Originally Published 2015-02-02 00:00:00 Published on Feb 02, 2015
Following the ideology of global Jihadism and maintaining links with Al-Qaeda, Al-Shabaab is emerging as a lethal organisation in Africa, posing a strategic challenge to the United States besides Somalia and its neighbours.
Al-Shabaab emerging as a dangerous Jihadist organisation in Africa?
Al-Shabaab, which is also known as "The Youth" or "Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahideen", is emerging as a dangerous Jihadist organisation in Africa, posing a strategic challenge to the United States besides Somalia and its neighbours. It follows the ideology of global Jihadism and maintains links with Al-Qaeda. With other Jihadist groups, it is also focusing on establishing a governing apparatus to apply the Islamic law and meet out the "God's justice".

In the country wrought with military dictatorship, civil war, regional fragmentation, famines and the rise of Islamist groups, Al-Shabaab has risen enormously in less than two years -- from uncertainty to international notoriety. So far, Al-Shabaab has carried out nearly 550 terrorist attacks, killing more than 1,600 and wounding more than 2,100. The US has designated this group as Foreign Terrorist Organization.

Al-Shabaab's operational reach covers the entire Horn of Africa while its strong-holds are in southern and central Somalia. Its cities like Mogadishu, Kismayo, Baidoa and Beledweyne have suffered the brunt of Al-Shabaab's attacks. It has also been active in Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Ethiopia and Djibouti. According to a United Nations report, Al-Shabaab's military strength is approximately 5,000 fighters.

The origin of Al-Shabaab could be traced back to the two previous Somali Islamist groups, The Islamist Union (Al-Ittihad al-Islamiya, IU) and the Islamic Courts Union (Ittihad al-Mahakim al-Islamiya, ICU). The group imposes its own harsh interpretations of Sharia law in many rural regions and engages itself in combating against the Somali Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and the African Union Mission to Somalia (AMISOM).

Al-Shabaab's terrorist activities seem to follow the other jihadist groups in Africa like Boko Haram, Ansaru and Al-Qaeda's North African wing.

Al-Shabaab is linked with the most brutal terrorist group in Nigeria, Boko Haram. It is suspected that Boko Haram receives financial support from the group and that both groups share their training and fighters. Ideology of both the groups is seemed to be embedded in radical Salafism which believes that, "anyone who is not governed by what Allah has revealed is among the transgressor."

Al-Shabaab is fast emerging as a major security challenge in the Horn of Africa, committed to the spread of global Jihadism. However, it has been observed that the group does not follow any monolithic purpose, and its objectives rather vary.

In December last year, the group had organised an attack in Mogadishu, killing seven women. It also beheaded a soldier's wife, leading to revenge executions of women close to the Islamists. Al-Shabaab militants also carried out an attack in northern Kenya, killing 36 quarry workers, mostly Christians.

A brutal organisation as it is, Al-Shabaab had, on February 22, 2009, launched a suicide attack through vehicle-borne improvised explosive device against an AMISOM base in Mogadishu. This attack killed 11 Burundian soldiers. Again the same year, on September 17, it launched another suicide VBIED attack on the AMISOM headquarters, killing 21 soldiers, including its deputy commander. Forty soldiers were wounded. In 2010, on July 11, it organised an attack in Uganda through two suicide bombers. This killed more than 74 people. In 2011, Al-Shabaab detonated a massive VBIED outside a compound housing government offices in Mogadishu on October 4. The attack killed at least 65 people and wounded hundreds of others.

It was the same group which organised the attack on the Westgate mall in Kenya in 2013. This hostage-barricade attack killed 67 people, including the four attackers. The attackers were killed by the security forces which launched a rescue operation.

Al-Shabaab has also claimed the responsibility for killing as many as 90 people in Kenya in a series of attacks in 2014. Between 2008 and 2012, 65 percent of all attacks in Kenya are attributed to Al-Shabaab.

The group has successfully recruited members of the Somali-American diaspora in recent years. A number of radical volunteers from Ohio, California, Virginia, New Jersey and New York have joined the group.

Al-Shabaab receives its major funding from the governments of Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Iran, Syria, Qatar and Eritrea as well as from other terrorist groups, state sponsors, kidnappings, extortions of local businesses and so on.

Actions against Al-Shabaab

The US and the AMISOM have been trying to neutralise the activities of this deadly group and other militant organisations. The US military achieved a significant gain when it managed to kill Ahmed Abdi Godane, Al-Shabaab's undisputed leader, through an air-strike on September 1 near the group's stronghold in Barawe. Godane was one of the US state department's most wanted men, and it had placed a bounty of $7m on his head. After his killing, Somalia's President issued a statement on Friday urging militants to embrace peace.

In December, the Kenyan Anti-Terrorism Police Unit officers carried out 500 extra-judicial killings, supported by intelligence provided by Israel and the United Kingdom.

However, the group retaliated by targeting the AMISOM base in Somalia. The attack on the Christmas day killed nine people, including three African Union soldiers and a civilian.

Al-Shabaab on the decline?

Al-Shabaab is now said to be on the decline curve if one is to go by the many interviews taken by the New York Times of former fighters. The reason for the decline is said to be the increasing defections along with sustained military pressure from forces under the African Union Mission to Somalia (AMISOM). Another reason is the absence of a charismatic leader, especially after the death of Ahmed Abdi Godane.

However, the group still continues to be a dangerous one, though around 21,500 armed personnel from Uganda, Kenya, Djibouti, Burundi and Sierra Leone are battling the militants in Somalia. For Kenya too, it still remains the greatest threat. More worrying is the fact that a quarter of Al-Shabaab fighters are Kenyans. It is reported that money remains the main issue forcing people from Kenya's poorest neighbourhood to join the militant organisation.

(The writer is a Research Assistant at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi)

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