The group identifies as Somali but is actually a global group. Instead of the Somali flag, al-Shabab uses the al-Qaeda banner. It does not recognise Somali borders or any cultural aspect of Somali national identity.
‘Al-Shabab’, an Arabic word meaning ‘the youth’, was carefully chosen to influence the psyche of Somali society and to inspire young people to identify themselves with the term ‘al-Shabab youth’.
The adoption of the Arabic term was also designed to broaden the group's appeal to encourage people of non-Somali backgrounds to join, and al-Shabab has succeeded in recruiting from other nationalities, including about 500 Kenyans.
In terms of recruitment strategies, al-Shabab skilfully entwined two Somali social institutions: Islam and clan. Alongside this, the Somali environment of lawlessness, civil war, violence, poverty, illiteracy, and fragile governments was conducive to breeding radicalisation and extremist views. Al-Shabab portrays itself as a defender of Somali dignity and territorial integrity against what it describes as historical enemies, for example Kenya and Ethiopia.
The vast majority of al-Shabab amniyats (frontline security personnel such as bombers) are very young, some no more than nine years old. They are good at using technology and social media for military operations and recruitment and they target global jihadist youth in languages including English, Arabic and Ksawahili.
Al-Shabab spokesman Sheikh Abulaziz Abu Muscab told al-Jazeera the group targeted the mall because it was the place where international tourists shop, diplomats and elites socialise, Kenyan decision-makers relax and Americans and Jews have business interests. They knew harming these social classes would attract huge media attention, and they achieved it. The enormous coverage will promote their mission globally, enabling a new wave of recruitment.
As has happened in the past, the attack in Nairobi may bring a backlash against the Somali community in Kenya. It is al-Shabab's aim to create division based on religious and ethnic background.
Somali people are weary and wary of al-Shabab's misleading preachers. They need support from the international community. To rebuild Somalia and defeat al-Shabab, it is essential to support the fledging Somali government to rebuild its institutions, security forces, education, and employment. As a step towards this, the centre for dialogue at La Trobe University in partnership with Mogadishu University is developing a grassroots project aiming to train Somali youth in peace capacity building and negotiation.
First published in The Sydney Morning Herald on 27 September 2013.
Dr Yusuf Omar is an affiliated member of the Centre for Dialogue. He is from a Somali background and was a member of African Ministerial Consultative Committee for the former federal government.
Image credit Olli Pitkanen