Authors: Jonathan Masters, Deputy Editor, and Mohammed Aly Sergie
Updated: March 13, 2015

Feisal Omar/Courtesy Reuters

Al-Shabab, or “the Youth,” is an al-Qaeda-linked militant group and U.S.-designated Foreign Terrorist Organization fighting for the creation of a fundamentalist Islamic state in Somalia. The group, also known as Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahideen, and its Islamist affiliates once held sway over Mogadishu and major portions of the Somali countryside, but a sustained African Union military campaign in recent years has weakened the group considerably. Still, security analysts warn that the group remains the principal threat in a politically volatile, war-torn state.

Al-Shabab's terrorist activities have mainly focused on targets within Somalia, but it has also carried out deadly strikes in the region, including coordinated suicide bombings in Uganda's capital in 2010 and a raid on a Nairobi mall in 2013 (PDF). Washington fears the group, which has successfully recruited members of the Somali diaspora in the United States, may strike on U.S. soil. However, many terrorism experts say al-Shabab's reach is limited to East Africa.

What are the origins of al-Shabab?

Somalia, one of the most impoverished countries in the world, has seen a number of radical Islamist groups come and go in its decades-long political upheaval. Analysts say the forerunner of al-Shabab, and the incubator for many of its leaders, was Al-Ittihad Al-Islami (AIAI, or “Unity of Islam”), a militant Salafi group that peaked in the 1990s after the fall of the Siad Barre military regime (1969–1991) and the outbreak of civil war.

Washington fears the group, which has successfully recruited members of the Somali diaspora in the United States, may strike on U.S. soil.

AIAI, which sought to establish an Islamist emirate in Somalia, sprang from a band of Middle Eastern-educated Somali extremists and was partly funded and armed by al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden. Many of its fighters, including current al-Shabab commanders, fled the country and fought in Afghanistan in the late 1990s after being pushed out by the Ethiopian army and its Somali supporters. The U.S. State Department designated the group a terrorist organization in the days after the 9/11 attacks.

In 2003, a rift developed between AIAI's more moderate old guard, which had decided to create a new political front, and younger members who sought the establishment of a “Greater Somalia” under fundamental Islamic rule. The hardliners eventually joined forces with an alliance of sharia courts, known as the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), serving as its youth militia. Al-Shabab and the ICU wrested control of the capital in June 2006, a victory that stoked fears of spillover jihadist violence in neighboring Ethiopia, a majority Christian nation.

An Interactive Timeline of al-Shabab

What were the turning points for al-Shabab?

Ethiopia invaded Somalia in December 2006 and ousted the ICU from Mogadishu with little resistance. The intervention, which came at the request of Somalia's transitional government (which was set up in 2004), had a radicalizing effect on al-Shabab, analysts say. After much of the ICU fled to neighboring countries, al-Shabab remained and retreated to the south, where it began organizing guerilla assaults, including bombings and assassinations, on Ethiopian forces. Some experts say it was during these years that the group morphed into a full-fledged guerilla movement and gained control over large pieces of territory in central and southern Somalia.

The Ethiopian occupation (PDF) was responsible for “transforming the group from a small, relatively unimportant part of a more moderate Islamic movement into the most powerful and radical armed faction in the country,” writes Rob Wise, a counterterrorism expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Addis Ababa says the intervention was a “reluctant response“ to calls by the ICU for jihad against Ethiopia and renewed territorial claims against both Ethiopia and Kenya. It has stressed that the intervention was supported by the United States and the African Union, among others.

New Islamist-nationalist fighters swelled al-Shabab's ranks from around four hundred into the thousands between 2006 and 2008. This was also a period when the group's ties to al-Qaeda began to emerge. Al-Shabab leaders publicly praised the international terrorist network and condemned what they characterized as U.S. crimes against Muslims worldwide. The State Department designated al-Shabab a foreign terrorist organization in February 2008. Two years later, the group vowed to “connect the horn of Africa jihad to the one led by al-Qaeda and its leader Sheikh Osama bin Laden.” However, it was not until February 2012 that al-Shabab's leadership formally declared allegiance to al-Qaeda.

