Small Wars Journal

Al-Shabaab and the Exploitation of the Subject Network Model

Sun, 03/09/2014 - 1:58am

Al-Shabaab and the Exploitation of the Subject Network Model

William Allen

“A general uprising, as we see it, should be nebulous and elusive; its resistance should never materialize as a concrete body, otherwise the enemy can direct sufficient force at its core, crush it, and take many prisoners”

-Carl von Clausewitz, On War, p481 


Once the heart of a bustling Islamic maritime trade stretching across the Indian Ocean, the Horn of Africa (HOA) is now wrought with war, drought, famine, and violent political decay making itself into an unstable collection of states that provide safe haven for religious extremists. Somalia’s jagged coastline creates a critical landmass that portrays a discernible horn-like contour. Pushing into the western quadrant of the Arabian Sea, Somalia serves not only as the most identifiable topographical feature lending shape to the Horn of Africa, but also its deep and abiding maritime traditions connect people, cultures, ideas and religions across land, ocean, and time. Resting at the cultural axis between the Middle Eastern Islamic world and the diverse indigenous populations inhabiting the African continent, Somalia has become a multifarious collection of people and ideas that have adjoined themselves to several different ethnic, religious, and cultural groups to create a unique Somali identity.

Infamous for violent warlords and public lawlessness, Somalia is home to a terrorist organization known as Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen (HSM), or simply al-Shabaab meaning, “The Youth.” Al-Shabaab is a collective group of once competing warlords who seek to wage foreign jihad against the West and institute a strict interpretation of sharia’ law in Somalia. A clear and concise chain-of-command within al-Shabaab’s organizational structure is challenging to articulate. Al-Shabaab has numerous senior leaders who authorize militant attacks against Western targets. Perhaps the most visible form of leadership is Ahmed Abdi Godane, also known as Mukhtar Abu Zubair, “Godane” for short (Horadam, AEI). In a video released in 2012, al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri refers to Godane’s leadership when speaking about the union of al-Shabaab and al-Qaeda (Houreld, AP). Other members of competing leadership include deputy Sheikh Mukhtar Robow, and Colonel Hassan Dahir Aweys, a founding member of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) (Horadem, AEI). Colonel Aweys led the Somali-based terrorist organization Hizbul Islam, which has merged and separated from al-Shabaab on several occasions creating instability from within al-Shabaab. Externally, however, al-Shabaab’s alignment with the al-Qaeda Network (AQN) in 2010 has prompted their influence to grow exponentially throughout the region posing a serious security threat to the sovereignty of independent and democratic states surrounding Somalia (Yusuf, Christian Science Monitor).

Al-Shabaab has pioneered an organizational structure called the subject network model that has allowed the group to exploit the weaknesses of Somalia’s failed government and remain elusive to the efforts of American counterterrorism teams and Western policymakers alike. The subject network model, being particularly effective for the use of recruiting and financing terrorist activities, is a multifaceted design that uses ethnic, religious, and historical realities to create a elastic network of non-state actors rooted in postcolonial states to front a resistance against the West.

To understand how the subject network model allows al-Shabaab to take advantage of the historical and cultural characteristics of Somalia, this essay will first examine the conceptual framework of various network models taken on by terrorist organizations. Second, the ruling clan effect that has governed Somali communities in both pre and post-colonial times will be addressed. Third, this study will consider the postcolonial state of Somalia as it has struggled for a national identity taking into consideration several colonial resistance movements and feuding warlords. Finally this study will combine all the aforementioned pieces to build a comprehensive understanding of how the subject network model supports two pillars comprising successful terrorist operations: recruitment and finance.

Conceptual Framework: Models of Terrorist Networks

Phil Williams and Roy Godson confer in their article Anticipating Organized and Transnational Crime, several organizational models that transnational criminal networks adopt in order to fit the legal parameters in which they operate (Williams and Godson, 322-332). The authors argue that criminal organizations tailor their network models based upon the level of stability found within the state they operate in. The models outlined by Williams and Godson include the market model, the enterprise model, the cultural model, the ethnic network model, and the social network model (Williams and Godson, 322-332). It is argued that, generally speaking, weaker states provide the best opportunities for criminal enterprises to exist because robust institutions are not present to challenge the legitimacy of the criminal organization (Williams and Godson, 322-332).

Marc Sageman, author of Understanding Terror Networks, would agree with Williams and Godson taking their thesis one step further and argues that this same entrepreneurial spirit exists within transnational terrorist organizations as well. Sageman expounds upon the common social network theory by asserting that “social affiliation, kinship, and discipleship; [and] progressive intensification of beliefs” are precursors to “the transformation of potential candidates” into operatives of the syndicate (Sageman 130).  Ideologues within a terrorist network work to exploit a similar social methodological process as criminals within a transnational organization. Sageman argues that organizational design within a terrorist group is predicated upon informal connections between nodes creating a network of affiliation and connectivity (Sageman 131). Within the massive collection of nodes exists more popular nodes, which are called hubs (Sageman 131). Hubs act as the connecting–files among groups of nodes and therefore work to facilitate association and organization at a higher level (Sageman 131). Collections of nodes can cover geographic areas or common space within a cyber world, but are eventually connected via these hubs, where directives or ideological messages are passed down from a higher headquarters (Sageman 131).

