The Growing Relationship between Iran and al-Shabab Movement in Somalia: Motives and Potential Consequences

​Ahmed Askar | 28 Jul 2020

In recent years, there have been increasing signs that Iran and Al-Shabaab have been growing closer. Iran is aspiring to expand its influence and its activities throughout the Horn of Africa and the Red Sea region by strengthening its ties to emerging movements and organizations, such as the Houthis in Yemen and Al-Shabaab in Somalia, and using these groups to achieve its strategic goals and create a new balance between the regional and international powers active in the region. This poses a clear threat to security and stability in the region and to these powers’ strategic interests; they have therefore been forced to work together to attempt to sever the ties between Tehran and Al-Shabaab and prevent further instability in the region.

What are the signs that Iran and Al-Shabaab are working together?

For Iran, working with non-State actors such as Al-Shabaab and the Houthis is an essential part of its foreign policy, aimed at expanding its geopolitical influence throughout the region.[1] Tehran has developed an unspoken alliance with Al-Shabaab with the aim of creating a covert intelligence network that will allow it to achieve its goals and support its interests in the Middle East and Africa. There are several pieces of evidence that  point to this growing relationship:

- Iran and Al-Shabaab may choose to set aside their ideological and doctrinal differences and work together pragmatically to achieve mutual goals, just as Iran and Al-Qaida have been able to set aside the Sunni–Shia conflict at various points in their history and focus instead on confronting their common enemies, primarily the West and the United States of America. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard first worked with Al-Qaida in Bosnia between 1992 and 1995, during which time, under the cover of the Iranian Red Cross, it provided military training to Al-Qaida fighters, as revealed by former head of the Revolutionary Guard Saeed Ghasemi in a television interview in April 2019. Between 2003 and 2011, Iran also funded attacks by Al-Qaida against US troops in Iraq. By developing direct relations with Al-Shabaab, Al-Qaida’s representatives in the Horn of Africa, Iran is able to directly threaten US interests in the Red Sea and Africa, for example by using Al-Shabaab to transport shipments of Iranian weapons to Hamas in Gaza.[2]

- Iran and Al-Shabaab have a mutually beneficial relationship; while Tehran provides the group with material and logistical support, in return Al-Shabaab supplies Iran with uranium from mines under its control, for use in its nuclear program. Iran can also use Al-Shabaab to threaten and disrupt international maritime navigation in the Red Sea.[3]

- The United Nations Security Council has confirmed that, since 2017, Iran has been sending arms shipments to Somalia, specifically to Al-Shabaab, in exchange for large quantities of uranium. Puntland is the main entry point for illicit weapons into Somalia. In 2017, the UN Monitoring Group on Somalia reported that arms were being smuggled into Puntland either on large vessels travelling from Makran in Iran via the Indian Ocean, or in smaller boats from Yemen. The Group also identified that weapons were being smuggled from Kuh-e Kafan Dela in Iran to Alula in Puntland. One of the shipments identified was destined for Islamic State (Da’esh) forces in the Bari region of Puntland.[4] A further report indicated that, in March 2017, a French vessel had seized an Iranian ship in the Indian Ocean that had been transporting weapons from North Korea to Somalia.[5] The Horn of Africa therefore serves as a connecting point between Iran, Somalia, and Yemen. Tehran has been sending increasingly large quantities of Iranian-made weapons through Somalia to Yemen and to some terrorist organizations in Africa.[6]

- In August 2017, the Somali federal government requested urgent US military intervention to prevent Al-Shabaab from sending further uranium shipments to Iran, as Al-Shabaab is one of Tehran’s main providers of the fuel.[7] In a message to the Trump administration, former Somali Minister of Foreign Affairs Yusuf Garaad Omar confirmed that Al-Shabaab was supplying Iran with uranium from mines under its control in Galmudug province. Some sources estimate that Al-Shabaab provides Iran with 10% of the uranium required for its nuclear program.[8]

- According to Somali officials, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard is the main Iranian organization active in Somalia. Its Quds Force maintains ties with criminal networks, which it uses to circumvent US sanctions in order to smuggle Iranian oil into Somalia and other African countries. The Quds Force also funds militant groups in Yemen and Somalia. Iran is also using Al-Shabaab to transport weapons to the Houthi revels in Yemen and to other African countries, such as Kenya, Tanzania, South Sudan, Mozambique, and the Central African Republic.[9]

