Al-Shabaab, also known as “the Youth,” is a Somali Islamist insurgent group that has been active in the country for decades. It rose to prominence in the late 2000s, when it controlled the capital city of Mogadishu and sought to establish a “Greater Somalia” governed by fundamentalist Islamic rule.
- Despite being forced out of the capital by Ethiopian forces in 2006, the group has continued to operate as an insurgency, gaining control over large areas of central and southern Somalia and regularly conducting bombings and assassinations.
- Al-Shabaab is estimated to have between 7,000 and 12,000 members, many of whom are forcibly conscripted, and has declared allegiance to al-Qaeda. Its ultimate goal is the establishment of an Islamic state in Somalia governed by its own interpretation of sharia law.
Origins of Al-Shabaab:
- The roots of Al-Shabaab can be traced back to the 1990s and the Salafi militant group al-Ittihad al-Islami (AIAI), which was partly funded and armed by al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
- A rift developed within AIAI between older members who wanted to form a political front and younger members who sought to establish an Islamic state in Somalia.
- The hardline faction eventually joined forces with the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), an alliance of sharia courts, and served as its youth militia.
- In 2006, Al-Shabaab and the ICU took control of Mogadishu, leading to fears of spillover violence in neighboring Ethiopia.
- In response to the ICU’s calls for jihad against Ethiopia and its renewed territorial claims against both Ethiopia and Kenya, Ethiopian forces invaded Somalia in December 2006 and quickly ousted the ICU from Mogadishu.
- This intervention, which was supported by the United States and the African Union (AU) among others, is believed to have radicalized Al-Shabaab and helped it transform into a full-fledged insurgency. As Ethiopian forces withdrew from Somalia in 2009, Al-Shabaab regained control of much of the country, including large areas of the capital.
Al-Shabaab’s Goals and Tactics:
- Al-Shabaab’s ultimate goal is the overthrow of the central government and the establishment of an Islamic state in Somalia governed by its own interpretation of sharia law.
- To build support among Somalis, the group has provided services such as dispute resolution in areas under its control, filling a gap left by the weak central government. Some factions within Al-Shabaab have also expressed transnational ambitions, including the creation of an Islamic state encompassing all of East Africa’s ethnic Somali areas and closer coordination with al-Qaeda.
- In areas it controls, Al-Shabaab imposes strict social regulations and enforces punishments such as amputations and stonings for alleged crimes.
- Al-Shabaab has regularly targeted civilians, including through suicide bombings and attacks on hotels, schools, and other public places. It has also been accused of recruiting child soldiers and forcibly conscripting civilians, including through the use of terror tactics.
- The group has been designated as a foreign terrorist organization by the US State Department and is active in both Somalia and neighboring Kenya, where it has carried out a number of high-profile attacks.
Regional and International Response:
- The African Union has led efforts to combat Al-Shabaab, deploying a peacekeeping mission to Somalia known as AMISOM. The mission, which is supported by the United Nations and funded largely by the EU and other international donors, has made some progress in pushing Al-Shabaab out of major cities and towns. However, the group still maintains a presence in large parts of the country and continues to carry out attacks.
- The US has also played a role in efforts to counter Al-Shabaab, conducting airstrikes and providing training and assistance to Somali security forces. In recent years, the US has also focused on addressing the underlying drivers of terrorism in Somalia, including poverty, weak governance, and the lack of security and basic services.
Al-Shabaab remains a significant threat to stability in Somalia and the region. While efforts by the African Union and others have made some progress in weakening the group, it continues to carry out deadly attacks and maintain a presence in large parts of the country. Tackling the root causes of terrorism and addressing the issues of poverty, weak governance, and lack of basic services will be key to effectively counter the group and promote stability in Somalia.
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