Al-Shabaab (insurgency)

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Al-Shabab also means "youth" in Arabic; this article is about the insurgents in Somalia, and does not refer, for example, to numerous baseball teams. Al-Shabaab, a contraction of Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen, or Movement of Warrior Youth, is an Islamist group in Somalia, considered the most powerful insurgent group in the country. It had been part, for six months in 2006, of the government of the current President, Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed,[1] but now competes for control of Somalia, indeed being the dominant force in a substantial number of districts of the capital, Mogadishu. It is at least regionally multinational, with activity in Kenya, and has stated it has a relationship with Yemen-based al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

It first appeared, much as did the Taliban, in putting down local violence and lawlessness, but also to impose sharia rule. [2] Anticolonialism and nationalism are frequently forces in insurgency. Al-Shabaab grew in influence, as the military wing of the Islamic Courts Union, when Ethiopia invaded Somalia, as a symbol of opposition to the invaders. [3] Indeed, its policies include irredentism toward Somali populations in Ethiopia. [4]

It has been designated as a terrorist group by the United States, and, on 14 September 2009, Joint Special Operations Command troops conducted a brief helicopter raid, launching from ships in international waters, and killed a leader, Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, a Kenyan citizen. The group has sworn revenge.[5] The broader effects of this raid on both Somalian politics and transnational terror are complex. [6]

It should be understood that individual terrorists, such as Nabhan in the 14 September raid, are not always under the strict command of a specific terrorist organization. Both Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi carried out operations on their own before swearing the bayat oath to Osama bin Laden, and al-Zarqawi, even after forming al-Qaeda in Iraq, did not follow the strategic directions of the world leadership. "Nabhan has been on the US wanted list since 1996, when he was accused of helping to bomb the US embassies in Nairobi and Tanzania, and is thought to be the mastermind in a truck-bomb attack on an Israeli-owned hotel in Mombasa in 2002."[6]

Relationships to outside groups

While they first identified as the militant wing of the Islamic Courts Union, it first said, in 2007, it is affiliated with al-Qaeda. Ambassador David Shinn, former State Department coordinator in Somalia and the U.S. Ambassador to Ethiopia from 1996 to 1999, emailed a Philadelphia Inquirer reporter, "There is no question that Islamic extremism in the form of the al-Shabaab organization exercises significant influence in Mogadishu and much of southern Somalia...Although a decentralized organization, it receives external funding and ... has some association with al-Qaeda." [7]

Shinn, on his blog, urged not to overemphasize the links, mentioning a more detailed article he wrote for the Combating Terrorism Center's March 2009 journal.[8] In the response to the Inquirer article, he said "A few al-Shabaab members trained in Afghanistan with the Taliban. There are some foreign terrorists who are part of al-Shabaab. But most are young Somali opportunists who have no particular ideological commitment. Al-Shabaab is decentralized with different leaders. A few of them claim close ties to al-Qaeda. There is little proof that the connection is all that close."[9]

Ties to Yemenite groups were reported in 2010, with weapons coming to Somalia, and al-Shabaab members volunteering to fight in Yemen.[10]


It is estimated to have several thousand fighters, divided into three regional units, plus one affiliated group that is not part of al-Shabaab. identifies Muktar Ali Robow, also known as Abu Mansoor, as the overall commander. Adan Hashi Ayro, the former military commander, is believed to have been trained in Afghanistan, and was killed by a US missile in May 2008. [2]

  • Bay and Bokool regions; a spokesman in that region was identified, on 16 September 2009, as Sheikh Mahad Abdikarim[11]
  • south-central Somalia and Mogadishu
  • Puntland and Somaliland.
  • Juba Valley, is led by Hassan Abdillahi Hersi "Turki," who is not considered to be a member of al-Shabaab, but is closely aligned with it.

