After Garissa: Kenya Revises Its Security Strategy to Counter al-Shabaab’s Shifting Tactics

Andrew McGregor

April 17, 2015

Al-Shabaab’s April 2 attack on Kenya’s Garissa University College that killed 147 non-Muslim students was the latest installment in al-Shabaab’s campaign to force Nairobi to order a withdrawal of the Kenyan Defense Force (KDF) from the Jubaland region of southern Somalia. So far, the Kenyan government has presented an uncoordinated response that has largely focused on Islamist militancy as a foreign problem that is being imported (along with hundreds of thousands of unwanted refugees) across Kenya’s porous border with neighboring Somalia.

KDF in SomaliaKDF Troops in Southern Somalia


The KDF moved into southern Somalia in 2011 as part of Operation Linda Nchi, designed to deter cross-border infiltration of radical Islamists, create a Kenyan-controlled buffer zone in southern Somalia and establish suitable conditions for the return of the massive Somali refugee population dwelling in Kenya’s largely ethnic-Somali North Eastern Province. KDF troops in Somalia joined the larger African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) in February 2012.

In military terms, the KDF presence has exerted a slow but ultimately relentless pressure on Somalia’s al-Shabaab movement. The seizure of the port at Kuday Island (southern Juba region, south of Kismayo) by KDF and Somali National Army (SNA) forces during an amphibious operation on March 22 drove al-Shabaab from its last access point to the sea, dealing the organization a severe blow and leaving it effectively surrounded by hostile forces (Raxanreeb, March 22). Military pressure from AMISOM and financial pressures created by the gradual loss of access to every port prompted a strategic overhaul of the group’s activities. For al-Shabaab, direct confrontations with Somali security forces or the much stronger AMISOM deployment are out; a greater focus on terrorist tactics (including bombings, assassinations and assaults on soft targets by well-armed gunmen) is in. Expelling the KDF is a priority, and the movement is willing to exploit ethnic tensions in Kenya’s North Eastern Province to achieve this goal.

The region’s ethnic-Somali population (belonging largely to the powerful Ogadeni clan) was geographically divided in 1925, when Britain gave the northern half of the region (modern Jubaland) to Italy. The southern half of the region is now Kenya’s North Eastern Province. The division was massively unpopular with the region’s ethnic-Somalis, leading the British to close the region from 1926 to 1934. Dislike of the Kenyan government (dominated by the Kikuyu tribe) erupted into the Shifta War of 1963-1967. Dissatisfaction with the administration has been punctuated by sporadic political violence in the region ever since, the worst example being the 1984 Wagalla Massacre of thousands of ethnic-Somalis by Kenyan security forces. [1]

The Assault on Garissa College University

Kenya’s security forces may have relaxed prematurely after seizing Kismayo, al-Shabaab’s largest port, in 2012. While taking Kismayo fulfilled Nairobi’s objective of creating an autonomous buffer zone (“Jubaland”) between Kenya and the rest of Somalia, it only intensified al-Shabaab’s hatred of Kenya and its determination to retake Somali-inhabited areas of Kenya, even if it means the use of terrorist atrocities targeting Kenyan civilians. The border became no less permeable with the creation of a Kenya-reliant Jubaland administration, yet the Kenyan government continued to neglect border security in the North Eastern Province, where roads and other infrastructure are few and far between.

The attack at Garissa appears to have been well-planned—university administrators said two of the terrorists had posed as students while using a room on campus as a “command center,” complete with food and supplies that appeared to be intended for a long battle (Standard [Nairobi], April 10). Survivors described the attackers as speaking Swahili (Kenya’s main language) rather than Somali (Mail & Guardian [Johannesburg], April 4). Militants told at least one survivor of the attack: “Tell your President to withdraw KDF from Somalia and ensure that North Eastern [province] belongs to Muslims. Garissa must also be part of Somalia and not Kenya” (Standard [Nairobi], April 11).