In June 2010, al-Shabab seemed to make good on its promises of jihad with coordinated suicide bombings that killed seventy-four people who had gathered to watch the World Cup in the Ugandan capital of Kampala. It was the group's first terrorist attack outside of Somalia. “We are sending a message to every country who is willing to send troops to Somalia that they will face attacks on their territory,” said a spokesman at the time.

Uganda was the first nation to send forces into Somalia in March 2007 under the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), which was charged with defending the transitional government. In late 2014, Kampala maintained the largest contingent in the UN-backed force with 6,220 personnel. Other AMISOM troops come from Burundi (5,338), Ethiopia (4,395), Kenya (3,664) Djibouti (1,000), and Sierra Leone (800).

What are al-Shabab's objectives?

Many analysts say the group is not monolithic and its objectives vary. Writing in 2012, former CFR fellow and Africa expert Bronwyn E. Bruton described some of the cleavages that divide al-Shabab's leadership, including competing clan loyalties and rifts between the group's nationalists intent on ousting AMISOM and the central government, and Gulf-sponsored radicals with transnational terror aims.

The group continues to threaten neighboring countries as well as Western interests in Africa. In January 2013, Ethiopian authorities arrested more than a dozen al-Shabab-linked militants allegedly plotting attacks in eastern Ethiopia. And in September of that year, al-Shabab fighters claimed responsibility for a raid on a Nairobi mall, holding hostages for days and killing dozens. It was the deadliest terrorist attack in Kenya since al-Qaeda's East Africa affiliate bombed the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi in 1998 (224 people were killed  in that attack). Al-Shabab attacks in Kenya escalated in 2014, with 173 people killed in Kenya, according to its police force.

In areas it controls, al-Shabab enforces its own harsh interpretation of sharia, prohibiting various types of entertainment, such as movies and music, the sale of khat (a narcotic plant often chewed), smoking, the shaving of beards, and many other “un-Islamic” activities. Stonings and amputations have been meted out as punishment on suspected adulterers and thieves. International rights groups have reported that al-Shabab members have kidnapped young boys from schools and have forced them to fight for the group.

Who are the group's leaders?

Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, who fought against Ethiopia as a colonel in the Siad Biarre regime in the 1970s, is reportedly al-Shabab's spiritual leader. He commanded the military arm of the AIAI, and then took over leadership of the ICU. In 2006, Aweys handed operational command of al-Shabab to a young Somali jihadi, Aden Hashi Ayro, who was killed in a U.S. missile strike in May 2008.

Ahmed Abdi Godane (aka Abu Zubayr), one of al-Shabab's founders, served as the group's top commander after Ayro's death. He was designated a global terrorist by the United States in November 2008.

In June 2013, Godane loyalists reportedly killed two senior al-Shabab leaders, Ibrahim al-Afghani and Moalim Burhan, in a shoot-out that analysts attribute to internal dissension. Prior to his death, al-Afghani reportedly penned a letter to al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri condemning Godane's harsh leadership style. That same month, Aweys, al-Shabab's elder statesman, surrendered to federal authorities in Mogadishu after his relationship with Godane soured.

In September 2014, the U.S. military confirmed it killed Godane in a targeted air strike on an al-Shabab encampment in Somalia. The White House stated that the successful counterterrorism operation marked “a major symbolic and operational loss to the largest al-Qaida affiliate in Africa.” Some terrorism experts believe the removal of al-Shabab's powerful, charismatic leader will prompt a power struggle within the militant group. 

Ahmed Umar, also known as Abu Ubaidah, is the current leader of al-Shabab. Experts say he lacks the charisma and strategic intelligence of his predecessor and is unlikely to maintain control of the fractious group. Al-Shabab's former intelligence chief surrendered in late 2014, and the militants continued to lose battles against African Union forces in 2015.     

How is al-Shabab funded?

Counterterrorism experts say al-Shabab has benefited from several different sources of income over the years, including revenue from other terrorist groups, state sponsors, the Somali diaspora, charities, piracy, kidnapping, and the extortion of local businesses. The governments of Eritrea, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Qatar, and Yemen have been cited as financiers—although most officially deny these claims.

