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Al Shabaab 2.0 – Professor Hussein Solomon

March 2, 2014


Al Shabaab 2.0

By Hussein Solomon

RIMA Occasional Papers, Volume 2 (2014), Number 3 (March 2014)

2014 has begun with a bang for the hapless residents of Mogadishu. Literally. It began on New Year’s Day with a twin bombing of the Jazeera Hotel in Mogadishu which killed ten people and injured scores more[1]. If that did not rattle the nerves of Somalia’s fledgling government and its international supporters, the brazen attack on Somalia’s presidential palace in February which aimed to kill or capture the president should[2]. The month of February ended with another attack – this one near the national security headquarters of the Somali Federal Government in which an Al Shabaab suicide bomber drove his vehicle into a tea shop frequented by the security personnel next door. 11 members of Somalia’s security services were slain in this incident and 15 more were injured[3].

Yet how could Al Shabaab seemingly strike at will in the supposedly heavily-fortified Somali capital? After all, they were kicked out of Mogadishu in August 2011 and in September 2012 were ejected from the port city of Kismayo in the process losing much revenue[4]. Moreover the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) had its deployment extended to 31 October 2014 and a further four thousand troops were added to its forces[5]. In addition to a renewed AMISOM offensive, air strikes conducted by the Kenyan Air Forces and drone strikes by the United States were all supposed to be taking their toll on Al Shabaab. In addition, leadership disputes within the organization and defections from it are all supposed to have taken their toll on Somalia’s Islamists. To all intents and purposes, then, Al Shabaab is supposed to be on the ropes.

Yet, like a multi-headed hydra, it keeps returning to do battle with government forces, AMISOM and neighbouring states such as Kenya as seen in the September 2013 attack on Nairobi’s Westgate Shopping Mall[6]. What accounts for Al Shabaab’s resilience in the face of superior odds? Five major reasons account for this.

First, Al Shabaab realizing that it cannot take on superior conventional forces such as AMISOM has enthusiastically embraced asymmetric warfare – preferring guerrilla tactics to a full frontal and suicidal confrontation with AMISOM. Whilst giving up cities, Al Shabaab has divided their forces into groups of 15-20 men who employ the use of improvised explosive devices targeting AMISOM forces as well as disrupting AMISOM supply lines. In light of this, the supposed defeat of Al Shabaab in places like Kismayo needs to be re-examined. Far from fighting for this lucrative port city, Al Shabaab chose not to fight at all – strategically withdrawing, thereby conserving its forces intact[7].

Second, and accelerating this move to asymmetric warfare, the internal leadership battle within Al Shabaab has ended with its undisputed emir being Ahmed Abdi aw Mohamud Godane[8]. By concentrating power in his hand and that of his loyalists, Godane has improved command and control within the movement. Godane’s creation of a Special Operations Directorate has seen greater coordination between Al Shabaab’s reconnaissance, kill and suicide units[9] resulting in ever more sophisticated attacks mounted with greater frequency. Moreover, Al Shabaab trains its 5,000-strong force daily – reinforcing fitness and discipline[10]. Under Godane’s leadership, then, Al Shabaab has evolved into a sophisticated insurgency movement.

Third, Al Shabaab has been quick to exploit their foes’ errors. Ugandan troops, for instance, have been accused of extorting bribes from hapless Somalis whilst other AMISOM troops have been accused of involving themselves in the illicit export of charcoal through Kismayo for personal gain[11]. Incidents like these result in Al Shabaab’s sophisticated propaganda wing to cast AMISOM as foreign infidels and it does have appeal amongst sections of Somalia’s more nationally-minded population.

The fact that countries like Ethiopia and Kenya are deliberately involved in creating a Balkanized Somalia with their support to various mini-states under the control of certain warlords for their own purposes has also not endeared them to either the Somali Federal Government or Somalia’s people. One can understand the fear from Addis Ababa and Nairobi. A strong government in Mogadishu will seek to re-unite the Somali-populated territories in Ethiopia and Kenya. To forestall such irredentist claims, these countries, working under the cover of AMISOM, have served to weaken the central government whilst ostensibly assisting them in the fight against Al Shabaab. Godane, meanwhile, exploited the contradictions in this policy to the maximum.

Fourth, Al Shabaab has also exploited the weaknesses within the Somali Federal Government – including its penchant towards corruption. UN monitors has found evidence that shipments of arms for the Mogadishu government miraculously found itself into the hands of an Al Shabaab commander[12]. How can the international community assist the Somali government in the fight against Al Shabaab when elements of that same government are playing on the other side?

Fifth, no insurgency can survive without funds and whilst Al Shabaab has suffered major financial losses on account of its loss of “tax revenues” from Mogadishu’s thriving markets and Kismayo’s lucrative exports, its ability to adapt to new conditions and generate funds is often under-estimated.  A recent report illustrated how much of Britain’s 90 million pounds of aid to Somalia may be indirectly going to Al Shabaab. Because of rampant corruption within the Somali government, London channels much of its aid to charity organisations. These, however are then forced to hand over huge sums to Al Shabaab in “protection money” so these aid organizations can work in areas controlled by the Islamists[13].

Under these circumstances, the resurgence of Al Shabaab should be no mystery.


[1] Abdi Moalim and Osman Mohamud, “Al Shabab New Year’s Day attack rattles Somalia’s security façade,” Sabahi Online. 2 January 2014. Date Accessed: 24 February 2014. Internet:

[2] Omar Nor and Laura Smith-Spark, “Al Shabab militants attack Somali presidential palace in Mogadishu,” CNN. 21 February 2014. Date Accessed: 24 February 2014. Internet:

[3] “Deadly car bomb hits Somali capital,” Al Jazeera. 27 February 2014. Date Accessed: 27February 2014. Internet:

[4] “Briefing: Somalia federalism and Jubaland,” IRIN News. 22 April 2013. Date Accessed: 22 April 2013. Internet:

[5] “Security Council, Ban deplore Mogadishu Bombings reaffirm resolve to help end Al Shabab threat,” UN News Centre. 2 January 2014. Date Accessed: 20 February 2014. Internet:

[6] Matt Bryden, The Reinvention of Al Shabaab: A Strategy of Choice or Necessity. Centre for Strategic and International Affairs. Washington, 2014, p. 1.

[7] Andrews Atta-Asamoah, “Al Shabaab’s relative strength is the real problem, ISS Today. 4 November 2013. Date Accessed: 24 February 2014. Internet:’s-relative-strength-is-the-real-threat, p. 2.

[8] Bryden, op.cit., p. 1.

[9] Atta-Asamoh, op.cit., p. 2.

[10] David Smith, “Al Shabaab rebuilds forces in Somalia as African Union campaign stall,” The Guardian. 28 October 2013. Date Accessed: 14 February 2014. Internet:

[11] Mo Ali, “Somalia: AMISOM and Al Shabaab Alliance,” Somaliland Sun. 16 February 2014. Date Accessed: 17 February 2014. Internet:

[12] “UN Groups reveals how Al Shabaab gets arms meant for Somalia regime,” Midnimo. 16 February 2014. Date Accessed: 17February 2014. Internet:

[13] “90 million of British aid to Somalia ‘helps Al Qaeda’,” Daily Mail. 24 February 2014. Date Accessed: 24 February 2014. Internet:

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