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Thomas Evans’s death fighting against Kenyan forces in Lamu the same weekend that it was revealed that Talha Asmal was involved in a suicide bombing in Iraq reminds us once again that Syria/Iraq is not the only battlefield drawing British foreign fighters. There has always been a curious connection between the Somali and Levantine battlefields, with both conflicts proving able to project a global narrative that appealed to excitable young Britons. However, over time, Somalia’s attraction has shrunk while Syria and Iraq’s has grown: it is therefore an interesting question to try to understand this shift better to see if there are policy lessons that can be learned to counter Daesh’s current draw.
Emerging from the ashes of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) Al-Shabaab was an organization that had a strong link to the Al Qa’ida cell operating in East Africa (AQEA). Led by prominent jihadists Saleh Ali Nabhan Saleh and Fazul Mohammed, the AQEA cell was a key draw and conduit for Western fighters going to the Horn of Africa. Amongst those who went was Bilal el Berjawi, a Lebanese West Londoner who, alongside his close childhood friend Mohammed Sakr, ended up fighting alongside the group before both were killed in drone strikes. They were both were young men brought up in West London and excited by the narratives of global struggle and jihad that had most prominently taken root in East Africa in the mid-to-late 2000s. Al-Shabaab had managed to show itself as a key point in the global struggle championed by Al-Qa’ida and, as Afghanistan/Pakistan became harder to travel to, Somalia offered itself as an alternative location with a strong link to Al-Qa’ida core. At the same time, the popular radical preacher Anwar al Awlaki championed Al-Shabaab’s fight from his base in Yemen, amplifying its attraction to the young international warriors.
And for a brief while, Somalia was the big draw to excitable young men and women seeking the glories of jihad in foreign fields. The group would release videos with good production values venerating their dead or re-playing their battles using actors and graphics reminiscent of Hollywood productions. They were even active online (with some who still are now), with their warriors taking to Twitter to communicate with the world and spread ideas, videos and information. All of which is very reminiscent of what ISIS and the battlefield in Syria and Iraq are currently producing.
It is therefore not that surprising that over time it was observable that the networks sending people to Somalia started to show up in the background stories of those going to fight in Syria. Repeated videos and narratives have emerged in which tales tell of people finding Somalia too difficult and instead turning to Syria. Mohammed Emwazi is the most prominent example of this, who first tried to go to East Africa, but instead ended up in Syria after getting turned back. Others include dead West Londoners like Mohammed el Araj or Choukri Ellekhfi, who came from the same networks that had produced Bilal el Berjawi and Mohammed Sakr. Up in North London, a group that included TPIM absconders Ibrahim Magag and Mohammed Ali Mohammed started off sending people to Somalia and Afghanistan, to more recently helping people go fight in Syria. On the continent of Europe, a network sending people from Belgium to Somalia also ended up re-directing fighters to Syria. In many ways, Thomas Evans’ death is a left over from this earlier time when Somalia was the main conflict and he seems to have simply been one of the few Brits still left fighting out there, as the fight in the Levant slowly became the biggest draw for those seeking jihadi battlefields.
The key policy question here is why did Somalia start to lose its appeal? And are there lessons that can be learned from that experience that might help with Daesh and the appeal of Syria and Iraq? In this light, four aspects are worth considering.
First, sometime in 2011, Al-Shabaab started to undergo internal ructions. Different factions vied for control, leading to others getting killed off. There was widespread belief that Bilal el Berjawi’s death, for example, was the product of these internal tensions, and other prominent foreigners were believed to have been felled in similar ways. The result was to scare some foreign fighters off as they saw prominent contacts getting killed and Al Shabaab turning it on itself.
Second, the conflict in Somalia was always a difficult one to get to. Direct flights to Somalia are hard to get, and even getting to neighbouring countries does not make it easy to get to Shabaab’s camps. Over time, this became harder as regional security forces focused ever more on foreigners travelling to neighboring countries with the intention of trying to get into Somalia.
Third, over time, it became increasingly obvious that Al-Shabaab was losing territory and land. No longer able to project an image of success and ruling territory, the narrative around the conflict instead became of internal struggles, a group on the run and headlines about strikes taking out key leaders.
Fourth, the conflict in Syria took off in late 2011 and soon after that became the brightest light on the jihadi map. Over time, this slowly sucked all the air out of other fields and when taken in conjunction with the previous points, made Syria overall far more attractive than what was going on in Somalia.
The lessons learned are blunt. An unstable conflict in which groups are under substantial external pressure is one that is less attractive to the foreign warriors. Difficulty in getting to the field, a fractured leadership and a narrative of failure is important in reducing the groups' appeal. Media output – which Al-Shabaab continues to produce with high production values, but no longer attracts attention – is not the key factor. This is important to consider in the sometimes excessive focus on online activity as the key aspect of Daesh that needs countering. In fact, more traditional responses of making life difficult for groups to operate is in fact key in stemming growth. Daesh needs to be seen to be losing and fracturing on the ground before it loses its appeal to the foreign warriors drawn to fight alongside it.