- Somali military officials within the Ministry of Defense have indicated that Iranian funds and weapons may have been used in the attacks carried out by Al-Shabaab between 2019 and 2020 in Somalia and northern Kenya against US military bases and against EU military forces in Mogadishu, following Al-Shabaab’s earlier announcement that it would be targeting US interests and citizens around the world.[10] Some Somali troops who have clashed with Al-Shabaab in their strongholds have discovered Iranian-made weapons, bombs, and chemical devices. Some observers have suggested that the rise in attacks by Al-Shabaab in recent years was made possible by their acquisition of weapons from foreign sources, primarily Iran and certain parties in Yemen.

- According to UN reports, Al-Shabaab is using Iran as a transit point for the illegal export of Somali coal. In a report issued in October 2018 on Tehran’s violation of UN sanctions imposed since 2012 to prevent the export of Somali coal, one of Al-Shabaab’s main sources of income, the UN revealed that Al-Shabaab had been sending coal shipments to Iranian territories to prepare them for export under false Iranian identity documents.[11] The illicit coal trade in Somalia is valued at around $150 million per year.[12] By imposing unofficial taxes at checkpoints, roadblocks, and ports, Al-Shabaab has been able to generate between $8 million and $18 million in income per year, according to estimates.[13]

Why are Iran and Al-Shabaab working together?

  • Driving factors for Iran:

- Iran wants to extend its presence in Africa, and in the Horn of Africa in particular, as part of its wider goal of gaining global geopolitical power and of increasing Iranian trade and investment in Africa in order to circumvent the isolation measures imposed on the country.[14] Iran is therefore seeking to increase its maritime presence in the Red Sea near the Bab al-Mandab Strait, in order to enhance its strategic control over the area and boost its influence over another of the world’s most important straits (in addition to the Strait of Hormuz). Iran is working with armed organizations such as the Houthis in Yemen and Al-Shabaab in Somalia to that end.[15]

- Iran wants to recruit Al-Shabaab and link it to other Iranian-sponsored movements in West Africa, especially in Nigeria. It will then be able to use the group to launch attacks against Israeli, US, and Western interests throughout the continent. In 2019, various sources reported that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard was attempting to plant terrorist cells in various African countries, including Sudan, Chad, Ghana, Niger, Gambia, and the Central African Republic.[16]

- Iran is also seeking to create parallel alliances with Sunni and Shia armed groups in the region (primarily Al-Shabaab and the Houthis) to enhance its influence there. By developing two military wings in the region, the Iranian presence will be able to weather any pressures faced, unlike any of the other regional powers.[17] Iran hopes to extend its influence from the Sahara to the Somali coast, via the Gulf of Aden and the Bab al-Mandab Strait, as this would provide an important transport route for smuggling Iranian weapons to armed organizations and governments in Africa, and would allow Iran to increase its presence in important maritime areas, such as the Red Sea.

- Iran is also motivated by profit. The Horn of Africa is one of the main routes for smuggling weapons to other countries and to armed organizations in eastern and central Africa and the African Great Lakes region, as well as to Yemen across the Red Sea.[18] Iran is using Somalia to smuggle Iranian weapons to various organizations in Africa, and to serve as a base for training terrorist elements with the aim of undermining regional stability and threatening the strategic interests of the Arab and Gulf States and the international powers.

- By maintaining the threat over international maritime navigation in the Red Sea, Iran hopes to be able to force the USA to move part of its maritime fleet currently stationed in the Strait of Hormuz in order to secure the area around the Bab al-Mandab Strait.[19]

- Iran wants to circumvent the US sanctions imposed on countries that trade with it, in order to ensure the continued export of Iranian oil and gas to African countries such as Kenya and Tanzania. Kenya has been one of the biggest importers of Iranian liquefied gas since 2016.[20]

- Iran is seeking to punish certain countries in the Horn of Africa – such as Somalia, Djibouti, and Sudan – that have severed diplomatic relations with Tehran over the past five years or that participated in the Saudi Arabia-led Operation Decisive Storm against the Houthis in Yemen.[21]

- The ideological rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia is one of the main drivers behind Iran’s desire to exert its influence over the Horn of Africa. Iran is seeking to curb and undermine the strategic interests and activities of the Gulf States in the Horn of Africa and the Red Sea, especially given the recent progress made by those States in Africa, in particular Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

