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Al-Shabaab - From Unity to Terrorism

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Al-Shabaab - From Unity to Terrorism

Hamid Lellou

Al-Shabaab, is a terrorist organization that began conducting attacks in Somalia in 2006, and later claimed allegiance to al-Qaeda.  Although they have labeled themselves as an Islamic armed Organization, there is evidence that suggests that the root cause is structural, while Islam and the group’s behavior are dynamics.

As with other terror groups, the historical, political, and geographical context in which al-Shabaab developed their goals and became violent are crucial to understanding their dynamics and causes of their terrorist activities today.

Al-Shabaab means the youth, in Arabic and it is comprised mostly of young men under the age of forty. Reporting on youth in Somalia, Gornidzka says in her published article in the British newspaper the Guardian and entiteled Somalia’s Lost Generation: Why Youth Employment is Key to Stability, that “[m]ore than half of the population is under 18, with the majority born after the overthrow of Mohammad Siad Bare in 1991.” Most youth born since 1980 have known only war, poverty, destruction, and instability.

Al-Shabaab operates and conducts its attacks in Somalia, a country, like its youth, that has known proxy war, civil war, instability, and terrorism since the 1980s, following the shift of its alliance from the US to the Soviet Union. (Mbugua, 8) Moreover, Somalia lost the region of Ogaden to Ethiopia in the mid-80s, which accelerated its descent into civil war in 1991.Collapsed and ungoverned, Somalia found itself prey to other forces. In early 2000, the Islamic Court Union (ICU) organization, a group of Islamic judges took control of the capital city of Mogadishu and most of southern Somalia, uniting most of the country for first time in two decades. However, unity did not last. As suggested by Burnes in his paper entitled The Rise and Fall of Mogadishu’s Islamic Courts, “[t]he Islamic Courts, which were ousted, had strong support in the country but fell victim to the influences of ‘extremist elements’ within the country and an Ethiopian power eager for the Courts’ downfall.” In 2006, African forces led by Ethiopia, entered the country under an African Union (AU) mandate to replace the Islamic Court Union (ICU) government with a more internationally accepted one, the Transitional Federal Government (TFG). Ousted, thus by the AU, that same year most of the ICU members formed an insurgency and created al-Shabaab, which soon became a terrorist organization.

Somalia is the poorest country in the Horn of Africa (HoA), a sub-region of eastern Africa that is also known for its instability including:  border disputes between Ethiopia and Eritrea, war between Sudan and South-Sudan, a mounting dispute between Kenya and South-Sudan over their shared border at Ilimi triangle, and piracy out of Puntland and Somaliland. Somaliland and Puntland, two regions situated in northern Somalia seem, so far, to have been immune to terrorism. Al-Shabaab’s influence and attacks have been limited to the capital city and the south. However, a few years ago, al-Shabaab started conducting daring terrorist actions in Kenya, thus becoming a transnational terrorist organization. This move has henceforth attracted the attention of the international community. Bab al-Mandab, a strait on Red sea that borders Yemen, where al Qaeda has a stronghold, is another geographical element that makes this region more vulnerable to instability.

Youth that were raised in a country and region of poverty, war, and injustice, have experienced only one unifying entity since their birth, the Islamic Court Union that later became al-Shabaab. In context of the regional instability, this initially provided the al-Shabaab credibility and respect, despite their violent nature.

Social constructs (their belief system) expressed through violent behavior are the dynamics of al-Shabaab’s terrorism. As a former part of the government, the Islamic Court Union (ICU), al-Shabaab elements think of themselves as rational. However, an alternate reality of rational behavior drives their actions with no plan to negotiate or find a solution with groups that oppose their ideals

