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Profile: Al Shabaab

Laini Soszynski
American Military University
NSEC614: Political Psychology of Terror Groups
December 19, 2015

The Birth

Al Shabaab, like many insurgency guerilla groups, grew from the demise of a dictatorship

government system in Somalia. Roots of al Shabaabs birth extend as far back as 1969, in which

a fair political election was held in Somalia, electing Somali Youth League leader Muhammad

Egal as Prime Minister, only to be assassinated later that same year (History World 2013).

Following his assassination, Commander of the Somali Army, Mohamed Siad Barre, a leader

inspired by Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin, seized power. Siads seizure of power began the slide

of Somalia into a brutal authoritarian-type state, ignoring the preexisting clan-based roots, which

ultimately led to his demise. The military-type rule of Siad focused largely on the existing

conflict between Ethiopia and Somalia, which bred numerous battles and migrations of Somalis

across the borders as territory continued to be disputed. This chaos drove Somali citizens to form

clan-based guerilla groups with the collective motivation of driving Siad from power, causing the

country to erupt in civil war in 1988. By 1991, Siad was driven from power, leaving behind him

destroyed infrastructure and crops, as well as a wide-spread famine and a vacuum of power for

the clan-based guerillas that had been growing since 1969.

In early 1992, the United Nations began supplying food and supplies to the refugees left in

Somalia after the civil war. Instead of successfully aiding those in need, guerilla groups took

claim to the food and supplies and power began to be associated with the amount of food that

was looted. In 1993, the first court was established in Mogadishu, loosely transitioning the

guerilla groups towards a political system under Sharia Law (Stanford University 2012). By

2000, there were a total of 11 courts throughout the Mogadishu region, all of which became

unified under the umbrella of the Islamic Courts Union, later taking over Mogadishu entirely.

Order was established in Mogadishu until the 2006 invasion of Ethiopia, backed by the

Transitional Federal Government (TFG) of Southern Somalia, leading to the resignation and

dismemberment of the ICU. Despite the ICUs surrender, the militant-wing of the organization,

Harakat Shabaab al Mujahidin, continued to combat the TFG and Ethiopian forces under leader

Aden Hashi Ayro (Zalman 2012).

The ICUs goals revolved around establishing a functional Islamic community in an effort to

centralize the country and reduce the influence of clan allegiances, while still respecting clan

ancestry. Goals also revolved around reuniting the Somali natives in Kenya and Ethiopia to

ancestral homes. The group imposed strict Sharia Law during its onset, and gradually included

harsh rhetoric towards the West, likely influenced by Ayros association with al Qaeda, and

Moktar Ali Zubeyre Godanes pledge of allegiance to al Qaeda in 2010. Al Shabaab has

continued to impose its Islamic ideology with the goals of re-establishing what was lost with the

fall of the ICU, and because of this, the majority of its attacks are targeting government officials,

offices, or security forces. Combating the insurgency has proven difficult because of its

decentralized structure; the group has been active in Somalia, Kenya, Uganda, and Djbouti, with

various attacks influenced by its ideology world-wide. Although the main focus of the group has

been the nationalistic divide of the Somali government and the clan-based guerillas, the pledge to

al Qaeda and the recent growth of the Islamic State (ISIS) and its establishment of an Islamic

Caliphate has influenced some al Shabaab militants, and senior leaders, to choose the pursuance

of global jihad.


Al Shabaab leadership is constantly evolving due to the United States (U.S.) targeted strikes

in the regions in support of the newly imposed Somali government. Al Shabaab consists of

various commanders leading individual guerilla sects in different regions of Somalia, Kenya, and

other surrounding countries. The ICU was founded and led by Aden Hashi Ayro, who later

influenced the continuation of the militant sect al Shabaab towards the Somali and Ethiopian

governments. In 2008, Moktar Ali Zubeyre Godane took control of the al Shabaab sect as the

supreme leader, until his death in 2014, again, by a U.S. drone strike. After his death, Ahmad

Umar stepped up as a new leader of the group. Other important leaders include Mukhtar Robow

(Abu Mansoor), and Fuad Mohammed Khalaf, the former a deputy leader and the latter a public

affairs manager. Ahmad Umar leads a typical chain of command, in which each region and clan

has its own leader. In the past, this has led to internal struggle and poor communications, but

under the new leadership ideologies are evolving.