- Iran is targeting Israeli interests in the region, given its long-standing tensions with Israel over the Middle East, and Israel’s accusation that Iran is the world’s greatest threat.[22]

- Iran wishes to target US and Western interests in Somalia and the Horn of Africa in retaliation for the killing of Qasem Soleimani, former head of the Quds Force, who was assassinated in a US airstrike in Iraq in January 2020.[23] Although neither party wants to engage in direct combat, tensions have mounted to the brink of an all-out proxy war,[24] in particular following Iran’s pledge that it would seek revenge for what it described as criminal action, and its warning that it would target all US military bases that threatened Iranian interests.[25]

- Tehran poses a threat to the world powers, given the growing regional and international battle for the Horn of Africa. Tehran may see this conflict as an opportunity to settle political scores, using its proxies in the region to undermine the strategic interests of its opponents, such as Washington.[26] This would be a far less costly alternative to direct confrontation; proxy warfare is often much cheaper, as it involves a degree of secrecy that allows for considerable bargaining.

  • Driving factors for Al-Shabaab:

- Al-Shabaab believes that, by strengthening its relationship with Iran, it may be able to gain a qualitative advantage over Da’esh, which is seeking to expand its influence throughout the Horn of Africa at the expense of Al-Qaida.[27]

- Al-Shabaab wants to ensure that it continues to receive funding and weapons to enable it to continue its activities in Somalia and the wider region. This would strengthen its position, enabling it to attract new recruits and reduce defections to Da’esh. The group is also keen to extend its geographical control to areas in central and southern Somalia, given the poor security situation in the country and the weakness of the Somali army.

- Al-Shabaab has been able to continue its illicit trade in Somali coal using Iranian ports as transit points and Iranian ships and documentation as cover.

- Al-Shabaab wants to dominate terrorist activities in East Africa and become the largest Al-Qaida network on the continent. It also wants to achieve a qualitative advantage over Somali and African forces, as this would make it more attractive regionally and internationally.

- With Iranian support, the group has been able to establish ties and networks with numerous extremist organizations both in and out of Africa, such as the Houthis in Yemen and Hezbollah in Lebanon.

- It has also been able to acquire new regional allies, and it hopes to benefit from training by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard in the future.

- Al-Shabaab is seeking revenge for the increasing number of US air attacks against its strongholds and leaders in the areas under its control, and wants to conduct further attacks against foreign forces and international strategic interests in Somalia and the wider region.

- Al-Shabaab wants to escalate its terrorist activities against certain countries and international interests in order to prove its ability to affect the security situation in the Horn of Africa, thereby increasing its strategic value regionally and internationally.

- Lastly, it wants to send a message to the world that it is able to adapt, persist, and build alliances, despite the decade of pressure imposed on it by various regional and international actors.

African and international positions

The African position: Most countries in the Horn of Africa are opposed to Iran’s activities in the region; for them, Iran poses a threat to the region’s stability and security. Since 2015, various States, such as Djibouti, Somalia, Sudan, and Eritrea, have severed diplomatic relations with Tehran. Many African States are also afraid to work with Tehran publicly and directly because of US sanctions. Countries such as Kenya – which currently enjoys good bilateral relations with both Iran and the USA – are also afraid of becoming a platform for Tehran to settle the political score with Washington, following the killing of Qasem Soleimani in early 2020. Somalia has even called directly on the USA to help prevent Al-Shabaab from smuggling uranium to Iran.

The Arab position: The consensus among the Arab States is to reject Iranian threats to, and interference in, the internal affairs of Arab countries in East Africa (namely Somalia, Sudan, and Djibouti). In 2019, the Arab Parliament launched a unified Arab strategy for dealing with Iran.[28]

The international position: The international powers are concerned that Iran poses a threat to international navigation in the Red Sea, and that it is seeking to gain strategic control over the Bab al-Mandab Strait, through which around 12% of all international trade, especially oil, passes each year.[29] They are further concerned by Iran’s financing of terrorist and extremist organizations throughout Africa, and by the growing strength of the Houthis in Yemen thanks to Iranian support. This poses a clear threat to the strategic interests of the international forces active in the region,[30] and has forced them to increase their presence in order to counter Iranian threats, combat terrorist organizations, and guarantee the security of the Red Sea and the smooth flow of international trade.

