Somalia’s al-Shabaab Movement: Tactical Overhaul in a Collapsing Insurgency

Andrew McGregor 

A Speech Delivered at the Jamestown Foundation Seventh Annual Terrorism Conference

Washington D.C.
December 12, 2013

Somalia’s al-Shabaab movement was incorporated as a new regional chapter of al-Qaeda with the blessings of Ayman al-Zawahiri in February, 2012. Faced with increasing military opposition and severe blows to its revenue streams, al-Shabaab faced the options of gradual annihilation in the field or scaling back operations to a more asymmetric model based on a diminished interest in holding territory and a greater use of terrorist tactics in an expanded zone of operations, one that includes Somalia’s neighbors and might possibly reach to the foreign supporters of Somalia’s national government and the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). The Westgate Mall attack in Nairobi and a series of terrorist strikes in Somalia suggest that al-Shabaab is undergoing a tactical and organizational shift designed to centralize command of the movement as it de-emphasizes guerrilla warfare in favor of suicide bombings, assassinations and other terrorist operations.

Assessing al-Shabaab’s Military Strength

Following the devastating loss of both Mogadishu and Kismayo, al-Shabaab finds itself operating in an ever more restricted space, with the only urban centers of any importance still under their control being the port of Barawe in Lower Shabelle and the town of Badhere in Gedo region. According to the Somali Minister of Defense, Abdihakim Haji Mohamud Fiki, al-Shabaab’s military strength has been heavily weakened, leading the movement to carry out a series of desperation attacks.

Al-Shabaab has faced an internal challenge as well, after movement leader Abdi Godane began a purge of internal opponents and suspected spies, centralizing command under himself in the process.Godane relies these days on a combination Praetorian Guard and secret service known as Amniyat to provide personal protection and enforce his will within the movement. Amniyat is already organized in a cell structure that would readily lend itself to a shift to purely terrorist tactics should Shabaab be driven from the field. Amniyat created a split in al-Shabaab during the fighting in Mogadishu when it began killing wounded Shabaab fighters from the southern Bay-Bakool region to save the movement the trouble of looking after them.

Amniyat’s assassination of movement notables like Ibrahim Haji Jama, Omar Hammami, Osama al-Britani (a.k.a. Habib Ghani) and Abdihamid Hashi Olhaye (Moallim Burhan) has created divisions within the movement at a critical time; in early November (Nov 10) at least ten Shabaab militants were killed in what was described as heavy fighting that occurred when one al-Shabaab faction attacked Godane loyalists in the Lower Shabelle region.

Shaykh Hassan Dahir Aweys

Elements of the Hizb al-Islam faction that merged with Shabaab in 2010 are now rethinking their commitment to jihad after the surrender of their leader Shaykh Hassan Dahir Aweys to government forces, Aweys preferring surrender rather than face assassination by Godane’s gunmen. There now appears to be a split in the remains of the original group, with one faction of Hizb al-Islam renouncing violence in favor of talks while another faction rejects any such notions.

In the face of pressure from powerful Hawiye clan elders, President Hassan Shaykh Mohamud has indicated that Aweys, a member of the Hawiye, could be released if he renounced violence and distanced himself from al-Shabaab, a step the shaykh appears unready to take yet.  Otherwise the former Hizb al-Islam leader may face a military court.

Another leading Shabaab commander, Mukhtar Robow (a.k.a. Abu Mansur), has fled Godane’s assassins to take refuge with his Rahanweyn clan. His loss is important, as his troops from the Bay-Bakool region were personally loyal to him and formed a significant part of Shabaab’s total manpower. The remaining Shabaab leaders still in the field all face the danger of being hunted by American drones running out of Ethiopia and Djibouti.

Al-Shabaab Finances

Though there are reports that al-Shabaab profits from the production end of the charcoal industry, the Kenyan military estimates that their incursion into southern Somalia has disrupted 75% of al-Shabaab’s revenue stream, mainly by ending Shabaab control of the important southern port of Kismayo. However, control of the charcoal trade from Shabaab-held Barawe is still worth millions of dollars each month.

Eliminating or even restricting Shabaab’s sources of financing will do much to diminish their military strength – as we have seen throughout this conflict, there is a certain mobility on the part of fighters when either side has demonstrated an inability to meet its payroll.

