Backgrounder

Al-Shabab

Al-Shabab remains capable of carrying out massive attacks in Somalia and surrounding countries despite a long-running African Union offensive against the Islamist terrorist 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
Summary
  • 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.

Introduction

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 (AU) 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 and AU 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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Somalia

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.

Estimates of al-Shabab’s membership range between five thousand and ten thousand. According to a 2020 report [PDF], the group regularly forces civilians, including women and children, to enter its ranks; other recruits join voluntarily, often for financial reasons.

More on:

Somalia

Terrorism and Counterterrorism

East Africa

Radicalization and Extremism

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.”

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 people 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. Yet, 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 millions of dollars per year despite a UN ban on Somali charcoal exports in place since 2012. The group also profits from smuggling contraband sugar across the Kenyan border, a scheme in which Kenyan forces have been accused of involvement. The United Nations says that, in 2019, al-Shabab spent upward of $21 million on fighters, weapons, and intelligence, and that the group was enjoying sizable budgetary surpluses.

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 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 pull additional troops, with plans to hand over security responsibilities to Somali forces by 2021. However, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the Security Council authorized AMISOM’s deployment through 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 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 setbacks, 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 over parts of central and southern Somalia, and in recent years it has stepped up its presence in the north, 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 said it was behind a siege at a hotel two weeks later that killed several senior government and military officials. The capital has continued to suffer deadly attacks in the years since, including a December 2019 truck bombing that killed more than eighty people and March 2021 mortar attacks targeting the UN and AMISOM headquarters.

A national crisis over leadership in 2021 has provided further openings for the militant group. Amid the political deadlock, analysts have raised the alarm that al-Shabab and other militants are seeking to take advantage of the unrest.

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 broader 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 [PDF] 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. Over the last decade, Washington has provided several billion dollars to train and equip AMISOM and Somali security forces, though it suspended aid to most Somali units between 2017 and 2019 over corruption concerns. In April 2017, President Donald Trump authorized the first deployment of regular U.S. troops to the country since 1994, joining a small number of counterterrorism advisors already there. One U.S. service member and two Defense Department contractors at a Kenyan base were killed in an attack claimed by the militant group in early 2020; and late that year, a CIA officer was killed in a raid targeting senior al-Shabab commanders. In the final days of his presidency, Trump announced that all of the roughly seven hundred U.S. military personnel in the country had been withdrawn.

U.S. air strikes in Somalia spiked under the Trump administration, totaling more than 275 reported strikes, compared with 60 over the eight years of the Barack 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. Upon taking office, President Joe Biden issued new guidance to limit the use of air strikes, which has raised concerns among some Somali military officials.

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

This 2020 report [PDF] by the Congressional Research Service describes the threat that al-Shabab poses in the Horn of Africa and beyond.

In the Guardian, Vava Tampa asks whether the international community will act to stop Somalia’s collapse.

The UN Panel of Experts on Somalia details al-Shabab’s funding streams and makes recommendations on how to cut off the group’s financing in this 2020 report.

For Foreign Policy, Abdi Yusuf argues that President Biden should reverse President Trump’s decision to pull out all U.S. troops in Somalia.

The International Crisis Group explains how women form an important social base for the Islamist group.

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