What is al-Shabaab?


What is al-Shabaab?

Emily Mellgard

06 Sep 2016

As al-Shabaab continues to carry out deadly attacks in Somalia and Kenya, Emily Mellgard examines the origins and ideology of the group.

Al-Shabaab (Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen) is a jihadi insurgent group active in Somalia and, in recent years, increasingly in Kenya. The group developed in the early 2000s parallel to, and later in partnership with, the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) that overran the capital, Mogadishu, and installed themselves as administrators over Mogadishu and much of Somalia in 2006.

Al-Shabaab formed a guerrilla insurgency and conquered large areas of Somalia.

Al-Shabaab comprised the young, radical armed wing of the UIC; their full name translates to 'Movement of Jihadi Youth.' The group however outlasted the UIC, which was ousted from the capital in December 2006 by Ethiopia, which feared it would threaten Ethiopia's own security as well as regional and international interests. Al-Shabaab went on to launch a successful guerrilla insurgency, conquered and administered large parts of Somalia, including crucial port cities such as Kismayo. Estimates of its size range from 5,000 to 9,000 fighters.


Somalia has been a Muslim country for close to a thousand years. However, al-Shabaab stems from a Salafi-Wahhabi strand of Sunni Islam. The group sees aspects of Sufi worship as heretical, which has caused tensions with Somali communities and leaders. Al-Shabaab rejects the nation-state borders of modern Somalia. Some embrace the idea of a Greater Somalia and aim to establish an Islamic government in the country; others follow a more international expansionist jihadi philosophy as espoused by al-Qaeda. Radical Islamic themes became more influential in Somalia following the return from Afghanistan of veterans of the war against Russia in the 1980s as well as increased access to religious and university scholarships in Sudan and Saudi Arabia for young Somali men. Many of these subsequently returned home with an ideology different to their clan or local religious leaders, often causing tensions between generations and religious ideologies.

Al-Shabaab's calls for sharia are seen as a mark of its religious calibre.

Somalia's deep religious roots and traditions, around which much of Somali culture is based, has produced a great respect for those seen as religiously knowledgeable and rigorous. Al-Shabaab's calls for stringent application of sharia are seen as a mark of its religious calibre and for which it enjoys considerable local grassroots sympathy and support – even without ideological agreement. The group has presented itself as the only legitimate representative of the Somali people and the vehicle through which Somali honour can be restored and imperial ambitions of neighbours and foreign powers further afield can be fended off. There is credible analysis that al-Shabaab's presentation of itself as a valid alternative to the corruption endemic in the Mogadishu government and institutions has meant that the group has won acquiescence and support from local clans and leaders.

Ambitions & Goals

Al-Shabaab calls for the full implementation of sharia, especially the hudud rulings for criminal punishments. It carries out public lashings, beheadings, stonings, and amputations. It also enforces a conservative dress code and imposes taxation on those communities under its control. However there have been numerous allegations from community members, international experts, and Muslim scholars that the punishments al-Shabaab imposes are not the correct ones proscribed for a particular crime, that they are imposed by leaders unqualified to interpret the sharia or hand down judgments, and that they are carried out in a way that goes against the Quran and Sunna, which the group claims to follow. Many accuse al-Shabaab's leaders of using the rhetoric of the Quran and sharia to impose their authority on communities and followers while then exploit ingthat for the benefit of the group above the community, and al-Shabaab leaders above all.

Ahmad Abdi Godane, the most recent former al-Shabaab leader (emir), firmly placed the group within the international jihadi network rather than focusing on a more local, Somali, context. He acquired a reputation for being dictatorial, marginalising and driving out or executing his rivals and those who disagreed with him – even former deputies and friends. Among these were Hassan Dahir Aweys, a former colonel under the Barre regime, leader of the UIC, senior al-Shabaab member and some say the group's spiritual leader. Aweys favoured a more Somalia-focused trajectory. He turned himself in to the Somali government in 2013 claiming he feared for his life.

Mukhtar Robow, a former deputy and spokesman for al-Shabaab who reportedly turned himself in to the Somali government in 2013, promoted an international approach for the group and encouraged foreign fighters to join, but was accused of being overly 'clannist.' Ibrahim al-Afghani, a senior founding member of the group who fell out with Godane over his leadership style and implementation of sharia – culminating in an open letter to al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri asking him to intervene – was executed by al-Shabaab in June 2013.

