The organisation known as Al-Shabaab originally emerged from the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) movement in Somalia. The ICU began as a loose grouping of Sharia Courts that by 2006 had grown into a powerful Islamic militia which enjoyed control over much of Southern Somalia. Al-Shabaab (literally meaning ‘the youngsters’) was the radical, hard-line youth faction within the ICU. The Union of Courts reached the peak of its influence after the 2006 Battle of Mogadishu, defeating the US-backed Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Reconciliation (ARPCT) and gaining sole control over Somalia’s war-torn capital. This victory was significant enough to be a serious concern to the government of neighbouring Ethiopia, who backed Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG). Ethiopian troops, with American air support, invaded Somalia to attack the ICU and attempt to establish authority for the TFG. The remnants of the ICU, including Al-Shabaab, were driven from Mogadishu and suffered heavy defeats in the south. More moderate elements within the ICU reconciled with the TFG and entered into an alliance with the government. The surviving Al-Shabaab fighters went into hiding or dispersed into Kenya.[i]

Rise to Prominence

The comprehensive defeat of the Islamists did not destroy Al-Shabaab, although at the start of 2007 the situation looked grim for the group. Undeterred, adherents of the movement began to reorganise and refocus their objectives whilst avoiding any regular combat.Now unconstrained by the need to appease more moderate voices in the ICU, the leaders of Al-Shabaab became more radicalised. Efforts were made to transcend clan loyalties, a factor that has often undermined Somalian national movements, and focus was placed instead on religious ideology as a unifying force. The suicide attacks and active media profile of the group ensured that it became well-known amongst Somalis, helping to swell the ranks of its followers.[ii] The re-emergence of Al-Shabaab was helped in no small part by the continuing Ethiopian occupation of Somalia, which created a fertile environment for recruitment to the Al-Shabaab membership.[iii] For some Somalis, Al-Shabaab was a compelling alternative to the foreign occupiers, who were backed by the US and often indiscriminately attacked civilians. By the end of 2007, Al-Shabaab represented the main armed opposition to the Somalian government, conducting an insurgency through suicide attacks and guerrilla tactics.Al-Shabaab also achieved a good degree of international support and funding, mostly through its powerful media profile and the use of the internet. They affiliated themselves with Al-Qaeda and other Islamist groups, partly in order to portray their struggle in Somalia as part of a global war against the West.[iv]

In 2009 Ethiopian forces withdrew from Somalia and were replaced by several thousand Ugandan and Burundian peacekeepers, deployed under the African Union Mission to Somalia (AIMSOM). AIMSOM forces were mostly engaged with guarding the TFG in Mogadishu, providing Al-Shabaab with a power vacuum elsewhere in the country in which to expand.[v] The Islamists achieved arguably their largest success to date with the capture of Baidoa, the interim capital of the TFG.[vi] This also marked the emergence of tensions within the Al-Shabaab leadership. Ahmed Abdi aw Mohamud Godane, a key figure in the leadership, ordered the capture of leading TFG politicians in the city, but his orders were defied by another important figure, Abu Mansoor-Muktar Robow, who granted safe passage to several TFG politicians from his clan.[vii]

Al-Shabaab continued the conflict against the TFG and AIMSOM throughout 2010, enjoying greater success when fighting the government forces. Local support for the organisation continued to grow, helped in part by the relatively successful law enforcement and justice system introduced in areas governed by Al-Shabaab.[viii] In keeping with its new ambitions to be part of a global jihad movement, Al-Shabaab expanded its focus outside of Somalia’s borders. In July 2010 the group launched its first attack outside of Somalia, targeting Kampala, Uganda with co-ordinated suicide bombings, killing 74.[ix] The attack was claimed to be revenge against Uganda for providing troops to AIMSOM.[x]

Internal and External Challenges

Spurred by Al-Shabaab’s successes and against the advice of Robow and others, Godane launched an assault on Mogadishu in an attempt to defeat the AIMSOM forces. The result was disastrous: after a month-long battle for control of the capital, a quarter of Al-Shabaab’s fighters had either been killed, wounded or captured.[xi] The assault also cost Al-Shabaab huge sums of money and brought existing tensions within the leadership to the fore.This necessitated intensive meetings and Al-Qaeda mediation to resolve some of the disagreements within Al-Shabaab, whilst Godane, Robow and others repeatedly denied speculation about splits within the group.[xii]

The Kenyan invasion of Southern Somalia, Operation Linda Nichi, began in October 2011. The Kenyan government had become concerned by the growing refugee crisis and instability along its porous northern border, and intended to create a buffer-zone to prevent over-spill of the conflict into Kenyan territory.[xiii] Al-Shabaab came under increasing pressure from the Kenyan intervention, which joined TFG and AIMSOM troops in attacking the group. This combination challenged Al-Shabaab’s position in the south and drove the Islamists from the important port city of Kismayo. Somalia suffered a severe famine during 2011, further weakening Al-Shabaab.

