Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen, more commonly known as al-Shabaab, is a jihadist extremist group based in East Africa. In 2012, it pledged allegiance to the militant Islamist organization Al-Qaeda. In February 2012, some of the group’s leaders quarreled with Al-Qaeda over the union, and quickly lost ground. Since 2018, al Shabaab has used its propaganda channel, Al-Kata’ib Media, to propagate its uncompromising allegiance to al Qaeda. Two audio messages by Shabaab’s emir, Abu Ubaydah Ahmad Umar, released in 2018, made specific reference to support for al Qaeda in Syria and Yemen, showing a leadership presenting al Shabaab openly as part of the al Qaeda global network.
Al-Shabaab’s troop strength was estimated at 7,000 to 9,000 militants in 2014, with a current capacity estimated at between 3000 and 4000 fighters. As of 2015, the group has retreated from the major cities, however al-Shabaab stills controls large parts of the rural areas. Shabaab is currently primarily active in various areas such as Banadir, Lower and Middle Shabelle as well as specific areas in Juba. Shabaab is also present in specific areas of southern Somalia coupled with a sustained capacity to execute attacks in Mogadishu. A more recent expansion is in Puntland primarily aimed at neutralizing the Islamic State in Somalia. Areas of active operations also include the border region with Kenya, such as the Lamu area.
Al-Shabaab began as the armed wing of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), which later splintered into several smaller factions after its defeat in 2006 by Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and the TFG’s Ethiopian military allies. The group describes itself as waging jihad against “enemies of Islam”, and is engaged in combat against the Federal Government of Somalia and the African Union Mission to Somalia (AMISOM). al Shabaab is also uncompromising in its opposition to the Islamic State in Somalia (ISS).
Al-Shabaab has been designated as a terrorist organization by Australia, Canada, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom and the United States. As of June 2012, the US State Department has open bounties on several of the group’s senior commanders. In July 2018, the US designated al Shabaab’s Al-Hijra, an armed cell active in Kenya as a terrorist organization. Al Hijra is believed to be responsible for attacks and recruitment in Kenya. Al-Shabaab presence in Kenya remains of concern with a security force struggling in countering presence and attacks in a pro-active manner. Disconcerting is al Shabaab not shying away from killing both citizens and security officials in Kenya, in areas such as the Mandera and Wajir counties. Attacks in Kenya are not only a revenge response to Kenya deployments in Somalia, but also to access weapons and recruitment.
In early August 2011, the Transitional Federal Government’s troops and their AMISOM allies managed to capture all of Mogadishu from the al-Shabaab militants. An ideological rift within the group’s leadership also emerged, and several of the organization’s senior commanders were assassinated. Due to its Wahhabi roots, al-Shabaab is hostile to Sufi traditions and has often clashed with the militant Sufi group Ahlu Sunna Waljama’a. The group has also been suspected of having links with Al-Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and Boko Haram. It attracted some members from western countries, including Samantha Lewthwaite and Abu Mansoor Al-Amriki. It is estimated that over 40 Somali-American and numerous Somali-Europeans have over time joined al Shabaab coupled with supporters from areas such as Yemen, Sudan and Kenya. A Somali fighter captured referred to receiving training in South Africa, but verification of any training camps for al Shabaab in Southern Africa remains unverified.
In August 2014, the Somali government-led Operation Indian Ocean was launched to clean up the remaining insurgent-held pockets in the countryside. On 1 September 2014, a US drone strike carried out as part of the broader mission killed al-Shabaab leader Ahmed Abdi Godane, also known as Mukhtar Abu Zubair. U.S. authorities hailed the raid as a major symbolic and operational loss for al-Shabaab, and the Somali government offered a 45-day amnesty to all moderate members of the militant group. Since 2017, US Africa Command has significantly increased air and drone strikes against al Shabaab, though the impact thereof remains limited. This is seen in an al Shabaab sustained ability to control areas and towns in primarily central and southern Somalia. An additional concern is civilians killed during some of these drone strike evoking rejection of US presence in Somalia. These responses provide an ideal recruitment opportunity for al Shabaab.
Current tactics employed by al Shabaab include armed assaults, ambushes, IEDs, assassinations and suicide bombings. Targets remain AMISOM and Government soldiers and officials. Al Shabaab also sets up shadow government structures in areas of control that include Hisba activities, Sharia courts, educational guidelines, distribution of religious charity and taxes (zakat) and tax collection. A case in point is the announcement and release of a photo report on 8 August 2016 on a religious police force in Jilib, an area still under their control. The unit was introduced as Al-Hisbah of Harakat al Shabaab. Other examples include continued release of propaganda material, such as celebrating Eid Al Adha.
The group remains nonetheless strong and active, and has been responsible for exceptionally deadly terrorist attacks such as the Westgate shopping mall attack in Kenya during September 2013 and the 14 October Mogadishu bombings.
al Shabaab sustained presence and threat to Somalia is not set to change in the near future aggravated by a Somali government search for political unity with regional leaders, security force struggling in gaining sufficient capacity in countering attack and community discontent with the absence of effective service delivery. Suspected collaboration of security and intelligence officers with al Shabaab, more specifically in Mogadishu, is reflective of a weak security force in countering al Shabaab.