While helicopters were made available to take the Interior Cabinet Secretary (who routinely assures Kenyans the government is keeping them safe) and the Inspector General of Police to Garissa, the elite counter-terrorist Recce company of the paramilitary General Service Unit (GSU) got stuck in traffic on their way to the airport, where they were transported to Garissa by fixed wing aircraft while their equipment travelled by road (Star [Nairobi], April 11). The aircraft that should have been available to transport the Recce unit was unavailable as it had been used that morning to fly private individuals to Mombasa and pick up the daughter-in-law of police air-wing chief Rogers Mbithi (Daily Nation [Nairobi], April 13; Star [Nairobi], April 15).

This suggests that Kenyan authorities have not absorbed the lessons of the 2013 attack on Nairobi’s Westgate Mall, particularly in regard to having transport available for its rapid response units. In the Westgate incident, Kenya’s elite 40 Rangers Strike Force arrived at the mall from their base at Gilgil (roughly 75 kilometers north of Nairobi) 12 hours after the attack began, and promptly engaged in a gunfight with members of the General Service Unit (GSU), a paramilitary wing of the National Police Service. Action against the terrorists still inside the mall was confused as many members of the police and military devoted themselves to looting the mall rather than rescuing hostages. In response to the resulting public outrage, the Kenyan military sacked and jailed two members of its elite 40 Rangers Strike Force and declared the matter finished (Standard [Nairobi], October 30, 2013).

KunoAlleged Attack Planner Mohamed Kuno

Though the Kenyan government continues to treat al-Shabaab as an external threat, there is evidence that the radical Islamist threat is an internal problem, albeit one inspired by al-Shabaab. The alleged planner of the attack, Mohamed Kuno (a.k.a. Mohamed Dulyadin; a.k.a. Gamadhere; a.k.a. Shaykh Mohamud), has strong connections to Kenya’s ethnic-Somali community. Kuno worked as a teacher and principal of a madrassa in Garissa from 1997 to 2000, where he is remembered for his religious radicalism before his departure for Somalia (Daily Nation [Nairobi], April 2). Once in Somalia, Kuno acted as a commander in some of the heaviest fighting in Mogadishu, and, for a time, even served in the al-Shabaab-allied Ras Kamboni Brigade under Shaykh Ahmed Mohamed Islam “Madobe,” who ironically is now the Kenyan-backed “president” of Jubaland (Mail & Guardian [Johannesburg], April 4). The former teacher is the prime suspect in the massacre of 28 Kenyan Christians in Mandera County in November 2014 and the killing of a further 36 Christian quarry workers in Mandera in December 2014. At present, Kano is responsible for al-Shabaab operations in Jubaland and Kenya.

In the wake of the attack, opposition leaders continue to demand a KDF withdrawal from Somalia in order to concentrate on border security, suggesting that the United States try to persuade other nations without a common border with Somalia to replace the Kenyan troops (Standard [Nairobi], April 11).

A Failure of Intelligence?

In the border regions, there are few Kenyan intelligence officers from the local ethnic-Somali community, contributing to Kenya’s continued inability to secure its border with Somalia (Standard [Nairobi], April 12). In addition, Kenyan authorities appear to have ignored foreign intelligence reports passed to them:

  • Three weeks before the Garissa attack, UK Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond warned that Kenya was not acting on intelligence information regarding possible terrorist activity—only a day before the Garissa attack, President Kenyatta called British travel advisory warnings on Kenya an attempt “to intimidate us with these threats” (Standard [Nairobi], April 5).
  • Iran is reported to have supplied information on March 22 of pending attacks on Kenyan Christians in university areas of Garissa, Nairobi and Mombasa prior to the assault on the Garissa University, where Christians were singled out (Standard [Nairobi], April 12).
  • On March 27, Australia issued a warning of an impending terrorist attack in Nairobi (Reuters, March 28).
  • According to a student interviewed by Reuters, whose account was corroborated by northern Kenyan MPs, the administration of the Garissa Teacher’s College closed the school days before the attack, telling students that strangers had been spotted in the college and that a terrorist attack might be imminent. This action was not followed by the rest of the campus, which remained open. According to one MP, “Some of us have seen the intelligence reports, and I can assure you they were specific and actionable” (Reuters, April 3).

