Al-Shabaab – The Jihadists in the Horn of Africa

Al-Shabaab militia operates in the Horn of Africa, a region in Northeast Africa. The region is dotted with conflicts and is one of the most dangerous areas in the world. I choose to write about this topic, because it is the first time in history Al-Shabaab is confronting the Western world with terrorist attacks.Furthermore, the organization could pledged allegiance to the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria and could be part of the socalled Islamic Caliphate. The terrorist organization is currently affiliated with al-Qaeda, which is the rival of IS. The merger between Al-Shabaab and IS would mean more influence in Africa and presents new challenges and fears to international security policy. On April 2, 2015, Al-Shabaab terrorists attack the Garissa University in eastern Kenya, which left at least 147 people dead and 79 injured, mostly students. More than 500 students were able to escape, before Kenyan troops control the situation. The group sets its focus on Christian students and shot them. Another horrible attack and one of the deadliest attacks Al-Shabaab carried out in Kenya since the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings which killed more than 200 people and injured more than 4,000. This confirms how important and how serious Al-Shabaab should be taken by the world. Al-Shabaab fighters are prepared to die for their views at all costs.

Eric Wekesa, a student at Garissa University:

“What I managed to hear from them is ‘We came too kill or finally be killed.’ That’s what they said.”


Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen, shortly named Al-Shabaab which means “The Youth”, is an Islamic terrorist group based in Somalia and active since 2006.

With a coalition of warlords, Al-Shabaab takes control over Mogadishu in June 2006. In the same year, Ethiopia enters Mogadishu and takes it back from Al-Shabaab. Ethiopia as a Christian nation could not just stand by and watch how the neighboring state becomes an Islamic state. But the invasion of Ethiopia in Mogadishu makes the terrorist group stronger, with thousands of soldiers and well financed. The leaders use the religion as an excuse to recruit fighters from around the world to fight against the “crusaders”.

Today, the group operates in south-central Somalia and has approximately between 7,000 and 9,000 fighters, recruiting from Somalia and Western countries. Ideologically, it comes out of the Wahhabi Salafism. The Wahhabi Salafism is not much different from the Saudi Wahhabism like in Saudi Arabia and is the strict interpretation of the Sunni Islam as “fundamentalism” and comes along on a higher and more violent level.

The difference between these two ideologies is that the ideology of Al-Shabaab is in the perspective of the Jihadi movement. The Salafi movement is a division of Sunni Islam, “that seeks to return to the practices of the earliest Muslims – the salaf – who lived at the time of the Prophet Mohammed and just after”.

The current leader of Al-Shabaab is Ahmad Umar, self-proclaimed as the “Emir of al-Shabaab”. He succeeded his predecessor Moktar Ali Zubeyr, who was killed in a U.S. drone strike in September 2014. Al-Shabaab is part of Al-Qaeda and its allies are “Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula” and the “Allied Democratic Forces”. Already Ayman al-Zawahiri declared the alliance between Al-Qaeda and Al-Shabaab. The alliance between these two groups shows how dangerous Al-Shabaab for this region and Eastern Africa is. The Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) is a terrorist organization with about 900 fighters operating from western Uganda against the Ugandan government, using the Democratic Republic of the Congo as a retreat. Al-Shabaab combatants are involved and cooperate with the ADF.

Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is an Islamist terrorist organization operating in Saudi Arabia and Yemen. Its strength is estimated up to 1,000 fighters and like Al-Shabaab they try to establish the sharia law as legislation in the region and prohibit every activity which is affiliated with fun and entertainment like music, beauty products, jewelry, etc.

Also, Al-Shabaab has very good relations with the fundamentalist Islamic terrorist group Boko Haram, which operates in the northern parts of Nigeria.


On February 1st 2007 the United Nations approves the peacekeeping force AMISOM – African Union Mission in Somalia with soldiers from Uganda, Burundi and Kenya with 17,000 current troop strength, to support the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) in fight against Al-Shabaab. The TFG is formed in Nairobi in 2004 with representatives from Somalia’s major clans. Almost two years after the invasion, Ethiopia withdraw all its troops from Mogadishu and AMISOM takes over the task of the peacekeeping.

In 2008, the United States of America designates the Jihadi group Al-Shabaab as a Foreign Terrorist Organization.

However, Al-Shabaab is more than a terrorist group, it is a social movement and its form and structure go further than Al-Qaeda. It is more comparably with the Taliban in Afghanistan or the Hezbollah in Lebanon. Al-Shabaab is as mentioned, located in the south-central Somalia and represents part of the Somali society. The fact that Al-Shabaab is strong with a big influence in the country, the group should not be ignored in talks about the future of Somalia.

The Somali terrorist group is also contributing to the battle against piracy around the Horn of Africa. On 15th November, 2008 Somali pirates captured Sirius Star, a very large crude carrier operating for Saudi-Aramco, with oil in the value of 100 million Euro. Al-Shabaab contributes in the fight against the pirates because the supertanker was from the brother country of Saudi Arabia.

Actions and Operations

Nevertheless, Al-Shabaab is a terrorist organization and a jihadi movement which is spreading fear and terror not only in Somalia but also in the neighboring countries. The group is responsible for terrorist attacks in recent years. To name a few of the atrocities of the Hara-kat al-Shabaab:

In 2006 group members kill four western aid workers and dozens of Somali citizens for cooperating in counter-terrorism with other organizations. In July, 2006 720 fighters are nominated to go to Lebanon to fight against Israel abreast with Hezbollah. In 2009, Al-Shabaab carries out attacks and suicide bombings against military checkpoints, politicians and peacekeepers. Furthermore, Al-Shabaab is strangely and punishing absurdly everyone and everything which is not in accordance with Islam. For example everyone, who has golden or silver teeth Al-Shabaab is punishing this people because it’s a kind of fashion and beauty. Other controversies are that women are not allowed to wear bras which is not in accordance with Islam or the fact that school bells are banned, because bell is a symbol of the Christian church.