Sageman outlines two basic forms of terror networks including a “top-down” hierarchical approach, like in the case of Jemaaj Islamiyah in Southeast Asia, and the “small-world network model,” which deliberates around social networks aligned along ideological likeness but allowing for the creation of operational directives independent from a unified command (Sageman 133). The first model, Sageman argues, is weakened by a unified command because the design is susceptible to leadership being killed in a single attack (Sageman 133). Whereas, the second model is effective because it allows for several leaders to issue orders to various collections of nodes, rendering the networks safe from debilitating strikes against a single leader (Sageman 133).

The structural fabric of al-Shabaab is similar to the small–world network model in that is threads together social affiliations across the Horn of Africa creating an interconnected collection of nodes with robust cultural and ethnic likeness. Moreover, leadership within al-Shabaab has changed many times in the last few years, sometimes with several different people claiming at the same time to be the true single leader of al-Shabaab.

Similar to a transnational criminal organization, al-Shabaab is able to exploit ethnic links in variety of legitimate industries, particularly charcoal, sugar, weapons, and second hand goods, giving them the flexibility to avoid the federal regulation over one such industry and allowing them to fund their operations (Williams and Godson 332, Banadir). Ultimately, Somalia’s weak federal government is unable to challenge the rising power of al-Shabaab and its networks.

Though engaging a demographic on the level of ethnic likeness is hardly a new idea, al-Shabaab has developed a new and innovative approach towards appealing to their ethnic network, proving to be exceptionally effective against the West. Al-Shabaab targets impressionable, young, poor, and even Western citizens within the ethnic Somali diaspora by making an appeal to their subject identity as opposed to their ethnic, racial or religious identity. Though social networks are important, and being a Muslim is a requirement, al-Shabaab’s message through propaganda is anti-imperialist in nature and seeks to awaken a potential recruit’s false consciousness. This awakening leads potential recruits down a crooked path of awareness; associating the recruit’s identity as an ethnic Somali with being the subject of a European monarchy; then associating their subject identity to being a Muslim under Western influence. This model is playing connect-the-dots with a conceptual framework of identity. Because the model is predicated upon one’s understanding of himself or herself as a subject with respect to a nationalist, ethnic, and religious identity, it is referred to as the subject network model in this study.

Most concerning about the subject network model, perhaps, is the success of this model with Muslims who feel disenfranchised by their local communities in the West. These people, many times Americans by birth, are seen as ideal recruits for a terrorist cell because of their ability to operate unassumingly and with ease within a Western community. In order to understand the effective nature of the subject network model, we must first examine the scarring history of colonization within Somalia, and the greater Horn of Africa.

History of Colonization: “Define and Rule”

Since the carving of the African continent in an almost systematic and contractual fashion beginning in 1884 at the Berlin Conference, Africa as a whole has suffered a number of heinous crimes by the Western world in their effort to create an engine of industrialization and manufacturing. The British favored a tactic known as divide and rule. The technique pitted clans against each another, assigning one clan the responsibility of policing, another the responsibility of military duties, and other clans the responsibilities of providing education and political structure (Uganda Rising Documentary). The British attempt to reconstruct society in their colonies created stark divisions that teetered along ethnic and religious cleavages. Unfortunately, the method was so effective at reinforcing Britain as the dominant actor, that it was subsequently exported to other European colonies in Africa. Mahmood Mamdani, Director of the Makerere Institute of Social Research, argues that also in effect was a phenomenon he describes as define and rule, an attempt by Western colonizers to define what intangible social structures they would not interfere with in the spirit of preserving local traditions (Mamdani 26). In reference to Queen Victoria’s Proclamation of 1858 Mamdani writes, “the occupying power gave itself the prerogative to define the boundaries of that in which it will not interfere, and then to define the content of the authentic religion with which there was to be no interference” (Mamdani 26).

Fifty-two years later, Lord Evelyn Baring the First Earl of Cromer, claimed in his book Ancient and Modern Imperialism that the “cast iron dogmas” of the West were more suited for judicial and administrative work than the indigenous people he studied in North Africa (Baring 84). Also in 1910, former British Prime Minister, Arthur James Balfour, declared during a heated debate on the floor of the House of Commons, “never in all the revolutions of fate and fortune have you seen one of these nations of its own motion establish what we, from a Western point of view, call self-government. That is the fact” (Consolidated Fund Bill #2, p1141). British Foreign Secretary, the Edward Wood, added, “One often hears that when a white nation is dealing with a black nation it is practically governing by force. I think that even in those conditions government remains what it always is—government by consent” (Consolidated Fund Bill #2, p1135). In these few words, spoken and written in the same year, Lord Baring, Prime Minister Balfour, and Foreign Secretary Wood fulfilled the prophecy of the Queen Victoria from half a century earlier by pronouncing the West’s innate and natural born right to be Africa’s overseer. Here, the modern Western consciousness is born and the label ‘Other’ is created to describe indigenous or tribal peoples of the ‘Orient.’

