In response to external – and at times internal – pressure, Al-Shabaab’s insurgency in Somalia has evolved over time.
Before 2008, Al-Shabaab was a small player within the larger Islamic Courts Union (ICU). The Union was an umbrella entity that emerged around 2003 to provide justice and security in Mogadishu in the absence of a formal state.
Ethiopia – in support of the transitional Somali government – militarily defeated the Islamic Courts Union in 2006. Over the next two years, Al-Shabaab broke away from the Union and rose to prominence in Somalia.
It transformed from a terrorist organisation, fighting Ethiopian occupation, to something of a de-facto state. It gained territory, eventually controlling most of southern Somalia.
Between 2010 and 2013, the group survived military and territorial losses, as well as a significant leadership crisis.
Al-Shabaab adapted and honed its ability to conduct attacks. It also established systems to tax businesses and the public, both inside and outside of the territory it controlled. The group began to provide an alternative justice structure based on a strict and harsh interpretation of Sharia (Islamic law) – though its understanding of Sharia was highly debatable even among Salafi circles.
Today, Al-Shabaab remains the most formidable challenge to the Somali government, and its regional and international partners.
Despite the shifts it has experienced over 15 years, some things have remained crucial to Al-Shabaab’s mission in Somalia. Scholars have noted three goals that have been continually reasserted:
ridding the country of foreign troops
defeating the Somali federal government
Fully understanding these motivations, however, can be a challenge. This is because the organisation’s goals can change with time and the views of the leadership can be different from those of recruits.
Yet, examining these motivations offers important and actionable insights into the factors that perpetuate the conflict in Somalia or block efforts to resolve it.
Hostility to foreign troops
Al-Shabaab’s nationalist stance against foreign troops in Somalia has been a theme throughout its evolution.
Following the US backing of a warlord coalition during the Islamic Courts Union era and Ethiopia’s military intervention, Al-Shabaab began to spread a message in opposition to the presence of foreign forces in Somalia.
There were “maximalist and violent pan-Islamist members” within the group’s leadership ranks at the time. However, Al-Shabaab’s outspokenness against foreign forces resonated with deep-rooted Somali hostility against Ethiopia and broader nationalist narratives that existed, separate from Salafi and extremist trends. Ultimately, this served as an incredible recruitment tool.
After Ethiopia withdrew forces in 2009, Al-Shabaab shifted its focus to the expulsion of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). The mission’s role included protecting federal institutions. AMISOM has since been replaced by the African Union Transition Mission in Somalia, which Al-Shaaab continues to oppose.
The group also wants to get rid of the US. This is due to the country’s airstrikes and special operations forces in Somalia.
Turkey is another unwelcome foreign power because it supports the Somali federal government. It also advises and trains the military.
Al-Shabaab additionally opposes the United Arab Emirates’ economic interests in Somali ports and military bases.
Implementing its own version of Sharia (Islamic law) has remained a pillar of Al-Shabaab’s agenda throughout its existence.
The group embraces a Salafist interpretation of Sharia. This includes the imposition of harsh punishments for infractions and the rejection of Sufi traditions that many Somalis follow. However, this goal has, as researchers have pointed out, taken “different forms according to the situation and the strength of the organisation”.
For instance, in 2006, Al-Shabaab didn’t antagonise Sufi orders in the way it did between 2008 and 2009 because it wasn’t as powerful. As the group began to experience military pressure and territorial losses in the period after 2011-2012, the implementation of Sharia varied across Somalia, with some Al-Shabaab provincial (wilayat) governors operating more reasonably than others.
More recently, in 2019, Ahmed Diriye – Al-Shabaab’s current leader – expressed a tougher stance. He declared that Sharia ought to be implemented without “concession or compromise”.
Desire to govern
Defeating the Somali federal government and federal member states is another important agenda item for Al-Shabaab.
The group sees itself as an alternative to the Somali government. This is evident in its efforts to govern territory. It also provides security, justice and other services that the government has failed to effectively provide.
The organisation’s influence in the sphere of governance is notable in three areas: justice, taxation and dispute mediation.
First, Al-Shabaab’s shadow court system has offered pathways to justice for Somalis. It addresses the problems of the population it controls, including divorce, inheritance and land disputes. It then provides rulings it can actually enforce.
The government’s court and justice system are reportedly less consistent. Its rulings aren’t always enforced and it faces issues of corruption.
Al-Shabaab’s courts attract residents from areas outside the organisation’s immediate territorial control. This is because the courts help solve practical problems.
Second, the group maintains a taxation system that has spread beyond government-controlled territories. This likely surpasses the Somali government’s own taxation abilities.
Through its taxation of businesses, transportation, ports and other sectors, Al-Shabaab provides some services, such as regulating the production of certain export products. However, the main benefit of “taxation” is protection from the group.
The organisation also collects zakat, a charitable contribution required for Muslims. However, it uses much of this collection to bolster its own coffers rather than redistributing it to the community.
Third, Al-Shabaab has presented itself as capable of successfully intervening in clan disputes. In an October 2020 press release, the organisation claimed it’s “keen to solve the problems and differences that arise between the tribes, and it has shown remarkable success in settling decades-long disputes among them”.
Mediating clan disputes is central to Al-Shabaab’s ambitions to establish a unified Islamic state.
After 15 years of conflict, Al-Shabaab remains a significant threat to stability in Somalia and its neighbours, like Kenya.
Understanding its motives to expel foreign troops, implement its version of Sharia and defeat the government raises questions on how to end their insurgency.
With the recent election of Somali president Hassan Mohamud, there appears to be renewed government focus on not just weakening Al-Shabaab, but eliminating it. As part of this effort, the government has “hailed” mobilisation efforts by local militia (called Ma'awisley) against the group.
The new administration has called for the expansion of these resistance efforts. It has sent government troops to join local militia in an offensive against Al-Shabaab. Time will tell if this new strategy will strategically alter the course in the fight against the group.
Political engagement with Al-Shabaab is another potential avenue that could complement military operations.
However, prospects for negotiation are poor. This is because of Al-Shabaab’s reluctance to engage in negotiations, its uncompromising position on foreign troop withdrawal and the government’s commitment to eliminating the group.