The election of Somali President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed “Farmajo” in February 2017 was greeted with hopes that he would be able to bring about real political change and improvements in national security. He vowed to defeat the al-Shabaab insurgency and secure the country in two years and called on the insurgents to surrender, offering them amnesty.1 a Despite his promise and signs of some political headway between the Somali federal and Somali regional state governments, together with a notable increase in direct U.S. military involvement on the ground since the start of the Trump administration, the situation in Somalia remains unsettled and al-Shabaab today is arguably in the strongest and most stable organizational and territorial state that it has been in since the group’s “golden age” between 2009 and early 2011.b In 2017, the militant group continued to carry out deadly attacks throughout the country including in its most secure area, central Mogadishu. It also dramatically reasserted its territorial reach by moving back into spaces abandoned by AMISOM and Somali government forces and continuing to launch coordinated, mass attacks on enemy military bases throughout 2017.
In addition to maintaining relatively strong organizational and operational stability and reach—complete with the capable Amniyat internal security apparatus, the frontline Jaysh al-Usra, and the domestic Jaysh al-Hisba security forces—al-Shabaab in 2018 also continues to take advantage of ongoing political infighting and the often competing interests of the country’s different political and social actors including clan/sub-clan leaders, politicians, and businesspeople. Al-Shabaab’s emir, Ahmed “Abu Ubayda” Umar, succeeded the late Ahmed Godane upon the latter’s death in a U.S. airstrike on September 1, 2014. The group’s senior leadership and civil regional administrators and military commanders have remained largely loyal despite a period of severe internal dissension between 2012 and 2014 and the rise of the Islamic State and its attempts, which began in earnest in 2015, to set up its own foothold in Somalia.
This article examines al-Shabaab’s organizational state, including its strengths and potential weaknesses, through an analysis of its administrative, military, and media activities in 2017 and into the first quarter of 2018. Primary sources produced by al-Shabaab and core Islamic State and Islamic State-Somalia have been used in tandem with relevant secondary sources, including local and international news reporting and NGO, United Nations, African Union, and U.S. government publications, and in consultation with sources on the ground when possible so that the militant groups’ claims are not simply taken at face value. Al-Shabaab’s continued governing administration over large amounts of territory, which is in its 10th year, lethality as both an insurgent and terrorist force, and the full rejuvenation of its robust media campaign receive particular attention in an attempt to sketch out possible future trajectories for the militant group, which continues to wage one of the modern world’s most successful and longest-running jihadi insurgencies.
Asymmetric Warfare and Strategic Suicide
On January 27, 2017, al-Shabaab launched a major attack on the Kenyan Defence Forces (KDF) base at Kulbiyow in Lower Juba.2 Using strategically deployed suicide vehicle-borne explosive devices (SVBIEDs) followed by a massed infantry assault by 150 to a few hundred fighters and mobile artillery, the insurgents successfully used the same plan of attack that had proved so successful one year before in their January 2016 attack on the KDF’s El-Adde base in Gedo.c
In September 2017, the insurgents used the same tactics again to overrun four Somali government military bases, demonstrating that they remain a potent security threat. In addition to base attacks and strategic suicide attacks targeting government buildings and busy urban areas in places like Mogadishu, al-Shabaab’s military strategy continues to include a wide variety of different tactics, including grenade and mortar shelling, ambushes, targeted assassinations using both firearms and explosive devices, hit-and-run attacks, and the use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs), and non-suicide vehicle bombs. In 2017 and the beginning of 2018, al-Shabaab has also proven that it remains capable of planning and executing major attacks, including coordinated assaults utilizing both SVBIEDs and teams of inghimasi (“storming”) gunmen, in the most secure zones in the country such as central Mogadishu.d