A Conceptual Framework for the Subject Network Model

The great strategizing minds of warfare preach a diverse understanding of conflict and give disproportionate weight to the importance of center of gravity, critical vulnerabilities, key terrain, and battlefield conditions. Often held as the predominant center of gravity in Western maneuver warfare is physical terrain, and in particular how physical terrain is used, along with combined arms theory, to exploit the critical vulnerabilities of the enemy. Al-Shabaab has chartered a new course. Blooming into and elusive network of ethnic Somali fighters with a historical conscious of fighting the West to break free of their colonial chains, al-Shabaab has pioneered a technique that exploits human terrain via the subject network model. As a result, the West’s structured, dogmatic, one-dimensional understanding of maneuver warfare, predicated upon physical terrain, fails to neutralize the strengths of a three-dimensional subject network model founded upon exploiting human terrain.

The subject network model is an elastic and formfitting stratagem that can be customized and employed by a variety of non-state actors in order to appeal to one’s postcolonial understanding of self as a subject. Ideologues of the subject network model are able to open dialogue with members of the media, petition to philanthropic circles, appeal to leadership in religious institutions, and encourage economic opportunists to invest, cultivating a vengeful reaction in response to the subjugated colonial rule of the past. This effect, when met with the enlightened attitude embodied in a ‘do-nothing’ response from guilty Western elites, gives the terrorist within the subject network model the upper hand. As a result, al-Shabaab, and therefore groups like it, will remain operational in spite of the West’s conventional efforts to neutralize the terrorists’ end state.

The subject network model is divided into three layers including an ethnic identity, a religious identity, and a shared historical identity. These identities are observed in light of a postcolonial understanding of Self. The individual, or Self, in all three cases of ethnicity, and religiosity, and historically, are still subjects to colonization and Western ideology as represented by the United States. Al-Shabaab teaches a potential recruit to know the combination of all these identities as meaning three things; 1) ethnic Somalis are Muslims who are economic subjects of the West, 2) Islam is under attack by the West and therefore waging jihad is a responsibility of every Muslim, and 3) Somalis’ have historically been resistance fighters against the West. In order to draw connections between the three above-mentioned identities, al-Shabaab has utilized propaganda. This propaganda has been extremely effective at engaging subject identity networks to fund al-Shabaab operations.


Famous for their ability to recruit American and British citizens to forfeit the pleasantries of Western civilization and join their ranks, al-Shabaab’s robust propaganda arm pulls at the ethnic, religious, linguistic, historical, and cultural strings that create the fabric of Somali identity. In particular, al-Shabaab propaganda is published in several formats including magazine publications, poetry, rap music, videos, and an online social media presence on All al-Shabaab products contain a similar anti-imperialist rhetoric that resonates with disenfranchised Somali immigrants living in the West.  

Tying linguistics, Islam, and Clan Heritage into One Pitch

The complexities of Somali identity are apparent in a diverse “ethnolinguistic repertoire” that has drifted with the ebb and flow of human movement throughout the expansive Rift Valley of East Africa, the Ogaden, and the Benadir coast (Mburu 12). Linguistic and religious similarities show themselves across a multiplicity of East African indigenous peoples who have interacted over the course of thousands of years through trade, marriage and exploration, but that retain diverse cultural identities from each other—distinctions that encroaching imperialist powers failed to recognize (Mburu 12). Islam, being intrinsically tide to trade along the coast, was indicative of “money and culture” (Forster, Hitchcock, Lyimo 123). Moreover, Islam shared a sense of mysticism, easily integrated into the indigenous belief systems found in Africa, “this meant Islam became the de facto established religion” in the region (Forster, Hitchcock, Lyimo 124).

Clan identity in Somalia, generally speaking, is encompassed within the penumbra of six major clans including the Darod, Dir, Hawiye, Isaaq, Digil, and Rahanweyn (Hesse 3). These clans maintain subclan and sub-subclan coalitions that are typically established around shared ethnic and economic interests (Hesse 3). As a result of inter-clan breeding, “Somali genealogy presents individuals with a seemingly infinite number of ways to affiliate with, or disassociate from, fellow Somalis” (Hesse 3). Clan governance has provided social mechanisms in Somalia that have served to reinforce a patrilineal framework around which clan allegiances form, thus creating a semblance of group identity (Abbink 2). These mechanisms are referred to as diya-groups, or “blood-wealth” (Hesse 5). With this being said, however, the most influential factor aside from the trickling down of a male bloodline has been the informal alignment of societies and the transaction of ideas, religion, and culture predicated upon a naturally occurring ethnic exchange; a result of “nomadic pastoralism” (Abbink 2).

Poetry as a Means of Communication in Warfare

Rooted deep in the heritage of Somalia’s pastoralism grew a lively tradition of recording oral histories in poetic verse. Passed generation-to-generation within the encampments of bedouin ranchers, travelers would congregate at night around their open fires to converse (Laurence 23). Once described as a “nation of poets,” Somalia’s literary exchange was a thriving attribute of society in spite of limited access to standardized education in the grammar of the Somali language (Laurence 23). Poetry served a therapeutic role for Somalis in the wake of oppressively hot droughts and dry spells that would raze crops and wreak havoc on a starving population, forever connecting survival with heroism (Laurence 25). Canadian author Margaret Laurence once observed, “Somali literature is, in its own way, ‘a tree for poverty to shelter under’” (Laurence 24).