Their ideology is based in religion above cultural. Somalia is a majority Sunni Muslim country, whose people follow Shafii teaching, a school of thought known for its moderation and openness to local cultures, if they do not contradict Islamic principles. (Mbugua, 17) Like in other Muslim countries, Somali people have come to have a stronger Islamic identity than national identity. Clannism is an ancestral way of living in Somalia, regulated by Xeer, a code of honor that dictates civilian laws. Clan elders judge cases and are chosen on the extent of their knowledge of local customs. (Powel et al, 19) Since its genesis, Islam has seen a series of reformer scholars advocating for Tajdeed, (Islamic reform). Those scholars claimed that Muslim society has been polluted and corrupted by unjust rulers, and local cultural practices that challenge the unicity of God. Their demands went beyond asking for change, by calling for Jihad, holy war, to free Muslim society from its sickness of divergence. Repeated failures of secular governments and the intervention of foreign forces, al-Shabaab was thus formed to answer the reformers’ call to jihad (holy war). This created a collision between Xeer (a cultural practice) and tajdeed (Islamic reform).

Following the reformers’ call for tajdeed through jihad, al-Shabaab believes that their brutal attacks on civilians and indiscriminate killings of non-al-Shabaab are justified. According to Burrhus Frederic Skinner, a Harvard behavioral psychologist, free will is an illusion and human actions are conditioned by previous actions and circumstances.  Radical people, whether religious or not, have strong convictions. They can be arrogant about their beliefs to the point that they cannot see an alternative.

Al-Shabaab believes that Somalia has morphed into a hybrid society, where Muslims already corrupted by ancestral and cultural beliefs are now bombarded by western influence. Like many other undeveloped countries, globalization has hit Somalia hard. Although Al-Shabaab uses communication technology to operate, they also see this technology as an unnamed invasion to their Islamic identity.

Al-Shabaab does not see itself as part of a solution imposed by outsiders, because those who oppose the group are largely supported by foreign entities (primarily the UN and AU). This armed group tends to present itself as a religious entity, thus holy driven. God’s words guide them as they always claim. If someone is against them, it means he is against God. Therefore, retaliation is justified until victory; you are with us or against us, as they may say.

This terrorist group’s goals have evolved from its ICU origins to align with al Qaeda. It originally splintered from the ICU after its ousting from power by United Nations (UN) backed forces in 2006. Al-Shabaab viewed the International support to “apostate” government in Mogadishu as an acte de guerre.  Al-Shabaab aims to take back control of Somalia and implement Sharia law, as they understand it. However, al-Shabaab hasn’t announced allegiance to the so-called Islamic state and claims to still obey to al-Qaeda’s principles. Its main goal is to attack all foreign interests in the country and beyond when possible, such as its frequent attacks on Kenyan’s soil. Following al-Qaeda’ s rule, al-Shabaab tactics aim to harass westerners to weaken or dismantle their support to the Taghut, unjust Muslim rulers.

Al-Shabaab’s terrorism is an external expression of the youth and the country’s identity crisis between culture and religion, tradition, and modernity. This struggle is represented through violent acts as al-Shabaab uses religious doctrine to justify its acts to gain control of Somalia.

While religion is at the surface of the conflict, Al-Shabaab is the ultimate manifestation of violence in Somalia caused by structural factors from the colonial legacy of European powers to the more recent collapse of the government and economy.  During colonial rule, the UK, Italy, and France divided the country into different parts, Central and south Somalia, Somaliland and Puntland, and Djibouti, between clans. Following the independence from those powers in the early 1960s, clans continued perpetuating violence and instability while competing for power and resources. (Ahmad, 113)

Somalia is a clan and lineage-based society, where no government or politician can run state affairs without the support from allied clans. Therefore, favoring ethno-arithmetic, a notion that stipulates that the largest clan controls the state. This situation clashes with the modern rules of democracy and the stability of strong institutions like the military. The nationalist failed previous attempts to impose change led al-Shabaab to believe that branding itself as a Muslim based armed organization would help them unite Somali people around their common cause; Jihad will liberate us from both enemies, Taghut (unjust Muslim rulers) and foreign dominance.

