ISSN 2330-717X

Al-Shabaab’s Mogadishu Retreat – Analysis


By Robin Simcox

Al-Shabaab was formerly part of the youth and military wing of the Islamic Courts Union, a group of separate Sharia courts which united under one banner and temporarily controlled Somalia.

Al-Shabaab briefly controlled the Somali capital of Mogadishu and much of southern Somalia prior to Ethiopian invasion in December 2006. Following the invasion, al-Shabaab re-emerged as an insurgency movement, and by 2008 had gained control of much of the south. In 2009 and 2010 it consolidated this control, and began to make inroads into central Somalia.


As well as launching bombing campaigns and other terrorist attacks, al-Shabaab leaders govern with an especially strict interpretation of Sharia law, dispatching mobile courts run by armed youngsters across the country. They have been known to forcibly recruit their members, who can be as young as 11 years old.

Al-Shabaab was designated as a terrorist organisation by the U.S. Government (USG) in February 2008 and by the UK in March 2010. It was reported that close to a dozen British Muslims had joined al-Shabaab in 2009. In September 2010, Jonathan Evans, head of MI5, said that ‘significant’ numbers of Brits were training with al-Shabaab, and voiced his concern that ‘it is only a matter of time before we see terrorism on our streets inspired by those who are today fighting alongside al-Shabaab.’

In a bid to bring stability to Somalia and weaken al-Shabaab, the US and its allies have attempted to strengthen the Transitional Federal Government (TFG), established in 2004. However, in reality very little of the country is under its control and the vast majority of the country has fallen to various Islamist militias.


On 6 August 2011, al-Shabaab abandoned certain key bases in the Somali capital, Mogadishu, apparently as a result of widening rifts and factions within the group. This has allowed the TFG to effectively take control of the city – a key strategic gain for the government, and a sign that al-Shabaab is potentially weakening

Emphasis on ‘hit and run’ attacks

Hassan Dahir Aweys, a senior al-Shabaab official, stated that the retreat was caused by tactical disagreements. According to Aweys, ‘We tried to persuade [sic] to change our fight tactics by abandoning Mogadishu to launch Taliban Style attacks in Pakistan and Afghanistan, but some top leaders in the movement refused the plan.’ Al-Shabaab spokesman Sheikh Ali Mohamud Rage also stated that withdrawal would allow the group to launch the ‘hit and run’ form of warfare advocated by Aweys.

It is this model that al-Shabaab have increasingly followed since their withdrawal, with al-Shabaab targeting forces belonging to the TFG or Ahlu Sunna Waljama’a (ASWJ), the Sufi militia which runs certain government departments following a 2010 power-sharing agreement. At least 45 people have been killed in such attacks since the Mogadishu withdrawal. Al-Shabaab will almost certainly attempt more suicide bombings, remote controlled explosions and targeted assassinations.

However, while many Mogadishu districts were abandoned, al-Shabaab still controls certain neighbourhoods. The retreat was not unanimous, and pockets of fighters stayed in areas such as Huriwa and Suuqa Hoolaha. This is clear evidence of the factions within al-Shabaab, and these divisions continue to exist. Further infighting over military strategy led to the death of two more fighters last month.

Mishandling of the famine

While much of the Horn of Africa has been badly affected by drought, it is only in two areas of al-Shabaab-controlled Somalia that the United Nations (UN) has declared a famine. According to the UN, 3.7 million in Somalia do not have enough food, with over 2 million of those living in areas controlled by al-Shabaab. Unicef has said that 250 children are dying a day. TFG Prime Minister Abdiweli Mohamed Ali has blamed the famine on al-Shabaab policies of looting grain stores, preventing access for aid groups and the forcible recruitment of and extortion from farmers.

Al-Shabaab do not want to be seen domestically as responsible for widespread famine, as is increasingly the case. While the group’s promise of restoring order allowed it to claim some popular support in 2006, it is now primarily associated with violence and hunger. Domestic support for al-Shabaab has largely collapsed.

This had led to yet more splits among the group concerning whether it should allow humanitarian aid. Al-Shabaab has threatened aid agencies in the past, and has told Somalis that they should place faith in Allah rather than ‘infidel’ western aid agencies, which are labelled ‘spies’ and ‘crusaders’ with ‘political agendas’. Despite initially suggesting aid agencies would be allowed in to alleviate the crisis, al-Shabaab recently backtracked on this position.