The Kenyan Response

The KDF’s immediate reaction to the Garissa massacre was to bomb al-Shabaab camps in Somalia, including Camp Shaykh Ismail, Camp Gondodwe, Camp Bardheere and what was described as a major camp in Gedo Region where some 800 militants were based. Though the KDF claimed each base was completely destroyed (unlikely considering that only ten aircraft were used and the cloudy conditions at the time), al-Shabaab made the equally unlikely claim that all the bombs had fallen harmlessly on farmland (Star [Nairobi], April 6).

Inside Kenya, critical assessments of Kenya’s response to terrorist threats posed by al-Shabaab and its Kenyan allies tend to be treated as unpatriotic outbursts that identify the holder of such sentiments as potential terrorist-sympathizers. Deputy President Ruto (the government’s point-man on the Garissa issue) recently demanded that some Kenyan leaders should stop “cheering” al-Shabaab attacks inside Kenya (Capital FM [Nairobi], April 12).

Beyond the military response, focus has concentrated on the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya’s North Eastern Province. The camp, the largest refugee center in Africa with between 350,000 to 500,000 Somali residents, was set up in 1991, and its population (mainly women and children) has grown every year despite claims from many Kenyan politicians that the facility harbors terrorists. Following the Garissa attack, Deputy President Ruto demanded that the UNHCR close Dadaab in three months’ time, or Kenya would relocate the refugees itself (BBC, April 12).

Recent remarks by former deputy prime minister Musalia Mudavadi (in which he was supported by several MPs) gave some indication of the political mood regarding the continued existence of the Dadaab camp and its alleged threat to Kenyans:

The camp accommodates Somalia terrorists who disguise themselves as refugees. They use the camp as a base to collect intelligent information about Kenyan institutions and relay back to their accomplices in Somalia… The refugees stay in the country, seek assistance from us, mingle with our people freely yet they gather information on how to lay a trap on us. They hide their true colors and plan on how to kill us. They need to move out immediately (Star [Nairobi], April 6).

Kenyan officials insist that KDF operations in southern Somalia have now created safe spaces suitable for the return of the refugees (BBC, April 11). However, a UNHCR spokesman cited a tripartite treaty with Kenya and Somalia specifying that any return by refugees to Somalia must be voluntary, adding rather bluntly that “moving that number of people [in an unsystematic fashion] will not be possible” (RFI, April 12).

Big Fences Make Good Neighbors?

While spectacular attacks such as that on Garissa University make international headlines, there is also a daily war of attrition going on in the border counties of northeastern Kenya. According to Kenyan anti-terrorism police, there has been a terrorist attack every ten days (135 in total) since the KDF deployment in Somalia began in 2011. Most of these attacks, killing over 500 people in total, occurred in Kenya’s North Eastern province. (Mail & Guardian [Johannesburg], April 10). Ali Roba, governor of Mandera County, said in March that up to 90 people had died from terrorist activity in Mandera in the previous seven months alone, adding that he himself had survived six assassination attempts (Standard [Nairobi], March 22).

Most of this activity is blamed by the authorities on the infiltration of al-Shabaab terrorists across the poorly defended border. Nairobi’s solution, despite Somali objections, is to build a massive wall of concrete and fencing along the border, separating the ethnic Somali residents of Kenya’s North Eastern Province from their fellow Ogadeni clansmen in Somalia’s Kenyan-occupied Jubaland State (Standard [Nairobi], March 22), The hastily-implemented “Somalia Border Control Project” will cost an estimated $260 million. The porous border with Somalia is 680 kilometers long, but it is still unclear if the project will cover that entire distance. (Mail & Guardian [Johannesburg], April 10). Defending the wall will require an enormous and expensive permanent deployment of police or troops whose supplies will need to be trucked in despite a general absence of roads in the region.

