Home Discussion Papers Conflict & Terrorism Deconstructing Al-Shabaab: A growing international terror threat
Deconstructing Al-Shabaab: A growing international terror threat
Written by Catherine Akurut (1) Monday, 03 September 2012 08:06

Somalia has been without an effective central Government since 1991 and has since been engulfed by armed conflict. Located at the Horn of Africa, Somalia has attracted media attention due to the interminable and notorious ship hijackings by pirates operating on the country’s coast on the Indian Ocean and the policy of the strict application of Shari’a law that has been characterised by considerably serious human rights violations, lawlessness and unprecedented insecurity to the extent of being declared the most unsafe place in the world. However, the greatest threat that caused endless headlines is Al-Shabaab, an Islamic militia group, which previously controlled much of southern and central Somalia, including a large part of Somalia’s capital city, Mogadishu. Translated from the Arabic language to mean ‘the youth’, Al-Shabaab is a Somali-based radical terrorist group, whose ideology is firmly grounded and rooted in Shari’a law (Islamic law). This Al-Qaeda linked group has been notorious for gross human rights violations within Somalia, terrorist attacks and suicide bombings in neighbouring countries such as Uganda and Kenya.

Until recently, this terrorist group was not only the dominant, political and military force in Somalia, but also maintained a large territorial control of Somalia. The group’s objective was to advocate for, create and promote a state based on the strict application of Shari’a law. Al-Shabaab is without opposition and thus has almost been entirely defeated by the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). Following the military operations underway in Somalia, spearheaded by the AMISOM whose contingent led by the Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF), Al-Shabaab has been dealt a blow and pushed out of Mogadishu, thus losing territorial control of almost all its previous strongholds of southern and central Somalia and the capital city Mogadishu. The rebel group is currently in Kisimayo, an important economic lifeline of Al-Shabaab, which AMISOM intends to conquer by August 2012.

This paper presents the background of the Al-Shabab network, whilst offering a concise overview of its atrocious activities in and out of Somalia. It discusses the gradual advancements of the Islamist militia group and how it acquired its ambitious desire to become international in their operations by joining forces with an internationally recognised terrorist group, Al-Qaeda and carried out its initial attack on a small East African country, Uganda to prove its capability. It also argues that the union of Al-Shabaab and Al-Qaeda was, in fact, an ‘ego boost’ for the Islamic Somali-based militia, which presents an even greater threat to Somalia, her neighbouring countries, particularly Uganda and Kenya, which have suffered from Al-Shabaab’s activities and continue to face even greater threats due to their opposition to their ideology and activities, as well as the international community at large.

Fight or flight: Al-Shabaab’s origin

The prolonged period of mayhem in Somalia since acquiring independence from Britain and Italy – categorised by military dictatorship, civil war, economic turmoil and severe famine and drought – acted as a breeding ground for the rise of radical groups. Following the era of colonialism, two Islamist groups emerged that controlled much of Somalia: the Islamic Union (Al-Ittihad al-Islamiya, IU) and the Islamic Courts Union (Ittihad al-Mahakim al-Islamiya, ICU).(2) The ideology of the groups involved the implementation of Shari’a law. In addition, the groups envisioned making Somalia an Islamic state, governed by this law.(3) However, their vision was short lived when the ICU collapsed and most of its members fled following the entry of the Ethiopian troops into Somalia in 2006. The entry into Somalia was supported by the United States (US), which provided financial, logistical and diplomatic support for this operation. But, its military wing, the Al-Shabaab, stayed to fight and drive the Ethiopian military troops out of Somalia.(4) It was from these two groups that Al-Shabaab emerged. Following the collapse of the IU and ICU, the United Nations mandated to establish a Government, called the Transitional Federal Government (TFG). The pro tem goal of the TFG was to restore a state of normalcy through security, peace, economy and a functional Government, which would, in the long-term, restore democracy in Somalia. The Ethiopian troops’ objective was not only to destroy the ICU but also defend the stability of the TFG. However, Ethiopia withdrew its troops from Somalia in 2009 after suffering heavy causalities.(5)

Despite its youthanised nature, the Al-Shabaab network has progressed into a clan-based Islamic insurgency that quickly became infamous in southern Somalia in 2006.(6) Estimated to have just a few hundred core members and 6,000 recruited soldiers, some of whom compulsorily joined,(7) the Islamist militant group is notorious for causing terror, violence and destruction in Somalia. Controlling a vast area of southern and central parts of the Horn of Africa country, the group’s major objective is to discredit the UN-backed TFG, which is based in Mogadishu, the capital city of Somalia. This group has also made it their agenda to fight all those in support of the TFG, including the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) peacekeepers who picked up after the withdrawal of the Ethiopian troops.(8) The Islamist militia group indeed managed to control most of Somalia and confine the TFG to only a few areas inside Mogadishu.