Tactical Change

While al-Shabaab may seek to impress Gulf region donors with terrorist attacks like that on the Westgate Mall, it risks at the same time the loss of diaspora donors who are morally opposed to such attacks or who are unwilling to risk prosecution for funding a group that can no longer be described by its diaspora backers as “a national resistance movement opposing foreign occupation.” Between the movement’s open declaration of allegiance to al-Qaeda and its headline-grabbing terrorist attacks, such evasions are no longer tenable.

Nonetheless, al-Shabaab is stepping up its use of suicide bombers:

  • A June attack on a UN compound in Mogadishu by a suicide bomber in a truck followed by a general assault  that killed 22 people
  • A suicide car bomb attack outside Mogadishu’s Maka al-Mukarama Hotel on November 8 killed six people. A Shabaab spokesman said the target of the attack was “apostate security forces and officials.”
  • An attack on the Beledweyne police station followed by a general assault on November 19 killed 28 people.

A UN Security Council report issued last July suggested that al-Shabaab has “preserved the core of its fighting forces and resources” by avoiding direct military confrontations. Nevertheless, if al-Shabaab are entering lean times, it will be difficult to hold the group together as many of its fighters consider the economic opportunities the movement offers to be as appealing as its ideology.

Assessing AMISOM’s Military Strength

In October, UN deputy secretary general Jan Eliasson assessed the progress of the African Union’s mission in Somalia, or AMISOM, saying that the offensive that began in August 2011 with the withdrawal of al-Shabaab from Mogadishu had “ground to a halt” because of a shortage of troops to exploit successes in the field.

In mid-November the Security Council addressed the issue, authorizing the deployment of an additional 4400 African Union troops, bringing the size of the force up to 22,100 troops. The Council also approved the use of 12 military helicopters from troop-contributing countries. After a period of 18 to 24 months, the Security Council hopes to hand over security operations to the Somali National Army and a UN peacekeeping force. However, it must be remembered that mere authorization does not translate to troops on the ground – it took three years for AMISOM to raise its forces to the previous authorized level of 18,000.  It can only be hoped that the response will be quicker at this crucial time rather than allow al-Shabaab the opportunity to regroup and reorganize.

AMISOM’s reputation has improved greatly since the Shabaab withdrawal from Mogadishu allowed the mission to begin humanitarian operations. During Shabaab’s occupation of the city, AMISOM frequently came under local criticism for its careless use of retaliatory fire when responding to Shabaab attacks. The 960 man Somali-speaking police and military contingent from Djibouti has had notable success in its deployment in the Hiraan region, but there is a limit to what that small nation can provide.

The addition of helicopter-gunships and surveillance aircraft would greatly enhance the effectiveness of AMISOM operations in territory now held by al-Shabaab. The use of Kenyan Air Force fighter jets in southern Somalia has been an important factor in driving al-Shabaab from their former bases there.

The other component of AMISOM’s mission is providing training and assistance in the creation of professional Somali security forces that can take on a greater share of responsibility for internal security.

Ethiopia is considering joining AMISOM, which would greatly enhance the operational ability of the force in squeezing Shabaab forces from the Somali interior.

Applying Pressure to the AMISOM Contributors

When al-Shabaab first proved its international capabilities in 2010 with coordinated suicide bombings that killed 74 people who had gathered to watch the World Cup in the Ugandan capital, Kampala, the movement warned:  “We are sending a message to every country that is willing to send troops to Somalia that they will face attacks on their territory.”

Having already lost vital revenues provided by the movement’s control of the markets of Mogadishu and the port of Kismayo, Kenya’s support for a new, autonomous administration in southern Somalia threatens to deprive Shabaab of operational mobility in one of its last strongholds. Unable to confront Kenyan troops in the field, al-Shabaab’s strategic response was the formulation of a devastating strike at a soft target in the heart of Kenya – Nairobi’s upscale Westgate Mall.

The Westgate Mall attack did not come out of the blue – over a dozen grenade and IED attacks have occurred since the Kenyan intervention in Somalia began. Most of these incidents have caused few casualties, leading to a senior Shabaab official telling his Kenyan associates to “stop throwing grenades at buses.” Westgate appears to be the result of top Shabaab planners taking over operations in Kenya to produce the kind of mass-casualty attacks they desire.

