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Jul 30, 2015 | Commentary


In its decades-long period of political unrest, Somalia has witnessed the emergence of many radical Islamist groups within its borders. The Al-Ittihad Al-Islami (AIAI), the forerunner to al-Shabaab, was a militant Salafist group which was at its height in the 1990s after the collapse of Siad Barre’s military regime in Somalia . The AIAI was constituted by a group of Middle East educated Somali extremists and was also partially funded by Al-Qaeda. Many of AIAI members, including current al-Shabaab commanders, fled Somalia to take part in Afghanistan’s civil conflict in the 1990s after the group was pushed out by the Ethiopian army and its Somali supporters. The significant turning point for the group was in 2003, when the rift between AIAI’s moderate old guard and its younger members came to a head. The moderate wing of AIAI wished to establish a more moderate political front for the group while the younger members of the AIAI wanted to create a “Greater Somalia”, to be governed under fundamental Islamic principles.

The young hardliners of the AIAI constructed a partnership with an alliance of sharia courts known as Islamic Courts Union (ICU) and progressed to serve as the court’s youth militia. Thus the newly created group of al-Shabaab (translating to “the youth”), whose membership constituted of former AIAI hardliners, gained de facto control of Mogadishu in 2006 with support from the ICU. The takeover of Mogadishu sparked fears of spillover jihadist violence in neighbouring states such as Ethiopia, a mainly Christian state with a sizable Muslim minority population.

Al-Shabaab’s Radicalization & Expansion

The fears of the expansion of al-Shabaab’s presence into neighboring states prompted the invasion of Somalia by Ethiopia in December of 2006. The intervention was requested by the Somali transitional government and the campaign resulted in the ousting of ICU from Mogadishu. The external intervention served to further radicalize al-Shabaab, which remained active in Somalia after the defeat of ICU. The group mobilized to organize guerrilla assaults which included planned bombings and the assassination of Ethiopian forces. It was during the years of the Ethiopian campaign in Somalia that al-Shabaab transformed into a full-scale guerilla movement, which allowed the group to consolidate control over large parts of central and southern Somalia. The Ethiopian occupation cultivated the appropriate conditions for Al-Shabaab to evolve from a relatively small and unimportant part of a more moderate Islamic movement into the most powerful and radical armed group in Somalia. The group’s numbers grew from 400 into thousands between 2006 and 2008 as new Islamist nationalist fighters joined the ranks of al-Shabaab . The group’s ties to Al-Qaeda also strengthened during this period (a formal allegiance to Al-Qaeda was declared in February 2012) as al-Shabaab leaders reiterated their support for the activities of the international terrorist organization and condemned the perceived American crimes against Muslims.

The US State Department has also stated that the group’s membership has increased steadily since its inception and that the group’s resilience is a direct result of the significant degree of support it receives from local clans who perceive al-Shabaab as a viable alternative to the corrupt transitional government based in Mogadishu. The activities of al-Shabaab have also increased because its sources of funding continue to bolster its militant operations. Al-Shabaab receives its revenue from other terrorist groups, state sponsors, the Somali diaspora, funds gathered from piracy and kidnappings as well as from the extortion of local businesses. The extent of its funding can be conceptualized when one considers its list of state financiers which include Eritrea, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Qatar and Yemen. Within the domestic framework, the group established an extensive base in the port city of Kismayo, after it was seized in 2008. Although Kismayo was regained in 2012 after a successful Kenya-led operation, the illicit charcoal trade continues to be actively orchestrated by al-Shabaab which allows the group to gain funds valued at hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Beyond Somalia

Al-Shabaab has clearly consolidated its political presence in Somalia, yet it has also broadened the scope of its activities beyond the borders of the country. The most recent al-Shabaab operation in Kenya, one which also attracted international media attention, was the April 2 attack on Garissa University earlier this year. The attack, which has been recorded to be the second deadliest in Kenya since the 1998 United States embassy bombings, resulted in the deaths of 147 students. The Garissa University attack is part of a recent series of militant operations orchestrated by al-Shabaab as showcased by the July 8 attack in Kenya’s Mandera Country which resulted in the death of 14 people.

The al-Shabaab rationale for its activities in Kenya is based on the notion of revenge. The group’s actions in Kenya are a direct response to the perceived atrocities committed by the Kenyan military deployed in Somalia as part of the AMISOM mission. The group also argues that it seeks to liberate all Muslims under the Kenyan occupation, a sentiment which correlates with its pan-Somali nationalist rhetoric.  Al-Shabaab’s militant campaign against Kenya puts pressure on Nairobi’s commitment to the Somali mission and it also attempts to cultivate domestic divisions within Kenya. The increasing frequency of attacks in Kenya further embeds the narrative of anti-Islamic sentiments within the country, which subsequently makes it easier for al-Shabaab to gain political support from the alienated Muslim minority.