Al-Shabaab’s cohorts and funds: The humanitarian disaster in Somalia

Al-Shabaab, which previously controlled large portions of the central and southern parts of Somalia, consisted of numerous training camps. The group possessed the weaponry, technical expertise – in the form of making home-made bombs and other forms of explosives, and human resources, particularly its greatest human asset – foreign fighters – all needed to conduct its operations.(9) One wonders how this terror group – considering its gradual advancement – managed to fund its somewhat sophisticated operations. Firstly, despite her repeated denial of these claims, it is speculated that Eritrea has long been a supporter of the Al-Shabaab.(10) In a bid to discontinue offering support to the Islamic terror group, two Eritrean Government officials have been sanctioned by the US. These officials are part of a list of six people all accused of supporting the ongoing conflict in Somalia.(11) The initial round of sanctions was imposed by the UN Security Council in December 2009 and again in December 2011.(12) In addition, some Kenyan nationals such as Aboud Rogo Mohammed, who uses his position as a preacher and ideological leader to raise funds for the terror group, have also been accused of aiding Al-Shabaab.(13)

Secondly, Al-Shabaab also raises money by collecting zakat (14) from citizens, receiving allowances from both local and foreign sympathisers as well as pre-positioning to tax the international humanitarian organisations.(15) Somalia had been undergoing its worst famine and drought disaster in about six decades. The World Food Programme estimated that 2.85 million Somalis needed urgent assistance, about 57% (1.65 million) of whom lived in Al-Shabaab-controlled territories.(16) Most of the populace was subjected to starvation, some of whom forced to migrate far off away from the Al-Shabaab controlled areas in search for food and water. However, reports by international humanitarian agencies operating within Somalia indicated that Al-Shabaab prevented some of these people from leaving its territories.(17) In dismay, the Islamic group banned most of the foreign aid agencies from offering aid to the areas it controlled, an act that lost the group some of its popularity.(18) Indeed the group ordered the closure of the offices of some major agencies such as the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the United Nations Department of Security and Safety (UNDSS), and the United Nations Political Office for Somalia (UNPOS). The group believed these organisations engaged in activities that ashamed the Islamic religion.(19) During this period, the offices of the International Medical Corps (IMC) and CARE International also closed.(20) Through the use of threats, the group coerced most humanitarian organisations to discontinue assistance to those  affected by the natural catastrophe, forcing them to only operate in areas governed by the TFG.(21) Perhaps prohibiting humanitarian organisations from offering aid in Al-Shabaab controlled areas was a decoy devised to introduce aid taxation with the bid to acquire funds for the group’s operations.

In an attempt to reinforce their veto policy against the aid agencies, Al-Shabaab set up an Office for the Supervision of the Affairs of Foreign Agencies (OSAFA) in 2009, meant to observe the movements of all non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and international organisations operating within Somalia.(22) Similarly, in 2009, the World Food meme (WFP) was accused of destroying the local agricultural market in the Somali region by distributing aid during harvest time. Not long after, the aid agency was forced to buy food from the local people, forcing it to postpone all operations in southern Somalia due to inadequate security. Other organisations whose operations in Somalia were affected included the Mercy Corps, Med-Air, and Horn Relief, as well as all organisations bearing the American flag.(23) The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the Somali Red Crescent Society were among the few organisations that were not banned from Al-Shabaab controlled territories. These continued to provide aid to drought-stricken areas in southern Somalia.(24)

Al-Shabaab seeks international recognition

Shortly after becoming an independent group in 2007, Al-shabaab recognised the value of having foreign fighters with a particular interest of recruits from the West. In a statement made in 2008 by one of Al-Shaabab’s top leaders, he asserted that: “We seek to empower the [S]hari’a of Allah and commit His faith to His worshippers, in perfect conformity between the global jihad [Jihad translating to mean a war against non-believers] and the jihad in Somalia. However, [we] lack the precious element of the foreign fighters.”(25) He added that there were currently an insufficient number of non-Somali brothers. As a result, the rebel group has since scrupulously acted upon this desire in anticipation to reach out to interested recruits by releasing numerous recruitment videos and statements in the English language or similar videos with English subtitles. Certainly, their efforts were not in vain. In fact, since the appeal, about two dozen Americans have travelled or attempted to travel to Somalia to join and support the rebel group.(26) In addition, the London-based Royal United Services Institute warned that about fifty Britons were currently training with the Al-Shabaab.(27) In their effort to recruit, the Al-Shabaab also effectively used proxy recruiters and fundraisers, including Imams, at mosques and Somali community centres in foreign countries such as the US to “prey on Somalis [there] and silence the families of potential recruits.”(28)