Founder of the Islamic Courts Union, Aden Hashi Ayro, was a Somali national with a history

of training with al Qaeda in Afghanistan in the 1990s (History Commons 2008). Following

training, he returned to Somalia and quickly scaled the ranks of the ICUs militant sect, al

Shabaab, leading in accordance with al Qaeda goals of demonizing the West and instilling Sharia

Law. Although Ayro was an enforcer of Sharia Law, and was often known for his reputation of

ruthlessness, he was not primarily a jihadist, but rather motivated by the re-establishment of the

ICU and Islamic-united Somalia (DeYoung 2008). Ayro was well known for his ties to al Qaeda,

which were likely exaggerated by the post-September 11th United States. Because of this, Ayro

was a controversial leader among Somalis, and many Somali elders had rejected him for fear of

the legitimate cause of al Shabaab being compromised by al Qaeda connections (DeYoung

2008). Aden Hashi Ayro was killed by a U.S. drone strike in 2008.

Godane took charge of al Shabaab in 2008, and was the longest reigning leader that the group

has had since its establishment. Godane grew up fortunate enough to have earned a scholarship

to study in Sudan and Pakistan for Islamic studies (Sudarsan 2009). While in Pakistan, Godane

trained with jihadist groups, later travelling to Afghanistan to continue training up to 2002 when

he returned to Somalia and joined the ICU. Godane took control of the group after Ayros death,

citing motivations similar to Ayro, but with a more global and religious aspiration. This

aspiration was solidified with the formal alliance of al Shabaab and al Qaeda, established in

2010, and an increase of cross-border attacks in search of global media coverage and the

projection of power for the group. Under his leadership, al Shabaab transitioned from a

nationalist, political movement, to one of jihadist ideology. Godanes alliance with al Qaeda

pushed the group towards committing attacks against the West, with the understanding that al

Shabaab was just one front in the global jihad led by al Qaeda (Horadam 2011).

Godanes ability to maintain productive relationships with his sect-leaders was null.

Following a failed Ramadan offensive in 2010, sect-leaders threatened to leave al Shabaab and

form a splinter group in lieu of pursuing former ideology that Godane has since abandoned.

Godanes leadership was denounced by most sect-leaders Fuad Mohamed Qalaf, Omar

Hammami, and Ibrahim al Afghani publicly which ultimately led to the assassination of

Hammami and other foreign leaders as dictated by Godane (Horadam 2011). Godanes rule-by-

force methods drove the group to suffer immensely from inner conflict as leaders fought over

how to lead. Before any splintering could occur, however, Godane was assassinated by a United

States drone strike on September 1, 2014.

Sheikh Ahmad Omar was announced the new leader of al Shabaab two days after Godanes

death. Omar was a trusted lieutenant of Godane, a former member of the ICU, and a preacher of

the Quran. Prior to taking the role as leader, Omar was a senior leader in Godanes intelligence

sector of al Shabaab (TRAC 2015). In the ICU, Omar strictly adhered to Sharia Law, as his

predecessor had, and worked directly with Aden Hashi Ayro. Omar leads more closely to the

clan politics than his predecessor, as seen by the 2011 dismissal of Abdullahi Gab due to a

dispute based on clan rivalries (Cleaves 2015). Like his predecessor, however, Omar practices

takfirism, or, the ultimate expression of unconstrained Islamism, which likely implies a similar

leadership style and a continued alliance with al Qaeda as he carries on his role as a new leader

(Mneimneh 2009).

Because Ahmad Omar was recently appointed leader of al Shabaab, less is known about him

and his leadership style to date. What is known is that he worked closely with Godane and will

likely continue as Godane had intended. Some sources state that Omar is more compassionate

than his predecessor, and this may play out by less violent extremes in terms of internal

resolutions. With new leadership comes the chance to adjust inner-politics of the group, and

some reparation may be attainable.

