When Somalia won its independence in 1960, experts hailed it as one of the few countries in sub-Saharan Africa with a bright future because it lacked ethnic divisions and thus constituted one of the region’s few genuine nation-states. But several decades of corrupt and inept rule led to economic collapse and growing divisions within the complex mosaic of clans that form Somali society. State collapse in the early 1990s led to civil war, piracy off the Somali coast, international interventions of varying degrees of success, and eventually the emergence of militant Islamism. By 2010, al Shabab, the most militant of several Islamist groups that claim loyalty to al Qaeda, had gained control of the southern half of the country. It was soon routed by an international force assembled by the African Union. But for a couple of years, al Shabab represented the only al Qaeda affiliate in control of a sizable territory.
This story has not yet been adequately told, so these two exceptional books deserve a broad readership. Fergusson vividly recounts the grotesque horrors of the endless war in Somalia while leavening his account with the gallows humor of some of the war’s participants. He appears to have been more or less embedded with the African Union force in 2010–11 and explains its military success through a series of revealing vignettes. To illustrate how the collapse of the Somali state has had far-reaching consequences, Fergusson also examines the fractious Somali diaspora, from London to Minneapolis, in which there are pockets of support for al Shabab.
Hansen focuses more narrowly on the al Shabab organization and the curious mixture of international Islamist ideology and local concerns it employs to navigate the chaotic politics of Somalia. Its ideological purity was initially a strength, but once it controlled territory, the organization was undermined by its inability to deal with the day-to-day details of governance. Meanwhile, clan divisions within the group hampered its military capabilities. As Hansen argues, the same two forces that have bedeviled Somalia for several decades -- poverty and clan politics -- got the better of al Shabab. Both accounts anticipate al Shabab’s decline and fall but also suggest that the group will remain a force to be reckoned with in the foreseeable future.