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  • Writer's pictureRobbie Sutton

Episode 25. Somalia (Al Shabaab, Pirates andNuclear Waste)

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Somalia is often referred to as a failed state, with the nation being fractured into 4 parts, facing piracy and with Al Shabaab controlling large chunks of the country, but Somalia seems to be getting back on its feet now. What will this mean for the rest of East Africa, and who might be working to knock Somalia back down? We speak to our panel of experts about the regional ramifications.



Omar Mahmood

  • Senior Analyst for the Crisis Group, focused on Somalia and Chad

  • Former member of the Institute of Security Studies

  • Former member of the Peace Corps

Degan Ali

  • Executive Director of humanitarian organisation ADESO

Alex De Waal

  • Executive Director of the World Peace Foundation at Tufts University

  • Research Professor at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy

  • Author of The Real Politics of the Horn of Africa


Part 1: A Failed State? (1:36)

  • The International Community has principally focused its efforts in Somalia on "resurrecting" the central government from its post-1991 collapsed state, which has been partially done, the new state still lacking much of the legitimacy it needs. This process was complicated by alternative sources of power, the warlords, the tribes, the insurgencies, each staking their own claims. Omar Mahmood argues that despite the progress that has been made in the last 5-10 years, perhaps even another generation is needed before the government is fully accepted by the populace and capable of governing effectively.

  • 'Greater Somalia' once dominated the horn of Africa, but since the 1800's was divided between European Colonial Powers, its territory today comprising the Republic of Somalia, Djibouti, and parts of Ethiopia (Ogaden) and Kenya. Modern Somalia was split between Britain and Italy, and Britain's portion now roughly corresponds with the breakaway region of Somaliland. Nationalist politics have driven conflict with both Ethiopia and Kenya during the Cold War. The failure of especially the Ogaden War fatally weakened Siad Barre's socialist government, and set the stage for the collapse and subsequent foreign interventions of the early 90's.

  • We discuss President Bill Clinton's decision to send in America Troops. Somalia at the time was increasingly divided between clan militias, food insecurity was rampant, and the 'unipolar moment' enabled the US gov to see its military power as a means to resolved civil conflict and ensure regional stability. This proved to be a largely false assumption, and international forces found themselves unprepared for the conflict they would face, becoming in effect a party to the civil war and failing to make progress.

  • A rough sort of federalist politics has emerged since the 90's with more local political structures developing in parts of the country, such as Jubaland and Puntland, claiming a degree of autonomy and local governance. However, this arrangement is very ad hoc, and no formal settlement or structure exists between them and the central government. The region of Somaliland has gone further and now actively claims formal independence.

  • We also discuss the Islamist al-Shabaab insurgency, a jihadist militia and terrorist network based in Southern Somalia and aligned with al-Qaeda, and whose governing aspirations makes it a more direct competitor with the government. We explore the history of the group and its conflicts with both the government and other local actors, as well as the course of, and regional dynamics surrounding the African Union Peacekeeping Mission.


Part 2: There's Something in the Water (30:58)

  • With Degan Ali we examine the economic conditions in Somalia and the prospects for its citizens. Agriculture still forms the main means of subsistence and economic activity for most Somalis in the inland regions. The Piracy for which Somalia has become infamous was actually fairly narrow is scope, emerging principally from a militarisation of a dispute between Somali fishermen and international illegal trawlers. A few successful ransom payments led quickly to many young people seeking similar 'easy money', and ironically led to an improved fishing industry as foreigners were scared off. A combination of external legal and military responses and social pressure at home formed the main deterrents against piracy.

  • We explore how the Islamic Courts Union (a progenitor to al-Shabaab, which emerged as the ICU's youth wing) was able to establish a degree of security in Mogadishu and southern Somalia, even enabling humanitarian aid to be distributed with co-optation or gatekeeping by clan politics, which goes a long way towards explaining the group's longevity and continued support in some sectors.


Part 3: Brick by Brick (48:38)

  • Somali culture has traditionally linked itself together via recognised lines of patrilineal descent, forming political and social clans, but today this has been augmented by modern mobile phone and financial networks, which even extend into wider east Africa and beyond. With Alex De Waal we consider the regional and geopolitical dynamics in which Somali is enmeshed.

  • We consider the role that the War on Terror played in fostering the current situation, first via the American use of remote air and drone strikes against individuals it deemed linked to terrorist and extremist actors, and the 2006 invasion by Ethiopia aimed against al-Shabaab. These campaigns inflamed sections of Somali society and drove recruitment for the Jihadist group.

  • We also discuss the complicated historical and geopolitical relationship between Somali and its main neighbours Ethiopia and Kenya. They desire an orderly Somali, but have sometimes competing visions for that order. Additionally, they have little interest in a particularly strong Somalia, with memories of previous wars waged to rebuild "Greater Somalia".

  • Middle Eastern actors such as Turkey, Qatar (in support of the Muslim Brotherhood), Saudi Arabia (to oppose the Muslim Brotherhood) and the UAE, have also sought to establish their own influence. These competing foreign influencers have not improved the internal coherence of the Somali state and security apparatus, with different elements and units have their own sponsor.

  • The Somali Diaspora plays its own role in Somali Politics, allowing for links to be formed between Somalia and Europe and the US. Somali's have learned to peruse their own immediate interests by playing off external actors against one another. Although many Somalis do desire a coherent, national approach to politics, the confused situation has so far stymied.

  • Al-Shabaab has also drawn some degree of its financing from foreign supporters and sympathisers, particularly from those in the Gulf, but this stream was largely cut off after they made their affiliation with al-Qaeda public.

  • The weakness of the Somali state throughout the 90's opened a space for corporate actors to essentially do as they pleased, sometimes with the tacit support of their governments. Activities ranging from illegal over-fishing (leading to the devastation of fisheries and the rise of piracy discussed earlier) to the dumping of rubbish and even nuclear waste into Somali waters.


The Red Line's Somalia Reading List:

We’ve put together some further reading for those of you looking for more resources to help you get across the geopolitics of Somalia.




For episode transcripts, monthly geopolitics Q&A’s, member-only videos and to support the show, check out our Patreon here:

This episode is dedicated to Patreon member Josie Turner.


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