In the aftermath of the Kulbiyow attack, al-Shabaab secured a propaganda victory when the Kenyan government’s claim that its forces had not lost control of the base or suffered significant casualties and had instead repelled the insurgents was shown to be untrue by journalists who interviewed local eyewitnesses.e High-resolution photographs released by al-Shabaab’s Al-Kataib Media Foundation on January 31 and its lengthy propaganda film on the attack released in May 2017 also pointed to higher casualties.3 f
In the northern semi-autonomous Puntland region where it had laid low for two years, al-Shabaab dramatically reasserted itself on June 8, 2017, when 150-200 insurgents overran the Af-Urur military base in the Galgala Hills, killing at least 48 Puntland forces and wounding 20.g Al-Shabaab, through its military affairs spokesman Abdi Aziz Abu Musab, claimed to have inflicted higher casualties—60-61 dead.4
Al-Shabaab’s reemergence in Puntland, where it is estimated to have between 450-500 fighters, comes after the rise of a 200- to 300-man strong Islamic State-aligned faction led by former al-Shabaab official, Sheikh Abdi Qadir Mu’min, who defected and pledged allegiance (bay`a) to Islamic State emir Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in October 2015.5
Al-Shabaab closed 2017 by overrunning four Somali government bases in September. In each attack—at Bula-Gaduud, Beled Hawo, El-Wak, and Bariire—insurgent forces used SVBIEDs followed by massed infantry supported by mobile artillery. After capturing the bases and other government buildings in the nearby towns, al-Shabaab forces freed prisoners and looted government buildings and NGO warehouses, capturing vehicles and military equipment, and then withdrew before AMISOM or Somali government forces could organize a counterattack. The insurgents also scored propaganda victories by, for example, recording footage of al-Shabaab fighters raising the black-and-white flags the group uses after tearing down Somali national and regional state flags.6
In addition to attacks on Somali government and AMISOM military bases, al-Shabaab since mid-2016 has possessed the operational capability to carry out successful major attacks using suicide bombers and inghimasigunmen, often in coordinated attacks together on “soft targets” including hotels, restaurants, and near government buildings in central Mogadishu, the most secure part of the country. Al-Shabaab, unlike some other jihadi-insurgent organizations such as Boko Haram, primarily deploys suicide bombers against Somali government and AMISOM targets as well as their international allies.7 Places attacked in 2016 by trained suicide bombers and inghimasi gunmen, who know they will likely die in the attacks, included the Ambassador Hotel on June 18 and the Nasa-Hablod Hotel on June 25,9 two suicide bombings targeting AMISOM forces near the airport,10 the Somali government’s Criminal Investigative Police Division on July 31,11 the Bakaara Market on November 26, and the seaport on December 11,12 all in Mogadishu, as well as twin suicide bombings in the city of Galkayo on August 21.13
Throughout 2017, al-Shabaab also continued to carry out deadly bombings and other types of attacks across the country. These included attacks in central Mogadishu—a February 19 attack in the Kawo Godey Markey in the Wadajir district;14 a suicide attack targeting the new head of the Somali army, General Ahmed Mohamed Jimale, near the Ministry of Defense on April 9;15 an attack on the Pizza House restaurant and the Posh Hotel on June 14;16 and suicide bombings outside the gates of Mogadishu’s main AMISOM base on July 26.17 The insurgent group also assassinated the Galguduud regional governor in August and a senior Somali army general in September, both in Mogadishu.18
On October 14, 2017, in one of the deadliest terrorist attacks in Africa in recent decades, a massive suicide truck bomb set off a nearby fuel truck on a busy street in the Hodan district of central Mogadishu. The attack, which no one has claimed but is suspected to have been carried out by al-Shabaab because no other militant group in the country has routinely demonstrated the operational or military engineering capability of carrying out such an attack,h killed at least 512 people and wounded 295 others.19 Somali government officials have suggested that a new Turkish military training base near the place of the bombing may have been the intended target.