Al-Shabaab’s first international terror attack: The case of Uganda

Al-Shabaab had almost entirely carried out all its atrocities within the borders of Somalia. However, in 2010, their desire for international attention became a reality. On 11 July 2010, a terror attack was carried out in Uganda for which the group claimed responsibility. Following the attack, the Al-Shabaab spokesman, Sheikh Ali Mohamud, released a statement expressing gratitude to those who carried out the attack. “We thank the Mujahideen(29) that carried out the attack. We are sending a message to Uganda and Burundi, if they do not take out their AMISOM troops from Somalia, blasts will continue.”(30) The horrendous attack occurred in Kampala, the capital city of Uganda, killing at least 76 and injuring 85 more. The three synchronised bombings, one at an Ethiopian restaurant and the other two at a rugby club, twenty minutes later, targeted the crowds who were watching the 2010 FIFA World Cup final. The attack marked Al-Shabaab’s first international terror attack beyond Somali borders. It was postulated that Uganda forced the hand of Al-Shabaab when its Government sent troops to defend Somalia’s TFG as well as the AMISOM forces.

Al-Shabaab had made numerous threats against Uganda in the days leading up to the attack. On 5 July 2010, the group’s spiritual leader and spokesperson, Sheikh Mukhtar Robow Ali, told Muslim youths and Mujahideen, “to attack, explode and burn” the Burundian and Ugandan embassies.(31) He is believed to have been trained in Afghanistan and established the earliest militant training camps in Somalia.(32) Al-Shabaab’s leader, Mukhtar Abu Zubayr, analogously threatened the Ugandan and Burundian people: “You should know that the massacres against the children, women and the elderly of Mogadishu will be revenged against you. Keep in mind that [revenge for] the aggressions being committed by your leaders and soldiers [are] awaiting you. We have to carry out an all-out Jihad campaign against the enemy and everyone should take part, both young and old. That is the only way to end the massacres being carried out by the infidels in our country against the weak among us.”(33) Similarly, the group had been targeting the Ugandan troops in Somalia, which form part of the AMISOM forces.(34)

Initially, the Ugandan Government deployed about 1,700 troops to Somalia in March 2007 to support the AMISOM mission there.(35) Presently, Uganda has not heeded to the Al-Shabaab’s demands. In fact, the country contributes nearly half of the 6,100 AMISOM forces, while Burundi supplies the rest. Uganda also serves as a training ground for the Somali TFG soldiers. In addition, the European Union has so far trained 600 soldiers in western Uganda and proposes to train about 1,400 more.  Furthermore, Uganda’s AMISOM forces receive training equipment and logistical support from the US.(36) The attack on Uganda happened at a crucial point in time when the Islamist militia group sought to offer allegiance to the internationally recognised terrorist group, Al-Qaeda.

The Al-Qaeda - Al-Shabaab union

Al-Shabaab has long been considered an Al-Qaeda-linked terrorist group by both the local and international media. In fact, in December 2011, Zubayr, the cofounder of Al-shabab, mentioned how Al-Qaeda had played an important role in Somalia, particularly after the 1993 Battle of Mogadishu. Nonetheless, it was at this point in time that he proposed to join the internationally recognised jihad group, Al-Qaeda.(37) Al-Shabaab leaders have constantly pronounced their loyalty to Al-Qaeda, even though their union was not official. However, in February 2012, the two groups were united. The announcement was made through an online video, which captured Mukhtar Abu al Zubayr (a.k.a. Ahmed Abdi Aw Mohamed or Godane), the emir and cofounder of Al-Shabaab, pledging his organisation's allegiance to Al-Qaeda, and also showed Ayman al Zawahiri, the emir of Al-Qaeda, accepting.(38) It is hypothesised that the merge of Al-Shabaab with Al-Qaeda came with permission from the latter’s leader Zawahiri for the former to carry out terror attacks against the West.(39)

Recent developments

The Islamist rebel group Al-Shabaab has suffered some significant number of defeats, which depict some hope and poise in the AMISOM. Despite the seemingly premature mission accomplished, Senior AMISOM commander General Fred Mugisha declared victory over Al-Shabaab in the Somali capital, Mogadishu.(40) In addition, Mugisha was confident that the rebels would soon be defeated countrywide. Following the military operations underway in Somalia, spear headed by the AMISOM whose contingent led by Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF), Al-Shabaab has been trounced and pushed out of Mogadishu, thus losing territorial control of almost all its previous strongholds of Southern, central and a large portion of the capital city Mogadishu. The rebel group is only holding Kisimayo,(41) an important economic lifeline of the Al-Shabaab, which AMISOM is certain it will overrun.