According to Laurence’s anthropological studies, Somali poetry has ten distinct styles or disciplines, each one adopting its own variance in length, structure, rhythm, and phonetic alliteration style (Laurence 26-27). Variations for poetry structure include, but are not limited to, belwo, giiraar, gabei (also found as gaabay/ghaba), hes, and a female specific style of gabei (Laurence 27). Gabei, establishes itself separately due to its use of a rich and affluent vocabulary, which engages topics and linguistics out of reach for an average uneducated Somali rancher (Laurence 32). The gabei style is injected with spirit and dramatics, which is used to motivate its audience; traditionally this style of poetry is used by military commanders and spiritual leaders (Laurence, 33). Traditional gabei poetry is also absent of musical instruments, however there has been a recent and growing trend towards adding musical accompaniment thus allowing it to mix with popular Western music styles on the radio. The byproduct is a genre of communication unique to Somalia that has helped further define modern Somali poetry from classical Somali poetry (Johnson 210).

Sayyid Mohammad Abdullah Hassan and the Dervish Resistance

In the mid-1800s, Britain colonized the northern half of Kenya and emplaced geopolitical lines separating Kenya from Italian Somalia. These lines of demarcation happen to cross though pastoral lands used for grazing by a variety of Somali people for thousands of years (Mburu 34). The lines drawn across the map were unable to stop the social and ethnic networks between the indigenous peoples (Mburu 37). Nene Mburu writes in his book Bandits on the Border, “It was not easy for Somali pastoralists who had heretofore freely interacted with their blood and cultural relations freely to suddenly observe an imaginary meridian” (Mburu 34).

In response to Britain’s geopolitical lines, Somali poet and revolutionary, Sayyid Mohammad Abdullah Hassan, took up arms in an effort to inspire a Somali nationalist identity that was void of clan fractioning. Sayyid Mohammad’s resistance force, known as the Dervish movement, opposed the colonial powers of Britain, Italy and Ethiopia on Somali pastoral land (Bartamaha, Parching Winds). Sayyid Mohammad made rousing calls to action once writing, “If the land is your land, why aren’t you its government? If Islam is your religion, why submit to infidel overlords” (Bartamaha, Parching Winds, Levtzion 236)? Sayyid Mohammad was an avid gabei poet who often directly addressed his enemies in his work, and encouraged his 10,000-man army to stand united (Bartamaha, Parching Winds).

During the Dervish resistance against British and Italian colonists, lasting from 1900 to 1920, Sayyid Mohammad Abdullah Hassan’s infectious magnetism catapulted him into a position of leadership and power (Lewis 65). Able to negotiate on behalf of his revolutionary constituency, Sayyid Mohammad issued a four-pronged decree to his colonial enemy requesting “That he should have a fixed residence on Italian territory; That he should govern his followers; That he should enjoy religious liberty; and, That he should have freedom to trade” (Lewis 72-73). The European colonists accepted a peace agreement scripted in 1905 and tensions between Dervish resistance fighters and agents of the British and Italian crowns were put to rest (Lewis 73). The peace, however, did not stop the spread of European influence; in fact the period of rest enabled Italian colonists to move forward in legally purchasing large swaths of the Benadir coast instead of acquiring it disingenuously through force (Lewis 74). As a result, the peace accords were dismissed in 1908 and Dervish fighters engaged the colonists in open combat once again (Lewis 74). According to I. M. Lewis, Professor of Anthropology at the London School of Economics, Master Ethnographer of the Somali, the British administration had the insurmountable task of “countering the formidable barrage of propaganda unleashed against it by the Sayyid, whose scathing poems, which spread like wildfire, constituted so formidable a weapon” (Lewis 74-75).  Sayyid Mohammad left a legacy that still permeates Somali poetry, literature, music, politics, and culture today.

“Terrorist in the Street”

Today, we see al-Shabaab’s use of poetry and propaganda in the same manner that Sayyid Mohammad wielded it. Published in both English and Swahili, al-Shabaab prints high gloss pamphlets, entitled “Gaidi Mtaani” meaning “Terrorist in the Street,” that are disseminated to target audiences in the United States, Great Britain, and East Africa, particularly Kenya. Like the Dervish resistance movement, al-Shabaab focuses on reaching out to people who are within the Somali diapora and have a shared subject identity. Gaidi Mtaani publications have high-definition photographs throughout their pages including provoking and violent images. Each issue has the black and white flag of al-Shabaab flying at the top of the page that has been traced into the silhouette of Kenya’s borders. Edited to Western standards with a complex photographic overlay scheme juxtaposing East African and Western leaders side-by-side as one, the articles all maintain the same tone of anticolonialism written from the perspective of a Kenyan citizen.

