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Map of Al-Shabaab operational area


The Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahidin—commonly known as al-Shabaab—was the militant wing of the Somali Council of Islamic Courts that took over most of southern Somalia in the second half of 2006. Despite the group’s defeat by Somali and Ethiopian forces in 2007, al-Shabaab—a clan-based insurgent and terrorist group—has continued its violent insurgency in southern and central Somalia. The group has exerted temporary and, at times, sustained control over strategic locations in those areas by recruiting, sometimes forcibly, regional sub-clans and their militias, using guerrilla warfare and terrorist tactics against the Somali Federal Government (SFG), African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) peacekeepers, and nongovernmental aid organizations. As of 2013, however, pressure from AMISOM and Ethiopian forces had largely degraded al-Shabaab’s control, especially in Mogadishu but also in other key regions of the country, and conflict among senior leaders has exacerbated fractures within the group. In 2013 al-Shabaab rivalries culminated in a major purge of opponents of deceased group leader Ahmed Abdi Aw-Mohamed.

Al-Shabaab flag
Al-Shabaab flag

Al-Shabaab is not centralized or monolithic in its agenda or goals. Its rank-and-file members come from disparate clans, and the group is susceptible to clan politics, internal divisions, and shifting alliances. Most of its fighters are predominantly interested in the nationalistic battle against the SFG and not supportive of global jihad. Al-Shabaab’s senior leaders are affiliated with al-Qa‘ida and are believed to have trained and fought in Afghanistan. The merger of the two groups was publicly announced in February 2012 by the amir of al-Shabaab and Ayman al-Zawahiri, leader of al-Qa‘ida.

Al-Shabaab has claimed responsibility for many bombings—including various types of suicide attacks—in Mogadishu and in central and northern Somalia, typically targeting Somali government officials, AMISOM, and perceived allies of the SFG. Since 2013 al-Shabaab has launched high-profile operations in neighboring countries, most notably the September 2013 Westgate Mall attack in Nairobi and the May 2014 attack against a restaurant in Djibouti popular with Westerners. The Westgate attack killed 67 Kenyan and non-Kenyan nationals, and a siege continued at the mall for several days.

Al-Shabaab claimed responsibility for the twin suicide bombings in Kampala, Uganda, on 11 July 2010 that killed more than 70 people, as well as a June 2013 attack in Mogadishu on a United Nations compound, which killed 22 people. A February 2014 al-Shabaab attack on Somalia’s presidential palace, Villa Somalia, involved a car bomb and armed assailants and killed 12 people, nine of them militants. In June 2014, an attack and siege in Mpeketoni, Kenya, killed nearly 50 tourists; although there was no claim of responsibility, al-Shabaab was widely believed responsible. There were other high-profile attacks in 2014 either ascribed to or claimed by al-Shabaab.

In 2008, the US Government designated al-Shabaab as a Foreign Terrorist Organization under Section 219 of the Immigration and Nationality Act (as amended) and as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist entity under Section 1(b) of Executive Order 13224 (as amended). In 2012, the United States offered rewards for the capture of several al-Shabaab leaders.