Understanding al-Shabaab

By Daveed Gartenstein-Ross and Madeleine Gruen
CTR Vantage
Nov. 4, 2010

The advance of Islamist groups in Somalia is seen as a cause for concern by Western law enforcement and intelligence agencies, as members of the Somali diaspora return to the country to undertake militant training or liaise with jihadi groups. Of Somalia’s various hardline Islamist groups, Shabaab is “the largest and most important.”2 This article provides background on Shabaab’s origins and evolution, and consequently helps to explain how Americans and other Western citizens have become involved in Somalia’s internal chaos.

Al-Shabaab represents an evolutionary step from two previous Somali Islamist groups, the Islamic Union (al-Ittihad al-Islamiya, IU) and the Islamic Courts Union (ICU). There are three strands of evolution from the IU to the ICU and finally to Shabaab. The first is ideological, in which the groups’ leadership went through a funneling process and slowly became less ideologically diverse. Though all three strove to implement sharia (Islamic law), a significant faction of IU and ICU leaders had a vision that focused on the Somali nation itself-that is, inside Somalia’s borders and in neighboring territories where Somalis are the predominant ethnic group. In contrast, Shabaab’s leadership espouses a global jihadist ideology. The second strand lies in the groups’ relations with al-Qaeda. Bin Laden’s organization has long had a presence in Somalia, but a number of knowledgeable scholars believe that al-Qaeda and the IU were not deeply connected.3 In contrast, after al-Shabaab emerged as a distinct entity, its leaders explicitly reached out to al-Qaeda’s senior leadership.

The final strand is the groups’ opportunity and ability to govern. The IU could not control territory for a sustained period, apart from the town of Luuq. In contrast, the Islamic Courts and Shabaab came to control broad swaths of Somalia, and the governing strategies they put in place indicate that both groups carefully considered how to maintain and expand their power.

Al-Shabaab’s Origins

The practice of Islam in Somalia has traditionally been dominated by apolitical Sufi orders. Islamist movements did not emerge until the late 1960s, when Somalis gained greater exposure to less moderate currents of Islam in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and elsewhere.

In 1969, Gen. Mohamed Siad Barre carried out a military coup that made him president of the young state. Some of Barre’s draconian tactics for dealing with Somalia’s fledgling Islamist movements consolidated the groups, and gave them momentum. When Muslim leaders denounced reform of Somali family law, for example, Barre executed ten prominent scholars and prosecuted hundreds more. Though Barre ruled for more than twenty years, by the early 1990s he faced widespread opposition. After he was forced to flee the country, Somalia collapsed into civil war and anarchy.

In these lawless conditions, two Islamist groups that were Shabaab’s progenitors became prominent. The first was the Islamic Union. Although there is no firm date for the IU’s birth, most credible accounts date it to around 1983. Ken Menkhaus notes that the IU was originally “comprised mainly of educated, young men who had studied or worked in the Middle East.”4 It received significant funding and support from, and was influenced by, the Salafi/Wahhabi movement and its Saudi-headquartered charity organizations. The IU’s goals were to defeat Siad Barre’s regime and replace it with an Islamic state, and to unify what it regarded as Greater Somalia-including northeastern Kenya, Ethiopia’s Ogaden region, and Djibouti.

In 1991, after warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid’s rebel forces drove Barre into exile, the IU attempted to seize “targets of opportunity,” including “strategic sites such as seaports and commercial crossroads.”5 The IU managed to control only one location for a sustained period: the town of Luuq near the border with Ethiopia and Kenya. The IU implemented strict sharia there, meting out punishments that included amputations. Luuq’s proximity to Ethiopia was significant because of the IU’s commitment to a Greater Somalia. The group stirred up separatist unrest in Ethiopia’s Ogaden, a region inhabited by a majority of Somali speakers, and from 1996 to 1997 Ethiopia experienced a number of bombings and other IU-orchestrated militant activity in Addis Ababa. In response, Ethiopian forces intervened in Luuq and destroyed the IU’s safe haven.

Though questions linger over the degree to which IU was linked to al- Qaeda, there are two important points about the IU-al-Qaeda relationship. First, al-Qaeda dispatched a small team of military trainers to Somalia in 1993, which liaised with IU prior to the battle of Mogadishu. Since then, al-Qaeda leaders have claimed that they-rather than Aidid’s forces-were the real hand behind the U.S. defeat. Though these claims are highly exaggerated, the facts behind the battle of Mogadishu are beside the point insofar as al-Qaeda’s perceptions are concerned, since the “rosecolored memoirs of Somalia have … come to embody the ‘founding myths’ of the core Al-Qaida methodology.”6 Second, it is clear that certain key members of the IU had strong relationships with bin Laden’s group. One was Aden Hashi Ayro, who went on to lead al-Shabaab.

