Ibrahim Suley’s defection from al-Shabab paints an interesting portrait of foreign fighters in Somalia. A foreign fighter shot Suley for stopping to help a wounded comrade. Here are some good excerpts:
“I defected from al-Shabab because I was deliberately shot by a foreigner,” the 29-year-old Mr. Suley told a reporter, pulling up his shirt to show bullet scars. “He shot me in the back, after I had defied his order to not help some of my friends.”
“On the advice of teachers at Mr. Suley’s religious school in the city of Kismayo, he and 39 other students joined an Islamist training camp in 2006. They learned to plant land mines and plan assassinations.”
“He would organize and lead to us to the fighting. Most of the time he was carrying a walkie-talkie,” Mr. Suley said, adding that al-Shabab fighters preferred walkie-talkies to mobile phones because they feared cell-phone conversations could be intercepted.”
I hope this story grows in detail. Many have touted that AQ Central is directing Shabab through foreign fighters. After this article, I continue to remain skeptical. I also believe that foreign fighters may ultimately be Shabab’s undoing for several reasons.
- Shabab’s foreign fighters are elitist- Dr. Bruce Hoffman noted in Inside Terrorism that terrorist groups often lose popular support due to their elitist nature. I imagine Suley is one of many Shabab foot soldiers that’s had enough of these outsiders.
- Foreign fighter leaders often have less experience than those being led- Somali’s have been fighting for decades. Many of these foreign fighters, especially the Americans, are really ‘green’. No one likes having an authoritative boss with inferior experience. Some Somali clan members will likely rebel. The Harmony documents hinted at this but lacked sufficient clarity. In the future, I’ll be looking for more detail on disgruntled clan members. This will be key to undermining AQ’s influence.
- Shabab foreign fighters aren’t core AQ members- Despite AQ Central calling for a Somali jihad in 2007, relatively few flocked to Shabab in comparison to conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Those that did join appear to be from a spattering of HOA countries, Scandinavia, the U.S., and just a few from the Gulf and North Africa. All strong AQ foreign fighter movements usually have a solid Arab cadre signaling the presence of AQ strategic direction, financial and military resources, and operational counsel. I don’t sense the presence of more than a couple core AQ members.
- Near versus Far Enemy- Foreign fighters tend to be inspired by ideology and focused on the far enemy. Shabab’s Somali soldiers likely lean towards survival through the defeat of near enemies. Dynamics of divergent focus hampered AQ during the 90′s and will likely recur in this new Somali foreign fighter chapter.