Group Function

Changes in leadership often cause a change in the tactics of the group as a whole. This rings

true for al Shabaab as the leadership transitioned from Ayros nationalistic ideology to Godanes

international jihadist aspirations. Internal relationships of the group are made unstable due to not

only the disputed leadership styles of Godane and Omar, but also at the individual level, due to

the disparate clans and the susceptibility to clan-politics (NCTC 2015). Since the time of al

Shabaabs establishment in 2006, tactics and strategies of the group have evolved congruent to

leadership style, alliances formed, and the forces opposing it.

Al Shabaab, as a whole, consists of various cells based around the individual clans of Somali

ancestry, causing an intricacy of intrapersonal dynamics. Clan politics make for a complex

system that terrorist groups like al Shabaab must adhere to for any progression in international

ideals to exist. Al Shabaab mastered the multi-clan structure with its promotion of anti-Ethiopian

ideals, Islamic Law and global jihad above all else (Black, Shaefer 2011). In promoting not only

the nationalistic causes, but also the international call to jihad that has taken the Islamic world by

storm in recent years, al Shabaab has managed to build a multi-clan military force capable of

carrying out cross-border operations to support its cause, its allies, and its social standing within

jihadist networks. Clan-based components driving al Shabaab networks also play a role in

recruitment; in March 2010, more than half of the initial twenty Somalis who left Minneapolis

[U.S.] had a parent from the Harti sub-clan, indicating the extent of the clan-relationship and

familial-type bonds that carry across international borders (Black, Shaefer 2011, 10).

Tactics of al Shabaab have evolved over the course of the years, with a major shift taking

place following the alliance with al Qaeda in 2010. Prior to the alliance, the group focused on

achieving mainly nationalistic goals, with attacks consisting of vehicle borne-improvised

explosive devices, suicide bombers, and small-scale military-like infiltrations targeting

government buildings and security forces (Stratfor 2013). Under the leadership of Godane, and

following the alliance with al Qaeda, scales of attacks have grown and have also evolved to

cross-border skirmishes consisting of platoon-like organization, heavier weaponry, and larger

goals. These larger attacks began in 2011 with platoons of al Shabaab militants crossing the

border of Kenya, ambushing an army patrol and attacking a Kenyan police post (Stratfor 2013).

Al Shabaab also carries out attacks against security and supply convoys of the oppositional

forces, enforcing a restriction of movement to the governmental forces.

Strategy of the group has evolved over time as well. In the past, al Shabaab had been

successful in gaining and holding territory, promoting the group as more of a governing entity

than a terrorist organization. In recent years, the group has not been able to successfully gain and

hold territory, likely a result of a lack of resources, forcing it into a guerilla-role of carrying out

attacks on specific targets (Stratfor 2013). The loss of controlled territory proves to both be a

positive and negative aspect of the groups influence; lack of territory allows for more fluidity

among other regions of Somalia and surrounding countries, but also can be seen by outside

forces as a sign of progressing weakness. Additionally, strengths of abandoning strong-holds

include a lack of centralization, providing the group more protection in the sense of not having a

target for security forces and governments to attack, yet also deprives the group of immediate

access to the arms-smuggling networks, such as Kismayo Port, and other underground supply-

lines (Stratfor 2012).

The change in tactics and the pursuance of larger-scale attacks likely adheres to the groups

changing ideology. One of al Shabaabs most famous attacks was the Westgate Mall attack in

Nairobi, Kenya, in September 2013, which killed 67 Kenyan and non-Kenyan nationals. To the

public, al Shabaab cited that this attack was retaliation against the Kenyan support of the newly

established Somalian government, however, there is likely a deeper motivation of carrying out

such an attack (Patterson 2015). This attack was conducted during a time in which the Islamic

State was beginning its climb to power in the jihadist network, and a drive for recruiting

Muslims to the jihadist cause was at the forefront. Given the indications of al Shabaabs

weakening ranks, the Westgate Mall attack was likely an effort to re-establish itself as a

competitive force, while attempting to gain Kenyan sympathizers to not only the Somali clan-

based struggle, but also the international call for jihad. This attack brought the religious and

ethnic identity of Kenyan-nationals with Somali heritage to the forefront, amplified by the

manner in which Kenyan officials responded to the threat of al Shabaab arresting some 4,000

Somali-looking individuals without probable cause and promoted recruitment in Kenya, which

now supports a large portion of al Shabaab militants (Botha 2015).