Police Recruits

Deep corruption in the security services, especially the police, has produced a certain lethargy in Kenya’s response to terrorist activity. Unsurprisingly, the Garissa massacre is now being used to legitimize corrupt police hiring practices that were recently the subject of an unfavorable ruling by Kenya’s High Court, which still maintains a reputation for honesty and independence from the executive branch. The ruling cancelled the 2014 recruitment of 10,000 police recruits who had paid substantial bribes for a place on the police force.

Despite the ruling, the president issued a directive that the 10,000 police recruits should report for training immediately to protect the border with Somalia. This led to a flurry of contradictory statements from various government and oversight sources that pointed to a severe breakdown between the executive branch and the judiciary. The president’s directive constitutes a violation of the Kenyan constitution, an offense for which the president could be impeached. Kenyatta, however, has the support of a majority of parliament, making impeachment proceedings unlikely (Standard [Nairobi], April 12).

Amniyat on the Ropes?

Created by late al-Shabaab leader Ahmed Abdi Godane “Abu Zubayr,” Amniyat is a secretive unit within al-Shabaab that acts as the organization’s intelligence unit while also providing internal security, operational planning and bodyguard services for al-Shabaab’s leader. In Godane’s hands, Amniyat was used to crush internal dissent through a string of assassinations and to orchestrate ruthless attacks on civilians both inside Somalia and beyond in AMISOM-member nations like Kenya and Uganda. Godane used Amniyat to consolidate his control of al-Shabaab by suspending the al-Shabaab Shura and making Amniyat the most powerful force within the organization while reporting directly to him. Amniyat has been particularly successful in infiltrating the Somali security forces and even the highest levels of the Somali Federal Government, enabling the group to carry out brazen attacks within Mogadishu and other cities before melting back into the population (, October 22, 2014). Nonetheless, with massacres like Westgate and Garissa to their credit, Amniyat’s leaders have become targets for Somalia’s central government and its ally, the United States:

  • In January 2014, a U.S. drone strike killed Sahal Iskudhuq, a senior Amniyat member.
  • In late December 2014, a U.S. drone strike killed Abdishakur Tahlil, the new Amniyat commander, only days after he succeeded Zakariya Hersi as leader of the unit (BBC, December 31, 2014).
  • Former Anmiyat leader Zakariya Ahmed Ismail Hersi defected from al-Shabaab to the government in January. The former al-Shabaab intelligence chief renounced violence at a government-sponsored news conference, but his defection may have been due to a feeling of insecurity due to tensions within the group’s leadership (Business Insider, January 28).
  • In early February of this year, a U.S. drone strike in Dinsor killed Yusuf Dheeq, a senior Amniyat member, and several other al-Shabaab fighters (Dalsan Radio [Mogadishu], February 6).
  • In late March, high-ranking Amniyat operative Mohamed Ali Hassan surrendered to Somali National Army forces in the Bakool region of southern Somalia (Garowe Online, March 30).
  • Adan Garaar, believed to be the head of Amniyat’s external operations, was killed in a U.S. drone strike at Bardhere in mid-March. Garaar was a leading planner of the September 2013 Westgate attack in which 70 people were killed, as well as being especially active in organizing a wave of terrorist attacks and massacres in northeast Kenya’s Mandera County (Star [Nairobi], March 14; Standard [Nairobi], March 22).

Amniyat appears to have responded to these relentless attacks on its leadership by mounting ever more spectacular attacks on civilian soft-targets, especially within Kenya, where it operates with little local interference.