Repercussions

Al-Shabaab: As mentioned earlier, Al-Shabaab benefits from its relationship with Tehran. As a local movement with regional goals, having a relationship and shared interests with a regional power has helped the group to promote itself and conduct further attacks against the interests and military forces of the regional powers in the region, thereby staking its claim on the map of global jihadism. In addition, it receives additional material and logistical support, which has enabled it to increase its influence in Somalia and the Horn of Africa, attract new followers, and limit the activities of Da’esh in Somalia.

Somalia: Despite having severed diplomatic relations with Iran in 2016, Mogadishu continues to be negatively affected by Iranian intervention in its internal affairs, which poses a threat to Somali national security.[31] By providing Al-Shabaab with funds and weapons, Iran has given the group an advantage over the Somali national army, which has thus far failed to suppress Al-Shabaab. Somalia has also become the site of a proxy war between Iran and its agents on the one hand, and the regional and international stakeholders opposed to Iran’s presence in the region on the other. Iranian vessels have taken advantage of the inability of the Somali federal government to protect its coastline along the Red Sea, threatening Somalia’s fishing industry and maritime and food security. Between January 2019 and April 2020, the Somali authorities recorded more than 100 Iranian vessels fishing illegally in Somali waters.[32]

The Horn of Africa: Iran’s activities pose a threat to the security of States around the Red Sea and the Bab al-Mandab Strait, and to international navigation.[33] Military activities are likely to increase, and conflicts may erupt between regional and international parties over the security of the Red Sea and the countries that border it. Given the persistent regional differences between States in the region, Iranian activities may drive a political wedge between those that support Iran’s presence and those that are opposed to it. The Horn of Africa also remains hostage to terrorist threats and militant organizations. Al-Shabaab is a particular threat in Somalia and some neighbouring countries, given the continued flow of funding and support that it receives, and the persistent fragility of the national armed forces and security services in the region.

International powers active in the region: The international powers are primarily concerned by the threat posed to their strategic interests in the Horn of Africa and the Red Sea, and the targeting of their military forces involved in conducting counterterrorism operations and maintaining peace and security in certain countries in the region. Some international powers may be drawn into skirmishes with Iran, and terrorism will continue to pose a threat throughout the Horn of Africa.

What is the future of the relationship between Iran and Al-Shabaab?

  • For Iran, the Horn of Africa is likely to remain a strategically important region with regard to the Iranian security agenda, and one of the main battlegrounds in which Iran can confront its regional and international opponents, such as the USA, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Israel. Tehran will therefore be keen to continue to form regional alliances that will benefit its strategic interests and enhance its influence on the region.
  • Al-Shabaab will continue to pursue a closer relationship with Iran to ensure the continued flow of Iranian weapons and funding to it, with a view to establishing itself as the dominant power in East Africa, even if this means losing credibility among the local Sunni community.
  • Although many countries in the region have rejected Iranian involvement, particularly its covert partnership with Al-Shabaab, they will need regional and international powers to take the lead on combating Iran.
  • International efforts to combat Iran’s presence in the Horn of Africa and sever its ties to Al-Shabaab will be crucial in the coming months. They will need to target sources of Iranian funding for Al-Shabaab, prevent the group from receiving material and logistical support, and expand the scope of international sanctions against individuals, groups, and organizations that facilitate Iran’s activities in Somalia. They will also need to increase monitoring in the Red Sea and along the Somali coast, and prevent Iranian ships from smuggling weapons to Al-Shabaab for later transport into Yemen and other African countries. Lastly, they will need to support the efforts of the Somali government to strengthen the capability of the national army to combat Al-Shabaab.

References

[1] Mareike Transfeld, “Iran’s Small Hand in Yemen”, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 14 February 2017. Available at: https://bit.ly/2ORrVlO.

[2] Yossi Mansharof, “Iran’s Transnational Terrorist Networks”, Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, 25 November 2019. Available at: https://bit.ly/2Efl6s7.