Domestically, the group built up an extensive racketeering operation in Kismayo after seizing control of the southern port city and its economy in 2008. The trade of charcoal, in particular, is essential to the city's commerce. However, a Kenya-led assault on Kismayo liberated the port of al-Shabab forces in October 2012—a victory that many experts say strategically crippled the jihadi group.

However, an October 2014 UN Security Council report (PDF) says al-Shabab's illicit charcoal trading hasn't been interrupted by “the military offensive against the group” and continues in Kismayo and nearby Barawe. Charcoal exports are a component of a trade that includes al-Shabab's importation of sugar, much of which then makes its way into Kenya illegally. Roughly ten thousand bags of contraband sugar worth hundreds of thousands of dollars may be smuggled into Kenya every day, according to the UN. In April 2013, Kenyan officials complained that al-Shabab operatives were attempting to infiltrate the country's sugar trade.

What areas does al-Shabab control?

Despite strategic setbacks inflicted by AMISOM forces over the past several years, including the loss of the Barawe in October 2014, al-Shabab remains in control of most of southern and central Somalia. The U.S. State Department's 2013 terrorism report estimates the group has several thousand members. Analysts say the group's resilience is likely the result of significant support from local clans and the perception among elders that it remains a plausible alternative to corrupt institutions in Mogadishu.

Does al-Shabab recruit U.S. nationals?

Al-Shabab has recruited members of the Somali-American diaspora in recent years, a trend the FBI has described as a top domestic terrorist threat. In particular, the group has attracted several volunteers from Minneapolis, MN, which is home to the largest Somali population in the country. Shirwa Ahmed and Farah Mohamad Beledi, the first two confirmed U.S. suicide bombers, both traveled from Minnesota, where they had grown up, to Somalia to receive al-Shabab training and wage jihad.

Another prominent leader for al-Shabab was Omar Hammami (aka Abu Mansoor Al-Amriki), a native of Alabama, authorities say. However, Hammami reportedly fell out with the group and was killed in a firefight with al-Shabab militants in September 2013. Other Somali-American recruits have come from California, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, and Virginia, according to a list compiled by the Anti-Defamation League.

What is U.S. policy in Somalia?

Washington's primary interest in Somalia has been preventing it from becoming a refuge for terrorist groups like al-Shabab to plot attacks on the United States and potentially destabilize the strategically significant Horn of Africa, where longstanding disputes among  Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Somalia still fester. In recent years, U.S. officials have also been wary of collaboration between the militant Islamist organizations in the region, including al-Shabab, Boko Haramal-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

The United States, stung by the loss of eighteen U.S. servicemen in the Battle of Mogadishu in 1993 (aka the “Black Hawk Down” incident), has largely relied on the use of proxy forces in Somalia in recent years. Since 2007, analysts say Washington has provided more than half a billion dollars to train and equip African Union forces battling al-Shabab. Much of this indirect logistical support has been supplied on the ground by State Department-funded contractors, such as Bancroft Global Development and DynCorp.

Drone strikes and special operations raids on al-Shabab and al-Qaeda targets have rounded out the U.S. strategy. Military analysts have characterized the Pentagon's approach in Somalia as “offshore balancing,” which emphasizes the use of U.S. air and sea assets in conjunction with support for local counterinsurgency forces, such as AMISOM.

In January 2013, the United States formally recognized the Somali government after a hiatus of more than twenty years, and two years later President Barack Obama nominated Katherine Dhanani to be the first U.S. ambassador to Somalia since 1991. And while the U.S. has no embassy in Mogadishu (the U.S. mission to Somalia is based in the U.S. embassy in Nairobi), officials say Washington is likely to expand its diplomatic presence.

Additional Resources

The UN Security Council reports on political and security developments in Somalia as of October 2014.

The Countering Terrorism Center at the U.S. Military Academy takes a deep dive into al-Shabab's internal divisions.

The American Enterprise Institute's Critical Threats initiative profiles al-Shabab's leadership.

The BBC looks at what motivates Somalia Islamist militants.

More on this topic from CFR

View more from Somalia, Terrorist Organizations and Networks