Al-Shabab remains capable of carrying out massive attacks in Somalia and surrounding countries despite a long-running African Union offensive against the Islamist group. 
A military spokesman for al-Shabab issues a statement south of Mogadishu.
A military spokesman for al-Shabab issues a statement south of Mogadishu. Feisal Omar/Reuters
  • An insurgent group formed in the early 2000s, al-Shabab seeks to establish an Islamic state in Somalia.
  • The group is capable of carrying out deadly attacks across East Africa, despite suffering setbacks in recent years due to an African Union–led military operation.
  • The United States has sought to prevent al-Shabab from destabilizing the Horn of Africa, and it has increasingly relied on air strikes against suspected fighters.


Al-Shabab, or “the Youth,” is an Islamist insurgent group based in Somalia. It once held sway over the capital of Mogadishu and large portions of the Somali countryside, but in recent years an African Union–led military campaign has pushed it back from major population centers. However, the insurgency remains the principal security challenge in war-torn Somalia, and continues to mount lethal attacks against Western forces and civilians in the region.

What are the origins of al-Shabab?

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One of the most impoverished countries in the world, Somalia has seen militant groups come and go in its decades of 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 Said Barre’s 1969–1991 regime and the outbreak of civil war. AIAI’s core was a band of Middle East–educated Somali extremists that was partly funded and armed by al-Qaeda’s chief, Osama bin Laden.

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Terrorism and Counterterrorism

East Africa

Radicalization and Extremism

In the early 2000s, a rift developed between AIAI’s old guard, which had decided to create a political front, and younger members, who sought the establishment of a “Greater Somalia” under fundamentalist Islamic rule. The hard-liners eventually joined forces with an alliance of sharia courts known as the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) and served as its youth militia. Al-Shabab and the ICU wrested control of the capital in June 2006, a victory that stoked fears in neighboring Ethiopia of spillover jihadi violence.

How did the group take shape?

Ethiopia, a majority-Christian nation, 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, radicalized al-Shabab, analysts say. After much of the ICU fled to neighboring countries, al-Shabab retreated to the south, where it began organizing guerrilla assaults, including bombings and assassinations, on Ethiopian forces. Some experts say it was during these years that the group morphed into a full-fledged insurgency, gaining control over large pieces of territory in central and southern Somalia.

The Ethiopian occupation was responsible [PDF] 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,” wrote Rob Wise, a counterterrorism expert. Addis Ababa said the intervention was a “reluctant response” to calls by the ICU for jihad against Ethiopia and its 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.

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New Islamist-nationalist fighters swelled al-Shabab’s ranks from around four hundred into the thousands between 2006 and 2008. The group’s ties to al-Qaeda emerged during this period. Al-Shabab leaders praised the 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. Al-Shabab’s leadership declared allegiance to al-Qaeda in 2012.

What are its objectives?

Many analysts say different factions within the group have different objectives, though al-Shabab as a whole continues to pursue its broad aim of establishing an Islamic state in Somalia. A major cleavage among the group’s leaders divides those known as nationalists, who largely seek to oust the central government, from militants with transnational aims. Bronwyn Bruton, an expert on al-Shabab at the Atlantic Council, says hard-liners within the group have gained prominence in recent years. “People who are still calling themselves al-Shabab are more and more committed to the idea of sharia law,” she told CFR. “The unifying idea of al-Shabab is opposition to the Western-backed government.”

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Terrorism and Counterterrorism

East Africa

Radicalization and Extremism

The unifying idea of al-Shabab is opposition to the Western-backed government.
Bronwyn Bruton, Atlantic Council

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 that is often chewed; smoking; and the shaving of beards. Stonings and amputations have been meted out to suspected adulterers and thieves. The group bans cooperation with humanitarian agencies, blocking aid deliveries as famine loomed in 2017. This forced some eight hundred thousand to flee their homes, according to the United Nations.

Who leads al-Shabab?

Ahmed Umar, also known as Abu Ubaidah, is the current leader of al-Shabab. He was installed in 2014, after his predecessor, Ahmed Abdi Godane, was killed in a U.S. drone strike. Some experts believed Godane’s removal would prompt a power struggle, as Umar appeared to lack Godane’s strategic savvy, and was unlikely to maintain control of the fractious group. More recently, experts have said that al-Shabab remains a largely unified organization.    

How is al-Shabab funded?

Counterterrorism experts say al-Shabab has benefited from several sources of income over the years, including other terrorist groups; piracy; kidnapping; and extortion of local businesses, farmers, and aid groups, among others. The Eritrean government has in the past been accused of financing the group, but it denied these claims.

Al-Shabab has built up an extensive racketeering operation, with checkpoint taxation on illicitly traded charcoal bringing in upward of $7.5 million per year despite a UN ban on Somali charcoal exports in place since 2012. In recent years, al-Shabab has increased its reliance on smuggling contraband sugar across the border into Kenya, bringing in tens of millions of dollars annually. Kenyan forces have been accused of involvement in the scheme since 2015.

What has been the regional impact?