Following the defeat by the allied forces of Somalia, Kenya, Ethiopia and AU peacekeepers, the Al-Qaeda linked terror group has formulated a new leadership structure and is currently preparing to defend its newly established stronghold Kismayo, located in the Lower Jubba region.(42) Implemented to improve military tactics, Al-Shabaab’s overall leader remains Zubayr, who commands five administrative regions, each of which is solely responsible for its military operations against the allied forces.(43) However, unlike in the previous structure, the current one is designed in such a way that every two to three provinces is headed by an Emir, who is assisted by a deputy and other subordinates.(44)

What the future holds for Al-Shabaab

We cannot afford to make the mistake of assuming that Al-Shabaab’s ambitions have been suppressed or are limited to Somalia or the African continent. On the contrary, this Al-Qaeda linked group sought recognition and support from Al-Qaeda with a particularly malicious purpose. The group proved themselves time and again through executing terror attacks inside Somalia, but most importantly beyond its borders. And in February 2012, the group’s long awaited desire to merge with Al-Qaeda was approved. Al-Shabaab is now international in its operations and reach. Now more than ever, the terror group will prove its might with the backing of the internationally recognised jihad group – backed with indubitable reputations such as 9/11. Although the two groups have not jointly carried out any outstanding international attacks, their merging poses a huge and serious threat to Africa and more recently to the West. In 2008, the group boldly affirmed its desire to attack the US with their leader stating: “So wait, oh cursed America, for the events of the coming September [i.e. the next major attacks]. For it is not a strike, but strikes!!! They conspired against us and made us retarded economically and politically and [sic] and technologically and religiously and morally and even mentally!!! And all of these tragedies are caused by the mother of [all evil] America!!! It continues, and [America] did not learn sufficiently from the previous strikes!! The curses of Allah [are] upon America and those who are loyal to it or protect it or love it.”(45) With the Al Qaeda-Al-Shabaab union put into consideration, such a bold statement should not be taken lightly, even with the rebel group’s recent significant defeats. 

In the mean time, the Al-Qaeda affiliate continues to prove its capability across Somali boarders by executing more attacks, for instance, the disputable claims that the terror group was responsible for the ongoing grenade attacks waving through Kenya such as the March 2012 grenade attack on a bus station in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi. Despite their continued threats to commit attacks against Kenya – which caused the Kenyans to suspect them – the Al-Shabaab network denied any involvement. Nonetheless, it was concluded by Kenyan Officials that Al-Shabaab sympathisers were responsible.(46) Kenya cannot erroneously discredit Al-Shabaab’s capabilities. This East African nation faces a major risk as it shares borders with Somalia and is a safe haven for not just the Somalis escaping the conflict, but also the “Al-Shabaab’s ethnically Somali foreign fighters.”(47)


The one thing the Al-Shabaab needed was an ‘ego boost’, hence the merger with Al-Qaeda. Although Al-Shabaab’s local fighters present a major risk, the foreign fighters present an even greater threat for the future of international terrorism. The latter have the advantage of moving across borders at free will. The possibility of the Al-Qaeda affiliated group surrendering is very low. That would mean withdrawing allegiance to Al-Qaeda and witnessing the success of the UN-mandated TFG in Somalia, as well as the delightful triumph of the AMISOM forces and its allies.


