Al Shabaab

Authors: Russell Moll and Tyler Livermore


Al Shabaab is a hardline Islamist Organization that controls large swathes of territory in south and central Somalia. Founded in 2004 as the youth militancy of the now defunct and splintered Islamic Courts Union, the group rose to prominence in 2006 as an insurgency opposing the US-backed Ethiopian intervention forces. Following the January 2009 withdrawal of Ethiopian troops, Al Shabaab seized control of portions of Southern Somalia, instituting its austere brand of Salafist Sharia , and relegating the control or the internationally backed Transitional Federal Government (TFG), to “a few city blocks” in Mogadishu. Since May 2009 Al Shabaab has waged a brutal campaign against the TFG. Skirmishes between the 4,300-member African Union protectorate force and Al Shabaab became an almost daily occurrence. The later part of 2009 saw even more forceful attacks by Al Shabaab against civilian, military, and TFG targets. While Al Shabaab has pledged allegiance to Al Qaeda since 2007, its relations with regional Al Qaeda groups as well as placement of key Al Qaeda figures within its leadership have stoked western fears that Somalia could turn into a, “significant Al-Qaeda safe-haven“.

Somalia Overview

Today’s Somalia is the byproduct of nearly two decades of conflict. The fall of Said Barre’s oppressive military dictatorship in 1991 ushered in an unprecedented era of warlordism, lawlessness, and humanitarian disaster that has come to be synonymous with the country. Eighteen years and fourteen attempts towards establishing a government followed the 1991 collapse, but none of these managed to navigate the rough seas of clan rivalries and warring factions to form a legitimate ruling government. The Transitional Federal Government (TFG), formally created in 2004, was heralded as a “government of national unity” that would transcend factionalism in Somalia, but it has been mired by corruption, dismissed as another failed attempt at government by a majority of Somalis, and sustained only by the African Union Peacekeeping force (AMISOM). While the international community still regards the TFG as the best hope for governance in Somalia, Al Shabaab has eroded the TFG’s influence, and seeks to eliminate the TFG and its supporters.

Dimensions of Al Shabaab

Al Shabaab’s primary area of operation is in south Somalia in the cities of Kismayo and Mogadishu. Since March of 2009 it has expanded its area of control as far north as the city of Gaaikaoyo in the Mudug province and as far south as the Kenyan border region. It has attacked targets throughout the aforementioned cities, as well as in the semi-autonomous regions of Somaliland and Puntland, and the Ogaden region of Ethiopia.

  • Areas of Operation: The New York Times explains that, “The group is divided into four geographical units, Bay and Bokool regions, south-central Somalia and Mogadishu, the Juba Valley region, and the semi-autonomous regions of Puntland and Somaliland.”
  • Leadership: Al Shabaab has a clear leadership hierarchy.
    • The current Amir (Commander) is Ahmad Abdi Godane ‘Abu Zubayr’. Zubayr has clear links to Al Qaeda and is reported to have received training in Afghanistan.
    • The current military commander is Fazul Abdullah Mohammed and is a 19-year veteran of Al Qaeda. He is reported to have planned the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya, and participated in the 1994 ‘Black Hawk Down’ incident and the 2002 Paradise Hotel attack in Mombassa.
    • The current regional commanders are:
      • Abu Mansur al-Amriki field commander in south-central Somalia
      • Issa Osman Issa field commander in Bay/Bakool regions
      • Jibrahim Haji Jama ‘al-Afghani’ field commander in Somaliland/Puntland regions
      • Hassan Abdillahi Hersi ‘al-Turki’ field commander in the Juba Valley
  • Beyond the command structure Al Shabaab has a religious council made of Sharia Courts and a supporting Islamic Police Force named Jaysh al-Hisbah. For more information on Al Shabaab leadership reference the Jamestown Foundation’s September 2009 report ‘Who’s Who in the Somali Insurgency: A Reference Guide’.
  • Force Levels: While fragmentary reporting and pseudo-alliances with fellow insurgency groups, such as Hizbul Islam, muddle the validity of force approximations, Al Shabaab possesses an estimated combined force of between 2,000 and 7,000 fighters. Its ranks are mostly young men and boys, but because of the nearly two decades of conflict that preceded the rise of Al Shabaab, the fighters are battle hardened and experienced. Among Al Shabaab’s ranks are a steadily growing contingent of between 200 and 400 foreign fighters from Yemen, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Sudan, Kenya, the United States, and a variety of other nations.
  • Weaponry: Al Shabaab has used a majority of small and light weapons (SALW) including machine guns, handguns, man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS) and RPG’s, in addition to a cadre of outdated Soviet weapons such as anti-aircraft guns, shoulder fired missiles, and armored vehicles. The group has more recently adopted suicide bombings (first used in 2007), roadside bombs, and remotely detonated improvised explosive devices (IEDs). So far, Al Shabaab is the only group to implement suicide-bombing tactics in Somalia.
  • Funding: Al Shabaab receives funds from a variety of sources. The largest funding source comes in the form of remittances from the Somali Diaspora. Somalia receives nearly $1 billion (USD) in remittances a year. While a majority of this money is used for legitimate purposes, funds often find their way to Islamist groups. The New York Times reports that, Al Shabaab also obtains revenue from United Nations World Food Program through Somali businessmen. Al Shabaab obtains additional funds from sympathetic Islamic charities, the extortion and taxing Somali citizens, and, possibly, piracy.