These regional units "appear to operate independently of one another, and there is often evidence of friction between them," according to a December 2008 U.N. Monitoring Group report.[3]

It controls much of the Mogadishu area, except for an area guarded by African Union troops from Uganda and Burundi, who protect the presidential palace, the airport and seaport. The rest of Mogadishu, including the famous open-air Bakara Market, is in the hands of al-Shabaab and allies from Hisbul Islamiyya (HI).[4]

After the U.S. raid, there were journalistic reports it called for "backup", but these were requests, not an indication that help was on the way. [12] Sheikh Mahad Abdikarim, commander of al-Shabaab forces in Bay and Bakol regions, held a press conference in Baidoa town. "We call for all Muslim fighters in the world to come to Somalia," Referring to the African Union force protecting the government quarter of Mogadishu, most of the rest of which is under al-Shabaab control, "If Burundians and Ugandans, who are not Muslims, are allowed to stay in Somalia, who can refuse our Muslim brothers to join us in the struggle?" [11]

U.S. attack

The September 14 raid was conducted in daylight near the coastal village of Baraawe; helicopters fired on trucks, and one landed to collect the bodies. Daylight is a higher-risk situation, but it may have been done to avoid civilian casualties, or because the targets were time-sensitive.[13]

At least four, and possibly six, helicopters were involved, which can allow some inferences about the force from Joint Special Operations Command. U.S. destroyers can carry a maximum of two helicopters each, so it is reasonable to assume that the force came from an amphibious warfare ship. A possible counterargument is the unconfirmed reports they were AH-6 or MH-6 helicopters, which are quite small. In covert operations against Iranian mining during the Iran-Iraq War, they were flown from a barge. Still, there are also unconfirmed reports of two ships, and, if there were more than four helicopters, it seems unlikely that both were destroyers.

Raids by JSOC Special Mission Units usually have a Quick Reaction Force of elite regular forces available should they need help, so it is probable that at least part of an Expeditionary Strike Group (ESG) was involved in the operation. While JSOC most often uses Army Rangers as the QRF, the QRF here may have been U.S. Marines normally assigned to the Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) of the ESG. The MEU would usually have AV-8B Harrier STOVL fighters as well as helicopters; destroyers of the group might have been able to provide naval gunfire support.

The raid, while more precise than cruise missile strikes and probably providing better intelligence than missiles from drones, where the bodies cannot be collected, still did not tremendously differentiate from counterterrorism direct action in the George W. Bush Administration. Nevertheless, U.S. strategic thinking increasingly makes a distinction between counterterrorism and counterinsurgency being different, but complementary, missions. If the Nabhan was indeed a key member of the command structure of a multinational terrorist organization, direct action may well be appropriate.

Counterinsurgency analysis

Disrupting a command structure in Somalia, however, does not necessarily promote democracy in Somalia. "There is serious talk that if you take out one of the three top Al Qaeda leaders, you cut off the logistical chain on the ground, so in that sense it may be seen as a success," says Paula Roque, a Horn of Africa expert at the Institute for Security Studies (South Africa) in Tshwane [Pretoria], South Africa. But to complete the job would require military strike after military strike, she adds, which would have the unintended effect of making Somalia's supposed leader, President Sharif Ahmed, look weak...If this was done with the authority given by the transitional government, for their sovereignty of Somalia to be infringed by foreign forces, then this will reinforce the impression that Sharif is a puppet." [6]

Robert Rotberg, Director, Program on Intrastate Conflict and Conflict Resolution at the Belfer Center, said

Eliminating Saleh Ali Nabhan, the alleged mastermind behind the 2002 attacks on Israelis in Kenya and possibly the US embassy bombings in 1998, is salutary. Nabhan was a leader of al-Shabaab, a fundamentalist Islamist youth movement of Somalis, which runs a large swath of southern Somalia and has ties to Al Qaeda. Although the attack could deter new anti-American escapades in Somalia and East Africa, it did nothing to weaken al-Shabaab's hegemony in southern Somalia. Nor did it strengthen Somalia's nominal overall government led by the American-backed Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed in Mogadishu.[14]

Counterterrorism analysis

Still, from the pure counterterrorist view, it may have some deterrent effect. Jack Cloonan, a retired Federal Bureau of Investigation counterterrorism expert who has been known for subtle interrogation and opposition to terror, said "It reinforces the resolve that we have as a country and sends a message to young jihadists and anybody who might be thinking about taking up the cause ... that we have a long reach and a long memory." Fazul Abdullah Mohammed is believed to be the chief al-Qaeda figure in East Africa, and remains the highest-priority U.S. target, Mohammed was indicted for the 1998 bombings and has been on the FBI's list of most-wanted terrorists since its inception. Mohammed has repeatedly eluded authorities' efforts to kill or capture him and is reported to be al-Qaeda's leading figure in East Africa.