Al Shabaab markets recruitment not only on the clan-based heritage of international Somalis,

but also offers benefits similar to those of al Qaeda and other jihadist groups. The group appeals

to youth that wish to earn pecuniary benefits such as a salary, insurance, and individual

weaponry, as well as those youth that wish to gain non-pecuniary benefits such as religious

affiliation and achievement, adventure, and group comradery (Selected Wisdom 2012). Al

Shabaab recruits individuals at a young age, often ten to twelve-year-olds, which promotes

retention among the young men that join because of the familial ties that form over the course of

training, educating, and growing into an adult within the organization. Among the training that al

Shabaab recruits receive are religious ideological teachings that preach commitment to the holy

war. One al Shabaab recruit recounts that preachers delivered sermons for hours about destiny

and the sweetness of the holy war, (Selected Wisdom 2012). The recruit goes on to discuss the

glorification of suicide bombers and the rewards one receives from martyrdom. The teaching of

the preachers, in conjunction with the tangible benefits and the comradery of a close-knit group,

are attractive to the youth and promotes recruitment and retention.

As attacks across borders continue, surrounding governments will likely respond to the influx

of militants in a similar fashion, as is often the case in African failed-state politics. Al Shabaabs

attempt to promote its cause and call for jihad in accordance with its brethren groups Boko

Haram in Nigeria, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, it

can be expected that more Muslims will become radicalized due to mal-treatment of Muslims

across the region and the ethnic and religious attraction of being part of a group. Additionally, al

Shabaab has been taking note of the social media use of the Islamic State and Boko Haram,

realizing that larger-scale attacks will promote international coverage and potential new recruits

or radicalization across international borders (Botha 2015). Since the pledge of allegiance to al

Qaeda, and the growth of the Islamic Caliphate established by the Islamic State in 2014, there is

a level of conformity among al Shabaab leaders in an increased attempt to gain support and be

recognized as a legitimate jihadist group, but also brings to the table a level of conflict as

militants struggle to choose between al Qaeda ties or the benefits of allying with the Islamic


Conclusion and Recommendations

Al Shabaab has evolved over the course of the years since its splintering from the ICU in

2006. Originally motivated by the desire to re-establish the clan-based structure of Somalia, the

groups leadership commanded the group towards the eventual adaptation of jihadist extremism

and Muslim radicalization. Attacks of the group evolved with the ideology, with the eventual

shift from solely politically motivated attacks of security and government forces in Southern

Somalia to the cross-border raids of tourist attractions and indiscriminant killing. Recent

abandonment of strong-holds serves as both a strength and a hindrance for the group, allowing a

fluidity that is hard to target and the ability to use resources more freely, yet it weakens the

groups influence and projection of power, and also inhibits supply lines it has used in the past.

Combatting the group both politically and militarily will prove to be difficult as the group

expands its influence into Kenya and other surrounding countries. With the United States drone

strikes proving to be only a source of motivation for retaliation of the group, it can be

recommended that these will continue to be an inadequate method of collapsing the groups

structure. It may go so far as to say that drone strikes targeting leaders allow for a strategic

reset of the groups internal dynamics; had Godane not been struck, there was a large

likelihood of the group crumbling under its own leadership and splintering into smaller groups,

as many of the sect-leaders threatened to do at the time.