The al Shabaab of today is much more than a terrorist organization in Somalia. The group has succeeded in integrating itself into society structures, seeking cooperation with tribal leaders: al Shabaab has become an institutionalized reality in the Somali complex and search for state formation, irrespective the lack of majority support from Somalis.
Al-Shabaab proliferates their propaganda through various media. It operates its own radio station, Radio Andalus, and has acquired relay stations and seized other equipment from private radio stations, including some from the BBC. Presenters broadcast in Somali, Arabic, Swahili and English. Besides radio, the Internet is the most heavily utilized by al-Shabaab and other militant Islamic groups such as Al-Qaeda because it is the easiest and most cost-effective way to reach a large audience. As the Internet is especially popular with today’s youth, organizations such as al-Shabaab are using online forums and chat rooms to recruit young followers. Al-Shabaab’s official website, which has since been taken down several times, featured posts, videos and official statements in English, Arabic and Somali, as well as online classrooms to educate followers. Prior to its expulsion from Mogadishu in mid-2011, al-Shabaab had also launched the Al-Kataib propaganda television station the year before. The channel’s pilot program aired the confessions of Ahmed Kisi, an alleged CIA spy who had been executed earlier in the week. al-Shabaab still operates Al-Kataib Media, which produces videos released by al-Shabaab as well as by Al-Qaeda’s own propaganda networks on Telegram.
In addition, al-Shabaab also uses music to influence and appeal to young followers. According to Robin Wright, “By 2010, almost eight out of every ten soldiers in Somalia’s many rebel forces were children,” who are especially influenced and susceptible messages conveyed to modern, western-themed music. One of al-Shabaab’s foreign-born leaders, American Omar Hammami, a.k.a. Abu Mansoor Al-Amriki, gained notoriety after an April 2009 video of him rapping about jihad. Hammami’s most recent song, “Send Me a Cruise”, debuted online on April 9, 2011.
In October 2013, al-Shabaab issued a propaganda video targeting several British Muslims who had spoken out against Islamist extremism, some of them explicitly against the murder of Lee Rigby. The video urged jihadists in the UK to follow the example of Rigby’s killers, to arm themselves if necessary with knives from B&Q. The Muslims named in the video for “selling out” included Mohammed Shafiq, Mohammed Ansar, Usama Hasan and Ajmal Masroor.
In February 2015, al-Shabaab released another propaganda video calling for attacks on shopping malls in Canada, the UK, and the US, including the West Edmonton Mall in Alberta, Canada, and the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota. Although the group had hitherto only ever launched attacks within East Africa, security at both malls was tightened in response. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police also indicated that there was no evidence of any imminent threat.
On December 7, 2011, al-Shabaab also reportedly began using the Twitter social media network. The move is believed to be an attempt by the group to counteract tweets by allied officials, and to serve as a venue for the dissemination of information on alleged casualties as well as a way to interact with the press. The account, HSMPress, attracted over eight thousand followers for its witty taunts of the KDF in general and its official spokesman, Maj. Emmanuel Chirchir, with whom it had frequent exchanges, in particular. While it is not known for certain if the HSMPress account is sanctioned by the Shabaab, both Western and African Union officials believe that it is. It has relayed information about battle outcomes that has sometimes been more accurate than its opponents, and posted pictures of authentic identity cards of missing AMISOM peacekeepers that were presumably killed in combat. Most of al-Shabaab’s messages on Twitter are in English, with authorities suggesting that they are intended for an outside audience and potential recruits in the West.
In January 2013, Twitter suspended al-Shabaab’s English-language account. This was apparently in response to the account having issued death threats against Frenchman “Denis Allex” and subsequently posted photos of his corpse after the botched Bulo Marer hostage rescue attempt, as well as tweeting threats to kill Kenyan hostages. Al-Shabaab later opened a new Twitter account on February 4, 2013. Twitter closed the account again on September 6, 2013 for unspecified reasons. A few days earlier, on September 3, the insurgent group had used the service to claim responsibility for an unsuccessful ambush attempt against a convoy carrying Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud. The militants also tweeted after the attack that the group had no other active Twitter feeds in English, and cautioned users against “parody accounts”. The insurgent group also messaged that “next time, you won’t be as lucky,” in apparent violation of Twitter’s user policies against issuing threats of violence and using the service for illicit purposes or activities. However, al-Shabaab’s Arabic-language account remained open. The group later relaunched its English Twitter account on September 11, 2013.
In September 2013, Twitter suspended at least six al-Shabaab accounts after the outfit ridiculed the Kenyan government’s response to the Westgate shopping mall attack in Nairobi, an attack al-Shabaab claimed responsibility for. The group later re-opened a Twitter account in December, with the explanation that “the aim is to vigorously challenge defamatory reports in the media by presenting an accurate portrayal of the current state of Jihad in Somalia and countering Western, state-sponsored propaganda machines that are paid to demonise the Mujahideen.” A Somali government spokesman stated that the Somali authorities were opposed to al-Shabaab’s presence on the social media website, as the group “should not be given the platform to mislead the youth”.