U.S. policy in Somalia is centred on its support for the Djibouti peace process. This African-led initiative is an attempt to create an inclusive Somali government which acknowledges the importance of history, culture, clan and sub-clan relations in the Somali conflict for the last two decades. It is a process supported by the African Union, UN, European Union, Arab League and the Organization of Islamic Conference. This process is consistently undermined by Eritrea, who in December 2009 was placed under a UN arms embargo for their continued arming of Islamist militias in Somalia, including al-Shabaab.

Specific U.S. strategic goals for East Africa are:

1) To contain and reduce the capacity of the terrorist network

2) To reduce the appeal and deter support for Islamist extremism

3) To reduce terrorist financing

4) To expand border security in East Africa (especially in Somalia)

5) To enhance security and counterterrorism (CT) capabilities

One of the initiatives aiming to achieve this is the Partnership for Regional East Africa Counterterrorism (PREACT), a State Department led program which coordinates US strategy between USAID, Department of Defense, US Treasury, Department of Justice and Department of Homeland Security. Any country in east Africa affected by terrorism threats can apply for PREACT funding, which will allow access to CT capacity building, training and money.

Support for the TFG

Both the US and the UK financially back the TFG, encouraging it to bring as many domestic groups as they can into their fold. However, the TFG are an imperfect partner. They lack credibility as a government, having negligible control over Somalia. They have yet to approve a constitution, instead continuously extending its mandate to rule while accepting western patronage (the current aim is for a new constitution and subsequent elections to have taken place by August 2012). Even with this, the extent to which the various rivalries, clans and factions within Somalia will submit to a central Mogadishu is debatable. The TFG has also been somewhat weakened by unrest in MENA – for example, Colonel Gaddafi’s Libya was formerly a solid ally of the TFG. Furthermore, it is has a credibility problem domestically, being largely regarded as a western puppet.

Despite this, the US has been forced to back it, lacking a better option. There is an insufficient amount of information about the strength and appeal of certain clans for the US to support them as credible alternative partners.

The US stance is that a public presence in the area is counter-productive. Therefore, the work they are committed to often consists of non-attributable operations.


Overview of recent AQ activity in Somalia

  • September 2008: Saleh Ali Nabhan, a co-ordinator between AQ leadership and al-Shabaab based in Somalia, pledges allegiance to Osama bin Laden. Nabhan is thought to be behind the 2002 bombing of an Israeli-owned resort in Kenya.
  • September 2009: U.S. Special Forces kill Nabhan.
  • February 2010: Al-Shabaab issue a formal statement, via Fuad Mohamad Qalaf Shangole, declaring its alignment with AQ. Shangole’s day-to-day responsibility involved instructing al-Shabaab field commanders’ attacks. He is also a key aide to Fazul Mohammed, an AQ leader in east Africa who masterminded their 1998 US embassy bombings in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam.
  • January 2011: AQ core offer to promote al-Shabaab into an official franchise named al-Qaeda in East Africa. However, al-Shabaab leaders rejected the offer, fearing it could divide the group further and would make it a higher profile target for the West.
  • April 2011: Ahmed Warsame, a Somali, is captured near the Gulf and interrogated on a US Navy ship for two months. He is eventually charged with providing material support and resources to al-Shabaab and AQAP, is suspected of acting as a conduit between the groups, and fighting for al-Shabaab. Intelligence provided by Warsame points to increasing collaboration between AQAP and al-Shabaab, with AQAP now requesting that al-Shabaab attack targets outside Africa.
  • May 2011: Osama bin Laden is killed. Intelligence recovered from bin Laden’s sanctuary in Pakistan also revealed that he had sought to strengthen ties between AQ and al-Shabaab, with the heads of AQAP – including Nasir Wahayshi – acting as conduits.
  • May 2011: TFG forces kill Fuad Mohamad Qalaf Shangole.
  • June 2011: Fazul Mohammed is shot and killed by the Somalia military in June 2011.
  • June 2011: Upon Ayman al-Zawahiri’s accession to leader of AQ, al-Shabaab spokesman Sheikh Ali Mohamud Rage reaffirms al-Shabaab allegiance to AQ, stating that they ‘await your instructions and we will act according to what you see in the coming stage to be in the interests of jihad and the Muslim Ummah’.
  • June 2011: Al-Shabaab leaders are injured following a U.S. drone attack in Somalia.
  • July 2011: Al-Shabaab is revealed to have bought weapons and explosives from al-Qaeda contacts in Yemen.