The production of these pamphlets tells us a few things up front about al-Shabaab and who they are. First, the magazines are published in languages that target two particular audiences, English speaking Westerners and Swahili speaking Kenyans, and perhaps even Tanzanians. Even though al-Shabaab is a Somali-based organization, we don’t see the high-gloss recruitment material being published in their native tongue Somali. Secondly, the title of the pamphlet “Terrorist in the Street” is provocative and serves more as a threat than as a phrase of inspiration. More interestingly, the title submits to the Western notion that al-Shabaab fighters are in fact terrorists – a term that is universally rejected by similar movements in efforts to rebrand themselves as resistance or freedom fighters. Al-Shabaab’s wearing of the title “terrorist” as a badge of honor may seem bold and courageous to a Westerner, convincing them that al-Shabaab is a strong force to be reckoned with. Furthermore, the phrase “Terrorist in the Street” gives off the impression that terrorists are in fact everywhere around the reader, even in the street outside their home; therefore the title itself is coercive in nature. Lastly, the magazine’s high-definition photographs and aesthetically pleasing layout is vogue-ish in nature and speaks to the average Westerner by exerting a sense of legitimacy, professionalism, and an elevated sense of production value.

The front page of the first issue contains a photograph of a young African child with grenades in both his hands concealed behind his back; the image gives the sense of an innocent boy with hidden intentions. In translation one article tells the story of British imperialists taking land from indigenous Kenyans, and accuses East African Muslims of buying, wholesale, the “western thought and history” (Gaidi Mtaani Issue 1 p3). Interestingly enough the article does not encourage its audience to refuse the Western world completely, it fact it says “We’re not asking you to refuse everything on the news from the West, like the weather... only what the media says about Muslims and Islam” (Gaidi Mtaani Issue 1 p3). In an effort to sound reasonable, the article does not demand the potential recruit to change their lifestyle in a dramatic fashion, yet, instead it asks for consideration, for a step-by-step acceptance of their world view leading first with an argument about the lasting effects of imperialism. It is important to note that a radical view of Islam has not yet been introduced into the equation. The article ends with a seemingly reasonable request, “We join, either by words or actions… and if one can not speak it is a fact it is better for him to keep silent” (Gaidi Mtaani Issue 1 p3).

As pages are turned, so turns the rhetoric to a more overt call to arms. On page 13 the author includes a quote from Osama bin Laden threatening America’s security in retaliation for threatening Palestine. The article goes on to say, “Security shall only remain to be a dream among Kenyans. Imagine who is to lose when we start attacking Kenya’s economy, look at how vulnerable Kenya is… we have tourists, shopping malls, bars etc just imagine how we can compromise your economy” (Gaidi Mtaani Issue 1 p13). Ominously, the magazine foreshadows an al-Shabaab attack on a shopping mall in Kenya, a scenario that played out in reality after the publishing of the “Gaidi Mtaani” issue and took the lives of 67 civilians in Nairobi on September 21, 2013. Evocatively, the quote provided above displays a switch of personal identity, first by saying “we have tourists, shopping malls” and finishing with “ imagine how we can compromise your economy” (Gaidi Mtaani Issue 1 p13). It is apparent throughout the entire pamphlet that authors are Kenyan writing about imperialist stealing “our land” but its clear that these writers feel separated from the general population at the same time.

The anti-imperialist hook is sunk further into the persuasive rhetoric of “Gaidi Mtaani” when the writer makes a direct call to “kaffir” Kenyans. Kaffir, is a deprecating racial and ethnic slur in Africa that is typically applied to black citizens of South Africa, people who refute the Qur’an in its entirety, or a Kenyan farmer who must pay taxes to the British to squat on farmland that once was Kenyan (Kanogo 15). The author is trying to draw parallels between average Kenyans and al-Shabaab fighters by arguing that they are engaged in the same fight. The author writes, “imagine yourself in our situation… a situation whereby a country invades Kenya and takes control of your land… I would like you to think of yourself and the effort you will be taking not to liberate yourself” (Gaidi Mtaani Issue 1 p13-14). Drawing upon similarities between the racist colonizing experiences that Kenyans suffered at the hands of the British, and the current situation in Somalia, the author is in fact asking for sympathy, despite specifically refuting it. The anticolonist, anti-Western rhetoric reaches a peak in the second issue of “Gaidi Mtaani” when on page 23 a fatwa is issued against the President of the United States, Barack Obama, demanding, “Wanted Dead or Alive” (Gaidi Mtaani Issue 2 p23).

Gabei Poetry and al-Shabaab

Al-Shabaa has posted several videos on Some show an intense training regimen, others are recorded interviews with American and British male fighters discussing why they decided to join al-Shabaab. Most provoking, however, are a series of videos that appear to be makeshift attempts at rapping about waging jihad in Somalia. Instead, among images of combat, dead bodies, and cheering children, the rap videos are reflective of the gabei poetry tradition unique to the Somali identity.

Born and raised in the U.S. state of Alabama, al-Shabaab commander Abu Mansoor al-Amriki, born Omar Hummami, is best known for his Westernized rap recruitment videos. His persona entitled “Ghaba Productions” (Ghaba being a variance of the Somali word for poetry spelled earlier as gabei or gaabay), reinforces the argument that warrior poetry used by Sayyid Mohammad is still in use today, at least in some lightly veiled form. The following is an abridged excerpt from one of al-Amriki’s poetry-rap videos:

“Send Me a Cruise”


“Ghaba Productions – we’re still around,

raising the word of Allah, searching for martyrdom.

