Globalized Crises: The War in Ukraine and COVID-19’s Impact on Al-Shabaab Recruitment

Mogadishu, Somalia. Image Source: Reuters via The Guardian

East Africa is a terrorist hotbed—surpassing the Middle East, South Asia, and North Africa for the most terrorist deaths in 2022. Sixty percent of the global terrorist attacks in this region occur because of the many Salafi-Jihadist terrorist groups. Al-Shabaab, the second deadliest group of 2022, operates predominantly in Somalia, Kenya, and Uganda. Religion is often assumed to be the predominant factor influencing the recruitment of individuals. However, economic factors have recently emerged as a far more significant recruitment driver. Unfavorable economic conditions, exacerbated by Russia’s war in Ukraine and the COVID-19 pandemic, have shifted the logic for joining from religion to economics. This drastic change needs to be internalized by counterterrorism practitioners to best design policy to quell the radicalization of people in Somalia and across East Africa.

Understanding why and how individuals join these groups is imperative to help stop the cyclical pattern of radicalization. Most of those who go through the radicalization process either: have perceptions of grievances, adopt an extremist narrative or ideology that validates that grievance, or are impacted by social and group dynamics. The United Nations Development Programme spearheaded research in the region to better understand the process and therefore be able to tailor counterterrorism response measures accordingly. In 2017, 40% of respondents from interviews conducted with current and past members of extremist groups across Sub-Saharan Africa (52% of the respondents were from al-Shabaab) labeled the group’s religious views as their primary reason for joining. However, in 2023, the percentage who joined for religious ideas shrunk to only 17%. The principal reason for joining in 2023 was employment opportunities, at 25%. The War on Terror is far from over—understanding this shift in motivation will be crucial for counterterrorist operations to adequately prepare the most effective response given the context of the region.

Terrorism does not always occur within a vacuum. It happens amongst broader violence, including civil war and lack of humanitarian assistance—both ongoing issues within Somalia. The COVID-19 pandemic and the Russian war in Ukraine are two reasons for the worsening economic conditions.

Somalia responded to the pandemic by implementing strict lockdowns and public health measures for the entire population. By June 2020, COVID altered Somali home and business lifestyles. 75% of households reported that they reduced their eating frequency due to the lack of financial resources or accessibility given COVID restrictions. Given the predominance of the livestock market, these restrictions limited the ability to trade and exacerbated families’ food access problems. In 2017, 6.3 million people in Somalia were facing food insecurity; In 2023, this grew to 7.7 million. Furthermore, 70% of the Somali population lived below the international poverty line in 2022. While COVID continues to impact lives all around the globe with no end in sight, the Russian war in Ukraine also has significant impacts on this Eastern African country. Historically, Somalia gets 90% of its grain from Ukraine, but ongoing violence diminished the supply level. The inflation of food prices in Somalia currently hovers around 40%.

COVID and the war in Ukraine pushed the economic crisis in Somalia to a new extreme—the focus now needs to be on state development as the utmost imperative way to combat terrorism in the region. In addition to existing counterterrorism efforts, meeting basic human needs will be a complete, albeit potentially more challenging, solution. Furthermore, systemic solutions to solve Somali infrastructure are needed, such as supporting infrastructure, stabilizing the political system, fixing unemployment, and meeting humanitarian needs. Meeting these needs will take an international team and include outside-state intervention. Therefore, the state(s) getting involved should not be a pre-eminent Western power, given al-Shabaab’s ties with al-Qaeda and the latter group’s emphasis on the far enemy: the West. Instead, the UN or other international body should be a substantial mitigating force in the region. As of February 2023, the UN is already seeking $2.6 billion to assist the Somali population. This aid primarily addresses the vast food insecurity but—hopefully—has secondary effects that mitigate the increase in recruitment based on economic factors.  

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