It has long been speculated that AQ has had some kind of involvement in Somalia, with suggestions that fighters linked to the group were involved in the death of American troops in Somalia in 1993. While al-Shabaab are not an official AQ affiliate in the way that al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb or al-Qaeda in Iraq are, this has not been for a lack of trying from the AQ core. Bin Laden, Zawahiri, and Atiyah Abdul Rahman (now deceased, killed via drone strike) have attempted to persuade al-Shabaab to focus on the global jihad. Their advances towards co-opting them into the broader AQ franchise have, so far, been rebuffed.

Despite this rejection, factions within al-Shabaab are still broadly supportive of AQ, and there is no doubt that elements within al-Shabaab wish to participate in AQ activity. However, the conflict between local and global jihadist aims is especially pronounced within al-Shabaab; it is not a monolithic group with one political philosophy. One of al-Shabaab’s strengths – that their composition cuts across clans – is also a weakness. It is a group prone to division and disagreement, riven with factions. This has helped ensure that the group has not thrown its entire support behind AQ’s global struggle.

This is a blow for AQ. Al-Shabaab is far more operationally capable than, for example, their franchises in Iraq or Algeria. Rejecting the offer of becoming an official franchise is another blow to the embattled and weakened AQ core.


If there is one factor that unifies the majority of the Somali population, it is the desire for less violence. The bloodshed brought about by al-Shabaab is just one of the reasons that it is increasingly reviled domestically. However, it would be naïve to assume that it does not still retain some appeal in Somalia. These are not just for practical reasons – al-Shabaab soldiers are paid $100 a month – but less tangible ones. Al-Shabaab are comprised mainly of the previously marginalised Hawiye clan, who are now provided with a sense of protection, power, identity and belonging.

Yet al-Shabaab have vastly mismanaged the relief situation, and are particularly vulnerable at present. The USG and its allies can exploit this in the following ways:

  • Encourage Mulsim-majority countries to mobilize a united response for aid relief. This would undermine al-Shabaab as a credible voice of Islam.
  • Encourage Mulsim-majority countries to strongly back the TFG, an act which gives far greater credibility than Western backing.
  • Get better on-the-ground information. The north of Somalia has been especially resistant to al-Shabaab – the communities there must be consulted in order to find out why exactly that has been. There has also been too little engagement with potential allies in local towns and amongst province clansmen.
  • Establish a grass-roots ‘grievance procedure’ for disenfranchised clans. Al-Shabaab manipulate historic grievances to gain support – the TFG must counter this.
  • When intelligence concerning the presence of senior AQ leaders in Somalia develops, work closely with TFG forces in order to kill or capture the operative. Drones – while they should be used sparingly – may be required if this proves ineffective.
  •  Encourage friendly neighbours – such as Kenya and Ethiopia – to train Somali refugees and send them back to fight against al-Shabaab. If required, the US can assist by passing on the skills to Kenya and Ethiopia, or even training the Somalis itself.

If such policies were successful in reducing violence and alleviating the lack of aid, then a process of political reconciliation could eventually begin. Provided they denounced the use of violence, sections of al-Shabaab could eventually be incorporated into this process. Some members were forced to join the group because of threats to their life; others did it for financial reasons. Not all are ideologues. The TFG must broaden its base of support in order to be a credible government. Repentant al-Shabaab members should not be excluded from the political process.


This analysis is partly informed by discussions which took place at a United States Special Operations Command conference on the Horn of Africa in August 2011.

Click here to have Eurasia Review's newsletter delivered via RSS, as an email newsletter, via mobile or on your personal news page.

The Henry Jackson Society

The Henry Jackson Society: Project for Democratic Geopolitics is a cross-partisan, British-based think-tank. Its founders and supporters are united by a common interest in fostering a strong British and European commitment towards freedom, liberty, constitutional democracy, human rights, governmental and institutional reform and a robust foreign, security and defence policy and transatlantic alliance.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *