What is al-Shabab? 

Just like youth everywhere else in the world, al-Shababies tend to annoy and/or frighten the grown-ups they encounter

If you don’t know the name al-Shabab, you soon might. That’s because this column is about al-Shabab, and you have apparently chosen to continue reading it. See how I did that?

Al-Shabab is a Somalia-based Islamist group. The name seems to be appearing in American news stories with increasing frequency. “Al-Shabab” roughly translates as “the youth.” It appears in English news stories using many spellings. The most common alternate spellings are al-Shabaab and al-Shebab. Shebab, hebab and webab! Ibab, youbab and theybab!

Just like youth everywhere else in the world, al-Shababies tend to annoy and/or frighten the grown-ups they encounter. They’re disrespectful of traditional authority, loud, aggressive, and prone to driving around with their buddies causing trouble. If Somalia had shopping malls, you could be certain al-Shababies would be seated near the Cinnabon, heckling elderly passers-by.

The main difference between the youth of al-Shabab and, say, the youth found in most American cities is the precise nature of the ruckus they cause.

While typical American youths are sedentary beasts who spend several hours a week playing Activision’s Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, al-Shababies spend their entire week on their active vision and call of duty to wage modern warfare, too.

You see, al-Shabab is more than a mere fundamentalist group. It’s an armed militia. And they’re so frightening to the United States that our State Department has placed them on its prestigious list of international terrorist groups.

There’s a bit of sad irony in American fear of al-Shabab, because it was American foreign policy that gave them their big break.

In late 2006, the U.S. sponsored and participated in an invasion of Somalia by neighboring Ethiopia. The goal of the invasion was to topple the so-called Union of Islamic Courts that had taken control of much of southern Somalia. As genuinely horrible as the UIC’s fundamentalist rule was, it was the closest thing Somalis had to central government in a generation. The UIC imposed a semblance of order in the towns it controlled and, not coincidentally, Somali pirate raids on merchant ships passing the Horn of Africa largely ceased during the months of the UIC’s 2006 heyday.

The U.S.-Ethiopian invasion succeeded in toppling the UIC. But just like in Iraq and Afghanistan, our invasion force proved incapable of providing order. Al-Shabab was bolstered by the post-invasion chaos. Starting out as the UIC’s youth brigades, they came into their own in 2006 — spearheading the guerilla insurgency that helped drive out Ethiopian troops earlier this year.

In 2007, al-Shabab went international by claiming an alliance with al-Qaida. The extent of al-Shabab’s ties to al-Qaida aren’t exactly clear. It’s not like they publish flow charts.

Reports estimate al-Shabab has thousands of fighters. The bulk are focused on local issues — worried about what’s going on in their towns, families and clans. The al-Shababies that the U.S. fears, however, are the ambitious traveling-types — the foreign fighters who’ve journeyed to Somalia to wage so-called holy war in the name of Islam. Among them, the FBI believes, are two dozen or so Americans of Somali origin.

For several years, the U.S.’s anti-al-Shabab strategy has been to swoop in every once in a while with jets, helicopters and guided missiles to “take out” top al-Shabab leaders. The U.S. media enjoys explosions. But what’s being accomplished?

Last month, U.S. special forces reportedly killed an al-Shababi believed to have been involved in a 2002 attack in Mombasa, Kenya. Great, I suppose. But back in 2007, the U.S. killed a top al-Shababi thought to have helped attack U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998. Al-Shabab’s power didn’t wane, though. It grew.

The Obama administration is showing signs that it understands the futility of its current fly-swatting. Obama and Co. have voiced nominal support for former UIC bigwig Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, elected this year to be President of Somalia’s doesn’t-actually-control-any-territory-yet-is-internationally-recognized official government. Bush kicked out the UIC and al-Shabab got stronger. Maybe bringing back the UIC will weaken them. We’ll see.

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