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Introduction & Overview

Harakat al-Shabaab al-mujahideen (حركة الشباب المجاهدين) or more commonly known as al-Shabaab (The Youth) is a fundamentalist Islamic insurgent organisation based in Somalia but active in the rest of East Africa. The majority of al-Shabaab’s support base within Somalia is strongly nationalist in nature and there is a greater focus on establishing a “Greater Somalia" by uniting the Somali populations of Somalia, Kenya, Ethiopia, and Djibouti (Petrich, 2019). This has changed from a focus on the globalist framework within which the group was founded in order to view incursions on Islamic territory by non-Muslim nations such as the USA and UK as well as other mainly Christian African nations such as Ethiopia and Kenya (Downie, 2011). These invasions would be viewed by the population of Somalia as further attempts at colonization and Western assimilation and be used to aid in support and recruiting efforts for al-Shabaab in the Horn of Africa.

Organisation Roots & History

The exact origins of al-Shabaab are unclear. It is widely agreed that the organisation formed as a part of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) which was a legal and political organisation set up in the wake of the fall of the Siad Barre regime in 1991 during the Somali Civil War. The ICU was embraced by large amounts of the Somali population and following the expulsion of CIA-backed warlords in 2006 (Mazzetti, 2006), it resulted in what was widely considered the most productive era in recent Somali history since the fall of the Barre regime. Following the dissolution of the ICU in 2007 due to internal disputes resulting from the Ethiopian occupation in the War in Somalia, al-Shabaab established itself as an independent actor and began an armed campaign of resistance to foreign invasion forces. After having made large territorial gains during the 2007-09 period it suffered significant losses at the hand of the African Union Mission to Somalia (AMISOM). However, this success by the AU (African Union) forces didn’t last long and during the 2009-10 period the insurgent group made significant gains in the south of the country. This resulted in al-Shabaab controlling much of central and southern Somalia whilst also forming administrative functions to govern the areas that it controlled. Post-2013 the group launched further guerrilla attacks on AMISOM forces due to losses that the group had suffered and since 2018 the insurgency has seen a resurgence in terms of not only organisation but also membership numbers (Raghavan, 2022).

Objectives & Ideology

Ideologically, the insurgent group has been centred around the principle of Salafism in which the main goal is to establish a global caliphate (much like ISIS) through armed struggle or Jihad. However, this goal of establishing a global caliphate is not shared by large amounts of al-Shabaab’s support base within Somalia (International Crisis Group, 2022) and therefore an effort has been made to advocate for a form of Salafi Jihadism that runs alongside Somali nationalism. This would allow the group to sympathise with the perceived struggles of Muslims and Islamic nations worldwide and to also pursue its idea of a ‘Greater Somalia’.

Military & Armed Capabilities

Al-Shabaab’s military abilities are linked heavily to its funding which has gone through several changes. This changed from a focus on international funding through the Hawala network in which individuals who support the Islamist group can donate money through a set of intermediaries to avoid detection. The insurgency also used to fund its activities through charcoal exports due to its control over several port cities such as Kismayo. However, due to the Kenyan military engaging and removing al-Shabaab from the port city the Islamist group was forced to find other means of funding such as local taxation and the trade of illicit substances such as ivory (McCoy, 2015). Due to this large and established source of funding, the insurgent group has access to weapons such as assault rifles, mortars, anti-personnel mines, and also rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs). This access to high explosive devices has also led to the capability to create and produce locally made IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices) and VBIEDs (Vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices).

Approach to Resistance

Due to a recent resurgence in the group's capabilities, more direct actions are being undertaken by the insurgency group. Al-Shabaab is suspected of being behind the Mogadishu Truck bombings in 2017 in which 270 people died. However, due to a large number of civilian deaths they are suspected to be reluctant to claim the attack due to the possibility of degradation of local support (Mohamed, Ibrahim, and Schmitt, 2017). This has now typified the strategy that al-Shabaab uses to oppose forces that it considers opponents in its journey to establish an Islamist presence in Somalia which include the forces of the African Union and the Federal Government of Somalia. This strategy includes not only attacks against opponent armed forces but also attacks against foreign aid groups and local civilians who oppose the methods of al-Shabaab (Sheikh, 2022).

International Relations & Alliances

Al-Shabaab has been linked to several internationally- and regionally-active Islamist terrorist organisations but most importantly al-Qaeda (AQ). The relationship between al-Qaeda and al-Shabaab was fraught and they interacted mainly online before 2008, praising each other’s actions but not cementing a cooperative relationship. However, after Osama Bin Laden's death in 2011 the Somali-based insurgency group became an official al-Qaeda affiliate (Staff, 2012). This led to close cooperation in areas such as indoctrination and training with a focus on basic skills and also more importantly advanced explosive creation training which has allowed al-Shabaab to utilise more lethal tactics in its war against opposition forces. However, there has also been conflict with other Islamist organisations such as ISIL (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) which in early 2015 called upon al-Shabaab to switch allegiances from AQ to ISIL. Al-Shabaab rejected and consequently released an 18-page treatise in which they rejected the newly formed Islamic State in Somalia’s (which is an ISIL branch) ideology and listing the crimes which they had committed under the Quran (Hummel, 2019).

Works Cited

Downie, R. (2011). Analysis | Center for Strategic and International Studies. [online] Available at:

Hummel, K. (2019). Reigniting the Rivalry: The Islamic State in Somalia vs. al-Shabaab. [online] Combating Terrorism Center at West Point. Available at:

International Crisis Group (2022). Considering Political Engagement with Al-Shabaab in Somalia. [online] International Crisis Group. Available at:

Mazzetti, M. (2006). Efforts by C.I.A. Fail in Somalia, Officials Charge. The New York Times. [online] 8 Jun. Available at:

McCoy, O. (2015). How al-Shabaab Finances Terror. [online] Center for Security Policy. Available at:

Mohamed, H., Ibrahim, M. and Schmitt, E. (2017). Mogadishu Truck Bombings Are Deadliest Attack in Decades. The New York Times. [online] 15 Oct. Available at:

Okure, R.A. (2007). Somalia Mourns a ‘Golden Era’ as Crisis Worsens - Africa Faith and Justice Network. [online] Africa Faith and Justice Network. Available at: [Accessed 29 Sep. 2022].

Petrich, K. (2019). Cows, Charcoal, and Cocaine: Al-Shabaab’s Criminal Activities in the Horn of Africa. Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, 45(5-6), pp.1–22. doi:10.1080/1057610x.2019.1678873.

Raghavan, S. (2022). An attack on a military base in Somalia shows al-Shabab’s deadly power. Washington Post. [online] 17 Jul. Available at:

[Accessed 29 Sep. 2022].

Sheikh, A. (2022). At least 18 killed in al Shabaab attack in Somalia. Reuters. [online] 3 Sep. Available at:

Staff, the C.W. (2012). Al-Shabaab joining al Qaeda, monitor group says. [online] CNN. Available at:


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