Security Challenges

Al-Shabaab’s expansion beyond Somalia has signaled a strategic shift in the scope of its activities. The group has demonstrated that it has the ability to consolidate political power through the persistent indoctrination of its ideology. It has also showcased political finesse by exacerbating local grievances in neighboring states like Kenya and incorporating them within its jihadi propaganda in order to maximize its appeal to minority populations outside Somalia.

The implementation of disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR) is considered to be the most effective tool to counter violent extremism, particularly because it is a prominent peacebuilding apparatus adopted by the United Nations (UN) and other major international actors. Initiatives of DDR for al-Shabaab fighters have had limited success. The UN in particular faces great difficulties in its implementation of DDR programs, which includes its peacebuilding efforts in Somalia. There are particular problems with DDR standards, the transparency of the process, and the monitoring of DDR due to the lack of commitment and resources in the national and local settings of DDR initiatives.

Measures can be taken however, to ensure the success of DDR programs and peacebuilding efforts as a whole. The United States Institute of Peace (USIP) has specific recommendations in regards to mediating peace with proscribed armed groups .  Peacebuilding initiatives such as DDR are also more likely to be successful when all conflict parties, state and non-state alike, are genuinely interested in exploring viable political solutions to security problems. Most importantly, in order to enhance the likelihood of effective negotiations, mediators should thoroughly analyze the conflict situation at hand. Realistic expectations must be set by mediators and all significant armed groups as well as unarmed stakeholders should be intricately involved in the negotiations process. These measures, though simple in nature, have not been conceptualized in the current DDR programs in Somalia. In order to increase the efficiency of peacebuilding, these recommendations must be incorporated into the larger regional and Somalian security sector reform initiatives.

In efforts to address the security threats posed by militant groups such as al-Shabaab, the Somali government has undertaken ambitious security sector reform measures which are outlined by the International Peace Support Training Centre in Kenya. Principal efforts are directed at the reformation and strengthening of the national forces and the police as well as implementing DDR programs. In conjunction with the UN, the AMISOM mission in Somalia is training Somalis in efforts to strengthen the country’s national forces. Yet the efforts of restructuring the national forces are impeded by logistical issues as well as persisting allegiance of the public to clans and armed groups. Furthermore, the Somali police force is also being reformed, restructured and reorganized through trainings and the professionalization of the police system.   However the continued attacks by groups like al-Shabaab and the capacity gaps in the management of reforms have limited the efficiency of the restricting process.

Most of the disengaged fighters are from al-Shabaab and the role of the Somali government, in conjunction with AMISOM, is to rehabilitate the fighters. Yet despite the DDR initiative, Somali youth and former fighters remain vulnerable for recruitment because of the lack of comprehensive reintegration policies. The Somali economy continues to face severe difficulties and Mogadishu’s failure to create jobs for Somali youth cultivates the conditions for fighter recruitment. Despite logistic and security challenges, Somalia continues to foster its security sector reform ambitions in efforts to neutralize the domestic threat posed by al-Shabaab. Similar efforts have also been undertaken by neighboring states who are also threatened by al-Shabaab’s transnational operations.

Kenya’s approach to addressing the threat of al-Shabaab is aggressive in nature, as demonstrated by several of its actions. The shock of the Westgate mall attack in September of 2013 showcased the group’s revitalization and it unquestionably demonstrated, in very bitter terms, the regional expansion of al-Shabaab’s militant activities beyond the borders of Somalia. The Westgate attack prompted the Kenyan government to instigate mass arrests, violent raids on mosques in Mombasa and extrajudicial killings of suspected al-Shabaab sympathizers. In light of the Garissa University attack however, it is clear that Kenya’s security measures have proven to be inefficient and that it underestimated the threat posed by al-Shabaab, with great costs. More importantly, Nairobi’s aggressive addressing of the al-Shabaab threat further increases the polarization between different ethnic and faith communities.

Al-Shabaab continues to strengthen in numbers and political support, which undoubtedly signals the need for a vigorous revitalization of efforts to address the threat of the group in the region. States like Somalia and Kenya must bolster their security sector reform initiatives, not only to overcome logistic impediments but to also avoid the further exacerbation of the regional security situation. Somalia must address its domestic shortcomings in regards to the provision of a stable economic and political system, which would deter disengaged fighters as well as its youth from joining the ranks of al-Shabaab. In contrast, Kenya must re-evaluate its aggressive response to the al-Shabaab threat because its policies are alienating the minority Muslim population in the country which further strengthens al-Shabaab’s political clout. The states in the region must develop a comprehensive and coherent policy regarding their security sector reform efforts so that the grave security threat posed by al-Shabaab can effectively be dismantled.


Lema Ijtemaye is currently pursuing her M.A. in Political Science, specializing in Conflict Resolution at the University of Waterloo. She is currently a Research Intern at the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), focusing on the role of women in peace and security in the Asia-Pacific region. Her M.A. thesis explores the role of ethnic politics in the post-conflict reconstruction framework in Afghanistan.