The UN Security Council authorized the African Union to lead a peacekeeping force in Somalia, which is known by its acronym, AMISOM, in early 2007. Its primary mandate was to protect the country’s transitional government, which was set up in 2004 but had just returned to power in Mogadishu. Uganda was the first nation to send forces into Somalia under AMISOM, and it maintains the largest contingent in the regional force, at more than six thousand troops. Other military forces come from Burundi, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Djibouti. In total, AMISOM comprises around twenty thousand troops.

Al-Shabab struck outside of Somalia for the first time in 2010, when coordinated suicide bombings killed seventy-four people in the Ugandan capital of Kampala. “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 the group’s spokesman at the time.

In 2013, al-Shabab fighters claimed responsibility for an attack on a Nairobi shopping mall that killed 67 people, and in 2015 the group killed 148 in an attack on a university in the city of Garissa. The latter was the deadliest attack in Kenya since the 1998 bombing of the U.S. embassy in Nairobi, in which more than two hundred people died.

In late 2017, AMISOM withdrew a thousand troops as the first step in a gradual drawdown, and in 2019, the UN Security Council voted to cut another thousand troops, with plans to hand over security responsibilities to Somali forces by 2021. Some experts have cautioned that the Somali government could face collapse if AMISOM pulls out altogether.

Where is al-Shabab?

Al-Shabab’s territorial control is fluid. The group typically leaves an area ahead of an AMISOM offensive, but experts say that UN-backed forces do not have the capacity to hold recaptured territory and note that militants usually return. Al-Shabab largely retreated from Mogadishu by late 2011, following offensives by AMISOM and Somali forces. Counterterrorism forces regarded the group’s exit from the capital as a major victory, though some experts say that al-Shabab’s withdrawal was a strategic decision and that the group has returned to the guerrilla tactics of its earlier days.

The group has suffered several setbacks in recent years, including losses of the port cities of Kismayo and Barawe, after which it made the southern city of Jilib its de facto capital. Still, it maintains control [PDF] over parts of central and southern Somalia and has stepped up its presence in the north, particularly in the semiautonomous region of Puntland, where it battles fighters affiliated with the self-proclaimed Islamic State for primacy.

“Even in areas they hold, the central government and federated states struggle to administer territory, provide basic services, and overcome a decades-long legacy of corruption and mismanagement of state institutions,” said James C. Swan, a former U.S. special representative for Somalia. “These weaknesses create openings that al-Shabab continues to exploit.”

In October 2017, the capital city suffered its worst terrorist attack to date when twin truck bombings killed more than five hundred people and injured more than three hundred. Though al-Shabab never claimed responsibility, the group is widely believed to have carried out the attack. The group claimed an attack at a hotel two weeks later that killed several senior government and military officials. In December 2019, it said it was behind another truck bombing in the capital, which killed more than eighty people.

Estimates of al-Shabab’s membership range between three thousand and nine thousand, though the U.S. State Department reported in 2017 that defection rates have increased in recent years due to U.S. air strikes and the group’s negligence in paying low-level fighters.

What is U.S. policy in Somalia?

Washington’s primary interest in Somalia has been preventing the country from becoming a refuge for terrorist groups to plot attacks on the United States and destabilize the Horn of Africa, where long-standing disputes among Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Somalia have festered. In recent years, U.S. officials have been wary of collaboration among militant Islamist organizations in the region, including al-Shabab, Boko Haramal-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

U.S. authorities also remain concerned about the jihadi group’s ability to recruit members of the Somali diaspora living in the United States. Al-Shabab has attracted dozens of American volunteers to fight in Somalia, many from Minneapolis, Minnesota.

The United States has largely relied on proxy forces in Somalia to fight al-Shabab, and has hired private contractors to supply some of them, according to the New York Times. Since 2007, Washington has provided several billion dollars to train and equip AMISOM and Somali security forces, but it announced in late 2017 it was suspending aid to most Somali units over corruption concerns. In April of that year, President Donald J. Trump authorized the first deployment of regular U.S. troops to the country since 1994, joining a small number of counterterrorism advisors already there. Defense officials say more than six hundred U.S. personnel are now stationed there. In the first week of 2020, one U.S. service member and two Defense Department contractors at a Kenyan base were killed in an attack claimed by the militant group.

U.S. air strikes in Somalia have spiked under the Trump administration. The United States has carried out more than 130 strikes since the start of 2017, compared with around 35 ordered by the Obama administration. A single strike on a training camp northwest of Mogadishu in November 2017 killed more than a hundred militants, according to U.S. Africa Command.

The United States recognized the Somali government in 2013 but did not reopen its embassy in Mogadishu until October 2019, nearly three decades after it had closed. In prior years, U.S. diplomats had worked out of neighboring Kenya.

Recommended Resources

In a 2018 report, the International Crisis Group lays out how al-Shabab remains a menace across East Africa.

Christopher Anzalone explores the reasons for al-Shabab’s resilience for West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center.

Joshua Meservey writes in Foreign Affairs that al-Shabab is in no danger of being defeated in the country’s south anytime soon.

The World Peace Foundation’s Alex de Waal argues in Foreign Policy that Somalia remains “stuck in a protracted cycle of insecurity.”

The United Nations lays out the civilian cost of conflict [PDF] in Somalia in a December 2017 report.

For media inquiries on this topic, please reach out to [email protected].

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