On behalf of Tajdeed, al-Shabaab broke this cycle by calling for unity and equality between all Somali people, a discourse that seduced young people regardless of their clan affiliations. To achieve that unity, the founding fathers of al-Shabaab were from different clans, representing clan diversity. In his book al-Shabaab in Somalia: The History and Ideology of a Militant Islamist Group,2005-2012, Hansen emphasized on al-Shabaab strong unity and its ability to act as a glue when negotiating between different parties, an advantage that other factions didn’t have (107)

As an armed group that splintered from former Islamic Court Union, al-Shabaab was the only force that could unite the country in the name of Islam, but was a short-lived response because of its harsh policies and delusional promises. It is this unity and stability that the people of Somalia sought and what made al-Shabaab an attractive alternative at first. However, al-Shabaab soon emerged as a brutal armed organization indiscriminately attacking everyone who disagreed with their policies, including the noncombatant elements. Despite several calls from elders to join the national dialogue for reconciliation and the reconstruction of the county under the auspice of UN, al-Shabaab persisted in its solitary galloping and formally gave allegiance to al-Qaeda in 2009.  As Menkhaus explains it in his paper Managing Risk in Ungoverned Space: Local and International Actors in Somalia, non-state armed actors claim resources, territory, and authority, because failed states produce ungoverned and therefore deeply contested spaces.

A closed political system, corruption, government deliquescence, and government recognized religious leaders’ passivity and complicity left a vacuum for an organization like al-Shabaab to market itself as a religiously based organization. Undemocratic regimes have always feared free speech and independent gathering that are not organized by their own political acolytes. Like many other terrorist organizations, al-Shabaab is led by educated and wealthy people. They skillfully communicate their message and justify their criminal actions by selectively choosing verses from Quran that validate Jihad, without following the ethical rules to theological interpretation. In general Muslims are sentimental with their faith, even when they are not radical or conservative. A skillful narrator who can cover his message with Islam can easily subdue the most vulnerable. Al-Shabaab enjoys support from some Somali people, because most of the time it tells the truth about the state of affairs in Somalia. Like al-Qaeda, al-Shabaab draws its arguments from social unrest, corruption, deliquescence of state affairs, and peoples’ desperate economic situation.

Using Muslim divine text and teaching, Al-Shabaab recruits and indoctrinates its followers creating suicide bombers, an efficient and low cost tactic, which generates powerful psychological impact.  Nevertheless, these are just subterfuges used by the organization to lure young Somalis, in quest of dreamed ideal, by promising them haven after this life. In his paper entitled They Made Me Do It, Bond, a psychology researcher, uses the group psychology theory to argue, that it is easy to turn peaceful people to abusive and hostile individuals. Religious jurists that back al-Shabaab’s claims are self-trained scholars. They call themselves Shaikh or Ma’alm, but are not recognized as such by other trained scholars. These leaders are charismatic and well spoken. They resourcefully convince their followers and recruit others. They subjugate their vulnerable and desperate audience and enroll some of them as holy combatants and suicide bombers. Suicide bombing and other terrorist attacks trigger brutal local force responses, which perpetuates the cycle.

To fund their operation al-Shabaab colludes with its enemies to extort money by creating insecurity and then providing security. This is a form of adaptation and risk management and is conducted with politicians, soldiers, clans, businessesmen, the federal government, and even with AU peace keepers. (Mankhaus, 117) As suggested by Caulderwood in her paper entitled Al-Shabaab's Finances: The Militant Group Gets Funding From Local Businesses, Sources Abroad, wealthy donors, national and outsiders, use fake charity to support al-Shabaab.  Al-Shabaab joining al-Qaeda was just a matter of time. The organization needed to brand itself with a famous global terrorist organization to attract international attention and terrorism sponsors.

Al-Shabaab without a following and pool of young men for recruitment, would not survive. Somalia was historically a pastoralist society, with most people living in rural areas. However, as Meeking argues in his paper study, A Study of Climate Change Induced Migration in Somalia, the country, like most of Africa, has seen a mass rural to urban migration, due to drought, overgrazing, deforestation and wars.  This decline in resources, coupled with the new paradigm of urban slums that provide no infrastructure or opportunity have created a hotbed for al-Shabaab recruitment.

