Examining Extremism: Harakat al Shabaab al Mujahideen (al Shabaab)
The resumption of U.S. airstrikes in Somalia in July 2021 after a six-month pause under the Biden administration is renewing focus on Harakat al Shabaab al Mujahideen, al Qaeda’s affiliate in East Africa more commonly known as al Shabaab. For nearly two decades, al Shabaab has endured as the most potent insurgent force in Somalia, at times controlling large portions of the country and building a global profile as a key actor in the broader global jihadist landscape. Further, al Shabaab’s experience recruiting and integrating foreign fighters into its ranks serves as a useful case study on group identity and national versus global ideological ambitions. This entry in Examining Extremism provides an overview of the group, its strategy and tactics, and its efforts to balance the often-competing goals of establishing an al Shabaab-led government in Somalia and advancing the global al Qaeda brand.
East Africa has served as a global Salafi-jihadist crossroads for decades. Somalis who joined the Afghan mujahideen in the 1980s returned home and germinated the ideological and organizational seeds that grew into al Shabaab. In 1991, Osama bin Laden famously relocated to Sudan, from which the regional networks responsible for al Qaeda’s 1998 twin bombings of the U.S. Embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, emerged. Simultaneously, Siad Barre’s Mogadishu government collapsed in 1991, and Somalia descended into 30 years of violent hostilities.
Islamist militant and insurgent groups have been active in Somalia since the 1980s. The most notable example was al Itihaad al Islamiya (AIAI), which produced several future al Shabaab leaders. Al Shabaab itself was formally established in 2006, having emerged as a militant splinter group of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU). The ICU was a coalition of Somali Islamic courts that ultimately seized control of Mogadishu, supplanting more than a decade of warlord control of the city. The ICU also effectively established de facto control of Somalia at the expense of the established Transitional Federal Government (TFG), triggering a TFG-backed Ethiopian invasion in December 2006 that quickly overthrew the ICU.
The collapse of the ICU and Somali public resentment of Ethiopia’s incursion gave rise to al Shabaab’s insurgency. By 2008, the group had retaken most of southern Somalia, marking a high point for al Shabaab’s territorial control in the country. Beginning around this time, al Shabaab made public demonstrations of allegiance to al Qaeda, including one 2009 video entitled “At Your Service Osama,” but stopped short of a formal alliance with the group due to fears that it would prompt al Shabaab to be more acutely targeted by international military efforts.
By 2012, however, a combination of military stalemate and the growing power of al Shabaab’s global jihadist faction—led by then-emir Ahmed Godane—paved the way for leaders to formalize their links to al Qaeda. That year, al Shabaab formally declared allegiance to al Qaeda and has since operated as the organization’s primary wing in East Africa. In 2014, Godane was killed in a U.S. airstrike, and al Shabaab appointed Ahmed Omar as the overall leader. Since that time, al Shabaab has continued to carry out high-profile attacks and wage a sustained insurgency, exerting various levels of territorial control throughout Somalia.
As of 2021, al Shabaab is capable of projecting military power against the Somali state and international forces. In August 2021, fighters affiliated with the group stormed a military facility and captured the town of Amara in central Somalia—a town which the Somali army had captured from al Shaabab earlier in the month. These frequent clashes and territorial exchanges demonstrate al Shabaab's continued capacity to wage protracted insurgency despite years of U.S. and multilateral efforts to degrade the group’s military capabilities.
Al Shabaab and its leaders have expressed both local and transnational goals. While the group seeks to unite ethnic Somali areas of East Africa under an Islamic government, al Shabaab has also expressed support for transnational jihadist aims. At the national level, al Shabaab emphasizes the expulsion of foreign troops from Somali territory and uses foreign military presence—such as the 2006–2009 Ethiopian invasion of Somalia—to recruit fighters and propagandize. Importantly, however, some analysts describe these differences between “local” and “global” to be largely fused within a unitary organization—some fighters espouse offensive jihadist aims and others demarcate Somalia as a battleground to be defended from foreign imposition and corruption. While al Shabaab is aligned with al Qaeda, the extent to which this alliance influences al Shabaab's behavior, particularly in combat, remains an open question. For example, statistical analyses of al Shabaab attacks have demonstrated that there was no significant difference in the frequency or lethality of the group's bombing activities before and after the pledge to al Qaeda.