As al-Shabaab hoped, some Kenyan opposition politicians have called for a withdrawal from Somalia following the Westgate attack, but Nairobi is unlikely to pull out unless it is satisfied the Somali government can provide adequate security in the border regions. This proposition still seems far off at present, suggesting that Kenya will maintain both political influence and a military presence in southern Somalia for some time. A new security concern is created by Kenyan plans to build a new rail and pipeline corridor carrying oil from South Sudanese and Ugandan sources to the port of Lamu, less than 95 miles from the Somali border.

Al-Shabaab did not obscure the motive for the Westgate attack by offering to negotiate at any point during the standoff. The attack was solely retaliation for Kenyan interference in Somalia with the purpose of influencing public opinion against government policy. The attackers had no expectation of survival – in fact al-Shabaab reacted with great anger to suggestions that any of them might actually have escaped. The loss of Kismayo was a severe blow to al-Shabaab’s financing and ability to re-supply, so Godane decided it was time for radical measures in the face of his movement’s obvious inability to expel the Kenyans by military means.

Kenyan Defense Forces operating in Somalia were absorbed into the AMISOM command in February, though their efforts to create “Jubaland,” a semi-autonomous unofficial buffer state separating Kenya from the rest of Somalia have placed them at odds with the national government in Mogadishu, which is seeking unification of Somalia rather than its further division. Kenyan political and military support for the new administration of Jubaland has unfortunately given the latter the confidence to dismiss delegations from the national government in Mogadishu seeking to improve security cooperation.

A long-term Kenyan presence in southern Somalia may eventually work against restoring security in the area as any situation that is viewed as a foreign, and especially Christian, occupation of Somalia will become a rallying point and recruitment tool for extremists.

Al-Shabaab will also seek to rebuild its jihadi networks inside Nairobi and Mombassa, which have been greatly disrupted by Kenyan security operations in recent months.

Beyond the AMISOM nations, Ethiopia has also been targeted for attack by al-Shabaab for its military operations in the Somali border regions. Tragedy was narrowly averted when two Somali suicide-bombers were killed when their bomb exploded prematurely on their way to a World Cup qualifying match in Addis Ababa. Last month Ethiopia’s foreign ministry said the nation should expect more such attacks.


There are also indications that al-Shabaab is once again seeking to expand its terrorist campaign into Puntland, the semi-autonomous north-eastern province of Somalia. A December 5 bombing of a Puntland Marine Forces convoy left eight dead and 37 injured

Only days before, an estimated 40 Shabaab members mounted an unsuccessful assault on the Bossaso Central Prison in Puntland’s capital. The attack coincided with the suicide bombing of the Maka al-Mukarama Hotel in Mogadishu.


A culture of corruption continues to impede efforts to restore security to Somalia; in the annual rankings of corrupt nations released this month by Transparency International, Somalia ranks amongst the three worst, in company with North Korea and Afghanistan. Bribery and other forms of corruption allow Islamist militants to pass freely through security checkpoints designed to prevent attacks. Funds made available by donor nations often fail to reach the frontlines of the fight against terrorism – when police are paid erratically at best, they tend to feel it is their right to engage in corrupt practices. Bomb detection equipment is generally unavailable and the use of sniffer dogs runs counter to local cultural practice.

Terrorist attacks are part of al-Shabaab’s decision to revert to a guerrilla/terrorist campaign in its currently weakened state, which largely precludes more conventional military operations of any size.

Abdi Godane, has now made himself and the rest of the Shabaab leadership the targets of an international man-hunt that may well result in the ultimate death of the Amir and other movement leaders. Military pressure on the movement could foster further internal disputes over Godane’s controversial choice to take the movement in the direction of a globally-focused jihad closer to al-Qaeda Central’s concerns than those of more locally-focused Somali jihadists.

With Kismayo taken, AMISOM’s next major target will be the port of Barawe, the site of October’s unsuccessful SEAL raid, intended to capture Ikrima, the suspected planner of the Westgate Mall attack. Barawe is believed to be a center for the training of suicide bombers and provides Shabaab with revenue from the charcoal trade. A joint offensive by Kenyan and Ugandan led forces would cut off Shabaab from maritime supply routes and link-up the northern and southern AMISOM groups.