Quasi-failed institutions and the absence of a formal and strong economy have led to lack of opportunities and the country’s disarray, which by de facto pushed many Somali people into despair. To remedy this situation, the most fortunate could migrate to Europe, Australia, or the United States. Many of those who were forced to stay have adapted to survival mode. Those tempted by easy gain enrolled in banditry and piracy, while al-Shabaab subdued others. The absence of basic human needs, coupled with a political vacuum, eased path to global Jihad.

Unjust Muslim rulers’ hegemony, or Taghut, as described by al-Shabaab, adds to the narrative that the west has indirectly invaded Muslim lands by supporting their local poppet potentates. Al-Shabaab doesn’t see itself as part of an existing solution. It, rather, seeks total change of governing system and ultimately the renaissance of the old era of Khilafa, Islamic rule. 

There is not one definite cause of al-Shabaab’s terrorism that could, if fixed, put an end to decades of war and instability. It is clear that the religious identity of the group and the nation, is not the cause but rather a manifestation of the root cause, which is a lack of opportunity, mistrust, and extreme fatigue of the status quo. Economic change, opportunities, and investment in infrastructure could improve the situation of the Somali people, particularly giving the youth hope could begin to change the influx of recruits to al-Shabaab.

Although al-Shabaab basis its attacks, recruitment, and indoctrination on its interpretation of Islamic reform, religion is not the root cause of its terrorism. Rather a lifetime of war, instability and social injustice have set in motion an armed response in the name of religious purification that is cyclical in nature. With such violent attacks, it is easy to conclude that al-Shabaab ‘s Islamic reform is the cause of their terrorism, but the youth of al-Shabaab witnessed terror long before under names other than Islam – it is under the name of decade of injustices that are at the root of al-Shabaab’s terrorism.

Works Cited

Ahmad, Ismail, and Reginald Herbold Green. “The Heritage of War and State Collapse in Somalia and Somaliland: Local-Level Effects, External Interventions and Reconstruction.” Third World Quarterly. 20-1 (1999): 113-127. Web. 28 Mar. 2017

Barnes, Cedric.” The Rise and Fall of Mogadishu’s Islamic Courts.” Journal of Eastern African Studies. 1.2 (2007): 151-160. Routledge. Web. 29 Mar. 2017.

Bond, Michael. “The Made Me Do It.” My New Scientist, 2599 (2007): 1-5. Web. 30. Mar. 2012.

Caulderwood, Kathleen. “Al-Shabab's Finances: The Militant Group Gets Funding From Local Businesses, Sources Abroad.” International Business Time. 4 Sept. 2014. Web. 2. Apr. 2017.

Gornitzka, Charlotte Petri. “Somalia’s Lost Generation: Why Youth Employment is Key to Stability.” theguardian 8 May. 2013. Web. 1. Apr. 2017.

Hansen, Stig Jarle. Al-Shabaab in Somalia: The History and Ideology of a Militant Islamist Group, 2005-2012. London: C. Hurst & Co, 2013. Print.

Mbugua, Joseph Kioi. “Drivers of Insecurity in Somalia: Mapping Contours of Violence.” The International Peace Support Training Center 4.3 (2013): 1-41. Web. 25 Mar. 2017.

Meeking, E.J. “A Study of Climate Change Induced Migration in Somalia.” E International Students (2013). Web. 29 Mar. 2017.

Menkhaus, Ken. “Managing Risk in Ungoverned Space: Local and International Actors in Somalia.” SAIS Review 36-1 (2016): 109-120. Web. 30 Mar. 2017

Powel, Benjamin, Ryan Ford, Alex Nowrasteh. “Somalia After State Collapse: Chaos or Improvement?” The Independent Institute 64 (2006): 1-17. Web. 2. Apr. 2017

Skinner, Burhus. F. “Behaviorism” Science and Human Behavior the Free Press (1956) 1-16. Web. 10. Mar. 2017





About the Author(s)

Mr. Hamid Lellou is a linguist, cultural instructor and analyst for Africa and the Middle East Regions, with over 20 years of experience. His extensive experience, working in both the informal and formal business markets in Africa, supervising international nonprofit programs, managing refugee camps, and interaction with numerous foreign government officials, has afforded him the opportunity to develop in-depth knowledge and a multi-disciplined perspective of the regions.