Designation of Shabaab as a Terrorist Group

In response, the State Department took a step with lasting consequences. On February 26, 2008, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced the designation of shabaab as a foreign terrorist organization.27 On one level, this was a straightforward decision— the group expressed openly its affiliation with Al Qaeda and engaged in extensive use of improvised explosive devices and suicide bombings that fell squarely in the repertoire of terrorist tactics. On the other hand, shabaab had not launched attacks on American targets, nor had it engaged in terrorism outside Somalia, though it frequently threatened to. For many Somalis, shabaab was first and foremost a legitimate form of “defensive jihad,” a form of resistance against an illegal foreign occupation of Somali soil. The tired old bromide “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” found a new application in Somalia.

The designation had immediate and enduring consequences. First, it criminalized financial and other support provided to shabaab by Somalis around the world. The large Somali diaspora now became the subject of close scrutiny by law enforcement agencies in the United States and the West, especially once it became known that two dozen Somali diaspora youth had been recruited into shabaab and in a number of cases served as suicide bombers. The Somali crisis was formally incorporated into the global war on terror at that point, and its scope was as global as the one million or more Somalis living around the world. Fear that Somali Americans could be recruited, trained, and indoctrinated by shabaab and then return to form sleeper cells in the United States fueled growing concerns in 2008 of the threat of “homegrown” terrorism. Financial support to shabaab from the Somali diaspora was also the target of law enforcement responses. Somali remittance (or hawala) companies were required to submit to much more rigorous compliance measures to ensure that they were not being misused to channel funds to shabaab, raising concerns about the vulnerability of the entire remittance economy on which Somalia is now heavily dependent.

Second, the designation potentially criminalized all other sources of financially and resource flows into Somalia that might benefit shabaab. This was a particularly sensitive issue for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the international relief organizations (principally the World Food Programme, CARE, and World Vision) that handled sizable food aid delivery into southern Somalia. Somalia was at once the site of the worst humanitarian crisis in the world, a zone largely under the control of shabaab, and a highly insecure area that some relief agencies dubbed an “accountability free zone” because of the difficulty of monitoring food aid distribution. Under those circumstances, it was impossible to verify with certainty that none of the food aid or the local contracts needed to move it was benefiting shabaab. The reality was that virtually any resource injected into Somalia—food aid, support to the TFG, piracy ransoms, or remittances to family members by the diaspora—eventually provided some indirect revenues to shabaab. Under the terms of the 2001 Patriot Act and related antiterrorism legislation, the legal implications for any American working for a group found to have knowingly given any material support to a terrorist individual or organization are potentially severe. These concerns grew into a major intragovernmental debate in the first year of the Obama administration (discussed later).

Third, the designation placed the United States squarely and directly in conflict with shabaab, which until March 2008 had directed most of its venom at Ethiopia and the TFG. When in May 2008 the U.S. military successfully launched a missile attack on a remote site in central Somalia, killing shabaab leader Aden Hashi ‘Ayro, shabaab announced that it was broadening its targets to include all U.S. and Western citizens and installations in the Horn of Africa, all regional governments allied with the United States, and all Somalis collaborating with the United States. The “decapitation” tactic against sha- baab failed to break or weaken the group; it only widened the war shabaab sought to fight.

Finally, the designation of shabaab as a terrorist group greatly reduced U.S. and other diplomats’ room to maneuver to reach out to “salvageable” elements of shabaab in an effort to divide and weaken the overall movement. Though distinctions between “moderate” and “hard-line” camps in jihadist movements are often painfully crude and sometimes naive, there is no question that shabaab is far from a unified movement. Some of the group’s leadership, and many of its estimated 2,000-3,000 fighters, are not deeply indoctrinated jihad- ists; they represent a wide range of interests and are divided over a number of issues.28 This is precisely the kind of context that lends itself to strategies of co-optation to divide and weaken the insurgency. But the legal implications of dialoguing with elements of a designated terrorist group greatly reduced the space for diplomats to explore this option. This concern is by no means unique to Somalia—it has been a major topic of conversation regarding strategies for dealing with insurgents in Afghanistan as well.29

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