Just send me a cruise with a couple of tons [of explosives]

and a predator drone with a Paradise missile.

Send me a cruise like Mu’alim Adam al-Ansari,

and send me a couple of tons like al-Zarqawi

So train those Marines hard –

one shot, one kill.

Head shots, heart shots –

for them it’s a big thrill.

There’s nothing as sweet

As the taste of a tank shell,

It was a beautiful day, when that predator

Paradise missiles sent me on my way -

Family rejoices at the news

and follows me in what I do”

(Middle East Research Institute. “Send Me a Cruise.” #2891).

Terrorists that Tweet

During the October 2013 massacre of 67 civilians in the Westgate Mall of Nairobi, Kenya, al-Shabaab not only claimed credit for the attack through social media sources, but they engaged in a propaganda campaign by simultaneously updating their account to allow anyone to follow the killers during the attack, 140 characters at a time (Malkin, The Telegraph). One of the real-time updates reads, “The Mujahideen entered #Westgate Mall today at around noon and are still inside the mall, fighting the #Kenyan Kuffar (infidels) inside their own turf” (Malkin, The Telegraph). In response to the Westgate atrocity being praised under the handle “HSMPress” officials at suspended the account until further notice (Malkin, The Telegraph). This is an example of the effectiveness of al-Shabaab’s propaganda campaign. The proliferation of Internet access, and in particular social media, means that al-Shabaab has the ability to reach into the living room of a Westerner, or quite literally into their pocket through Smartphone applications.

Financing a Terrorist Network

Al-Shabaab has built a financial support network largely predicated upon industrial diversity, ethnic ties, and tacitly if not overtly supported by people with a shared history of subjugation and persecution by both colonialists and the Somali warlords of the 1980s and 90s. In order to identify forming patterns in the Shabaab funding network, we must look at where these financial nodes exist geographically, and consider their shared history. As a result, the markets that emerge will prove to be sources of income exploited and enjoyed by al-Shabaab.

A Fractured al-Itihad al-Islamiya

Before making its 2005 debut on the world stage as the rising mujahideen of Somali Muslims, al-Shabaab found its roots buried deep within a physically weak but intellectually robust Islamist movement known as the al-Itihad al-Islamiya (AIAI) meaning “Unity of Islam” also referred to as simply, al-Itihad (Shay 43). Founded in the mid-1980s by a growing Somali intelligentsia educated at the al-Azhar University in Egypt, these young scholars were schooled in the teachings of Sayyid Qutb, father of the Muslim Brotherhood (Pirio 47). At the time, Somali President Mohammed Siad Barre ran a secular and socialist administration that was in conflict with the teachings of al-Itihad. As a result, Barre’s piecemeal security force made up of the Somalia National Army and remnants of both the Somali National Movement and Somali Democratic Salvation Front, committed tragic abuses against members of al-Itihad (Pirio 47, Thom 136). In response, al-Itihad engaged the Somali population in a national dialogue attempting to redefine the Somali Muslim identity, thereby delegitimizing Siad Barre and his criminal security forces. From al-Itihad’s religious campaign spawned several groups including al-Jamaa al-Islamiya and Wahdat al-Shabaab al-Islamiya whom sought to create a political-Islam movement that would win popular support in substitute to Siad Barre’s repressive warlordism (Pirio 48). Siad Barre’s administration battled internal clan disputes that were reportedly fueled by a covert Ethiopian insurgency (Thom 136). Eventually the clan in-fighting was enough to drag Siad Barre down. As fleeting as the CH-53 Sea Stallions filled with U.S. Marines and Navy SEALs that came to evacuate America’s Embassy in Mogadishu, President Siad Barre fled the city in 1991 (Thom 138).  The fall of Barre’s regime created a vacuum of power that al-Itihad and its subsidiary groups were inclined to fill. With the intent to avoid the divisions of clannism that plagued Barre’s regime, al-Itihad sought to create a new nationalist identity that could overcome clan identity; its cornerstone was laid in the writing and teachings of Qutb (Shay 43).

Somali Warlord: General Mohamed Farah Aidid

As al-Itihad slowly grew in ideological power across the state, so did the physical power of the infamous warlord, General Mohamed Farah Aidid, who was largely backed by the Hawiye clan of southwestern Somalia (Shay 43). Seeking a totalitarian grip over Somalia, General Aidid chased revolutionary members of al-Itihad into the Somali coastal town of Kismayu (Murphy 67). Sending one of his trusted leaders to broker a settlement with the members of al-Itihad, Colonel Hassan Dahir Aweys with his distinctly orange dyed beard, offered terms of peace (Murphy 67). Al-Itihad leadership declined the offer and Colonel Aweys immediately defected to AIAI (Murphy 68). General Aidid ordered his militia into Kismayu chasing the fractured al-Itihad, quite literally, into the ocean, forcing some to travel by boat south to Ras Kaambooni and others north to the Port of Boosaaso—known today as the “Capital of Somali Piracy” (Murphy 68). General Aidid maintained a monopoly over violence within Somalia but his popularity peaked when the United States Special Operation Command (SOCOM) lost 18 operators in the infamous Battle of Mogadishu occurring on October 3-4, 1993; another 78 operators were wounded and UH-60 Blackhawk pilot Michael Durant was taken prisoner of war. Meanwhile, al-Itihad’s growing influence would soon match the strength of Aidid and his militia.