United States Africa Command (USAFRICOM) estimates that al Shabaab consists of 5,000–10,000 fighters across Somalia. Al Shabaab is led by a shura religious council, composed of senior leaders in charge of functions such as finance, intelligence, and public relations who are appointed by al Shabaab’s emir. In addition to al Shabaab's core leadership structure, the group also operates multiple security organs, including the Amniyat, an intelligence agency with some policing responsibility, and Jeysh Al-Hisbah, al Shabaab's police force. Amniyat, for example, leads counterintelligence efforts and purges al Shabaab fighters suspected of spying for state intelligence agencies.
Al Shabaab also administers a sophisticated administrative and financial bureaucracy capable of governing and generating significant resources for the group. For example, al Shabaab has previously operated a system of mobile courts to deliver legal services to Somali citizens, with some people traveling into al Shabaab-controlled territory to access these courts rather than Somali state courts. Despite international bans on Somali charcoal, al Shabaab generates significant revenue from taxing black market charcoal. One 2020 analysis from Mogadishu-based researchers estimated that al Shabaab collected as much as $15 million in monthly revenue by taxing activities like home construction and collecting customs duties on incoming shipping containers. Al Shabaab is capable not only of spending significant sums in support of its military activities—the United Nations estimates that it spent approximately $21 million on personnel, weapons, and intelligence in 2019—but of creating sustainable revenue streams by investing budget surpluses in sectors such as real estate.
Tactics and Targets
Al Shabaab makes significant use of explosive devices and suicide bombings in attacks against the Somali government, military, and civilians. One analysis found that, between al Shabaab's first suicide bombing attack in September 2006 and October 2017, the group deployed 216 suicide bombers across 155 attacks, killing as many as 2,218 people. At times, such as following the group's withdrawal from Mogadishu in 2011, al Shabaab has used suicide bombers as a strategy to continue to inflict punishment on Somali and international forces even in areas where it did not exert territorial control.
Al Shabaab also has a history of attacking regional states who offer support to the ongoing international military interventions in Somalia. In 2010, al Shabaab claimed responsibility for a series of three bomb attacks in Kampala, Uganda, that killed at least 76 people. In a subsequent propaganda release, al Shabaab threatened further attacks if Uganda continued to contribute troops to the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) peacekeeping mission. Al Shabaab offered a similar justification for one of its most infamous operations, a four-day siege of the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya, in September 2013 that killed 67 people. In a September 21 claim of responsibility, al Shabaab called the attack “retribution” for the abuse of Somali Muslims by Kenyan forces in Somalia, urging the Kenyan government to “remove all your forces from our country.” In January 2020, al Shabaab militants attacked Camp Simba, a facility used by U.S. and Kenyan forces near Manda Bay, Kenya, killing one U.S. soldier and two contractors. In a 55-minute propaganda video documenting the assault, al Shabaab noted that Camp Simba “serves to protect the Kenyan invaders and train their forces” for operations in Somalia.
As previously noted, al Shabaab has long maintained a complex and often tumultuous relationship with broader Salafist-jihadi forces. Despite the group’s formal merger with al Qaeda in 2012, al Shabaab is plagued by long-standing intergroup conflicts between “globalist” elements sympathetic to al Qaeda’s broader ideology and “localists” focused on ambitions to govern Somalia. The tensions between these two elements are at the core of the group’s turbulent relationship with foreign fighters.
Somalia’s profile as a foreign fighter safe haven peaked between 2007 and 2009, when at least 20 young men from the Minneapolis area traveled to Somalia to fight for al Shabaab. This group included Shirwa Ahmed, who became the United States’ first suicide bomber when he conducted an attack in Puntland in October 2008. As one of the definitive accounts of this era examines, these young men were “motivated by a complex mix of politics and faith,” with their deep anger over Ethiopia’s 2006 invasion of Somalia acting as the catalytic event that motivated their ultimate decision to join al Shabaab. This group of Americans—nearly all ethnic Somalis—bore similarities to other foreign fighters who joined al Shabaab in this period, many of whom were from East Africa.
