al-Shabaab’s Anatomy: A Study in Context

by Leonardo Palma

15 May 2019

al-Shabaab militants during a training session near Chisimaio, Somalia (Al Jazeera)

Chronic instability in the Horn of Africa, with clear repercussions for Uganda, Sudan, Kenya, and Mozambique, has reinforced a process of aggregation within Islamists groups that include nationalist fringes, maritime pirates and organised crime groups. While this region is under the influence of al-Qa’ida in Eastern Africa (AQEA), the group that is the strongest cause of concern – both numerically and militarily – is al-Shabaab.

From the Islamic Courts to the Battle of Mogadishu

After the Somali state’s collapse in 1991 and the failure of UN Operation “Restore Hope”, the country fell prey to local warlords spurring overall disintegration. The result was the birth, especially in Mogadishu, of the so-called “Islamic Courts Union (ICU)”, which assumed certain administrative and social duties including the settling of civil lawsuits through a rigid application of Sha’ria. Through their private militias, the Courts were also able to handle public order and counter numerous warlords. In 2006, to make the system more efficient and coordinated, several Courts decided to meet in a Union called Midowga Maxkamadaha Isaamiga (ICU). Thanks to strong popular support, the Union was able to recapture Mogadishu after years of anarchy in an institutional vacuum. The Courts established some order, opened up both the harbour and the airport, enlarged the market of Bakara and extended their influence far beyond the city towards Baidoa. The latter was the seat of the Transitional Federal Government (TFG), a body born in 2004 after the dissolution of the National Transitional Government (NTG). At that time, the Union’s project of renewal included the introduction of Sha’ria as source of law, but Somalia’s highly stratified tribal system made that almost impossible. Furthermore, the Intergovernmental Authority for Development (IAD), created in 1986 by neighbouring countries, kept supporting the Baidoa transitional government, suggesting that the neighbours were – at least – suspicious if not worried about the birth of an Islamic State in Somalia.

al-Shabaab fighters under the black banner (The Independent)

In December 2006, the TFG, militarily supported by Ethiopia, promoted a campaign against Islamic Courts rule. Within a few weeks, the TFG managed to regain control of the city, marginalising the ICU until its complete and utter defeat. It was during those chaotic days that, inside the crumbling ICU, the al-Shabaab movement was born[1]. Previously a minority Islamist group that involved youth inside the Courts, al-Shabaab emerged as an autonomous organisation with wider aim and appeal. The leaders, most of whom were veterans of the Mogadishu battle against the old warlords, decided to carry on the war against the TFG while promoting a three-phase plan: overthrow the federal government, establish an Islamic State and drive the multinational African force (ANISOM) out of Somalia. The latter has led to a progressive tightening of attacks against Kenya, Ethiopia, and Mozambique, all of them responsible for the supply of military equipment to the TFG and for operations against the al-Shabaab training camps.

Evolution, adaptation and ideological clashes

Al-Shabaab evolved quickly, eventually pledging allegiance to and integrating with al-Qa’ida. On 26 January 2009, al-Shabaab insurgents besieged and conquered Baidoa, to the detriment of the weak, and former allied, President Sharif Ahmed[2]. In the following months, several suicide attacks in the cities of Belet Uen and Mogadishu caused the death of hundreds of students, civilians, officials and TFG cabinet members such as Interior Minister Omar Aden[3]. The group extended its control over the country between 2009 and 2011, including much of southern Somalia. In those areas, al-Shabaab reduced the import of low-price food to increase the local wheat production and shift wealth from urban centres to rural areas, where the application of the Sha’ria was less problematic. Over time, al-Shabaab also changed its mind about maritime piracy in the Gulf of Aden. Indeed, the group realised that tolerating pirate activity would have had a huge impact over public opinion against the weak federal government. Nevertheless, following the loss of the Bakara market, and needing to secure financing, al-Shabaab started to engage in economic activities with the pirates, receiving money in return for the use of its territories as “sanctuary” for logistical needs and as routes for weapons and supplies.

In addition to engaging with pirates, its attempts to expand into Somaliland and Puntland shifted al-Shabaab’s ideology closer to that of AQAP (al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula) in Yemen. These new ties led to a divide within the group, since several local leaders and fighters were more rooted in a nationalistic view rather than in an international jihadist ideology[4]. This strife was worsened by the TFG and Kenya’s harsh repression, which weakened the widespread control that al-Shabaab had enjoyed over the coastal region and in the south.[5] Between 2011 and 2012, TFG forces, supported by Kenya reconquered Afgoi, Laanta Bur, Afmadù (a core asset for road connections) and Chisimaio. Indeed, it is during 2012 that the war between the TFG and al-Shabaab for the control of Somalia advanced: in February, through an online message, the Shabaab leader, Ali Zubeyr “Godane”, swore allegiance to Ayman al-Zawahiri, head of al-Qa’ida, thereby officially rendering al-Shabaab a branch of al-Qa’ida. Shortly thereafter, the TFG was disbanded and the Somali Federal Government (SFG) was sworn in, without settling the division between those who want a federal unitarian nation, and those who prefer a tribal federalism with wide administrative autonomies[6].