Two weeks after the Hodan SVBIED attack, on October 28, 2017, al-Shabaab launched a multi-pronged suicide attack on the Nasa-Hablod Hotel in central Mogadishu, the same hotel it struck in June 2016, using an SVBIED and inghimasi gunmen who stormed the hotel. The gunmen were reportedly wearing either Somali military or National Intelligence and Security Agency (NISA) uniforms and reportedly carrying forged ID cards.20 This attack was followed by a December 14 suicide bombing at the police training academy in Mogadishu that killed 18 police officers.21
In the first two months of 2018, al-Shabaab continued to carry out major attacks in Mogadishu and other parts of the country. These included two SVBIED and gunmen attacks on February 23 near the Villa Somalia presidential residence and NISA headquarters that killed at least 45 people;22 an SVBIED attack on a Somali military base in the major town of Afgooye located about 20 miles from Mogadishu and the temporary capture of the town of Balad after a deadly ambush on an AMISOM convoy on March 2;23 and the IED killing near Wanlaweyn, Lower Shabelle of two officials from the Hirshabelle and Southwest regional states.24 In early March, AMISOM and Somali government officials acknowledged that al-Shabaab has successfully cut off large swaths of the highways linking major cities and towns including Baidoa, Kismaayo, and Jowhar, setting up checkpoints to tax humanitarian aid and other shipments and launching ambushes on AMISOM and Somali government convoys.25
The numbers in these three graphs are based on analysis of six al-Shabaab official monthly operations reports organized according to the Islamic lunar calendar from the month of Dhu al-Qida 1438 (which began on July 25, 2017) to the month of Rabi’a al-Thani 1439 (which ended on January 17, 2018), the latter of which was the most recent report available at the time this article was written. A significant number, though not all, of these attacks can be verified through secondary sources including news reporting and local sources. But it is also important to issue a note about their origin in al-Shabaab’s own official operations reports, which serve in part as propaganda. With this caveat in mind, the figures are still instructive with regard to pinpointing, alongside secondary and other sources, the insurgent group’s current geographical spread of operations and the most frequent types of attacks it employs against Somali federal and regional government, AMISOM, and other international forces.
Robust Insurgent Media Capabilities
Al-Shabaab’s media operations production and dissemination capabilities remained robust in 2017 and into early 2018 with the group’s official and affiliated media outlets continuing to produce propaganda videos, news reports, radio broadcasts, photography, and artwork aimed at domestic, regional East African, and international audiences. The insurgent group has also maintained an active presence online through social media platforms, such as Telegram and Twitter.26
Al-Shabaab launched a coordinated, multi-part influence campaign that sought to impact the Kenyan national general elections that were held in August 2017. Beginning in the fall of 2016 and continuing through the summer of 2017, the group released a series of audiovisual and print messages from insurgent officials and East African, particularly Kenyan, foreign fighters. Ali Rage, al-Shabaab’s spokesman, told Kenyans that their country’s military intervention in Somalia, Operation Linda Nchi (Protect the Country), had led to more, not less, insecurity in Kenya and was also negatively impacting the national economy by hitting the tourism sector hard.27
In July 2017, Al-Kataib released a documentary-style film in English targeted at the Kenyan electorate. Narrated by the same U.K.-native foreign fighter and narrator who has appeared in all of al-Shabaab’s English-language videos and audio releases since June 2010, the film painted a stark economic, political, and security picture of Kenya’s “adventure” into Somalia.28 In between graphic footage and images from al-Shabaab attacks inside Kenya and on KDF bases in Somalia, the narrator warned Kenyan voters, “[This is] a stark reminder of the ramifications of the ill-advised, ill-conceived, opportunistic war your government wants you to pay for. The images of blood-spattered shopping malls, blazing houses, and ordinary Kenyans being butchered by the mujahideen will continue to haunt you for the rest of your lives. And we are still in the initial stages of the war.”29
The film—together with a series of hostage videos of Kenyan and Ugandan soldiers captured during insurgent attacks on AMISOM bases, including a final message execution film of one captive Ugandan soldier—also directed specific messaging to rank-and-file AMISOM soldiers and their families.30 “We know exactly how many of your soldiers died in Somalia; we killed them with our own hands,” the narrator said. “The KDF knows exactly how many of its soldiers died in Somalia; they buried them with their own hands. We know exactly how many of your soldiers are now in captivity; we captured them in their bases. The KDF knows exactly how many of its soldiers are now in captivity; they abandoned them in their bases.”31 Repeating a message first used in al-Shabaab’s media operations campaign in the summer of 2010, he warned rank-and-file soldiers that their political and military leaders did not care about their safety and instead viewed them as expendable and “simply … another statistic.”32
