06.02.2024 Author: Abbas Hashemite

Explaining the threat of Al-Shabaab in Somalia

Explaining the threat of Al-Shabaab in Somalia

The African continent has been a victim of poverty and terrorism for a long period of time. Nigeria, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somalia are among the most affected countries by terrorism in this region. On 10th January 20224 Al Shabab (the youth), a terrorist organization in East Africa, captured a UN helicopter in Central Somalia. Almost six passengers were taken hostage by the militant group after the helicopter landed in the Galgaduud region. Soon after the incident, the United Nations temporarily suspended all its flights in the vicinity. Al Shabab is also held responsible for an increase in terrorist attacks in Somalia since 2022, following the re-election of President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud in Somalia. The latter has declared an all-out war against the group soon after his re-election.

Al Shabab has a stronghold in the country. This group was formed in 2006 and was a subsidiary of Al-Qaeda* in East Africa. Al-Itihad al-Islami (AIAI*) served as the incubator for most of the leaders of Al Shabab. AIAI* was also the predecessor of this terrorist group. However, some younger hardliners parted their ways from AIAI*, seeking the establishment of a ‘Greater Somalia’ to be ruled under the Sharia. These separatists joined the Islamic Courts Union (ICU). Ethiopian forces, backed by the United States, invaded Somalia in 2006. This invasion resulted in the collapse of the ICU in Somalia.

Most of the militant group’s fighters took refuge in the neighboring countries. However, some of the ICU fighters also retreated to the southern parts of the country. These fighters, later, re-emerged as guerilla fighters against the Ethiopian military. The former seized central and southern Somalian territory. Since then, the group has been active in Ethiopia, Kenya, and southern Somalia. Al Shabab group has been fighting the African Union Transition Mission in Somalia, and the Somali government since 2007. The group had grown into a known terrorist organization by the year 2008, comprising almost, 9000 members.

In 2008, Al Shabab developed close ties with Al-Qaeda*. Later, in 2012, the group formally pledged its allegiance to Al-Qaeda*. Its allegiance to the latter was followed by numerous high-profile brutal attacks in the neighboring countries of Somalia. These attacks included the Westgate Mall attacks in Nairobi in September 2013, resulting in the death of 68 people, and the April 2015 Garissa University attack – in which 148 were killed. In addition, another violent attack was carried out on Mogadishu’s busiest intersection in October 2017 by Al Shabab. More than 580 people were killed in this attack. The Somalian media described the group as the most violent and deadliest terrorist organization in Africa, owing to Al Shabab’s capability for violent and lethal attacks. Moreover, the group was also ranked the second-deadliest terrorist organization in the world by the Global Terrorism Index 2022. In the same year, the group has also been held responsible for almost 97 percent of deaths occurring due to terrorism-related activities.

The group seeks to establish a fundamentalist Islamic state which would comprise Somalia, Kenya, Ethiopia, and Djibouti. Al Shabab opposes and rejects Democracy, as it thinks of it as a religion for infidels. They use the internet to attract and recruit youth from Kenya and Somalia. The UN Secretary-General, in 2017, stated that more than half of the fighters in Al Shabab may be children. This reflects the strategy of this militant organization to replace the elder fighters with the adults and youth. Moreover, the group takes nationalistic and religious leverage by recruiting most of its members from the Sunni sect of Somalia.

Al Shabab’s allegiance with Al-Qaeda* provided the former an opportunity to get training on the battlefield of Afghanistan. Some of the Al-Qaeda* trainers also traveled to Somalia to train the fighters of Al Shabab. Both terrorist organizations collaborated on a wide range of matters which ranged from fundamental infantry capabilities, suicide bombings, indoctrination, and conducting assassinations of their opponents, etcetera. This collaboration introduced Al Shabab to novel ways of conducting attacks using car bombs, and laptop explosives. The group has been accumulating funds from multiple sources since its inception, which includes the export of charcoal, funds from the Somalian diaspora, and investment in gold.

The group operates in a very cooperative and friendly way in the areas under its rule. The citizens living in the areas under the Al Shabab control are encouraged by the organization to provide feedback and suggestions to improve governance. The organization has placed complaint boxes in front of their offices for this purpose. Moreover, the group has also banned plastic bags in the areas under its control to prove itself environmentally friendly. The group has also reduced crime and distributes food in the areas where it rules. Through these steps, it seeks to pose itself as a welfare organization and to give the gesture of an inclusive government in order to gain public validation and recognition. These steps are among some of the strengths of Al Shabab which led to survival for more than 17 years. It seems impossible to defeat the group through military options merely, given its military capabilities and the history of war against it. The Somalian government should explore novel ways to counter this organization, including peace talks and negotiations. However, given the strength and military successes of Al Shabab, it seems difficult that Al Shabab will be interested in peace talks.

*- is banned in Russia


Abbas Hashemite – is a political observer and research analyst for regional and global geopolitical issues. He is currently working as an independent researcher and journalist, exclusively for “New Eastern Outlook”.

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