AMISOM is confident that force multipliers like helicopters and armored vehicles will allow it to finally destroy al-Shabaab as a military force in the field. However, even if military reinforcements allow AMISOM to resume its offensive against al-Shabaab, the movement could split into terrorist cells operating under Godane’s control in urban areas otherwise under Somali government control. Al-Shabaab forces still roam freely in many areas taken by AMISOM, speaking to the need to effectively garrison these territories. At the moment, AMISOM risks extending its supply lines in rural areas prone to ambushes. Paradoxically, the more weakened al-Shabaab becomes as an insurgent force, the more dangerous it will become as a terrorist group as it struggles to survive under Godane’s ruthless command. The ever-paranoid Shabaab chief will continue to search for spies in his command to avoid being targeted by American drones, though this hyper-vigilance may risk creating further internal splits in the organization. His personal control of the movement raises the problem of whether an effective replacement could be found in the event of his death and the possibility that other al-Shabaab factions might enter negotiations with the government. The question is whether a lengthy terrorist campaign could have the unlikely result of reversing Shabaab’s fortunes, or whether it would be ultimately self-defeating in a nation that is both exhausted by decades of warfare and largely uninterested in al-Shabaab’s religious leadership.

AQAP Commander Says “War on Terrorism Will Ruin U.S. Economy

Andrew McGregor

December 12, 2013

Jihadi forums have begun posting a recent interview conducted with al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) commander Nasr bin Ali al-A’ainisi by Yemen’s al-Wasat daily. In the course of the interview, al-A’ainsi described the reasons why AQAP prefers armed rebellion to politics, saying the movement rejected partisanship and democratic activities. When confronted by systems that oppose religious principles, it becomes impossible to form a political party when the imperative is to “remove this system” with all available means, “including jihad and forming an armed organization.” To turn to democracy and the political process would be a type of surrender: “Abandoning arms under a colonial crusader control and hegemony, means acceptance and subordination and bowing before those occupier, and leaving arms under the absence of Shari’a and ruling with what Allah have not revealed, means accepting this reality…” [1]

Nasr bin Ali al-A’ainisi

The AQAP commander warned that a recent direction from al-Qaeda leader Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri ordering jihadis to refrain from killing non-combatants “even if they are the families of those who fight us as much as possible” would have little effect on AQAP tactics and targets:

This is a clear phrase, and it came when speaking about dealing with the local governments and sects that live in the Islamic lands and it doesn’t require what you mentioned from stopping attacks against the American civilians, since the stance of the organization and the fatwa which it adopts is that the American people is a combatant people, while the speech is specific about non-combatants.

In commenting on the September 16 Washington Navy Yard attack by alleged Buddhist Aaron Alexis, al-A’ainisi noted that “the injustice and oppression of America is not only limited to the Muslims.” The commander went on to remind Americans that many nations had not forgotten their humiliations at the hands of the Americans, including Japan and Germany, and were only waiting for the appropriate time to take their revenge: “That’s why I give [Americans] glad tidings of a horrific dark future awaiting them, and the moment of revenge not only from the Muslims but rather from many enemies who cannot forget it even if the Americans forgot them.” Al-A’ainsi says it is important to remember that the American “war on terrorism” has cost five times what the United States spent on World War II, and that this was the principal cause of the forthcoming collapse of the American economy.

Al-A’ainsi rejects the notion that armed rebellion only invites external interference against Yemen: “If we refused any movement or action against the Arab and non-Arab tyrants under the pretext that it increases their tyranny or aggression, that means that we rule on ourselves to be slaves to them for life, for example: is it fair to say that the revolution of the Syrian people against the tyranny of Bashar only brought more foreign Russian – Iranian interference?… The question that should be asked: what have been achieved through submission, subordination and surrender to America for decades?”

AQAP was not invited to the national dialogue conference, according to al-A’ainisi, because the dialogue was sponsored by the United States and excluded the possibility of a Shari’a state. AQAP’s demands are non-negotiable – the prevention of external influence in Yemen, particularly that of the United States and the West, and the implementation of Shari’a “in all the matters of the country.”


1. Abdulrazaq al-Jammal, “Interview with AQAP commander Nasr bin Ali al-A’anisi,” al-Wasat, Sana’a, November 13, 2013; posted on, November 28, 2013.

This article first appeared in the December 12, 2013 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.