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CFR.org: Al-Shabaab

Posted by: Berhane Habtemariam

Date: Saturday, 10 December 2022

Al-Shabaab

Al-Shabaab remains capable of carrying out massive attacks in Somalia and nearby countries despite a long-running African Union offensive against the Islamist terrorist group.
A military spokesperson for al-Shabaab issues a statement from south of Mogadishu.
A military spokesperson for al-Shabaab issues a statement from south of Mogadishu. Feisal Omar/Reuters
Summary
  • An insurgent group formed in the early 2000s, al-Shabaab seeks to establish an Islamic state in Somalia.
  • The group is capable of carrying out deadly attacks across East Africa, despite suffering setbacks in recent years due to an AU-led military operation.
  • The United States has sought to prevent al-Shabaab from destabilizing the Horn of Africa, and it has increasingly relied on air strikes against suspected fighters.

Introduction

Al-Shabaab, or “the Youth,” is an Islamist insurgent group based in Somalia. It held sway over the capital of Mogadishu in the late 2000s, but a military campaign led by the African Union (AU) and supported by the United States and other Western partners pushed it back from major population centers.

Still, the insurgency has proved resilient and remains the principal security challenge in war-torn Somalia. It controls large parts of the country’s south and continues to mount lethal attacks against international forces and civilians in the region. Meanwhile, al-Shabaab’s unyielding threat has repeatedly pushed the AU to reevaluate its withdrawal and complicated U.S. counterterrorism operations, which have ebbed and flowed in recent years.

What are the origins of al-Shabaab?

One of the most impoverished countries in the world, Somalia has seen militant groups come and go in its decades of political upheaval. Analysts say the forerunner of al-Shabaab, and the incubator for many of its leaders, was al-Ittihad al-Islami (AIAI, or “Unity of Islam”), a militant Salafi group that peaked in the 1990s, after the fall of Said Barre’s 1969–1991 regime and the outbreak of civil war. AIAI’s core was a band of Middle East–educated Somali extremists that was partly funded and armed by al-Qaeda’s chief, Osama bin Laden.

In the early 2000s, a rift developed between AIAI’s old guard, which had decided to create a political front, and younger members, who sought the establishment of a “Greater Somalia” under fundamentalist Islamic rule. The hard-liners eventually joined forces with an alliance of sharia courts known as the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) and served as its youth militia. Al-Shabaab and the ICU wrested control of the capital in June 2006, a victory that stoked fears in neighboring Ethiopia of spillover jihadi violence.

How did the group take shapes

Ethiopia, a majority-Christian nation, invaded Somalia in December 2006 and ousted the ICU from Mogadishu with little resistance. The intervention, which came at the request of Somalia’s transitional government, radicalized al-Shabaab, analysts say. After much of the ICU fled to neighboring countries, al-Shabaab retreated to the south, where it began organizing guerrilla assaults, including bombings and assassinations, on Ethiopian forces. Some experts say it was during these years that the group morphed into a full-fledged insurgency, gaining control over large pieces of territory in central and southern Somalia.

The Ethiopian occupation was responsible [PDF] for “transforming the group from a small, relatively unimportant part of a more moderate Islamic movement into the most powerful and radical armed faction in the country,” wrote Rob Wise, a counterterrorism expert. Addis Ababa said the intervention was a “reluctant response” to calls by the ICU for jihad against Ethiopia and its renewed territorial claims against both Ethiopia and Kenya. It has stressed that the intervention was supported by the United States and the AU, among others.

New Islamist-nationalist fighters swelled al-Shabaab’s ranks from around four hundred into the thousands between 2006 and 2008. The group’s ties to al-Qaeda emerged during this period. Al-Shabaab leaders praised the terrorist network and condemned what they characterized as U.S. crimes against Muslims worldwide. The State Department designated al-Shabaab a foreign terrorist organization in 2008, and al-Shabaab’s leadership declared allegiance to al-Qaeda in 2012.

