5.10 Extremist groups in the Greater Middle East: Al Shabaab

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Al Shabaab (aka Harakat Shabaab al Mujahidin, or Mujahidin Youth Movement) is an insurgent and terrorist group that evolved out of a militant wing of Somalia’s Council of Islamic Courts in the mid-2000s. In its formative years, Al Shabaab drew on historic anti-Ethiopian sentiment among Somalis for recruits and support, including among the Somali diaspora in the United States and Europe. The group held significant territory in south-central Somalia, including the capital, Mogadishu, in the late 2000s, until the U.N.-authorized African Union mission in Somalia (AMISOM) gained momentum against the insurgency through a series of military offensives in 2011-2012. Al
Shabaab continues to wage an asymmetric campaign against government, AMISOM, and international targets in Somalia, and thousands of civilians have been killed in its attacks. While Al Shabaab has primarily focused on its agenda in Somalia, it has threatened the countries contributing troops to AMISOM and has successfully conducted deadly terrorist attacks in Djibouti, Kenya, and Uganda. The group’s ability to recruit abroad and the presence of foreign fighters, among them U.S. citizens, in Somalia have been of significant concern to U.S. policymakers. Some foreign fighters have reportedly deserted in recent years, either out of disillusion with military losses or because
of internal dissent. Reports suggest some may have left for other jihadist theaters, while others, including recruits from Kenya, may be trained in Somalia and then deployed to conduct attacks against targets elsewhere in East Africa.
Al Shabaab’s emir, Ahmed Abdi Godane (aka Ahmed Abdi aw-Mohamed, Abu Zubeyr), was killed in a U.S. airstrike on August 31, 2014. His predecessor, Aden Hashi Ayro, was killed in a 2008 U.S. missile strike. The group had suffered infighting within its senior ranks in recent years, and Godane, who reportedly aspired to pose a global threat, had consolidated power by neutralizing his rivals within the movement in 2012-2013. In announcing his successor, Ahmed Umar (aka Abu Ubaidah), who is viewed as a close Godane ally, Al Shabaab reaffirmed its allegiance to Al Qaeda leader Zawahiri.
Al Shabaab broadly ascribes to an irredentist and religiously driven vision of uniting ethnic Somali-inhabited areas of Kenya, Ethiopia, Djibouti, and Somalia under an Islamist caliphate. Its leaders have also repeatedly expressed their commitment to the global jihad movement. The group has justified its attacks outside Somalia as retaliation for participation in, or support for, AMISOM and/or as retribution for alleged abuses against Muslims in Somalia and
the broader region.
Areas of Operation
Al Shabaab attacks have been primarily concentrated in Somalia, although it has increasingly claimed responsibility for attacks in Kenya since 2011, and has demonstrated its ability to strike targets in Uganda and Djibouti as well. Security offensives against Al Shabaab in 2011-2012 pushed Al Shabaab out of Mogadishu and other major southern cities and ports, but it continues to control territory and run training sites in parts of south-central Somalia. Al Shabaab reportedly maintains cells and/or relationships with affiliated groups in Kenya, Tanzania, and other countries in the region.
Attacks against U.S. interests
Al Shabaab leaders have issued repeated threats against U.S. and Western targets in Somalia and beyond, and have called for strikes against the United States. Two Sudanese citizens who were involved in the January 2008 murder of a U.S. diplomat in Sudan are believed to be among Al Shabaab’s ranks. The group’s July 2010 bombings in Kampala,
Uganda, killed more than 70 people, including one American. While no Americans were killed in the September 2013 assault on the upscale Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya, that and subsequent attacks have underscored the serious threat to Western citizens in the country. In confirming the death of Godane in a U.S. strike, Obama Administration officials cited his oversight of “plots targeting Westerners, including U.S. persons in East Africa” and suggested that the strike was conducted in response to an “imminent threat” to U.S. interests in the region.
Size, Financing, and Capabilities
The State Department estimates Al Shabaab to have several thousand members, including a few hundred foreign fighters. Allied clan militias may augment Al Shabaab’s strength in some areas of south-central Somalia. Reports of increased recruitment in Kenya in recent years are also of concern. While Al Shabaab’s loss of Mogadishu and other
strategic port cities deprived the group of valuable revenue sources, reports suggest it continues to tax charcoal production, despite a U.N. embargo on the Somali charcoal trade, and exports from smaller ports still under its control. Foreign donations also contribute to its financing; the United States and others have sought to sanction several Kenyan clerics, for example, who are alleged to raise funds and recruit for the group.
Relationship with Al Qaeda and AQ Affiliates
The Obama Administration characterizes Al Shabaab as Al Qaeda’s largest affiliate in Africa and considers elements of the group to be associated with Al Qaeda in the context of the Authotrization for Use of Military Force. Some of Al Shabaab’s founding members fought with Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, and senior Al Qaeda operatives in East Africa,
including Fazul Mohammed, mastermind of the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, have been associated with the group. After multiple public expressions of allegiance by Al Shabaab to Al Qaeda, the two entities announced their formal alliance in February 2012. The practical effect of the merger is unclear—Al Shabaab appears to operate largely independently. It maintains ties with other AQ affiliates, most notably AQAP in nearby Yemen.
Source US Congressional Research Service 2014
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