In the period following General Aidid’s victory over American SOCOM forces and Somalia’s subsequent decline into civil war through the mid-1990s, a Saudi born national, who established and funded an international jihad against the United States, took an interest in the political landscape of Somalia (Murphy 72). Osama bin Laden introduced his jihadist network, known as al-Qaeda, to the existing members of al-Itihad. According to the 9/11 Commission Report, Osama bin Laden was said to have admitted, “that he and his followers had been preparing in Somalia for another long struggle, like that against the Soviets in Afghanistan” (Kean and Hamilton 72). In fact, in an effort to make the jihadist effort in East Africa a self-sustaining terrorist cell, bin Laden invested in diamond and gold mines throughout the region (Pirio 136). More importantly however, was the fishing company registered out of Mombasa, Kenya that bin Laden had propped up to hide the smuggling of small arms and explosives to his religious zealots (Pirio 137). Together al-Qaeda and al-Itihad planned a series of attacks aimed at hitting Western installations, the targets: U.S. Embassies in Nairobi, Kenya and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Resulting in hundreds of civilian deaths and casualties, al-Qaeda had successfully put itself on the African map of terrorism.

The Islamic Courts Union and the Birth of al-Shabaab

Following the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 in New York City, Shanksville, Pennsylvania, and at the Pentagon, al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden were on the run from the American military and Central Intelligence Agency paramilitary officers (Shroen). As American forces chased the Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters through the Khyber Pass at Tora Bora leading to the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan, al-Itihad was in Somalia building momentum among their ranks to militarize themselves in service of the international jihad. At the behest of al-Itihad leader Colonel Hassan Dahir Aweys, General Aidid’s commander that had defected ten years earlier in Kismayu, the ICU was established and operated by the militia of al-Itihad as well as an authoritarian system of governance known as the Transitional National Government (TNG) (Pirio 70). The ICU proved to be an pressure cooker of extreme religious intolerance embracing a primitive and exacting literal mirror of sharia’ law (Murphy 77). In a shockingly macabre display of sadism a militia representing one of many ICU courts in Mogadishu, led by Adan Hashi Ayro, interred over 700 Italian graves dating to the imperialist days of Somalia demanding the skulls of the departed to be stacked in the streets (Pirio 77). The Italian cemetery transformed into a training camp and represented a tipping-point for the militias of the ICU. Eventually the ICU fell due to international pressures and an invading Ethiopian force backed by a Somali insurgency led by the son of the late General Farah Aidid, Hussein Aidid once U.S. Marine turned Somali warlord (Kampeas, Roggio). From the ashes of the ICU’s collapse arose al-Shabaab; men exiled from their own land, teeming with an anti-imperialist intellectualism, maintaining deep ethnic ties within the Somali clan network, baptized under fire alongside al-Qaeda, and now preaching from the alter of violence.

The Open Markets of al-Shabaab

As a result of the splintered and diverse history of al-Itihad throughout the 1980s and 90s, al-Shabaab is able to maintain ties throughout the Horn of Africa that date back to their era of persecution. These connections exist within the lucrative Boosaaso-based business of piracy, and the refugee camps of displaced people in northeast Kenya. Furthermore, al-Shabaab maintains ties in Kismayu, Jilib, Mogadishu, Nairobi, Kenya and Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. As a result of this vast network, which is predicated upon exciting the nodes of colonial subjugation, al-Shabaab has been able to successfully engage in a variety of illegal markets in order to piece together a comprehensive fundraising campaign based upon collecting Zakat donations like the AIAI once did (Woldemichael 231). Ethnic Somali neighborhoods in foreign countries, specifically Great Britain and the United States, serve as supplementary monetary engines. The truth is, it seems these Zakats are less donation based, as they are taxes levied upon businesses owned by ethnic Somalis.

The coastal town of Kismayu, Somalia has been an al-Shabaab stronghold since the days of the ICU. In years past, al-Shabaab has utilized its network in the shipping industry to tax imports and exports (Boniface, Sabahi Online). According to one source, “al-Shabaab maintains several accountants to devise taxation policies such as $500 per farm per year or $2 per sack of rice that passes through their checkpoints” (Gettleman and Kulish). In September of 2012, the Kenyan Defence Forces took control of Kismayu but it did little to hinder the al-Shabaab’s thriving economic ventures. (Boniface, Sabahi Online). Able to adapt quickly and reengage a different industry within the subject network model, al-Shabaab began smuggling sugar and small arms into the northeastern seaboard of Kenya, an area rife with Somali refugee camps and displaced peoples from the homeland Somalia (Boniface, Sabahi Online). Because refugee camps are areas where disease and violence run rampant, to say nothing of the well-known cases of sexual assault and rape that go without being policed, these camps serve as a breeding ground for al-Shabaab, which offers a way out for many children (Rosen, The Atlantic).