Following the IU’s defeat in Luuq, it declined in prominence. Somalia’s next major Islamist movement was the Islamic Courts Union, “a loose coalition of Islamists and local sharia courts.”7 By the time the ICU caught the attention of Westerners, it was more militarily adept than the old IU, and more capable of governing. International attention came in June 2006, when the ICU seized Mogadishu and thereafter won a rapid series of strategic gains. By late October 2006, the ICU controlled most of Somalia’s key strategic points, and was able to move supplies from south to north. It had effectively encircled the U.N.-recognized transitional federal government (TFG) in the south- central city of Baidoa, which was the only real territory the TFG controlled at that point.

Though the ICU encompassed both hardline and also more moderate Islamist elements, “Islamist hardliners in the ICU coalition succeeded in marginalizing moderate elements of the movement and began pushing the ICU into radical policies.”8 Somalia had some sixteen operational training camps during this period;9 soon after the ICU rose to power, large numbers of Islamic militants from Afghanistan, Chechnya, Iraq, Pakistan, and the Arabian Peninsula arrived to train in or staff these camps. International jihadist leaders, including Osama bin Laden, took note of the ICU’s rise in public messages.

While the IU had little chance to rule beyond Luuq, the ICU imposed sharia on the territory it controlled. Its rules were far-reaching, as the group conducted mass arrests of citizens watching movies, abolished live music at weddings, killed several people for watching soccer, and arrested a karate instructor and his female students because the lessons constituted mixing of the sexes. Though strict implementation of sharia often alienates locals, as the ICU gained power it was determined to win over the population by harnessing Islam, Somali nationalism, and distaste for the warlords’ rule. Its emphasis on stability and the rule of law won the sympathy of the business community, which saw the ICU’s strict rule as a means to reduce security costs.

The Rise of al-Shabaab

By late 2006, Baidoa-the TFG’s last stronghold-was under siege. All that prevented the TFG’s destruction were Ethiopian soldiers manning roadblocks around the city. As the ICU launched an assault, Ethiopia responded with greater force than expected. The Ethiopians and TFG wrested Mogadishu from the ICU on December 28, 2006, then quickly reversed virtually all of its strategic gains.

However, there was no coherent plan to stabilize the country. The head of the ICU’s executive council, Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed-now Somalia’s president-called for an insurgency, and it did indeed materialize.

Though accounts of al-Shabaab’s precise genesis vary,10 it is clear that Shabaab broke with other insurgent groups in late 2007. In September 2007, the ICU attended a conference of opposition factions in the Eritrean capital, and re-emerged as the Alliance for the Reliberation of Somalia (ARS). Shabaab boycotted the conference, and its leaders launched vitriolic attacks on the ARS for working with the non-Muslim Eritreans and failing to adopt a global jihadist ideology. In late February 2008, fighting between supporters of the ARS and al-Shabaab in Dhobley killed several people.

Al-Shabaab’s Ideology and Outlook

Shabaab represents a further step toward a global jihadist vision. Like the IU and ICU, it believes that religious governance is the solution to Somalia’s ills-but it goes further than its predecessors. One important document explaining al-Shabaab’s outlook was written by the American mujahid Omar Hammami, who goes by the nom de guerre Abu Mansoor al- Amriki

In January 2008, Amriki wrote a document entitled “A Message to the Mujaahideen in Particular and Muslims in General” that rapidly made its way around the jihadist web.11 In it, Amriki explained that Shabaab had boycotted the Asmara conference because it refused to work with the non- Muslim Eritrean state. He argued that cooperation with “infidels” would corrupt the jihad because Eritrea would open “the door of politics in order for them to forget armed resistance.” Amriki’s criticism of the ICU emphasized Shabaab’s global jihadist perspective, touting its pan-Islamism in opposition to ICU’s clan-backed politics.

Amriki also attacked the Islamic Courts for having “a goal limited to the boundaries placed by the Taghoot [a ruler who fails to implement the divine law]” while “the Shabaab had a global goal including the establishment of the Islaamic Khilaafah [caliphate] in all parts of the world.” While this criticism is not entirely accurate (“Greater Somalia” was not strictly limited by colonial borders), Amriki shows that key Shabaab leaders see their efforts as part of a global struggle. Amriki wrote that al-Shabaab’s manhaj, or religious methodology, “is the same manhaj repeatedly heard from the mouth of the mujaahid shaykh Usaamah Bin Laden … the doctor Ayman ath-Thawaahiri … and the hero, Abu Mus’ab az-Zarqaawi.”