The presence of 2.5 million ethnic Somalis in Kenya’s chronically underdeveloped northeast region can no longer be ignored by Nairobi if it is to deal with the terrorist threat from al-Shabaab, which is also eager to recruit non-Somali Muslims in Kenya. President Kenyatta appears to have accepted the internal nature of the Islamist threat on April 4, when he told the nation: “Our task of countering terrorism has been made all the more difficult by the fact that the planners and financiers of this brutality are deeply embedded in our communities” (Guardian, April 5). At the same time, however, Kenya’s efforts are likely to be in vain so long as Kenya’s security forces fail to learn from or even acknowledge past mistakes in order to protect their reputation. In addition, Nairobi’s larger strategy of creating a buffer-state in Jubaland must also be regarded as a financially and diplomatically expensive failure in terms of ending the cross-border movement of terrorists and refugees.

Though the KDF is now in control of southern Somalia, the question is how long it would take after a KDF withdrawal for al-Shabaab forces to begin rebuilding their movement by retaking important ports like Kismayo. Recidivism is a common theme in al-Shabaab ideology (ethnic-Somalis are currently spread across several countries) and remarks made by the attackers at Garissa indicate the movement may have greater aspirations in northeastern Kenya than merely putting pressure on Nairobi. Kenya’s incursion into Somalia may have locked the nation into a long and costly struggle, pitting a government, which is determined to hold onto northeastern Kenya, against radical Somali Islamists who are intent on reversing the colonial division of 1925.


  1. The number of dead ranges from 380 (a government estimate) to 5,000. The victims were members of the Degodia, an ethnic-Somali clan resident in Kenya that is part of the larger Hawiye confederation.


This article first appeared in the April 17, 2015 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor


Are Corruption and Tribalism Dooming Somalia’s War on al-Shabaab Extremists?

Andrew McGregor

February 21, 2014

After decades of conflict that have nearly destroyed the nation, Somalia now stands poised to make a final drive with international assistance to shatter the strength of radical al-Qaeda-associated Islamists in central and southern Somalia, but there are indications that Somalia’s leaders may be posing an even greater obstacle to Somalia’s successful reconstruction.

Arms Embargoes and Missing Weapons

In mid-February, the UN Somalia and Eritrea Monitoring Group issued a report to the UN Security Council’s sanctions committee claiming that weapons obtained by the Somali government under a temporary easing of UN arms sanctions were being sold to Somalia’s al-Shabaab extremists in what was described as “high-level and systematic abuses in weapons and ammunition management and distribution” (Reuters, February 13). A UN arms embargo was placed on Somalia in 1992, but in the last year the Somali government has been able to obtain once-restricted small arms and other weapons such as rocket-propelled-grenades under a partial lifting of the embargo designed to help fight al-Shabaab terrorists.

Among the observations contained in the report were the following:

  • Shipments of weapons from Ethiopia, Djibouti and Uganda could not be accounted for.
  • The Somali government cancelled several UN inspections of armories
  • A key presidential adviser from President Hassan Shaykh Mohamud’s own Abgaal sub-clan was involved in planning weapons transfers to al-Shabaab commander Shaykh Yusuf Isse “Kabukatukade,” another member of the Abgaal.
  • A government minister from the Habr Gadir sub-clan made unauthorized weapons purchases from a Gulf state that were transferred to private locations in Mogadishu for use by a Habr Gadir clan militia.
  • The Monitoring team photographed rifles sent to Somalia’s national army for sale in the Mogadishu arms market with their serial numbers filed off (Reuters, February13; AFP, February 16).

The easing of the Somali arms embargo is scheduled to end in March. Though a final decision on its future has yet to be made, it seems likely that the easing will remain in place until a new report on arms violations is due in October. The Somali government is looking for a complete removal of the embargo, allowing it to obtain heavy weapons and sophisticated military materiel (Reuters, February 14). The Monitoring Group has recommended either the full restoration of the embargo or a heightened monitoring regime to accompany an extension of the partial easement.

Somali security officials have complained that the UN monitors have not provided them with any information regarding the alleged arms sales to al-Shabaab or the alleged activities of Abgaal and Habr Gadir insiders at the presidential palace arranging such arms sales. One security official complained that the UN allegations could not be proven without examining al-Shabaab’s arms: “If they haven’t inspected al-Shabaab’s [arms], how are they arriving at the conclusion government weapons are being sold to al-Shabaab. This is a dangerous and creative position by the UN” (Suna Times/, February 18).

