The ‘Al-Shabab’ Nightmare in Somalia

Thomas Summers
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Al-Shabab militants training for terrorist attacks, 2016
SourceFeisal Omar via REUTERS

Al-Shabab (‘Youth’ in Arabic) is a radical Islamic terrorist group in Somalia that sprung up from the ashes of the Union of Islamic Courts. The Union held power in Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu, in 2006, before eventually being forced out by the Ethiopian army. Al-Shabab wants to impose a strict Islamic theocracy in Somalia, and its insurgents are adherents to the Saudi Wahhabi religious movement, despite most Somalis identifying as Sufi Muslims.

According to Roggio and Gutowski, Al-Shabab’s long-term goal is “to overthrow local governments and create emirates which will eventually coalesce into an Islamic caliphate. Al-Shabab has been condemned as a terrorist group by both the UK and the US, with the latter offering $6 million for information leading to the successful capture of its leader Ahmad Umar ‘Abu Ubaidah’.

Al-Shabab’s position in Somalian and international terrorism

Major al-Shabab attacks targeting Kenya | Al-Shabab News | Al Jazeera
Al-Shabaab fighters perform military exercises in Somalia, 2019
Source: Farah Abdi Warsameh via AP

Al-Shabab has pledged its allegiance to Al-Qaeda and has ties with Nigeria’s Boko Haram, despite cold relations with the Islamic State (IS). It refused to pledge allegiance to IS in 2014, and it sees IS as a threat to its hegemony in Somalia and its recruits, with 20 Al-Shabab insurgents defecting in 2015. Moreover, IS has started to recruit from within Al-Shabab’s ranks to obtain experienced members. This, coupled with the contrasting goals of Al-Shabab and IS, has caused a stand-off with the terrorist group, with many fearing the outbreak of a three-way war between IS, Al-Shabab, and the African Union (AU) forces.

The group controls much of the rural regions of southern Somalia, despite it being officially ousted from Mogadishu in 2011. Attacks in the city still occur to this day, such as the 2017 truck bombing that killed at least 500, the deadliest bombing in East African history. One of the most recent bombings, this time in a tea shop, killed 11 soldiers and injured a further 16 on the 14th of September 2021. The group has had recent successes in retaking strategic locations such as Amara early in 2021, after a brief interlude of government control in Al-Shabab’s 10 year-long occupation of the town. When a region comes under Al-Shabab control, the group installs its own administration through the imposition of taxes and Shariah law. Many living in the capital still pay protection taxes to the group. Under Al-Shabab control, stoning and dismemberment are common punishments for adultery and thievery, respectively. 

Recruits typically come from Somalia and neighboring countries, but it also counts EU, UK, and US nationals among its ranks. Many return home from the diaspora to join Al-Shabab’s cause. Membership estimates range from 7,000 to 9,000 combatants, including children. Al-Shabab has enjoyed popularity and high recruitment rates in Somalia, which can be said to stem from the security that the group offers in such an unstable country.

Somalia has had no effective government in the last 20 years; the northern provinces of Somaliland and Puntland have declared independence and autonomy, respectively. Despite this, Al-Shabab’s reputation in the country has been worsened by its refusal of Western aid during the Somalian drought and famine of 2011. According to inside sources such as Ak Amin Kimathi, a Kenyan Human Rights lawyer who was wrongfully imprisoned with Al-Shabab militants after the Westgate mall attack in Nairobi, the group’s main method of attracting recruits is through faith-based arguments.

He says that:

“they are given quotations from the Koran, the Hadiths [Prophet Muhammad’s teachings], but they do not have the benefit of a critical mind to look at it in any other context and they trust the people driving them to this”. 

Recruitment and Radicalization in Kenya

In Kenya, recruitment has been done through financial means. Slum-dwelling young boys are offered cash sums of $1000 to join the terrorist organization. While this cash injection offers short-term security, it often leaves dependent family members without a breadwinner, thus creating a vicious circle of poverty and subsequent recruitment. Yet, recruitment success rates remain high due to rampant youth unemployment in the country. Defectors have reported that they would not have joined Al-Shabab if they had been employed.

Furthermore, the distrust between slum-dwelling Muslims and the national police force hampers efforts to reduce terrorist recruitment as families refuse to share possible vital information with officials, feeling that police officers unfairly target Muslims with searches and arrests. This has led to a situation in which it is estimated that one-quarter of Al-Shabab’s members are Kenyan. Kenyan recruits smuggle arms across the border, bribe guards, and hide grenades amongst food hampers so that insurgents can carry out attacks. 

Individuals are radicalised to believe that Al-Shabab is correct through arguments that they are wrongfully persecuted by AU forces. Revenge is a key motivator for major attacks. Furthermore, the group preys on young people’s feelings of inadequacy, and it radicalises them with promises of importance through martyrdom.

Among these recruits, there may be up to 1,000 members operating as spies, feeding information to the group’s infamous ‘Amniyat’. The ‘Amniyat’ is essentially an intelligence network within Al-Shabab that also functions as a control mechanism. It is responsible for intelligence gathering, counterintelligence, assassinations, security, health, finances as well as planning terrorist attacks both within and outside of Somalia.

Defectors believe that the only way to escape Amniyat’s grip is to seek refuge abroad. Due to their importance in the operation, they are also better paid and better connected. According to Hussein Sheikh Ali, the former National Security Advisor in Somalia,

“The Amniyat is the veins of the organisation. It is all-powerful. If the Amniyat was destroyed, there would be no al-Shabab”.

The ‘Amniyat’ utilizes diverse methods to maintain this control. It is known to use women to carry out operations, including finding safe shelter, providing food, moving tactical objects, and delivering messages. It also is an incredibly clandestine group, with its lower-ranking members not knowing the names of other members and cells not knowing the plans of other cells.

Al-Shabab’s resilience has been credited to be due to the Amniyat’s ability to hide within plain sight in government-controlled areas.

  1. How can the government dissuade Mogadishu’s residents from funding Al-Shabab activities?
  2. Should fighting terrorism or youth unemployment be the government’s focus in Kenya?
  3. How can omnipresent forces like the ‘Amniyat’ be undermined and ultimately defeated?

Suggested Readings

Crisis Group (2019) “Women and Al-Shabaab’s Insurgency”, Briefing n.145 

Crisis Group (2020) “Blunting Al-Shabaab’s Impact on Somalia’s Elections”, Briefing n.165

Einashe, I. (2017) “Fear for the airwaves: In Somalia al-Shabaab control a prominent radio station and a fifth of the country. Meet the radio presenters who brave danger to keep on reporting independently”, Index on Censorship 

Human Rights Watch (2016) “Deaths and Disappearances Abuses in Counterterrorism Operations in Nairobi and in Northeastern Kenya”

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The ‘Al-Shabab̵…

by Thomas Summers time to read: 5 min