I took my niece to Water Babies in central London earlier this month. It was during the heatwave. The sun was beaming in a cloudless sky which represented the height of the British summer this year. It was early October, which was quite normal for Britain. As they'd say on operations, no doubt, SNAFU.
After Water Babies, I sat in the lounge, rocking the pram, waiting for a friend to come out of the changing room. At the kiosk were the administrators (two) and beside them were cleaners (two). They were talking in heavily accented English and their conversation was concerning the Shabaab (the Youth, Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen, "The Mujahideen Youth Movement" حركة الشباب المجاهدين). Like the rogue I am, I listened in - I'd say eavesdropped, but they were speaking so loudly, only Rihanna's 'Man Down' on iPod may have prevented it from reaching my eardrums.
One of the cleaners was a great fan of the Shabaab, in particular their attempt to implement sharia. She was no fan of the anti-Shabaab forces, which include Western special forces trainers and advisors and an American private contractor, Bancroft Global Development. It makes me think how devalued the al-Qaeda brand has become in the decade since its apogee, 9.11. The Shabaab are coherent and geographically distinct. They are a high value Islamist brand. They have an expansive and expanding propaganda network and they published the first volume of a jihadist/Islamist magazine in late 2008, titled Millat Ibrahim.
The power of the Shabaab brand is well known. Al-Awlaki before his death by droning praised the "bullets" of the group and the magazine of AQ in Afghanistan last month urged supporters to similarly embrace the Shabaab. In return, the Shabaab have pledge allegiance recently to Ayman al-Zawahiri. The Shabaab seek to control territory, to rule it, or terrorise it, depending on your interpretation, and are actively involved in a conventional-esque clash with pro-interim authority forces across Mogadishu. It's easier for the cleaner to support Shabaab, whose fortunes and misfortunes are much easier to gauge than it is the shadowy idea that is al-Qaeda.
So highly thought of are the Shabaab in the U.S. that the country has become the sixth and latest theatre of operations for Obama's drones, operating out of either Ethiopia or Djibouti, depending on the source you subscribe to. Of course, Somalis have substantial populations in Canada, U.S. and Western Europe. I've little doubt that the cleaner was a Somali, her knowledge of Shabaab stories, showing them in a positive light, wasn't great, but it didn't need to be. She regaled the administrative staff with stories of their sharia justice and their fighting the Kenyan forces. Jonathan Evans, head of MI5, has warned of the threat of returning British Somalis who have trained with the Shabaab. All of which makes the Shabaab the jihadist brand of the new decade.
Writing a critique of de Beauvoir's eulogy to the Marquis de Sade (Le Temps, 1951/52), D.J. Enright in 1966 (Conspirators and Poets) argued that 'Bored and uneasy with our little lives we resort to the greater amplitude of symbols. Bardot, Byron, Hitler, Hemingway, Monroe, Sade: we do not require our heroes to be subtle, just to be big. Then we can depend on someone to make them subtle.' The Shabaab take their place in that pantheon now, too.