Other Shabaab leaders see the continuation of jihad beyond Somalia as a religious imperative. In early 2009, Shabaab’s former official web site Kataaib reported that Sheikh Ali Muhammad Hussein, the group’s Banadir region governor, gave a media briefing in which he declared that Ethiopia’s withdrawal would not end the jihad, which would “continue until Doomsday.”12

In August 2008, Shabaab spokesman Sheikh Mukhtar Robow said that Shabaab was “negotiating how we can unite into one” with al-Qaeda. He continued, “We will take our orders from Sheikh Osama bin Laden because we are his students.”13 And Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, Shabaab’s chief military strategist (who was killed by U.S. commandos in September 2009), formally reached out to al-Qaeda’s senior leadership in a 24-minute video entitled “March Forth,” which circuited the jihadi web on Aug. 30, 2008. In it, Nabhan offered salutations to bin Laden, pledging allegiance to “the courageous commander and my honorable leader.”

Al-Qaeda Reciprocates

Al-Qaeda has not ignored Shabaab’s overtures. Its leadership first took note of developments in Somalia in 2006 when the ICU captured Mogadishu. When Ethiopia intervened to push back the ICU’s advance on Baidoa, Ayman al -Zawahiri soon appeared in a web-based video and called for Muslims to fight the Ethiopians. Al-Qaeda propagandist Abu Yahya al-Libi devoted an entire video to urging Muslims to join the Somali mujahidin.14

Zawahiri responded on November 19, 2008, to Nabhan’s video with one in which he called Shabaab “my brothers, the lions of Islam in Somalia.” He urged them to “hold tightly to the truth for which you have given your lives, and don’t put down your weapons before the mujahid state of Islam [has been established] and Tawheed has been set up in Somalia.”15

Bin Laden himself issued a video devoted to Somalia in March 2009, entitled “Fight on, Champions of Somalia,” where he addressed “my patient, persevering Muslim brothers in mujahid Somalia.” Bin Laden explicitly endorsed Shabaab, and denounced the ARS. He argued that in becoming the new president of Somalia, Sheikh Sharif “agreed to partner infidel positive law with Islamic sharia to set up a government of national unity,” and in that way apostatized from Islam.

Al-Shabaab’s Strategic Outlook

Today, Shabaab is a capable fighting force that implements a strict version of sharia in key areas of Somalia. In doing so, it normally forms an administration to oversee sharia and other matters relating to law and governance. The strictness of Shabaab’s sharia rulings can be seen, for example, in Amnesty International’s claim that a 13-year-old rape victim was stoned to death in Kismayo last year for alleged adultery.16 Shabaab intends to continue expanding sharia, and in addition has implemented other rules designed to help it maintain power, such as censorship rules directed at journalists.

It is difficult to say how many fighters comprise al-Shabaab’s militia. Some estimates suggest between 6,000 and 7,000. Overall, Shabaab fought competently against the Ethiopians. Its fighters are battle-ready, and one tactic that it introduced to Somalia is the suicide bombing.

Today, one of the key concerns that Western officials have about Shabaab’s gains is the members of the Somali diaspora living in the West who have returned to the country for training or to join the jihad. This is addressed further in this issue’s article “Al-Shabaab Recruiting in the West.”


1This profile of al- Shabaab is adapted from Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, “The Strategic Challenge of Somalia’s al-Shabaab,” Middle East Quarterly, Fall 2009, pp. 25- 36. return

2Ken Menkhaus, “Violent Islamic Extremism: Al-Shabaab Recruiting in America,” Hearing before the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, U.S. Senate, Mar. 11, 2009, p. 1. return

3E.g. Ken Menkhaus, Somalia: State Collapse and the Threat of Terrorism, Adelphi Paper 364 (London and New York: Routledge, 2004), p. 65. return

4Menkhaus, Somalia, p. 56. return

5Ibid. return

6Evan F. Kohlmann, Shabaab al-Mujahideen: Migration and Jihad in the Horn of Africa (NEFA Foundation, 2009), p. 6. return

7Menkhaus, “Violent Islamic Extremism,” p. 2. return

8Ibid., p. 3. return

9Initial Assessment on the Potential Impact of Terrorism in Eastern Africa: Focus on Somalia, Partners International Foundation, Newtown, Conn., May 5, 2002, p. 48. return

10For a discussion of the various accounts, see Raffaello Pantucci, Understanding the al- Shabaab Networks (Australian Strategic Policy Institute Policy Analysis #49, Oct. 13, 2009), p. 1. return

11Abu Mansoor al-Amriki, “A Message to the Mujaahideen in Particular and Muslims in General,” Jan. 2008. return

12“Somalia: Al-Shabaab Official Equates AU Peacekeepers with Ethiopian Troops,” Kataaib.net, Jan. 17, 2009, Open Source Center, trans. return

13The Sunday Independent (Johannesburg), Aug. 31, 2008. return

14See “Al-Qa’ida Figure al-Libi Urges Somali ‘Mujahidin’ to Only Accept ‘Islamic State,’” Open Source Center Summary in Arabic, June 22, 2008. return

15Long War Journal, Mar. 22, 2009. return

16BBC News, Nov. 4, 2008. return

See the original article here.