Terrorism Profiles

Al Shabaab

Alternative Names:

Harakat Shabaab al Mujahidin, al Shabab, Shabaab, the Youth, Mujahidin al Shabaab Movement, Mujahideen Youth Movement, MYM, Mujahidin Youth, Hizbul Shabaab, Hisb’ul Shabaab, al-Shabaab al-Islamiya, Youth Wing, al Shabaab al-Islaam, al-Shabaab al-Jihad, the Unity of Islamic Youth, the Popular Resistance Movement in the Land of the Two Migrations


Primarily based in Somalia, although known to carry out attacks in neighbouring countries such as Kenya and Uganda.


The current leader is Ahmad Umar Umar (also known as Abu Ubaidah), he was named leader in September 2014 following the death of Ahmed Abdi Godane in a US air strike. There is very little information about Umar.

Past leaders included; Godane and Aden Hashi Ayro who was killed in a US air strike on May 1, 2008.

Another important individual is Hassan Dahir Aweys. His relationship to Al Shabaab is somewhat unclear, however, some academics have referred to him as the ‘spiritual leader.’ Aweys has been involved in several different radical Islamist organizations including Al Ittihad Al Islamiya (AIAI), which was disbanded in 1997, the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), and eventually initiated the support for Ayro’s leadership within Al Shabaab. Although described as the spiritual leader, Ayro’s tactics following his appointment clashed with Aweys’ views. This lead to divisions in ideology where Aweys sought nationalist goals and Ayro sought global jihadist goals.


BBC estimates that the groups size in 2015 is between 7,000 and 9,000 fighters.

Funding Sources:

Al Shabaab receives some funding from Al Qaida, as well as some diaspora communities in Somalia. There has been accusations that Eritrea has been funding Al Shabaab with weapons and funding.

Additionally, the UN has made claims that Djibouti, Iran, Syria, Libya, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Hezbollah in Lebanon are countries and organizations funding Al Shabaab with weapons and training.


Al Shabaab emerged as the militant wing of the ICU who took control of Mogadishu and most of southern Somalia in 2006. The group’s origins are somewhat ambiguous and it is unclear whether its origins are much earlier than, or solely due to the ICU. There are distinct connections between the disbanded AIAI (disbanded in 1997) and current Al Shabaab membership. This had lead some analysts to suggest that the AIAI was the forerunner and developer of many of Al Shabaab’s leadership.

Ayro joined the ICU, and received blessings from Aweys to establish the militant wing following the success of capturing significant control of Somalia. However, Ayro believed in connecting the Somalian campaign to the global jihadist agenda, and this drove a rift between the ICU and Al Shabaab.

A sustained effort by African Union (AMISOM), Somali and Ethiopian troops managed to regain control of the capital, reinstating the Transitional Federal Government (TFG). The intervention of foreign powers had a radicalizing effect on Al Shabaab. Where the ICU membership mostly fled to neighboring countries, Al Shabaab retreated to the south where it continued to carry out guerilla assaults, bombings and assassinations.

Major Attacks:

March 26, 2007: Adam Salam Adam used a car bomb in a suicide attack against Ethiopian soldiers in Mogadishu. Al Shabaab claimed responsibility for the bombing, allegedly the city’s first suicide attack. (~73 killed, unknown wounded)

October 29, 2008: Al Shabaab conducted five simultaneous suicide car bombings in the cities of Hargeisa and Bosasso, targeting UN and government buildings. (29+ killed, 36+ wounded)

July 11, 2010: Al Shabaab conducted two simultaneous suicide bombings in Kampala, Uganda. (74+ killed, 85+ wounded)

April 14, 2013: Al Shabaab bombed court buildings in Mogadishu, following which they conducted an armed assault inside the buildings. On the same day, Al Shabaab bombed a convoy of Turkish aid workers. (30+ killed, unknown wounded)

June 19, 2013: An Al Shabaab suicide bomber detonated a car bomb at the entrance to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) compound in Mogadishu. Al Shabaab fighters then entered the compound, engaging in a gunfight with security forces for over ninety minutes. (22 killed, 20+ wounded)

September 21, 2013: Al Shabaab gunmen attacked the Westgate mall in Nairobi, Kenya, triggering a four-day siege by government forces. (~68 killed, 175 wounded)

February 21, 2014: Al Shabaab attacked Villa Somalia, the presidential palace compound, with a car bomb before entering the compound to engage in a gunfight with guards. (14+ killed, unknown wounded)

May 24, 2014: Two Al Shabaab suicide bombers attacked a restaurant in Djibouti. This attack was Djibouti’s first suicide bombing. (3 killed, 11 wounded)

June 16, 2014: Al Shabaab gunmen attacked several targets in the Kenyan town of Mpeketoni, including a police station, a bank, and hotels as well as a hall in which people were viewing the World Cup. The next day, gunmen also conducted an attack on the nearby village of Poromoko. (49+ killed, unknown wounded)

November 22, 2014: Al Shabaab militants attacked a bus with sixty passengers traveling from Kenya’s Mandera to Nairobi. The militants executed passengers who could not recite Koran verses as well as those who resisted the attack. (28 killed, unknown wounded).