In a lengthy interview with Ahmad Iman Ali, the commander of its Kenyan foreign fighters and a key ideologue, insurgent media warned Kenyan Muslims not to participate in the elections because democracy was a form of unbelief (kufr) as it allows for human beings to reject God’s law and the Prophet Muhammad’s teachings if popular will supports it.33 Ali, who resurfaced in a March 2017 al-Shabaab video after a lengthy period of silence and quashed rumors that he had defected to the Islamic State,34 rejected the notion that the Islamic concept of shura, or “consultation,” permitted participation in democratic elections and government.35 He also asserted that any Muslim who works for “Crusaders” or an apostate (murtadd) government abandons Islam and becomes an apostate himself, a capital offense.36 i Al-Shabaab’s ability to coordinate and produce a targeted messaging campaign while also continuing to produce a number of other print, audio, audiovisual, and visual propaganda products in multiple languages for multiple audiences has demonstrated that the group remains not only a formidable on-the-ground insurgency but also prolific in terms of its media capabilities.
How Strong is the Islamic State in Somalia?
The main Islamic State-aligned faction in Somalia led by Mu’min remains primarily based and most active in Puntland, though small pro-Islamic State groups have also emerged in parts of western and southern Somalia, though whether these other groups are directly controlled by Mu’min is unclear.37 In comparison to al-Shabaab, which organizationally possesses a far greater number of fighters, a more capable and deeply rooted governing administration, and a more sophisticated media operations capability, the Islamic State-Somalia continues to play second fiddle in the insurgency field. The ties between core Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, which itself continues to suffer major losses, and Islamic State-Somalia remain unclear, but there is little evidence that the latter has enjoyed any significant funding from the former.38
Propaganda output from Somalia officially branded by official Islamic State and semi-official or affiliated media organs such as Al-Furat and the Al-Amaq News Agency have also remained limited in terms of frequency and number.j The majority of videos and photography sets originate in Puntland, presumably from the group directly led by Mu’min.
Beginning in November 2017, Islamic State-Somalia began to take credit for an increasing number of attacks in Afgooye, located about 20 miles west of Mogadishu. Between November 2017 and early March 2018, the Islamic State’s official media network and the affiliated Al-Amaq News Agency claimed at least nine separate attacks there, all assassinations using firearms targeting individuals accused of working for the Somali government, including several alleged intelligence agents, two soldiers, and an employee of the Ministry of Finance. All victims in the attacks, where photographs or short video recordings were released by official or semi-official Islamic State media outlets, were dressed in civilian clothing and not government uniforms.39 The attacks also overlapped with regular attacks carried out by al-Shabaab in and around Afgooye. In early February 2018, a Somali police commander in Afgooye denied an Islamic State-Somalia presence in Afgooye and near Mogadishu but was inconsistent in doing so, telling Voice of America that the police were also “on alert and investigating the claims [of Islamic State-Somalia attacks in Afgooye].”40 Most of the attacks claimed by Islamic State-Somalia have not been claimed by al-Shabaab.k
On Christmas Day 2017, official Islamic State’s media released a video from the “province” (wilayat) of Somalia (Wilayat Sumal), marking the first time that the core organization has referred to Islamic State-aligned militants in Somalia officially as a “province.”41 The use of the new name, however, was inconsistent with a later official infographic on attacks in Somalia published in the 118th issue of the Islamic State’s Al-Naba news bulletin, released on February 8, 2018. Unlike other recent infographics for other official “provinces” such as Khorasan and West Africa, the February 8 infographic for Somalia did not list it as a “wilayat” but merely as “Somalia.”42 In the February 8 infographic on Somalia, the Islamic State claimed to have carried out a total of 14 attacks between September 21, 2017, (Muharram 1, 1439 Hijri) and February 1, 2018, (Jumada al-Awwal 15, 1429 Hijri)—three in Bosaso, Puntland, and 11 in Afgooye, Lower Shabelle—killing a total of 30 alleged Somali government police, soldiers, or intelligence agents.