Al-Shabaab Abroad

The African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), as well as independent interventions by other Horn of Africa countries (Ethiopia invaded in December 2006 and has had a presence in the country since then; Kenya invaded southern Somalia in 2011 in an attempt to create a buffer zone, and Uganda is a major troop contributor to the AMISOM force) have been successful over the past few years in ousting al-Shabaab from many of its territories. Mogadishu was reclaimed in August 2011, Kismayo in 2012, and other areas since. The loss of territories has not translated into a reduction of al-Shabaab's capacity to carry out attacks however, and it continues to launch strikes on civilians,the Somali government, AMISOM forces and internationally.

An enduring al-Shabaab ambition is to eject foreign powers from Somali soil. Ethiopia and Somalia previously fought expansionist territorial wars (1964 and 1977) and the people of both nations still hold a deep mistrust for each other. When Ethiopia invaded Somalia to oust the UIC, many Somalis viewed it as a continuation of this long running enmity. Al-Shabaab was able to capitalise on that, presenting itself as the vanguard in the battle against Ethiopia. It was catapulted to the forefront of the conflict, developing into a formidable guerrilla insurgency in that context. This focus on driving out foreign powers from Somalia is highlighted in many of the group's videos and recordings and is used by those who support and recruit for them.

Al-Shabaab presents itself as the only legitimate representative of the Somali people.

Al-Shabaab's claim to represent all Somalis, coupled with the presence of ethnic Somalis in numerous Horn of Africa countries and a growing number of foreign fighters, led the group to incorporate the grievances of local Muslim communities into their rhetoric, using them to justify attacks outside Somalia and for recruitment, even as its primary focus remains Somalia. This has been successful in Ethiopia, where Somalis make up six per cent of the population and there are reports of abuse and widespread perceptions of marginalisation. Al-Shabaab's most successful cross-border expansion has been into Kenya. Ethnic Somalis make up two per cent of the population, and Muslims make up 12 per cent. There are also more than 959,000 Somali refugees. The group attracts a sizable number of foreign fighters and successfully recruits Somalis from the diaspora. The presence of al-Shabaab's several hundred foreign fighters occasionally causes tensions internally for the group, but has yet to create major fractures or a splinter group.

The combination of Kenya's intervention into Somalia in 2011, its attempts to create a buffer zone along the border region, to establish and prop up a semi-autonomous regional government under Sheikh Ahmed Mohamed Islam in Jubaland, and in March 2015 the announcement of a separation barrier along the border, as well as reported abuses of Kenyan forces in Somalia and domestic Somali communities' reports of marginalisation, persecution, and profiling by security services have created a receptive environment for al-Shabaab in southern Somalia and northern and coastal Kenya.

There has been an increase in the radicalisation of Kenyan and Somali Muslim youth, attacks in Kenya and al-Shabaab supporters and recruiters establishing themselves at mosques in the country. The responses from the security services and politicians and the tactics employed – including profiling and community punishments – have occassionally exacerbated the issues and in some cases created greater sympathy for al-Shabaab beyond Somalia's borders.

Within the increasingly crowded international jihadi network, al-Shabaab appears to increasingly be using the tactic of 'outbidding,' whereby different groups attempt to carry out the most violent, damaging, and high-profile attacks to attract international attention and recruits. This is an increasing spiral of the glorification of violence for its own sake.

Al-Shabaab leader Ahmad Godane was killed on 1 September 2014 by a US airstrike. His anointed successor, Ahmad Omar, successfully transitioned as the new emir and attacks from the group continue. It remains to be seen, however, if Omar can balance tribal and other factions within the group, hold off external pressures and restructure the organisation in light of new realities. The rise of ISIS has also forced the group to consider its place within the international jihadi network. There is evidence of disagreements within the group over its role within the wider context and calls for al-Shabaab to affiliate with ISIS.

In April 2016, ISIS claimed its first attack on Somali soil after fighters swore allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in October 2015. It is not clear what the added dimension of ISIS in Somalia will mean for al-Shabaab in the long term, whether it will strengthen or even replace them. However, thus far ISIS has not been very active in Somalia, leaving al-Shabaab largely unchallenged.

This backgrounder was originally published on 11 December 2014, and was first updated on 22 April 2015. 

For further analysis of the contexts in which al-Shabaab developed and operates see the Somalia Situation Report.


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