In Nairobi, the Eastliegh neighborhood is home to a Somali population that prides itself on economic independence and stability. Here, billions of Kenyan Shillings are moved annually on black markets out of the purview of the Kenya’s federal government (Oduor, Garowe). Often referred to as the “Little Mogadishu,” reportedly “buying a gun in Eastleigh is as easy as buying a loaf of bread” (Oduor, Garowe). With approximately 680,000 illegal weapons already in Kenya, al-Shabaab has a monopoly over the trafficking of said illegal weapons, though it is unconfirmed as to how many cross the 700km Somali-Kenyan border each year (Gathigah, Inter Press). Ironically, al-Shabaab enjoys a kind of immunity within Eastliegh, despite being the exact kind of menacing group that displaced many of these Somali people out of Somalia and into Kenya’s capital in the first place. Still ivory, weapons, jewelry, humans, and charcoal are traded on the black market for the benefit of al-Shabaab (Gettleman and Kulish,). The unregulated market in Eastleigh, builds a local acceptance and justification for the existence of al-Shabaab because it is the only catalyst creating a consistent and diverse economy.

Critical Vulnerabilities of the Subject Network Model

The subject network model has three critical vulnerabilities that must be addressed by Western policymakers. The first vulnerability is susception to fractured leadership. Because the call to action is based upon a shared history of colonization and subjugation, the application is much wider than the driving ideological connecting-file of being just a Muslim. As a result, the subject network model will incite several actors to take arms, therefore encouraging varying forms of leadership. Though this could be seen by al-Shabaab as a protective measure against Western efforts to eliminate leadership through a single drone strike, it also could create severe fractioning and internal quarreling. Second, the model doesn’t imply a shared goal. Groups of subjugated people may have very different definitions of success. These definitions could include acceptance into a political process, economic reparations for past grievances, or, like in the case of al-Shabaab, the establishment of a Salafi caliphate and the institution of sharia’ law. Without a single unified voice setting goals and priorities, carrying out large-scale attacks on American soil may be impossible for al-Shabaab. The third vulnerability is the blowback effect of awakening of the West. If the West is faced with a rising disenfranchised population, it may launch a new wave of colonization where the diverse cultures of immigrant populations may fall victim to Western attempts of creating nationalist identity. In other words the backlash of exclusion may be inclusion – this is not the stated outcome desired by al-Shabaab.

Exploiting the Vulnerabilities with Policy

Human security being more important than state security on the African continent, policymakers must exploit the vulnerabilities stated above by focusing efforts on three pieces of key human terrain undermining al-Shabaab’s center of gravity (Salih 91). Outreach and engagement within refugee camps is key to stemming large-scale recruitment into the ranks of al-Shabaab. International governmental organizations are the lynchpins to success because they grant Western actors access to demographics and portions of the population otherwise out of reach, in order to, provide simple, charitable gifts of food, education, and access to clean drinking water. Coupled with this material support must be a robust counter-propaganda campaign in the form of traditional Somali poetry that targets the cultural heritage of Somali identity.

The second piece of human terrain to be engaged is clan leadership and warlord commanders by including them into the formation of the new Somali federal government. Various power brokers that are already in existence in Somalia need to be consulted and integrated into the political and physical rebuilding of Somalia. Like in the case of Afghanistan, warlords and clans represent longstanding leadership with indigenous connections that must be utilized to establish legitimacy in the absence of a federal government (Mukopadhyay, TedTalks). In conjunction with this act of inclusion must be a systematic response by Western militaries to exclude Somali pirates from rebuilding efforts and crack down on maritime insecurity in the Gulf of Aden. Somalia should be taxing its waterways, not robbing its potential customers.

Finally, policymakers within the United States, Great Britain, and Kenya need to engage their domestic Somali communities with social programs that foster inclusion predicated upon education. It should be the goal of Western nations to build a renewed sense of nationalism within immigrant communities, and not to draw lines accentuating cultural and religious differences. As a cornerstone of citizenship in the United States, all Americans whether natural born or not, should carry a sense of responsibility to become contributing members of Western society, not a sense of exclusion and isolation.


Tied deeply to the cultural identity of resistance in Somalia and embedded in the rich tradition of gabei poetry, recruiting Western recruits to carry out al-Shabaab operations will continue as long as Somali identity is tied to resistance against Western governments. Connected by a wide all-encompassing network of industries and supported by people with a shared history of persecution by Somali warlords in the 1980s and 90s, al-Shabaab fundraising and monetary support will continue uninhibited as long as black markets and the trend of piracy operate free of internal or external policing. Though the subject network model is a new development for terrorist organizations, the subject identity has been imbued into the minds of those left in the devastating wake of colonialism for many years; manifest in the postcolonial years of chaos and instability that characterizes the Horn of Africa today. As a result of al-Shabaab’s effective manipulation of human terrain predicated upon a shared history of religious, cultural, and economic exploitation by European monarchies of years past, the subject network model is proving to be a malleable organizational structure that will carry ideological and religious fundamentalism into the coming decades.

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About the Author(s)


William Allen is a Partner at Harpoon, a venture portfolio in Menlo Park, California focused on early stage companies in the defense and national security arenas. A graduate of Columbia University and Wheaton College, he served 10 years in the US Marine Corps before going into venture capital. William lives in San Diego, CA and Washington D.C. Views reflected in his writing are his own.