Al-Shabaab and Territorial Governance
Al-Shabaab, unlike its Islamic State rival, continues to govern large swaths of territory, including in the regions of Gedo, Bay and Bakool, Lower and Middle Shabelle, Lower and Middle Juba, Hiraan, Puntland, Galguduud, and Mudug.43 The group’s civil administration continues in 2018 to carry out a variety of governance activities, including the running of sharia courts, holding meeting with clan leaders, and providing aid collected as religiously mandated charity (zakat).44 Al-Shabaab administrators also ran sharia institutes, schools, and courses for clan youth, merchants, and craftspeople and organized traveling health and vaccination clinics for people and livestock.45 During Ramadan and for the Islamic holidays of Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha, insurgent officials also organized special religious courses and competitions for local clans/sub-clans and minority Bantu (Jareer) communities, particularly around the group’s de facto administrative center, the large town of Jilib in Middle Juba.46 Al-Shabaab also continued to tax humanitarian aid organizations as part of its revenue extraction, which in turn funds its military operations and governing administrations.47
Despite their stated rejection of nationalism and “destructive clannism,” al-Shabaab leaders and administrators remain keenly aware of the need to maintain ties with local clans/sub-clans. Al-Shabaab’s administrators and courts continue to mediate inter-clan disputes and hold meetings with local clan/sub-clan elders and leaders of Bantu communities.48 The insurgent group also opened up religious institutes and schools for the young and the elderly from particular clans/sub-clans, including the all of the major clan families and a diverse array of their sub-clans.49 Sharia, medical education, and other courses were also organized by al-Shabaab for women, craftspeople, merchants, pharmacists, teachers, members of specific clans/sub-clans and Bantu communities, and al-Shabaab’s own members and mosque preachers.50
Al-Shabaab’s courts mediated inter-clan disputes, tried criminal cases, and passed sentences of flogging, amputations, financial penalties, and execution for violations, including different types of fornication, homosexuality, apostasy for spying or practicing magic, theft, and unlawful killing.51 Insurgent leaders remained particularly concerned about the danger posed by locally recruited spies following the targeted killings of a number of the group’s senior leaders and officials—including Ahmed Godane in September 2014, Mohamed Mohamud Ali “Dulyadeyn” in June 2016, and the shadow governor of the Banaadir region, Ali Jabal in July 2017.52 The group announced the trial and execution of at least 16 accused spies for Kenya, Ethiopia, Djibouti, the United States, the United Kingdom, the Somali government, or other AMISOM forces between late July 2016 and mid-January 2018.53
The withdrawal of AMISOM and Somali government forces from the countryside has forced local civilians to recognize that al-Shabaab remains a strong territorial force over large parts of the country. It overtly governs some areas, maintains an open and regular presence in others, and runs clandestine cells to carry out military and terrorist attacks in even the most secure areas of the country such as major cities like Mogadishu, Baidoa, Bosaso, and Kismaayo.54
Continued corruption and the poor overall capabilities of the Somali military and security forces—many of which remain inadequately trained and led, go regularly unpaid, and even unarmed—has led to the suspension of most U.S. military aid following the Somali military’s repeated failure to account for food and fuel and Germany’s decision to withdraw from the European Union’s training mission by the end of March, citing frustration with the continued slow progress of developing a viable Somali national army and “deficits in political and institutional structures.”55 l Regularly unpaid, different parts of the government’s security forces instead rely on the control of lucrative checkpoints and the fees and bribes they can charge civilians, and they have engaged in gun battles over these checkpoints and regular protests decrying the government’s failure to pay them.56 Large parts of the security forces also remain largely clan-based and cannot be reliably deployed outside of their home areas.57 These serious deficits in the Somali government’s political and security capabilities and the continuing lack of significant improvements and reforms enables al-Shabaab to take advantage of mistakes made by the Somali federal and regional governments, AMISOM forces, the United States, and other countries, such as the accidental killing of Somali civilians in restive regions that inflame local public opinion and clan dynamics.58