But with Saleh's killing, said Rep. Adam Smith, (D-Washington), chairman of the U.S. House Armed Services Committee subcommittee on terrorism. "A very high level al-Qaeda guy in Somalia has been taken out...We've had concerns about the degree to which al-Qaeda was trying to do training and maybe plan operations out of Somalia and this will unquestionably undermine their efforts to do that." There has been a concern that al-Qaeda has been moving training out of Pakistan and Afghanistan and to presumed sanctuaries, such as East Africa.[15]


On 18 September, al-Shabaab claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing by two trucks, painted in UN colors, on the African Union peacekeeping base in Mogadishu. The African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) provides security for the struggling Somalian national government. Showing substantial organization, they followed the bombing with a mortar attack on the base. The attacks killed at least 21, including the second-in-command, Burundian Maj. Gen. Juvenal Niyonguruza, and wounded 41, including the commander, Ugandan Maj. Gen. Nathan Mugisha.[16]

U.S. activity

A U.S. Department of Justice indictment, unsealed on 5 August 2010, named 14 people, in Minnesota, Alabama and California, as supporters of the organization. Attorney General Eric Holder said there was no specific evidence of an al-Shabaab threat against the United States, but the recent attack in Uganda "gives us pause.

Among those indicted were Omar Hammami, who is believed to be in Somalia, and has been linked to Anwar al-Aulaki and with [17] Zachary Chesser. Holder said Hammani has assumed an operational role in Somalia.


  1. Sarah Childress (18 February 2009), "Somali Leader Asks Groups to Disarm", Wall Street Journal
  2. 2.0 2.1 "Who are Al-Shahab?", Al Jazeera Net, 4 August 2009
  3. 3.0 3.1 "Al-Shahab", New York Times, 22 July 2009
  4. 4.0 4.1 Anonymous (July 2009), "A Diagnosis of Somalia’s Failing Transitional Government", CTC Sentinel, Combating Terrorism Center, U.S. Army, pp. 9-12
  5. Mohamed Olad Hassan (15 September 2009), "Insurgents vow to avenge US raid in Somalia", Associated Press
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 Scott Baldauf (15 September 2009), "Obama's first Somalia strike hits Al Qaeda suspect.", Christian Science Monitor
  7. Michael Smerconish (19 April 2009), "Head Strong: Next fight in war on terrorism? Somalia: This is not simply a "piracy" problem. Terrorism - with groups such as al-Shabab - is afoot.", Philadelphia Inquirer
  8. David Shinn (March 2009), "Somalia’s New Government and the Challenge of Al-Shabab", CTC Sentinel, Combating Terrorism Center, U.S. Army, pp. 1-7
  9. David Shinn (22 April 2009), Quote in Philadelphia Inquirer
  10. Abdi Sheikh (2 January 2010), "Somali govt accuses Yemeni rebels of arming Shabaab", Reuters
  11. 11.0 11.1 Mohammed Ahmed (16 September 2009), "Somali rebels call for foreign reinforcements", Reuters
  12. Jonathan Adams (16 September 2009), "After deadly US raid, Somalia radicals calls for backup", Christian Science Monitor
  13. Gettleman, Jeffrey. U.S. Kills Top Qaeda Militant in Southern Somalia, The New York Times, 14 September 2009. Retrieved on 4 October 2013.
  14. The US Must Help Rebuild Somalia, Belfer Center; appeared as Op-Ed, Boston Globe, 19 September 2009
  15. Lolita C. Baldor (16 September 2009), "Analysis: Al-Qaida death a blow to terror group", Associated Press
  16. "21 killed in suicide attack on African Union base in Somalia", CNN, 18 September 2009
  17. William Branigin (5 August 2010), "Justice Dept.: 14 charged with aiding radical Somali group", Washington Post