The group has been also accused of recruiting primary school pupils (Intelligence Briefs)

With the loss of Chisimao and Jubaland, al-Shabaab started to direct its activities towards the consolidation of its territorial control, widening its influence over Somaliland and Puntland and strengthening its asymmetrical terror strategy against Somalia’s neighbours. The carnage of Westgate Mall in 2013 and Garissa College in 2015 were painful manifestations of that strategy[7]. However, al-Shabaab’s menace has increased not only through its adherence to al-Qa’ida (which led, as a direct consequence, to the birth of an international cell named al-Muhajirun) but also through the worsening divide between the fringe controlled by the late Godame (killed in a US drone airstrike in 2014) and the nationalistic faction, tied to the spiritual guru Hassan Dahir Aweys and led by Mukhtar Robow. [8]Indeed, al-Qa’ida decided to replace Godame with Ibrahim al-Afghani in 2010. The strife led to a harsh confrontation until Aweys accepted to move with a private militia in Adado, under SFG control.

The decentralisation strategy beyond 2014 

The death of Godame in 2014 left a dangerous power vacuum which the group tried to fill with a strategy of operational decentralisation, following the path marked by al-Qa’ida[9]. That phase of uncertain transition was overcome by a new wave of terrorist attacks in the region. This, on the one hand, confirms the prediction that when a terrorist group is weakened, it tends to strike back to show its vitality. On the other hand, these attacks forced the US military to intensify its counterterrorism operations with airstrikes and special forces. In June 2016, a drone airstrike killed both Mohamud Dulyadeyn, mastermind of the Garissa attack, and Maalim Daoud, al-Shabaab’s intelligence chief. The organisation retaliated over he Summer with car bombings, armed assault, kidnapping and suicide bombers, causing several deaths and re-seizing territory.[10] After the death of an American soldier in a clandestine operation, the US resumed its bombing campaign and struck, from June to August 2017, in several provinces and regions, killing, among others, the regional commander Ali Jabal. According to US intelligence, he was the man behind the suicide attacks in Mogadishu

From late 2017, al-Shabaab has shown great resilience and capacity to adapt to SFG, US, and AMISOM counterterrorism efforts. Decentralising both its operational branches and leadership, has allowed the group to relieve the military and police pressure they have experienced in the last years. The continuation of terrorist attacks is proof that the movement is trying to show that it is still active although weakened. Furthermore, al-Shabaab is attempting to remain on a relentless offensive, thereby exacerbating regional tensions and stability. Regional cooperation, humanitarian assistance, advanced training for the Somali soldiers, selected counterterrorism operations to cut ties between AQAP, al-Shabaab and its sponsors are the only means to drain the territorial control that the group at present still enjoys.


Leonardo Palma attended the Italian Military Academy of Modena and graduated in Political Science and International Relations at Roma Tre University. He is a postgraduate visiting research student at the Department of War Studies, King’s College London.


[1] For a comprehensive historical account, see: Stig Jarle Hansen, Al-Shabaab in Somalia: The History and Ideology of a Militant Islamist Group, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2013; but also James Fergusson, The World’s most dangerous place: Inside the Outlaw State of Somalia, De Capo Press, 2013.

[2] J. L. Anderson, Letter from Mogadishu, The Most Failed State, The New Yorker, December 14, 2009, p. 64, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2009/12/14/the-most-failed-state.

[3] Three ministers killed in Somalia attack, Newvision.co.ug, December 3, 2009, https://web.archive.org/web/20100106162350/http://www.newvision.co.ug/D/8/12/703172

[4] Where in the World is Sheikh Aweys? Somalia Report, February 1, 2012, http://www.somaliareport.com/index.php/post/2675/Where_in_the_World_is_Sheikh_Aweys; and Somali observers: internal divisions widening within al-Shabaab, Sabahionline.com, 4 August 2012, http://sabahionline.com/en_GB/articles/hoa/articles/features/2012/04/05/feature-01; see also: Hansen (2013), Ibidem, p.103.

[5] Joint Communique – Operation Linda Nchi, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Kenya, January 14, 2012; and Alex Ndegwa, Al Shabaab’s propaganda war, The Standard, 17 November 2011, https://www.standardmedia.co.ke/category/2000046627/n-a;

[6] Somalia: UN Envoy Says Inauguration of New Parliament in Somalia “Historic Moment”, Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, 21 August 2012, https://allafrica.com/stories/201208220474.html;

[7] Kenya al-Shabab attack: Security questions as Garissa dead mourned, BBC News, 3 April 2015, and Okari, Dennis, Westgate’s unanswered questionsBBC News, 22 September 2014.

[8] Nation’s army in new battles as advance resumes, Allafrica.com. November 17, 2011, https://allafrica.com/stories/201111180120.html; and Al-Shabaab Leader Admits Split, Somalia Report, 7 November 2012;

[9] On Al-Shabaab and Al-Qa’ida: Tricia Bacon, Daisy Muibu, AlQaeda and al-Shabaab: A Resilient Alliance, in Michael Keating, Matt Waldman, War and Peace in Somalia: National Grievances, Local Conflict and Al-Shabaab, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2019, p. 391;

[10] Somalie: le retrait des troupes éthiopiennes lié à des «contraintes financières»RFI, 27 October 2016, http://www.rfi.fr/afrique/20161027-somalie-le-retrait-troupes-ethiopiennes-lie-contraintes-financieres .

[11]  US confirmed the death of al-Shabaab’s Ali Jabal, Fox News, 4 August 2017, https://www.foxnews.com/world/us-confirms-death-of-al-shabaab-terrorist-ali-jabal; and US troops call in airstrike after they come under fire in Somalia, CNN, 17 August 2017, https://edition.cnn.com/2017/08/17/politics/us-troops-somalia-airstrike/index.html.


Image source: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/africa/al-shabaab-somalia-ban-single-use-plastic-bags-terror-environment-livestock-a8428641.html 

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