Al-Shabaab is a radical Islamist militant movement in Somalia that emerged following the United States supported Ethiopian conflict that brought down the Islamic Courts Union in 2006. Al-Shabaab has affiliated itself with, and receives support from, the transnational radical Islamist organization al-Qaeda. It is not a defined or clearly-organized movement, but rather al-Shabaab represents a network of clan-militias, foreign fighters attracted to the “Somali jihad,” and business interests. Members also disagree as to the primary goals of the movement, some arguing for the establishment of an Islamic state in Somalia while others seeking to expand Somalia’s borders to represent Greater Somalia. The movement is currently led by Ahmed Abdi Godane. Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys served as the spiritual leader of al-Shabaab until 2013, when he defected from the movement following discord with Godane, and is currently in Somali transition government custody after fleeing to Mogadishu.

Al-Shabaab’s use of violent tactics and imposition of an intolerant interpretation of Islamic law (shari’a) have spread fear in Somalia, particularly in the south central region. Clothing regulations are required of both men and women in al-Shabaab controlled territories, and music, television (except its own and other approved Islamic channels), musical ringtones, and public sports have been forbidden. It uses educational campaigns to lure young Somalis into its ongoing militant conflict, which is framed as a religious war (jihad), and has indoctrinated children into a culture of violence through psychological manipulation and direct intimidation. However, al-Shabaab’s success is ultimately grounded in its ability to highlight and exploit grievances against other powers, whether Ethiopia, the African Union forces or the Somali Federal Government. Government centralism and military action and UNISOM forces often exacerbate these grievances.

Its sophisticated use of propaganda, including television, websites, and social media, as well as its associations with al-Qaeda, have garnered al-Shabaab international support, especially among some within the Somali diaspora as well as some non-Somali foreign fighters. In particular, the U.S.-Ethiopian military incursion into Somalia in 2006 has been a powerful motivating force for diaspora Somalis. A video released in 2009 showed then leader, Osama Bin Laden, praising the group and urging others to join the conflict, though foreign fighters motivations suggest a wide range of interests, from outright criminality to a desire for martyrdom.

Al-Shabaab violence is now international. Suicide bombers killed over seventy people in Uganda in 2010, three of the four bombers in London’s devastating July 7, 2005 attack were Somali with al-Shabaab ties, and Australian security services thwarted an attack against a Sydney military base in 2009. Most recently, al-Shabaab fighters launched a horrific attack on a Kenyan shopping mall in September 2013 that killed 67.

The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation closely monitors the Somali community, and in 2011 U.S. Representative Peter King chaired a controversial congressional hearing focusing on Somali youth and al-Shabaab. The heightened scrutiny of Somali men has led to numerous cases where innocents were arrested and detained, sometimes tortured. Whether heightened surveillance or more intensive interventions, critics fear that these actions will further isolate and radicalize Somali youth.


Matt Bryden, “Somalia Redux? Assessing the New Somali Federal Government,” Center for Strategic and International Studies (August 2013), accessed January 24, 2014.

Mary Harper, Getting Somalia Wrong? Faith, War and Hope in a Shattered State (London: Zed Books, 2012).