Whereas nationalism was an important motivator for the ethnic Somali youth who joined al Shabaab, affinity for al Qaeda’s Salafist-jihadi ideology attracted a separate wave of non-Somali Western extremists to join al Shabaab’s foreign fighter cadre from 2006 to 2010. Arguably the highest-profile of these non-Somali, al Qaeda-aligned recruits was Omar Hammami, an American from Daphne, Alabama, who emerged as a charismatic English language propagandist. He gained particular prominence in the West in response to his rap songs, “Send Me a Cruise” and “Make Jihad with Me.” Other prominent Westerners joined the group during its post-2006 rise, including San Diego’s Jehad Mostafa and London’s Bilal Berjawi and Mohamed Sakr.
Conflict between al Shabaab’s globalists and localists climaxed in a series of purges from 2011 to 2013, during which many al Qaeda-aligned personalities were killed or expelled. Hammami’s falling out with the group was almost unprecedentedly public, as he repeatedly criticized the leadership of al Shabaab emir Godane in multiple venues, including social media. Although al Shabaab’s media arm dismissed Hammami’s criticisms as part of his “narcissistic pursuit of fame,” the group likely killed him in September 2013.
Within the global Salafist-jihadi environment, al Shabaab’s very public leadership struggles played out against the backdrop of Syria’s emergence as the premier destination for foreign fighters. As Somalia’s appeal declined and the Islamic State supplanted al Qaeda as the global Salafist-jihadi vanguard, dissension in the foreign fighter ranks intensified. Some disillusioned al Shabaab fighters shifted their allegiance from al Shabaab to the Islamic State, drawing the ire of al Shabaab’s leadership. In recent years, some individuals from the original wave of American fighters from Minneapolis have also grown disillusioned with al Shabaab, claiming to now reject the group’s ideology and tactics after more than a decade with the group.
Over the short term, al Shabaab will likely continue to pose a threat to Somali civilians as well as the state, possessing the ability to capture swaths of Somali territory and launch mass casualty attacks in the country. International and multilateral military reconfigurations could ease counterterrorism pressure on al Shabaab; however, Somali political gridlock will hamper the state’s ability to mount an effective response to the insurgency.
The recent reduction of the U.S. security presence in Somalia could offer al Shabaab additional operating space. In December 2020, the Trump administration announced its intention to withdraw "the majority" of U.S. military personnel and equipment from Somalia, but left open the possibility that forces would undertake cross-border operations. USAFRICOM completed this process in January 2021. Notably, the Biden administration did not authorize airstrikes from January to July 2021, prompting speculation that this pause was representative of a changing U.S. counterterrorism posture in Somalia. This pause, however, ended on July 20, 2021, when USAFRICOM undertook an airstrike against al Shabaab targets near Galkayo.
Regional and multilateral partners are also undertaking similar reconfigurations. In November 2020, Ethiopia withdrew approximately 3,000 troops from Somalia to field additional forces in Ethiopia's internal Tigray conflict. Additionally, AMISOM is nominally scheduled to exit Somalia at the end of 2021, although key contingencies in the departure plan—such as improvements in the political and security landscape—are not materializing. In the absence of military pressure—particularly airstrikes such as those provided by the United States—al Shabaab fighters may feel emboldened to engage the Somali Armed Forces, increasing casualties among Somalia's military.
Turbulent Somali politics are also likely exacerbating the near-term threat from al Shabaab. The Somali parliament’s decision in April 2021 to extend the government’s term of office without an election offer triggered violence and likely has provided al Shaabab additional opportunity to exploit dissatisfaction with the Somali federal government. Presently, the Somali presidential election is scheduled for October 2021, while parliamentary elections have been postponed indefinitely—both are slated to be indirect elections due to the security and logistical implications of organizing a nationwide ballot. Should Somali political leaders deadlock over the conduct, timing, or outcome of these elections, it may exacerbate political fragmentation and offer al Shabaab opportunities to conduct attacks and otherwise undermine Somali stability.
Al Shabaab’s historical resilience highlights the importance of a multifaceted response that addresses the broader political factors that gave rise to the insurgency. The group’s historical ability to navigate and withstand both external and internal pressures likely signal that the threat from al Shabaab will persist absent a more coherent and comprehensive regional strategy to address the drivers of the conflict.
Jake Harrington is an intelligence fellow in the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Jared Thompson is a research associate with the Transnational Threats Project at CSIS.