General Dahir Aden Elmi “Indhaqarshe”

The head of Somalia’s military, General Dahir Aden Elmi “Indhaqarshe” described the UN report as fabricated, false and without credibility, though he acknowledged an investigation into how al-Shabaab obtains its arms would be worthwhile, as the movement “does not get arms from the sky.” However, the Somali army commander sees darker purposes behind the work of the UN monitors: “The UN Monitoring Group want al-Shabaab to be an endless project in order to gain funds from the world while they are struggling hard to make Somalia’s government weak and nonfunctional” (Raxanreeb, February 17).

Shady Dealings and Economic Challenges

Some light was shed on the murky financial dealings of Somalia’s central government when central bank governor Yussur Abrar quit after only seven weeks on the job following repeated efforts to force her to approve dubious transactions benefiting members and friends of the government. In her resignation letter to Somali President Hassan Shaykh Mohamud, Abrar described corruption and constant government interference in Central Bank operations:

From the moment I was appointed, I have continuously been asked to sanction deals and transactions that would contradict my personal values and violate my fiduciary responsibility to the Somali people as head of the nation’s monetary authority… The message that I have received from multiple parties is that I have to be flexible, that I don’t understand the Somali way, that I cannot go against your [Mohamud’s] wishes, and that my own personal security would be at risk as a result (Suna Times, October 30, 2013).

Turkey has been the main supporter of Somali reconstruction, offering technical support, materials, medical teams, hospitals, machinery and various other means of assistance, including, apparently, lots of cash. A recent Reuters report cited various officials within the Turkish and Somali governments that Ankara had decided in December to stop its direct financial support to Mogadishu, which took the form of $4.5 million in U.S. $100 dollar bills transferred to the Somali central bank every month (Reuters, February 13). However, three days later, the Turkish Foreign Ministry issued a statement saying that the payments were in line with procedure in light of the fact Somalia has no banking services and that efforts were “underway to provide budget support to the Somali Federal Government in the year 2014” (Hurriyet, February 16). The Turkish statement did not outline what measures, if any, were taken to trace the end use of these funds, but the potential for abuse is apparent in the absence of verifiable banking and accounting procedures in Mogadishu.

Over two decades of social and political chaos mean that the challenges to Somalia’s reconstruction efforts only begin with the elimination of al-Shabaab:

  • Somalia lacks trade agreements with the West, lacks a proper certificatory regime and is not a member of the World Trade Organization, making exports difficult. The vast bulk of Somalia’s current exports consist of charcoal and livestock heading to the United Arab Emirates, Oman and Yemen.
  • Multiple currencies are in circulation, some of them worthless. Monetary control remains elusive with no new official bank-notes having been printed since the overthrow of Siad Barre in 1991, leading to a thriving black market in currency.
  • The national government has begun signing oil and gas deals that are in conflict with deals signed by regional administrations like Puntland during the absence of an effective central government. (IRIN, February 14).

AMISOM Operations: Fighting Somalia’s War

The growing deployment of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), now 22,000 strong, includes troops from Uganda, Burundi, Djibouti, Kenya, Ethiopia and Sierra Leone, as well as police from Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Sierra Leone and Uganda.

While Ethiopia has continued to mount its own independent military operations in regions of Somalia bordering Ethiopia since its general withdrawal from Somalia in 2009, lack of coordination with AMISOM tended to give al-Shabaab militants space to withdraw and operate elsewhere until Ethiopian operations were concluded. It was therefore regarded as good news when Ethiopia decided to integrate its Somali operations into the AMISOM command in January [Dalsan Radio [Mogadishu], February 18). Ethiopian forces followed their integration by deploying to Beledweyne in Hiraan Region (where they are establishing a new base) and to Baidoa in Bay Region, where they will be responsible for security operations in the Bay, Bakool and Gedo Regions (Shabelle Media Network [Mogadishu], January 28). Uganda, which has roughly 8,000 troops in Somalia, has just rotated in 1,600 fresh troops under Colonel William Bainomugisha (Xinhua, February 14).

