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  • Writer's pictureMir-Ali Askerov

Al-Shabaab – Between Global Jihad and Local Statehood

Al-Shabaab spokesmen Ali Mahmoud Raghe. Source: Mir-Ali Askerov

On the evening of August 19, 2022, al-Shabaab militants attacked the Hayat Hotel in Mogadishu, Somalia. Two car bombs exploded first, and then the gunmen entered the hotel, shooting people and taking hostages. At least 21 people were killed and 117 others were wounded in the assault. The siege of the hotel lasted more than 30 hours and some militants managed to escape. Then, in recent weeks, militants affiliated with the group also attacked targets along the Somali-Ethiopian border, raising fears of a possible new strategy by al-Shabaab, which is trying to stretch the line of confrontation with federal troops as far as possible. On October 3, 2022, the Somali government announced that Abdullahi Nadir, a founding member of al-Shabaab, had been killed in an operation conducted with international partners.

This recent escalation in the standoff between the terrorist group and the federal government comes against the backdrop of the recent probable assassination of al-Qaeda leader al-Zawahiri on the one hand; and the Taliban's year in power on the other. These events compel us to reflect on the possible development trajectories of one of the largest and most dangerous terrorist groups of our time.


Al-Shabaab is one of the largest and best known terrorist groups and has been active in Somalia for many years. The full name of the group is “Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen”, which translates to “Mujahideen Youth Movement”. Their self-declared purpose is to fight against foreign powers and those who are the promoters of their interests in the territory of Greater Somalia, as well as the establishment of Islamic rule in these lands. The organization considers the borders of national states as artificial, hence its activities are not limited to Somalia, but also affect other countries, especially Kenya, Ethiopia and Djibouti.

Going deeper into the history of why al-Shabaab emerged, one has to mention al-Ittihad al-Islami, it was one of the most prominent Salafist political militant groups in the 1990,which already had ties to Osama bin Laden in that period[1]. In the early 2000s there was a split within al-Ittihad al-Islami, which resulted in “the hardliners” merging with the Islamic Courts Union (ICU). Already in those years, this wing within the ICU took a harder line on both policy issues (in particular building ties with international actors) and religious issues, acting strictly against Somali Sufi Islam and the traditional for Somalian region linkage of Shafii madhab (school of Islamic jurisprudence), Ashari school of creed and Sufism.

In early 2006, the ICU was able to take control of the Somali capital of Mogadishu. It was members of the al-Shabaab wing who played an enormous military role in its conquest, but it did not greatly increase their popularity and strength within the ICU due to their radicalism. However, these events significantly increased the concerns of both neighboring countries and the international community, as the risk of extremism and terrorist threats rose sharply. As a result, in late 2006 there was an international intervention, when US-backed Ethiopian forces joined up with the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) Forces followed by the UN Security Council-mandated African Union Peacekeeping Force (AMISOM) in February 2007.

The combined coalition inflicted a series of crushing defeats, forcing the Islamists to withdraw quickly from key cities. In October 2008, the TFG signed a power-sharing agreement with members of the former ICU to include moderate Islamists in the new government.This attempt to incorporate some elements of the ICU, including their prominent leader Sheikh Sharif Ahmed as president, failed to gain much legitimacy, especially among Islamists and provoked another split in their ranks, as a number of ICU leaders were strictly against any agreements with the TFG. Amongst them was Al-Shabaab , who subsequently was able to unite all the ICU hardliners under their leadership. As the split was primarily ideological, the most radical elements of the Islamist political scene in Somalia at that time consequently joined the ranks of al-Shabaab. As Rob Wise, a researcher at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, notes, the Ethiopian occupation of Somalia was conductive for transforming the al-Shabaab group from a small, relatively unimportant part of a more moderate Islamic movement into the most powerful and radical armed faction in the country[2]. From this point on, one could properly consider the secession of al-Shabaab into an autonomous group. It had close ties with al-Qaeda from the beginning, and in 2012 they pledged allegiance to them, becoming a Somalian branch of the international jihadist structure.

The first leader of al-Shabaab until 2008 (killed in U.S. airstrike) was Aden Hashi Farah Ayro. The next leader was Ahmed Abdi Godane (also known as Mukhtar Abu Zubayr), but he was also killed in a U.S. drone strike in 2014. After that, Ahmed Umar, also known as Abu Ubaida, became the group's leader and is still the head of the group today. Al-Shabaab's territorial control is constantly changing. It maintains control over parts of central and southern Somalia, and in recent years has increased its presence in the north of the country, where it fights for dominance against militants linked to the Islamic State.

For the purposes of this article, I will not elaborate on the entire history of the group's activity from 2008 to the present. More interesting is the current situation surrounding the group, its role in the global jihadist movement and potential ideological transformations.