Recent estimates [PDF] of al-Shabaab’s membership range between seven thousand and twelve thousand. The group regularly forces civilians, particularly children, to enter its ranks; other recruits join voluntarily, often for financial reasons.

What are its objectives?

Al-Shabaab broadly seeks to overthrow the central government, expel foreign forces from Somalia, and ultimately establish an Islamic state in accordance with its version of sharia. To build its legitimacy among Somalis, the group provides services [PDF] within its protection racket, such as dispute settlement, that the government has long struggled to deliver. “Mogadishu isn’t able to compete with what al-Shabaab has to offer in the areas where it’s been strongest,” says the American Enterprise Institute’s Katherine Zimmerman.

The group has also expressed transnational aims, though factions within al-Shabaab have diverged on what exactly those are. A more common goal is an Islamic state that brings together all of East Africa’s ethnic Somali areas, while a smaller subset of militants seeks expansion beyond the region and closer coordination with al-Qaeda.

In areas it controls, al-Shabaab enforces its own harsh interpretation of sharia, prohibiting various types of entertainment, such as movies and music; the sale of khat, a narcotic plant that is often chewed; smoking; and the shaving of beards. Stonings and amputations have been meted out to suspected adulterers and thieves. At the same time, the group bans cooperation with humanitarian agencies, creating a harrowing challenge in the face of unprecedented droughts.

Who leads al-Shabaab?

Ahmed Diriye, also known as Ahmed Umar Abu Ubaidah, is the current leader of al-Shabaab. He was installed in 2014, after his predecessor, Ahmed Abdi Godane, was killed in a U.S. drone strike. Despite initial doubts among some analysts about Diriye’s ability to maintain control over what was then a fractious group, many say al-Shabaab remains a largely cohesive organization. An executive council, or shura, believed to be made up of around a dozen members is the main decision-making body.

How is al-Shabaab funded?

Counterterrorism experts say al-Shabaab has benefited from several sources of income over the years, including other terrorist groups; piracy; kidnapping; and extortion of local businesses, farmers, and aid groups, among others. Altogether, the group generates around $100 million per year through these channels, according to the U.S. Treasury Department. It’s believed to spend about one-quarter [PDF] of this revenue on weapons and explosives.

In recent years, Somalia analyst Abdirashid Hashi says, “they were able to collect money from almost every business in Mogadishu and beyond. They were not on the run, but rather they were very comfortable.”

Al-Shabaab has built up an extensive racketeering operation that includes checkpoint tolls; taxes on imported goods; and zakat, an annual religious tax. The group has in the past profited extensively from taxing illicitly traded charcoal, but a UN ban on these exports appears to have choked off this revenue stream in recent years. The Eritrean government has in the past been accused of financing the group, but it denied these claims.

What has been the regional impact?

The UN Security Council authorized the AU to lead a multinational peacekeeping force in Somalia, known by its acronym, AMISOM, in early 2007. Its primary mandate was to protect the country’s transitional government, which had just returned to power in Mogadishu. Uganda was the first nation to send forces into Somalia under AMISOM, and has maintained the largest contingent. Other military forces come from Burundi, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Djibouti. As of 2022, the mission comprised around twenty thousand troops.

Al-Shabaab struck outside of Somalia for the first time in 2010, when coordinated suicide bombings killed seventy-four people in the Ugandan capital of Kampala. “We are sending a message to every country who is willing to send troops to Somalia that they will face attacks on their territory,” said the group’s spokesperson at the time.

In 2013, al-Shabaab fighters claimed responsibility for an attack on a Nairobi shopping mall that killed 67 people, and in 2015 the group killed 148 in an attack on a university in the city of Garissa. The latter was the deadliest attack in Kenya since the 1998 bombing of the U.S. embassy in Nairobi by al-Qaeda, in which more than two hundred people died..........

 
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