International Influence

Since 2008 Al Shabaab has exhibited an alarmingly potent campaign to draw on members of its Diaspora to join or support its cause in the homeland. By all accounts this campaign has achieved overwhelming success. Highly publicized cases including the ‘Minneapolis 20’ and the more recent ‘Toronto 6’ which involve recruiting young members of the Somali Diaspora, indoctrinating them, and ultimately transforming them into fighters for Al Shabaab have stoked international fears of homegrown terrorism. These are well founded; a member of the ‘Minneapolis 20’ Shirwa Ahmed (a naturalized U.S. citizen) reportedly blew himself up in a coordinated suicide attack in Somaliland on October 28, 2008, becoming the first known U.S. suicide bomber.

Furthermore, Al Shabaab’s reach extends far beyond recruitment of members of the Somali Diaspora and takes a startling transformation to staging attacks abroad. An August 2009 plot disrupted by the Australian Police Force’s ‘Operation Neath’ discovered a sophisticated plan involving members of Al Shabaab who were formulating a suicide attack against Australian military personnel. Moreover, the New York Times reported that Somali extremists were planning to attack President Barack Obama’s January 20, 2009 Inauguration by exploding bombs in the crowds of onlookers on the National Mall. In January 2010 a Somali man assaulted Kurt Westergaard (the Danish cartoon artist responsible for the Mohammed Cartoons) at his home in Denmark. Clearly, Somali extremism is on the rise, and its reach is expanding well beyond the borders of Somalia.

Human Rights Abuses

Al Shabaab’s implementation of Salafist Sharia Law has led to a slew of human rights abuses in Somalia. Most notable among these abuses are the November 4, 2008 stoning to death of a 13-year old rape victim, the June 24, 2009 double amputations carried out on four young men accused of thievery, and the December 3, 2009 suicide bombing of the Benadir University Medical School graduation in Mogadishu. During Al Shabaab’s tenure more than 19,000 Somalis have died, and 1.55 million Somalis have been internally displaced by violence (800,000 since the May 2009 escalation of violence). As of early 2010, 3.8 million Somalis out of a total population of 9.1 million were in desperate need of humanitarian assistance. Al Shabaab has complicated humanitarian efforts by launching a targeted campaign to kidnap, kill, or expel foreign aid workers from Somalia. As Human Rights Watch explained, “The delivery of humanitarian assistance to Somalia has been severely hampered by the prevailing insecurity and by threats specifically targeting humanitarian agencies. “ This campaign has significantly curtailed humanitarian efforts, and has made Somalia too toxic an environment for humanitarian work to effectively continue.

Current Status

Al Shabaab is still engaged in its campaign to oust the TFG and create an Islamic Caliphate across the Greater Horn of Africa, but the suicide bombing at the Shamo Hotel,3 December 2009,sparked a furor of anti-Shabaab sentiment. The BBC reported that “hundreds of Somalis” took to the streets of Mogadishu to protest against al-Shabab, the group held responsible” for the suicide attack. This rejection of hardline Al-Shabaab seems to be gaining momentum in Somalia, but the full impact of this anti-Shabaab movement has yet to be realized.

While Al Shabaab currently enjoys supremacy in Somalia, its authority is being challenged by a number of groups. The most powerful among them, Ahulu Sunna wa’l-Jama’a (ASWJ), has declared Jihad against Al Shabaab, and thrown its support behind President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed and the TFG. ASWJ rejected Al Shabaab’s severe brand of Salafism and the targeted assassinations of a number of leading Sufi clerics. ASWJ has achieved moderate success against Al Shabaab, and conflict between the two groups is escalating. At the same time, Al Shabaab is continuing to expand its area of control and appears to be maneuvering its forces to deal a deathblow to the TFG, and establish total control over Somalia. Whether or not Al Shabaab succeeds, Somalis who have already faced close to two decades of conflict, will likely not see an end to the violence anytime soon.