Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen (HSM), more commonly known as al-Shabaab, is the Somali-based cell of the militant Islamist group al-Qaeda, formally recognized in 2012. As of 2012, the outfit controls large swathes of the southern parts of the country, where it is said to have imposed its own strict form of Sharia law. Al-Shabaab’s troop strength as of May 2011 was estimated at 14,426 militants. In February 2012, Al-Shabaab leaders quarreled with Al-Qaeda over the union, and quickly lost ground.
The group is an off-shoot of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), which splintered into several smaller factions after its defeat in 2006 by the Somali Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and the TFG’s Ethiopian military allies. Al-Shabaab describes itself as waging jihad against “enemies of Islam”, and is engaged in combat against the TFG and the AMISOM. Alleging ulterior motives on the part of foreign organizations, group members have also reportedly intimidated, kidnapped and killed aid workers, leading to a suspension of humanitarian operations and an exodus of relief agents. Al-Shabaab has been designated a terrorist organization by several Western governments and security services. As of June 2012, the US State Department has open bounties on several of the outfit’s senior commanders.
In early August 2011, the TFG’s troops and their AMISOM allies reportedly managed to capture all of Mogadishu from the Al-Shabaab militants. An ideological rift within the group’s leadership also emerged in response to pressure from the recent drought and the assassination of top officials in the organization. Al Shabaab is hostile to Sufi traditions and has often clashed with the militant Sufi group Ahlu Sunna Waljama’a. The outfit has also been suspected of having links with Al-Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb and Boko Haram.
Al Shabab is banned as a terrorist group by Australia, Canada, Norway, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
It has imposed a strict version of Sharia law in areas under its control, including stoning to death women accused of adultery and amputating the hands of thieves.
Ahmed Abdi Godane is the head of the group. Known as Mukhtar Abu Zubair, he comes from the northern breakaway region of Somaliland. Mr Godane is rarely seen in public. His predecessor, Moalim Aden Hashi Ayro, was killed in a US airstrike in 2008. Mr Godane, who was behind the group’s tie-up with al-Qaeda and has a hardline, international agenda has recently emerged victorious from an internal power-struggle. His rival, Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, is more focussed on the struggle within Somalia. He is now in government custody, while several of his allies have been killed.
Al-Shabab joined al-Qaeda in February 2012. In a joint video, al-Shabab leader Ahmed Abdi Godane said he “pledged obedience” to al-Qaeda head Ayman al-Zawahiri. The two groups have long worked together and foreigners are known to fight alongside Somali militants. US officials believe that with al-Qaeda on the retreat in Afghanistan and Pakistan following the killing of Osama bin Laden, its fighters will increasingly take refuge in Somalia.
Al-Shabab has said it carried out the deadly assault on a shopping centre in Nairobi on 21 September, in which at least 68 people were killed. It was responsible for a double suicide bombing in Uganda’s capital, Kampala, which killed 76 people watching the 2010 football World Cup final on television. The attack was carried out because Uganda – along with Burundi – provided the bulk of the AU troops in Somalia before the Kenyans went in. Analysts say the militants often enter and leave Kenya without being intercepted. Their fighters are said to even visit the capital, Nairobi, for medical treatment.
The 2002 twin attacks on Israeli targets near the Kenyan resort of Mombasa were allegedly planned in Somalia by an al-Qaeda cell, while the US believes some of the al-Qaeda operatives who carried out the 1998 attacks on its embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam then fled to Somalia.
Al Shabaab uses various media in order to proliferate their propaganda. Besides traditional radio, the internet is the most heavily utilized by Al Shabaab and other militant Islamic groups such as Al Qaeda because it is the easiest and most cost-effective way to reach a large audience. As the internet is especially popular with today’s youth, organizations such as Al Shabaab are using online forums and chat rooms in order to recruit young followers to their cause. Al Shabaab’s official website, which has since been taken-down, featured posts, videos and official statements in English, Arabic and Somali, as well as online classrooms to educate followers.