Al-Shabaab, Al-Qaeda and Global Jihad

As mentioned above, al-Shabaab has been under the allegiance of al-Qaeda (AQ) since 2012 and is currently the largest and most active affiliated group. In the context of the confrontation between the Islamic State and al-Qaeda - this is an extremely important aspect, which firstly, continues to ensure a permanent presence of AQ in Africa, and secondly, significantly increases the activity of AQ as the other affiliates are much less active. For example, researcher Mahmut Cengiz highlights this in his article “ISIS or Al-Qaeda: Which looms as the greater threat to Global Security?”. He demonstrates that al-Shabaab and Hayat al-Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) show a significant amount of activity among AQ affiliates[3]. However, HTS, in contrast to al-Shabaab, has resigned from its oath of allegiance to Ayman al-Zawahiri and is an independent organization. Some scholars believe that HTS still coordinates with AQ, but for the purposes of this article, it is only considered what the groups themselves publicly declare.

In addition, al-Shabaab differs significantly from the general trend of al-Qaeda's development in recent years under al-Zawahiri's leadership. For instance, experts from The Soufan Center (an independent nonprofit organization engaged in research and analysis in the field of global security) point this out in their report “The Global Jihadist Movement in a Post-Zawahiri Era”. AQ in general, in order to survive, had to apply a “franchising strategy”. In other words, a course was taken towards more regional fragmentation of the branches, their goals became more localized, but their loyalty to the “central AQ” was retained. The one and only group among AQ-affiliates that could afford itself to expand its zone of influence all these years was al-Shabaab[4].

Next we will look at the numbers. The image below is an infographic in which Katherine Zimmerman and Kate Chesnutt give approximate numbers for the various groups that are affiliated with al Qaeda and the Islamic State.

Comparative overview regional terrorist organizations. Source:

As can be seen from the numbers above, there is also a very serious struggle between IS and AQ for supporters who are willing to fight for them. If you look at the totals, the Islamic State has 11,900 to 21,100 fighters[5]and al-Qaeda has 14,180 to 21,400. If we consider these results in the context of the global split within the jihadist movement, then in the case of AQ there are a number of other organizations that are, if not affiliated with them, at least ready to cooperate (HTS, Taliban). But the IS has no such organizations at all. However, the fact that al-Shabaab is an important part of the AQ - between 40% to 60% of all fighters - attracts our attention.

Therefore, it is safe to say that al-Shabaab is not just a regional group, but rather a key jihadist movements in the world. Their loyalty and affiliation is of vital importance for al-Qaeda, which is expressed both quantitatively and qualitatively. This situation also raises speculation in the context of the discussion of who will be the next leader of al-Qaeda, since one of the candidates for the post is Abu Ubaydah, the current leader of al-Shabaab. His candidacy is logical not only for the reasons mentioned above, but it would also be an interesting public image move for AQ: A leader from the African continent on the one hand demonstrates a certain inclusiveness (in terms of ethnicity and race), but on the other hand would be a good response to the growing influence of the Islamic State in Africa and the supposed promotion of the Islamic State in West Africa (ISWAP) leadership to the global consultative council of the Islamic State[6].

Discussing al-Shabaab's position in Somalia, it is worth taking a comparative approach to the rapid collapse of the Afghan administration during the Taliban offensive that began in May 2021, coinciding with the withdrawal of U.S. troops and their allies. These events have generated a heated debate in the Somali blogosphere and in the expert community as well.

There are many external similarities. Both projects are shell states, products of unsuccessful external state building projects. Both projects are costly to EU and U.S. taxpayers and failing development and have experienced 20 years of Islamist insurgency and terrorism. The similarities include a dysfunctional federal center with clan elites protected by the Green Zone and a 20,000- man strong foreign force (AMISOM). Of course, the threat of al-Shabaab expansion is more relevant for Central and South Somalia and Greater Mogadishu than about de facto independent Somaliland, consolidated Puntland, even parts of Jubaland, because they are more capable and can defend themselves on their own.

The al-Shabaab group, with its stronghold in southern Somalia, in lower Shabelle and lower Juba, has deployed rudimentary social infrastructure, including an anti-Covid-19 center run by a special committee in Jilib (380 km south of Mogadishu), a system of zakat distribution (muslim almsgiving) and taxation. In addition, al-Shabaab has established a similar framework of interaction with NGOs as the Taliban, and is a major investor in the Somali economy (in real estate and businesses in Mogadishu).

But most importantly, they are also purveyors of capable and effective justice. The government courts are very slow and very corrupt, so ordinary citizens do not trust them. On the other hand, the Al-Shabaab courts, which function under Sharia law, have a good reputation. Previously, these courts mainly served residents in al-Shabaab-controlled territories. However, in recent years, they have become increasingly popular even among residents of territories under the control of the federal government[7].

