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al shabaab

Recent events in Kenya have highlighted once again how senseless and aimless Islamic terrorism has become. Official statements from terrorists groups vow for "revenge against the infidels", but the truth is there is no true political goal behind any of these attacks. Furthermore, extremist Islamists have shifted their targets more and more towards those very same muslim populations they claim they are fighting for. The most blatant example is in Syria where the jihadist international brigades from all over the world target Bashar al Assad in a "holy war" only because he is from an Islamic minority, the Alawites. The fact that Islamic clerics worldwide - be they Sunni, Shiite or whatever - still fail to condemn the killings of muslims by other muslims and the targeting of "infidels" has become intolerable.

Somali terrorism

Al Shabaab, literally "the youth", are now a blacklisted terrorist organization affiliated to Al Qaeda. Their founder is Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, former colonel in the Somali army who defected in the early 90s. In 1996 he founded Al Ittihad al Islami, Somalia's first fundamentalist group. A decade later he would help the Islamic courts take over the Somali capital Mogadishu following a string of U.S. and CIA funded killings targeting the alleged ringleaders of the attacks against American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 and 2002. Hassan Dahir Aweys split from Al Shabaab when he lost its leadership and founded a splinter group, Hizbul al Islam. He has been in the custody of the Somali governments for over two months now. The Somali president Mohamud has still to decide whether to prosecute him or release him.

The rise of Somali extremists was initially funded by local Mogadishu businessmen who wanted to take over the warlords in the management of the city's most lucrative activities: the port, the airport and thus the different trades routes. One of their most prominent supporters was Abukar Omar Addane, a wheel-chaired octogenarian with a red beard who allegedly hosted in his Ramadan Hotel the terrorists Abu Talha al Sudani and Fazul Abdallah Mohamed.

The Union of the Islamic Courts that took over Mogadishu in early 2006 had its most radical branch in the militia of the Ifka Halane court. Their leader was Hassan Dahir Aweys' Afghan trained protégé, Aden Hashi Ayro. Their training camp was initially in Mogadishu's Italian cemetery that had been desecrated for the occasion. The Islamic Courts were ousted in January 2007 by the Ethiopians and the Al Shabaab were pushed out of the capital and resettled in southern Somalia. Ayro was killed by a U.S. drone in Dusamareb in May 2008. Over the last few years they have held control of portions of the territory and, most prominently, of the southern city of Kismayo, which they lost in recent months.

As Ethiopia pulled out and was replaced by the African peacekeeping mission Amisom, Al Shabaab declared their war against foreign occupiers and infidels. The fact that Amisom has supported and continues to support the Transitional Federal Government that has been trying to lead the country out of a 23 years old statelessness is one of the aggravating reasons behind their resilience. Yet, most of Al Shabaab's attacks target Somalis. Ever since in Baidoa in 2006 their first suicide bomber exploded against a government checkpoint, the Somali extremist group has killed dozens of students, public officials and basically anyone attempting to reinstate a rule over the country. In the areas under their control they have applied Taliban-style Sharia with its arsenal of amputations, stonings, ban of music and cinemas and so forth. In a basically 99% muslim country member of the Arab League, Al Shabaab have been waging a war against traditional Sufi Somali Islam.

In other words, their objective of instating an Islamic state in Somalia will come at the expense of Somali muslims first. This has come with the blessing of all those Saudi and Qatari charitable organizations that, over the last 20 years, have been funding and promoting radical Wahabism and Salafism at the expense of Sufism together with those Somali businessman who are still profiting from the war economy and don't want to see their dividends being taken over by a central government.

aden hashi ayro
Aden Hashi Ayro

Terrorism without a goal

Until today Israeli officials label Yasser Arafat as an "archterrorist", as in a recent Op-ed published in the New York Times and signed by the Israeli Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon. Terrorist or freedom fighter, Arafat and his Organization for the Liberation of Palestine had a clear political goal: an independent Palestinian state currently under Israeli occupation. He surely employed terrorist techniques to achieve his goals in what was, an still is, an asymmetric war between one of the most powerful armies in the world and unarmed civilians.

History has plenty of examples of how alleged terrorists have turned into freedom fighters or vice-versa, including now ailing Nobel Peace Prize Nelson Mandela. The common denominators were always similar: a central government allegedly abusing its power or oppressing a minority group or a foreign occupation or colonialism, the absence of democratic means to counter the abuses and thus the resorting to armed opposition and thus terrorism. The underlying ideology could have been Marxism, the search for civil liberties or you name it. But there was always a clear goal: independence, autonomy, a new form of state or freedom from oppression. Whether the motives behind the decision of taking up arms or their aims were legitimate or not, there was always the idea that those fighting were representing their people and trying to do some good for them.