The Somali army is about to launch new operations in cooperation with AMISOM forces to re-take Bardhere in the Juba River valley and the last major port under al-Shabaab control, Barawe, which has also acted as an important headquarters and training base for the militants since the loss of Kismayo to Kenyan troops (Garowe Online, February 11;, February 11). If successful, this new offensive would divide Shabaab forces, significantly reduce the area under its control and eliminate the movement’s last major source of revenue. Unfortunately, rather than align for a final push against the militants, some units of the Somali Army in the Lower Shabelle region have been using their new arms to fight each other, based on clan allegiances (Shabelle Media Network, January 28; January 30; Garowe Online, January 29).

According to AMISOM spokesman Colonel Ali Aden Humad (part of the Djiboutian contingent of 960 troops deployed in Hiraan Region), the offensive will suffer from a lack of naval forces (suggesting Kenya will continue its policy of consolidating the area it has taken in southern Somalia rather than move further north) and helicopters, which AMISOM hopes will still arrive from some African Union country. Most important, however, is the failure of the Somali Army to build up a force as large as AMISOM that could not only participate in operations in a meaningful way, but also undertake important garrison and consolidation duties that must now be carried out by AMISOM forces. Colonel Humad admitted it was a mystery that the national army remained small despite years of international training programs and funding: “AMISOM trained many Somali soldiers and equipped some. So, the question is where have they gone? When we train them, we turn them over to the government. So, where do they go? Where are they kept?” (Sabahi, February 7).

Al-Shabaab Leaders Go to Ground

The continuing American drone campaign in Somalia is a major concern for al-Shabaab, which has seen several senior members targeted and killed in the last year. The movement has responded with mass arrests of suspected spies believed to help in the targeting, including a number of al-Shabaab fighters. The drone strikes have also damaged communications within al-Shabaab and restricted the movements of its leaders, with many senior members, including al-Shabaab leader Abdi Godane, believing that contact with mobile communications equipment can be tracked to target drone strikes. Like the Somali army, there is infighting within al-Shabaab, which might divide into smaller groups if Godane is killed. Having narrowly survived at least two recent attempts on his life, Godane is reported to have even grown suspicious of his own bodyguards in al-Shabaab’s Amniyat intelligence unit (Sabahi, February 7). Al-Shabaab has actually succeeded in intimidating a major Somali telecommunications provider to cut internet service in southern Somalia to prevent any type of communications with U.S. or AMISOM intelligence groups (Suna Times, February 10). Last October, the United States began deploying a number of military trainers and advisors in Somalia.


Despite disappearing arms and soldiers and the distractions provided by incessant clan warfare, Somali Prime Minister Abdiweli Shaykh Ahmad Muhammad says that, with international assistance, “The plan is to have al-Shabaab out of the areas that they control by the end of 2014” (Xinhua, February 19). Meanwhile, the continued insurgency continues to wreak havoc across parts of central and southern Somalia. New UN figures indicate that two million Somalis (of 10 million) suffer from food insecurity, with 850,000 of those “in desperate need of food.” Most of the latter have been displaced by fighting and insecurity (Independent, February 19). In recent days, al-Shabaab attacks in Mogadishu and its airport have been on the rise, including a February 13 suicide bomb that killed seven just outside of Mogadishu’s Aden Adde airport, which also serves as a secure base for AMISOM and foreign diplomats (, February 13; Reuters, February 13). Eliminating the Shabaab threat will remain impossible no matter what degree of international assistance and funding is provided so long as service in national and local administrations in Somalia is seen as a means for personal self-enrichment and the furtherance of clan interests at the expense of national interests. Ultimately, the path Somalia will follow will depend not on UN assistance or AU military deployments, but rather on the interest Somalis themselves have in the national project.

This article first appeared in the February 21, 2014 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.

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