A June 2022 report by the International Crisis Group (an independent organization and think tank), cites as one of the reasons the moral superiority of al-Shabaab courts, where everyone has equal status before the law, regardless of clan or origin[8]. This situation is also very reminiscent of Afghanistan on the eve of the Taliban's rise to power across the country. Afghans, too, over time, seeing the difference between the republic's courts and the emirate's courts, preferred to go to Taliban territory to settle their disputes. All this created a large-scale parallel judicial system, which further influenced the Taliban's popularity in the country[9].

However, there are a few significant differences that do not yet suggest that al-Shabaab would soon come to power if foreign troops were withdrawn. Although the group controls a number of territories and transportation hubs and arteries, it is much less capable of territorial gains and this is an important difference from the case of the Taliban, who were capable of lasting territorial control and constant expansion.

And, of course, Salafi-jihadi ideology is less complimentary to local population, than that of the Taliban, a more localized religious and political movement more traditionalist for its locale. Although many madrassas (religious schools) in Puntland and Mogadishu lean toward Salafism and its popularity is growing in proportion to the decline in interest in the Shafi'i madhab and the Sufi practices, al-Shabaab's overly uncompromising militant stance toward Somalia's established Islamic tradition is a major obstacle. Broad segments of the population do not accept al-Shabaab's hardline Salafist orientation and their refusal to follow the Shafi'i madhab and their harshly negative attitude toward Sufism as a phenomenon rather than simply its individual practices. However, a new trend is emerging in this area.

Ideological changes in al-Shabaab are about to come? Recently I have been noticing the first signs of a possible trend that could fundamentally change the popularity of al-Shabaab. These signs indicate that the discourse is gradually moving away from hardline Salafism and becoming a little more moderate within the framework of intra-Islamic confrontation. Here are two recent and telling examples.

First, the recent graduation ceremony of the Brigade of Martyrdom Seekers (Katibat al-Istishhadiyin) at the al-Shabaab military training camp. Importantly, the camp is named after Sayyid Muhammad Abdullah Hasan, an anti-colonial political, military, and religious leader from the Somali lands who was even nicknamed “Mad Mullah” by the Britsh officials. This man is also known for his affiliation with Sufism, and the state he founded was called the “Derwish State”. Previously, al-Shabaab had refrained from actively glorifying this man (apparently his clear affiliation with Sufism was controversial). In this case, not only was the camp named after him, but the main spokesperson of al-Shabaab, Ali Mahmoud Raghe, who attended the graduation ceremony, gave a speech of praise in his honor.

A video (with English subtitles) of the speech was circulated by al-Kataib media, which is controlled by al-Shabaab. In his speech, he not only glorified Sayyid Muhammad Abdullah Hasan in many ways, but also drew direct parallels between his movement and that of Al-Shabaab. In other words, he emphasized the continuity between them. In my view, such a public discourse by a prominent representative of an organization can have serious consequences.

A second example worth mentioning is the fatwa of Abu Salman Hassan Hussain al-Somali, a prominent Islamic scholar associated with al-Shabaab. In the fatwa, he gives advice to study islamic jurisprudence through traditional madhab with its related sciences and avoid the “non-madhab approach” (which is popular among Salafi scholars and students). He also emphasizes to study Shafii madhab, since it is the main school of Islamic jurisprudence in Somalia. In this case we can again observe a very important shift, since previously this question was a serious reason for conflict between Salafis and all other Muslims in Somalia.


In conclusion, al-Shabaab is a militarized jihadist group that plays an important role not only for Africa, but also in the context of global security. If we assess the prospects for its further development, the following possible trajectories are mainly seen: First, al-Shabaab could lead a global AQ-type jihadist movement, which in turn would shift its center to Africa. This is possible mainly if the organization’s chief Abu Ubaydah would be named al-Zawahiri's successor. Second, given the experience of other allied organizations (the Taliban and Hayat al-Tahrir al-Sham), al-Shabaab could venture state-building and the formation of their own statehood. However, in this case, dissociation (at least at the level of public rhetoric) from al-Qaeda is also likely to follow, as well as a more moderate religious policy. Both options seem equally possible at the moment.

Mir-Ali Askerov is a PDH Candidate at HSE University in Moscow and a research fellow at the Centre of the Islamic World Studies. His research focuses on Islamic political parties, jihadism, Islamic policy and Islamic political culture. He is an independent author at Ishtar MENA Analytics.

[5] I added the data for ISGS from 2018 ( 425 and calculated with 500 - 700 for a very rough and maximal approximate number/

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