December 2, 2014: Al Shabaab militants conducted an attack in Koromei, in northern Kenya, killing at least thirty-six Christian quarry workers. (~36 killed, unknown wounded)

April 2, 2015: Al Shabaab gunmen attacked Garissa University College, killing non-Muslim students. The militants killed 147 people and wounded dozens of others before Kenyan forces were able to end the attack. (~151 killed, unknown wounded)

October 7, 2015: Al Shabaab militants ambushed a car carrying two passengers, killing both. The victims included the nephew of Somalian president Hassan Sheikh Mohamoud. (2 killed, unknown wounded) 

January 15, 2016: Heavily armed Al Shabaab fighters attacked an African Union peacekeepers base in Eel-Ade, Somalia. (63 killed, unknown wounded)

January 22, 2016: The group attacked a popular beachside restaurant in Mogadishu. The group used firearms and two car bombs. (20 killed, 17 wounded)

Ideological Roots:

The groups ideological roots are very similar to that of Al Qaida (Core). Al Shabaab’s close relationship with Al Qaida, especially since 2008, has significantly influenced the broadening of the group’s ideological framework.

Ayro received training in Afghanistan and modeled Al Shabaab’s principles after that of the Taliban. Going as far as to mimic punishments such as amputation and stoning. Additionally, in an effort to rid the country of foreign influence Al Shabaab shut down BBC and banned its broadcasts in 2010, banned listening to music and watching of videos.

Al Shabaab has tried to frame the Somalian nationalist struggle in the larger frame of the global jihadi movement in order to orient itself closer with other organizations.

It is also important to note that Al Shabaab’s leadership is at times divided. Some cleavages exist including competing clan loyalties and nationalist versus global jihadi ideologies.


The primary goal is to force out the Somalian government, this is in pursuit of the ultimate goal of Al Shabaab which is the creation of an Islamic Emirate within Somalia. Most of its fighters follow this nationalistic goal, however, there are some that pursue the global jihadist agenda.

Al Shabaab’s leadership are affiliated with Al Qaida and are believed to have been trained by Al Qaida. The group publicly announced its affiliation with Al Qaida in February 2012.

Lastly, Al Shabaab wants to remove foreign influence from Somalia. This is in part due to the intervention of Ethiopian troops in 2006 which has fuelled an agenda to oppose the presence of foreign influence in Somalia ever since.


Al Shabaab has made use primarily of explosives and firearms in its attacks. The group has claimed responsibility for many bombings and suicide attacks throughout Somalia. Al Shabaab has launched numerous high profile operations in neighbouring countries as well, most notably the September 2013 attack on Westgate Mall in Nairobi and the May 2014 attack in Djibouti.

The group typically resorts to suicide attacks, using Vehicle Born Improvised Explosive Devices (VBIED), as well as using firearms to siege and seize buildings while inflicting as many casualties as possible.

The group has also temporarily exerted control over strategic locations, recruiting (sometimes forcibly) regional sub-clans and their militias. The use of guerrilla warfare tactics have been demonstrated against the Somali Federal Government (SFG), African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) peacekeepers and non governmental aid organizations.

Recent Articles

Profile Last Updated: 02/12/2016

View References

  1. “Al Shabaab.” Mapping Militant Organizations. Stanford University. Last Modified October 31, 2015. Accessed November 19, 2015. http://web.stanford.edu/group/mappingmilitants/cgi-bin/groups/view/61
  2. “Who Are Somalia’s al-Shabab?” BBC. Last Modified April 3, 2015. Accessed November 19, 2015. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-15336689
  3. “Al Shabaab.” Terrorist Groups.The National Counterterrorism Center. Accessed November 19, 2015. http://www.nctc.gov/site/groups/al_shabaab.html
  4. Masters, Jonathan. “Al-Shabab.” Council on Foreign Relations. Last Modified March 13, 2015. Accessed November 19, 2015. http://www.cfr.org/somalia/al-shabab/p18650
  5. “Attack Type-Al Shabaab.” Global Terrorism Database. Accessed November 19, 2015.
  6. “Somali Forces end Mogadishu restaurant siege after deadly attack.” BBC Africa. Last Modified January 22, 2016. Accessed February 12, 2016. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-35377484
  7. “Al-Shabab attacks African Union base in Somalia.” Al Jazeera War & Conflict. Last Modified January 15, 2016. Accessed February 12, 2016.http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2016/01/al-shabab-attacks-african-union-base-somalia-160115070814884.html

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