Despite the growing challenges, Al-Shabaab was still capable of carrying out spectacular attacks that captured international attention. In September 2013 a small group of gunmen attacked the Westgate Shopping Mall in Nairobi, killing 67 people and wounding over 200 people.[xiv] A spokesman for Al-Shabaab stated that the operation was undertaken as retaliation for the Kenyan invasion.[xv]


AIMSOM attempted to consolidate their gains throughout 2012, but a sequence of Al-Shabaab attacks convinced the mission’s leadership to undertake a new offensive in mid-2013. Ethiopia agreed to provide troops for the AIMSOM surge, bringing the mission’s total strength to 22,000.[xvi] Supported by the Kenyan Defence Forces, this surge was successful in reducing Al-Shabaab’s strength and territory.Internal disputes within Al-Shabaab, simmering for years, finally emerged in June 2013. Godane secured his authority over the leadership in a violent purge, resulting in the execution of several top commanders and the exile of others, including Robow.[xvii] Although Godane’s coup eliminated much of the dissent within the group, it also removed some of its most respected and prominent leaders – figures who provided Al-Shabaab with clan support.[xviii]

Since this period Al-Shabaab has been in decline, both in terms of territory and in terms of their international profile. However, they remain a powerful force in Somalia and in recent years have repeatedly demonstrated their capacity to attack soft targets within Kenya. The Kenyan coast and northern regions have experienced Al-Shabaab violence in various forms, including massacres at Mpeketoni and Garissa University. Kenyan police responded with a heavy-handed campaign targeting Kenya’s Somali population, a move that some have speculated will provide fruitful recruitment material for Al-Shabaab.[xix] It is clear that despite the recent losses suffered by Al-Shabaab, the organisation continues to be an significant faction in East Africa for the near future.

Grieving relatives of those killed in the Garissa University attack in April 2015. Image source


[i] StigJarle Hansen, Al-Shabaab in Somalia: The History and Ideology of a Militant Islamist Group, 2005-2012 (London: C.Hurst& Co, 2013), p.47.

[ii] Ibid, p.50.

[iii] Ibid, p.49.

[iv] Rob Wise, ‘Al-Shabaab’ (Centre for Strategic and International Studies, 2011),, p.2.

[v] Ibid, p.4.

[vi] Hansen, Al-Shabaab in Somalia: The History and Ideology of a Militant Islamist Group, 2005-2012, p.77.

[vii] Matt Bryden, ‘The Reinvention of Al-Shabaab: A Strategy of Choice or a Necessity?’ (Centre for Strategic and International Studies, 2014), p.3.

[viii] Hansen, Al-Shabaab in Somalia: The History and Ideology of a Militant Islamist Group, 2005-2012, p.84.

[ix] Bryden, ‘The Reinvention of Al-Shabaab: A Strategy of Choice or a Necessity?’, p.8

[x] Wise, ‘Al-Shabaab’, p.8.

[xi] Hansen, Al-Shabaab in Somalia: The History and Ideology of a Militant Islamist Group, 2005-2012, p.102.

[xii] Ibid, p.104-5.

[xiii] David M. Anderson and Jacob McKnight, ‘Kenya at War: Al-Shabaab and Its Enemies in Eastern Africa’, African Affairs 114, no. 454 (2015): 1–27, p.11

[xiv] Bryden, ‘The Reinvention of Al-Shabaab: A Strategy of Choice or a Necessity?’, p.9.

[xv] Hamza Mohamed, ‘Q&A: Al-Shabab Defends Nairobi Attack’, accessed 25 August 2016,

[xvi] Anderson and McKnight, ‘Kenya at War: Al-Shabaab and Its Enemies in Eastern Africa’.

[xvii] Ibid,p.14

[xviii] Bryden, ‘The Reinvention of Al-Shabaab: A Strategy of Choice or a Necessity?’, p.6

[xix] Anderson and McKnight, ‘Kenya at War: Al-Shabaab and Its Enemies in Eastern Africa’, p.26

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