by DAISY MUIBU
Thursday October 13, 2022
A file photo of al Shabaab militants.
In response to external – and at times internal – pressure,
Al-Shabaab’s insurgency in Somalia has evolved over time. So have its
motivations and goals.
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
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
- implementing Sharia
- 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
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
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
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
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
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
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.The Conversation
Daisy Muibu, Assistant Professor, University of Alabama
This article is republished from The Conversation under a
Creative Commons license.