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Somalia taking center stage at African Union summit

Somalia is once again dominating the agenda at the biannual summit of African leaders. Experts agree that the tactics need to change in Somalia in order for peace to return to the country.

AU soldier walking through the streets of Mogadishu

Experts say the last thing Somalia needs is more soldiers

On July 11, suicide bombers murdered more than 70 soccer fans gathered in the Ugandan capital Kampala on the evening of the World Cup final. Although the Somali Islamist group al-Shabaab - or "The Youth" - claimed responsibility for the attack, some experts doubt they would have been able to pull off such a professional job. Many observers believe that there is a strong foreign element holding sway within the group.

Abdi Samatar, a Somalia expert at the University of Minnesota in the United States, said he believes the attacks had to be the work of international jihadists within al-Shabaab.

A man wounded in a suicide bombing in Kampala lies on a stretcher with his leg bandaged

More than 70 people died when suicide bombers attacked a group watching the World Cup

"The foot soldiers, I think, were Somalis who were the donkeys that carried the bombs," Samatar said. "But the people who managed the affair, who made the connections, who made the bombs are the allies of al-Shabaab rather than al-Shabaab itself."

According to western security services, the group is made up of Afghanis, Pakistanis, Chechens and Somalis exiled in Great Britain and the US. Logistical help allegedly comes from neighboring Eritrea - an offence which led to the UN Security Council leveling sanctions against the country.

Rashi Abdi, Somalia expert with the International Crisis Group (ICG) who has been observing the internationalization of al-Shabaab from Kenya, said the organization is now largely a multinational terror group - a clone of al Qaeda.

"You have foreign jihadists recruited from all corners of the globe," Abdi said. "You have an agenda of global jihad. You have tactics, besides bombings, that are very similar to the ones used by the Taliban and al Qaeda."

Inter-group fighting

The US government has classified al-Shabeeb - which is also known as Hizbul Shabeeb, or "Youth Party" - as a terrorist organization. It was founded in 1998 as the militant arm of the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC), a collection of Sharia courts that joined forces to depose the transitional Somali government. The UIC controlled much of the southern part of the country until they were eventually pushed back into Mogadishu and ultimately quashed by Ethiopian troops in late 2006.

Their original raison d'être was to fight the "Christian" occupier and archenemy Ethiopia. But they've had to alter their stance a bit since the Ethiopians were replaced by an African Union force made up of Ugandans and Burundians. In February of this year, they made a formal declaration of their ties to al Qaeda, saying they wanted to "work together to set up a religious state in the Horn of Africa."

Captured Somali pirates

With the Somali government in shambles, the coastal waters have become rife with pirates

According to ICG's Abdi, that announcement ensured that the hardliners won the ideological fight between the at least four factions within al-Shabeeb. The main political division now is between jihadist nationalists - those people who waged the Islamic jihad in hopes of building an Islamic government in Somalia and dislodging the Ethiopian occupation - and another group which essentially believes in global jihad.

"This is the group that is basically allied to the foreign jihadi, the ones who have basically taken charge of the movement," Abdi explained.

Appropriate response

The dominance of the hardliners has been translated into extremely strict rules governing everyday life for the Somali Sunnis living within the group's sphere of influence. Those range from a ban on movie theaters, soccer and dancing to strict regulations on how men cut their beards and putting alleged adulteresses to death by stoning.

How, then, should the international community, including the heads of Somalia's neighboring states meeting in Kampala this week, deal with al-Shabaab? Experts agree that the actions of the two external actuaries in Somalia will decidedly influence the course things take.

Somali youths playing soccer

Islamist leaders in southern Somalia have outlawed soccer and dancing

Phillipe de Pontet, Somalia analyst at the American think tank Eurasia Group, said he believes that this could have some sway over Ethiopian policy towards Somalia, as well as US policy on Somalia. But he cautions that there is some question as to whether this will force any kind of rethinking of strategy.

Somalia observers are in agreement that a renewed invasion by Ethiopian forces or rocket attacks from the US against al-Shabaab positions would only further fuel the jihadists desire to fight back. This would be a bad move considering how many Somalis have begun distancing themselves from the group following the suicide bombings in Kampala.

Uganda's president Yoweri Museveni, however, is all for strengthening troop numbers. Museveni has called for an increase of the AU peacekeeping force AMISOM to 20,000 soldiers. Somalia expert Abdi, though, said he warned against further militarization because "every foreign intervention has been counter-productive and has just created more instability, rather than helping to pacify the country."

"I think those who are calling for an increased military presence in Somalia are mistaken," Abdi said. "What we need to focus on is how to enable the current government to fight its own fight because ultimately this is a Somali civil war and they're trying to prop one side against the other and it's not going to help."

Author: Ludger Schadomsky/mrm
Editor: Sabina Casagrande

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