(1) Contact Catherine Akurut through Consultancy African Intelligence’s Conflict and Terrorism Unit ( This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it ).
(2) Gartenstein-Ross, D., 2009. The Strategic challenge of Somalia’s Al-shabaab: dimensions of jihad. Middle East Forum, XVI (4), pp. 25-36. 
(3) Ibid.
(4) Harnisch, C., ‘The terror threat from Somalia: the internalization of Al-Shabaab’, American Enterprise Institute, 12 February 2010, http://www.criticalthreats.org.
(5) ‘Q&A: Who are Somalia’s Al-Shabaab’, BBC, 23 February 2012, http://www.bbc.co.uk.
(6) Hopkins, N. and Norton-Taylor, R., ‘Al-Shabaab: the Somali militant group recruiting young Britons to its ranks’, The Guardian, 21 February 2012, http://www.guardian.co.uk.  
(7) Ibid.
(8) ‘Al-Shabaab join Al Qaeda, monitor group say’, CNN, 9 February 2012, http://articles.cnn.com.
(9) Harnisch, C., ‘The terror threat from Somalia: the internalization of Al-Shabaab’, American Enterprise Institute, 12 February 2010, http://www.criticalthreats.org.
(10) ‘US sanctions Eritrean Officials for aiding Somalia militants’, AMISOM Daily Media Monitoring, 6 July 2012, http://somaliamediamonitoring.org.  
(11) Ibid.
(12) Tana, R.M., ‘Eretria sanctioned for ties to Al Shabab’, Daily News, 8 July 2012, http://thedailynewsegypt.com.
(13) Ibid.
(14) Zakat is often used in Islamic finance to refer to the commitment that a person must donate a certain amount of their wealth every year to charitable causes. Zakat is compulsory for all Muslims as it physically and spiritually purifies their yearly earnings that are over and above what is required to provide the essential needs of a person or family, http://www.investopedia.com.
(15) ‘US sanctions Eritrean Officials for aiding Somalia militants’, AMISOM Daily Media Monitoring, 6 July 2012, http://somaliamediamonitoring.org.  
(16) Zimmerman, K., ‘Al Shabaab’s history with humanitarian Assistance’, American Enterprise Institute, 27 July 2011, http://www.aei.org.
(17) Ibid.
(18) ‘Somalia’s Al-Shabaab joins Al-Qaeda’, BCC, 10 February 2012, http://www.bbc.co.uk.
(19) Zimmerman, K., ‘Al Shabaab’s history with humanitarian Assistance’, American Enterprise Institute, 27 July 2011, http://www.aei.org.
(20) Ibid.
(21) Zimmerman, K., ‘Al Shabaab and the challenges of providing Humanitarian Assistance in Somalia’, American Enterprise Institute, 8 September 2011, http://www.criticalthreats.org.
(22) Zimmerman, K., ‘Al Shabaab’s history with humanitarian Assistance’, American Enterprise Institute, 27 July 2011, http://www.aei.org.
(23) Ibid.
(24) Ibid.
(25) Harnisch, C. and Zimmerman, K., ‘Al-Shabaab’s Recruitment of Americans’, American Enterprise Institute, 10 August 2010, http://www.criticalthreats.org.
(26) Ibid.
(27) ‘Somalia’s Al-Shabaab joins Al-Qaeda’, BBC, 10 February 2012, http://www.bbc.co.uk.
(28) Harnisch, C. and Zimmerman, K., ‘Al-Shabaab’s recruitment of Americans’, American Enterprise Institute, 10 August 2010, http://www.criticalthreats.org.
(29) ‘Mujahideen’ is the plural of mujahid, which is Arabic for "one who engages in Jihad”.  See http://middleeast.about.com.
(30) Harnisch, C., ‘Al Shabaab’s first international strike: an analysis of the July 11 Uganda bombings’ American Enterprise Institute, 14 July 2010, http://www.criticalthreats.org.
(31) Ibid.
(32) Ibid.
(33) Ibid.
(34) Ibid.
(35) Ibid.
(36) Ibid.
(37) Joscel, T. and Roggio, B., ‘Shabaab formerly joins Al Qaeda’, The Long War Journal, 9 February 2012, http://www.longwarjournal.org
(38) Ibid.
(39) ‘Somalia’s Al-Shabaab joins Al-Qaeda’, BCC, 10 February 2012, http://www.bbc.co.uk.
(40) ‘AU claims defeat of Al-Shabaab in Mogadishu’, Voice of America, 29 April 2012, http://www.voanews.com.
(41) ‘Al-Shabaab: the new structure of Al-Shabaab’, Somali Report, 23 July 2012, http://somaliareport.com.
(42) Ibid.
(43) Ibid.
(44) Ibid.
(45) Harnisch, C., ‘Al Shabaab’s first international strike: an analysis of the July 11 Uganda bombings’ American Enterprise Institute, 14 July 2010, http://www.criticalthreats.org.
(46) ‘Kenya: Al-Shabaab denies Nairobi bombings’, AllAfrica, 13 March 2012, http://allafrica.com.
(47) Wise, R., 2011, Al Shabaab, No.2, Center for Strategic and International Studies, http://csis.org.


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