Targets should therefore not be terrorist leaders. Al Shabaab is currently suffering from a loss

of port-based strong holds and resultantly lacks the influx of supplies and arms it is accustomed

to having. Conducting long-term and wide-spread assaults becomes more difficult as a longer

preparation period is needed prior to conducting attacks. Al Shabaab is spread thin over Somalia

and Kenya, and if the U.S. intends to inhibit the groups productivity and influence, supply lines

must be uncovered and destroyed. Supplies are, at this point, the motivating factor as to who the

group will ally with (Islamic State or continue with al Qaeda), what territory and convoys it will

attack, and where it will conduct raids.

Recruitment is also a motivating factor, which is not being swayed by the mistreatment of

Muslims in the African region or world-wide. Radicalization is occurring at an exponential rate

as violent and hateful rhetoric towards Muslims increases globally. This rhetoric is no doubt a

result of the Islamic States projected brutality and an increase in home-grown radicalized

Muslims conducting attacks within a number of countries borders, but effort should be taken to

ensure the non-radicalized Muslim community understands that the West is not combatting all

Muslims, and that it is tolerant of non-radicalized Islamic ideology. The West should also ensure

the Africa Union is taking similar steps to differentiate between Muslims and jihadists, because

the indiscriminant killing and arrests of civilians is only promoting the radicalization process.

Since the establishment of an Islamic Caliphate by the Islamic State in 2014, internal conflict

has erupted due to some believing that joining the caliphate will benefit the group more, while

others are strictly adhering to their al Qaeda roots. Depending on what route the terror group will

pursue, analysts and oppositional forces should expect a change in internal dynamics of the

group and possibly its ideology. An alliance with the Islamic State, some guerillas argue, will

bring more support in terms of supplies and recruits. This can be seen with Boko Harams pledge

of allegiance to the caliphate in March of 2015. Since the pledge, Boko Haram has benefitted

from increased training, international reach by means of social media, and a small increase in

supplies and arms (Stratfor 2015). Some al Shabaab members claim the group would benefit

from the same resources, and because the group risks growing weaker in the near future due to

recruits joining the well-known Islamic State, it can be expected that the Somalian terror group

will attempt to join the caliphate.

Methods of countering al Shabaab are not strictly combatant. Al Shabaab is currently

struggling to maintain enough equipment, supplies, and arms for its militants and lacks a steady

influx of recruits as a result of the Islamic States ability to manipulate social media and

international coverage to achieve exponential amounts of recruits from the West and other

nations. In addition to cutting supply lines and decreasing reasons Muslims become radicalized,

al Shabaab would also suffer greatly from a complete lack of recruits and the inability to pledge

loyalty to the caliphate. The United States and allies against al Shabaab should work to establish

a system that rewards youth of Somalia and neighboring countries for not adhering to the

terrorist groups ideology. As stated, al Shabaab offers monetary and tangible benefits from

joining the group, in addition to the intangible benefits of the psychological attraction of

achievement, belonging, and adventure. Somalian government and its allies against al Shabaab

should implement similar benefits to sway the risk of recruitment. This could include reparation

of the weakened government system and its reputation, as well as creating jobs, networks, and

promoting education for all backgrounds through scholarships or recognition programs.

Al Shabaabs roots are within the clan-culture of Somalia prior to the dictatorship rule of

Mohamed Siad Barre. Somali government rejection of the clan-structure and Sharia Law, in

exchange for a more generalized government system, caused the civil war that bred the guerilla

group Al Shabaab. Although birthed as a politically motivated entity, al Shabaabs lack of

success on the political front, and the increased call for global jihad by various Islamic terrorist

networks, influenced its leaders to pursue a more religiously motivated path, abandoning

political gains in exchange for increased terrorist tactics across international borders. Drone

strikes have proven ineffective thus far, and have perhaps even aided the group in resetting its

internal struggles. Other options, such as destroying supply lines, promoting less violence by

government systems towards non-radicalized Muslims, and reducing the drive for youth to join

the cause would likely hinder the groups success and ability to carry out attacks. This endeavor

must be allied among Somalian government and its surrounding countries, and will likely require

international aid to support the effort.


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