[3] Suhaib Abdulrahman, “لماذا تخرق إيران حظر السلاح وتدعم الإرهابيين في الصومال؟” [Why is Iran Violating the Arms Embargo and Supporting Terrorism in Somalia?], Hafryat, 2 August 2018. Available at: https://bit.ly/30FZxsk.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Mogadishu Center for Research and Studies, “الأمم المتحدة تتهم إيران بتسليح جماعات مسلحة في الصومال” [UN Accuses Iran of Equipping Armed Groups in Somalia], 15 November 2017. Available at: https://bit.ly/39sG4PS.

[6] Martin Plaut, “Trump’s Assassination of Iran’s General: Repercussions for the Horn”, Eritrea Hub, 3 January 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/2ZUutWE.

[7] Robier El-Fares, “Iran Recruited Somalia’s Al-Shabab to Smuggle Weapons to Houthis: Study”, The Reference, 19 December 2018. Available at: https://bit.ly/3jAVzK8.

[8] Abdulrahman, ibid.

[9] Muhammad Fraser-Rahim, “In Somalia, Iran Is Replicating Russia’s Afghan Strategy”, Foreign Policy, 17 July 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/30JC49v.

[10] Abdulrahman, ibid.

[11] Asharq Al-Awsat, “Iran is a Trade Transit Point for Somali Terrorist Movement”, 10 October 2018. Available at: https://bit.ly/2E4Nj4D.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Mohsen Hassan, “تجارة الفحم بين الاقتصاد والمناخ والأمن الإقليمي.. الصومال أنموذجًا” [The Coal Trade and the Economy, the Climate, and Regional Security: The Somalia Model], Mogadishu Center for Research and Studies, 19 August 2019. Available at: https://bit.ly/32Rze4Z.

[14] SMT Studies Center, “Turkey and Iran… And the Influence of Conflicts in the Horn of Africa”, 21 January 2018. Available at: https://bit.ly/2OShazE.

[15] Anthony Chibarirwe and Callum Wood, “Ethiopia–Eritrea Accord: Iran’s Opportunity?”, Watch Jerusalem, 6 August 2018. Available at: https://bit.ly/32Ns1Tx.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Hashem al-Najar, “حركة الشباب الصومالية توثق علاقاتها بإيران على حساب تركيا” [Somalia’s Al-Shabaab Strengthens Relationship with Iran at Turkey's Expense], Al-Arab, 20 January 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/39tC9C0.

[18] Chibarirwe and Wood, ibid.

[19] El-Fares, ibid.

[20] Allan Olingo, “Kenya and Tanzania Fear Impact of Sanctions, Stop Tehran Oil, Gas Imports”, The East African, 29 September 2018. Available at: https://bit.ly/2OS43ya.

[21] Hassan Al Mustafa, “Saudi Diplomacy Distances Iran from Horn of Africa”, Al Arabiya, 20 May 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/2CWKW3x.

[22] Africa News, “Iran is the World's Greatest Threat, Says Netanyahu”, 18 February 2018. Available at: https://bit.ly/3eNITvO.

[23] International Crisis Group, “The Urgent Need for a U.S.–Iran Hotline”, Briefing 77, 23 April 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/2Edl2sR.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Aggrey Mutambo, “US-Iran Hostility Recipe for Instability in Horn of Africa”, The East African, 12 January 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/2OLHHhY.

[26] Plaut, ibid.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Mogadishu Center for Research and Studies, “البرلمان العربي بصدد إعداد استراتيجية عربية موحدة للتعامل مع التدخلات الإيرانية في الشؤون العربية” [Arab Parliament Develops United Arab Strategy for Dealing with Iranian Interference in Arab Affairs], 7 March 2019. Available at: https://bit.ly/32W8UXp.

[29] Abdulrahman, ibid.

[30] European Eye on Radicalization, “Maritime Terrorism: A Rising Threat from Al-Qaeda and Iranian Proxies”, 14 May 2019. Available at: https://bit.ly/32RnoI2.

[31] Muzeyen Hawas Sebsebe, “The Turmoil in Yemen and its Long-Term Implications on Iran’s Horn of Africa Policy”, ANKASAM. Available at: https://bit.ly/2WQnQm7.

[32] Christian Fernsby, “Horn of Africa: Somalia Flagged More than 100 Iranian Ships Fishing Illegally”, Post Online Media, 25 June 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/30IUKpJ.

[33] Michael Connell, Farzin Nadimi, and John Miller, “Iran’s Asymmetric Naval Response to ‘Maximum Pressure’”, Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 10 June 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/3fPPlnj.

 

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