The first time Al-Shabaab is involved in terror attacks in Europe was in 2010 when a man linked to Al-Shabaab tries to kill Kurt Westergaard, a Danish cartoonist in Aarhus. In July 2010 Al-Shabaab is responsible for the horrible terrorist attack in Kampala, Uganda against crowds watching the FIFA World Cup Final between the Netherlands and Spain. The result of the assault was 74 dead and 70 injured civilians. Al-Shabaab justifies the horrible act as a response against Uganda participating in the African Union Mission to Somalia (AMISOM), a peacekeeping mission operated by the African Union.

On 16th October 2011 a joint military operation called “Operation Linda Nchi” is established. The coalition leed by Somalian military, Kenyan military and Ethiopian military takes almost seven months until the 31st May 2012 and the aim is to fight Al-Shabaab in southern Somalia. The operation is successful and the group sufferes heavy losses and Afmadow, a city in southern Somalia with a population of 40,000 is again recovered by the coalition. Afmadow was a strategic city for Al-Shabaab from where the group was coordinating military operations and was the gateway to many other areas of the country.

In a three day military offensive from the 28th of September until the 1st of October 2012, the Somali military and AMISOM are fighting side by side in “Operation Sledge Hammer” against Al-Shabaab over the town Kismayo in southern Somalia, which is since 2008 the strategic headquarters of the Islamic group. The outcome of the Battle of Kismayo is a victory of the coalition and Kismayo is recaptured on October 1st.

Al-Shabaab vowes revenge on Kenya for their military presence in Somalia and this threat was put into effect in September 2013.

On 21st September, 2013 Al-Shabaab moves in the focus of the world media, when the group attackes the Westgate-Mall in Nairobi, Kenya and takes hostages, among others western citizens. The world is shocked and wake up terrible memories. The Westgate-Mall is not only a shopping mall, rather it is a symbol of the economic rise of Kenya and also Jewish investors are joint partner of the mall. The terrorists enter the mall and start shooting and attacks specifically non-Muslims. To identify, who is Muslim and who is non-Muslim, they force everyone to read Arabic. Everyone who could read Arabic is allowed to leave the building. Other method the terrorists use is to ask the hostages for the mother’s name of the Prophet Muhammad to identify, if someone is a Muslim or not.

Via Twitter, members of Al-Shabaab fully commit to the act and notice that this is an act of vengeance due to Kenya’s military operations in Somalia. On 24th September, 2013 Kenyan soldiers enter the mall and finish the hostage situation at the Westgate-Mall.

Fighters and Financing

Al-Shabaab is recruiting among others child soldier by kidnapping them and train them for the fight. With the same method Joseph Kony’s “Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA)”, which operates in the border area between Uganda, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan, takes action. The LRA has the same aim like Al-Shabaab to create a theocracy, but on a Christian fundament based on the Ten Commandments.

Al-Shabaab gets its money from a range of supporters. The benefactors are among others private individuals, other terrorist organizations, the Somali diaspora, piracy, kidnapping and extortion. But also states like Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Qatar and Eritrea are counted among investors.

According to the Elephant Action League (EAL), Al-Shabaab earns up to 500,000 Euro per month from ivory alone and is able to cover 40 percent of the wages of the fighters with this amount. According to Tsavo Trust, a Kenyan non-profit organization working in support of wildlife, habitat and communities, a killing of one elephant brings about 50,000 US dollar and could finance terrorist attacks like the 1998 United States embassy bombings in Nairobi, Kenya and in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania committed by Al-Qaeda.

In addition, Al-Shabaab earns tons of money from exporting charcoal and sugar. The group is infiltrating Kenya’s country sugar trade. According to the United Nations, Al-Shabaab smuggles sugar to Kenya in the value of hundreds of thousands of dollars, around 10,000 sugar packages every day.


Al-Shabaab will keep to follow their aim to establish an Islamic state in Somalia and swears revenge to the western world after their leader Ahmed Abdi Godane is killed by an U.S. military operation in 2014. The attacks in Somalia are not very much present in the media but Al-Shabaab should be taken seriously. Observation shows that the Western world is confronted the first time with new and serious risks from Al-Shabaab and should not be ignored.

On March 12, 2015, Adan Garar, a highly ranked Al-Shabaab fighter, was killed by a U.S. drone strike. Garar was “responsible for coordinating the Somali militant group’s external operations, which targets Western citizens”. Garar is presumed to be the mastermind behind the attack on the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi in 2013. According to the Somali government, the country plans to use drones in the fight against Al-Shabaab.

On February 20, 2015 Al-Shabaab carried out an attack on the Central Hotel in Mogadishu. During this time Somalia’s deputy prime minister and other ministers reside in the hotel. Some 20 peoples were killed and among the victims was also Mogadishu’s deputy major.

After this atrocity Al-Shabaab made a statement in February 2015:

“What if such an attack [Westgate-Mall, A.T.] were to occur in the Mall of America in Minnesota? Or the West Edmonton Mall in Canada? Or in London’s Oxford Street?”

It is the first time Al-Shabaab have made a direct threat against the Western world, but it is not sure why now. One possible supposition might be that the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria is gathering all the world news headlines, however, it is unclear what is intended by this message.