On the other hand, Islamic extremist groups have a tendency to confuse who they are really representing. Ideally it is the Umma, the muslim nation, they are fighting for. But there is very little they are doing to truly unite and bring together all muslims. They have used the banner of Islam as a tool to fight foreign occupations - like in Afghanistan first against the Soviets and then against the U.S. lead coalitions or as Hamas and Hezbollah have been doing against the Israelis - in what can be seen as an understandable reason to fight. This does not mean one justifies suicide attacks, but it is easy to spot the reasons inspiring them.

But if the war on terrorism can be considered over - after all Al Qaeda has been kicked out of Afghanistan, Osama bin Laden is dead, his successor Zayman al Zawahiri offers an ideological umbrella for those groups still looking up to "the base" and nothing more - its tocsins are still well and alive. Now the target has become the establishment of Islamic theocratic states, just like in Iran, but as opposed to the Iranians, with a Sunni rule. These fundamentalist movements have gradually shifted to Salafist and Wahabi instances - and have often lead the movements of the Arab Spring - waging a jihad against anyone opposing their political programs. But as has progressively happened in most muslim countries, the move to a politicized version of Islam has too often ended with the targeting of other fellow muslims. Whether from a different current of belief - Sunnis as opposed to Shiites as in Iraq's ongoing civil war - or because considered too secular - as in Tunisia for example - extremists have waged a holy war against other compatriots and believers of their same God.

Jihad in Syria

The most blatant example is in Syria. Invisible Dog has gone at lengths at describing the geopolitical context surrounding the fight to overthrow President Bashar al Assad. But what began over two years ago as a legitimate political struggle by opposition groups to get rid of a decades long dynastic dictatorship, has now turned into something different.

If taking up arms against an autocratic ruler in the struggle for democracy can be understood. Turning this conflict into a holy war attracting foreign legions of radicals to fight a minority sect of Islam - the Alawites from where the Assad's originate - is a totally different story. Once again, the banner of Islam is used against other fellow muslims. And, just like in neighboring Iraq, the meaning of a struggle is lost along the way and is progressively replaced by a meaningless fight in the name of a common religion, but against alleged infidels worshipping the same god.

The very fact that there has been infighting between different rebel groups in Syria is significant. The recent truce brokered between the Free Syrian Army - the umbrella organization grouping opposition groups - and the Al Qaeda front group ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) signals a friction between two inevitably conflicting views on the future of Syria. Although sharing a common objective, it is hard to believe that all those non-Syrian extremists fighting on the ground are there to grant the Syrians a better democratic tomorrow. It is not hard to predict their personal struggle will continue until they install a leadership that responds to their "islamic" criteria.

boko haram
Boko Haram

Islamic democracy

The underlying question is whether Islam and democracy are two concepts that can cohabit under the same sun. For too long we were lead to believe there were irreconcilable differences and pointed to those theocracies or monarchies were Islam is used as a pretext to impose oligarchic or autocratic rules. But we forgot of democratic examples like in Northern Nigeria where Sharia law has been imposed since 2000, but where the rule of law - both at a local level and at the federal one - has prevented religious-based abuses. And it is not a coincidence that the north of Nigeria has been witnessing the rise of terrorist group Boko Haram in those very same states where Sharia is already part of the code. Once again, extremists believe their personal view of Islam is "better" than the rest.

Any religion has a set of behavioral norms that it tries to impose on its followers. The 10 commandments given by God to Moses were a first example of what had to be avoided in order to reduce conflicts (don't steal, kill or take someone else's woman). The Koran and the Sunnas revealed to Prophet Mohamed went a step further and codified a series of social, civil and penal norms. Penalties and punishments were added to the single provisions. But the fact that they were spelled out over 14 centuries ago doesn't mean they cannot be adapted to our contemporary society without them losing their original meaning. Those who preach Salafism and thus end up tangled with terrorism expect us to live in the 6th century when the world has moved forward. They might not like it, but they can't avoid it.

What is really lacking is an Islamic clergy indicating the path aligning beliefs and democracy. An Islamic renaissance capable of combining both the secular and religious demands coming from within muslim societies. And if they have to be Sharia based, it doesn't mean they have to give up all those checks and balances provided by rule of law. The same goes for the different currents of Islam, whose differences cannot be solely reduced to picking the rightful descendants to the Prophet. Sunni and Shiite infighting does not have any sense from an Islamic point of view. The targeting of other fellow muslims and non-believers should be ended. And it is time those who bear the moral authority over other muslims - be they in Cairo, Mecca or Tehran - raise their voices or else they will continue to be considered way too tolerant and accommodating with those waving the flag of Islam to perpetrate senseless crimes against humanity.