The Somali government, with the support of U.S. military officials, is attempting to lure defectors away from al-Shabaab in an attempt to both weaken the group and, they hope, force its leadership to accept a politically negotiated settlement.59 Somali government officials have claimed that recent defections have set “record numbers,” but the reliability of these claims and the number of actual number of defectors are difficult to independently verify. It is possible that the government is purposefully exaggerating the numbers in a bid to try and create internal divisions within the group.60
Increased U.S. military involvement in Somalia, which has included a significant jump in the number of airstrikes on al-Shabaab and Islamic State-Somalia targets, has reportedly forced al-Shabaab to change tactics in order to better protect its forces, particularly after U.S. African Command (AFRICOM) claimed to have killed over 150 al-Shabaab insurgents in strikes on a training camp north of Mogadishu in March 2016 and another 100 militants in a November 2017 strike on another training camp northwest of the capital.61 m While airstrikes have taken a significant toll on al-Shabaab, including the targeted killings of senior leaders and administrators and despite claims made in late January by a senior African Union official that drone attacks were “wiping out al-Shabaab in good numbers” the insurgents continued throughout 2017 to be able to assemble large forces of fighters and launch major attacks on AMISOM and Somali government bases.62 Increased U.S. military strikes in the country also run the risk of inflaming local tensions and have increased the chances that Somali civilians will be negatively impacted and even killed, as happened in a joint Somali government and U.S. raid in Bariire in August 2017 that killed 10 civilians including children and inflamed tensions between the Somali government and the large and influential Habar Gidir/Hawiye clan.63 The incident also underlined the delicate political balance that needs to be maintained between the Somali government and its international partners and the country’s multiple constituencies including its influential clans/sub-clans and civil society.64
The August 2017 defection of Mukhtar Robow, a founding al-Shabaab member and senior commander, and the defection of other insurgents have been heralded by the Somali government.65 Al-Shabaab, after remaining largely silent about Robow’s defection and subsequent public criticisms of the group, finally denounced him through its spokesman, Ali Rage, who called Robow an “apostate” who should be killed for allying with the “enemies of Islam and the Muslims.”66 Robow, since his defection, has met with Ethiopian and Somali federal and regional state officials to discuss ways to combat al-Shabaab, including another former insurgent, Ahmed Mohamed Islam “Madobe,” the president of the Jubaland regional state.67 They hope that Robow may be able to serve as a symbolic as well as political and paramilitary weapon against al-Shabaab, though this prospect remains untested.n
When interviewed about why they continue to seek adjudication from al-Shabaab’s sharia courts, local residents said that it was because they, unlike government courts, were not marked by rampant corruption and nepotism. Locals also said that while many government forces continued to loot and extort money at will, al-Shabaab, at least, more strictly regulates its own forces and punishes members for infractions against its edicts including against the local population.68 This is not to say that al-Shabaab does not also perpetrate numerous abuses against local civilians; it has and continues to do so. But it does underline the importance of perception in the campaign to roll back the group. Only sustained political progress between the Somali federal and regional state governments will ultimately be able to eliminate the threat to Somalia’s national security posed by al-Shabaab and, to a much lesser extent, Islamic State-Somalia. Forging political, economic, and security cooperation, reducing rampant levels of corruption and nepotism, and improving the training and maintenance of its soldiers, police, and other security forces, including regular pay, will significantly aid the Somali government’s ability to convince local communities and leaders that they do not have to continue to recognize al-Shabaab’s de facto role as a territorial governing power and should instead invest solely in supporting the government.
The United States, AMISOM, United Nations, and European Union Training Mission Somalia (EUTM-S) can play an important political and security role in preparing Somali government forces to eventually function on their own by supporting Somali efforts to combat al-Shabaab and Islamic State-Somalia. Improvements in security will also help to improve the government’s reach into rural areas in which al-Shabaab is currently able to operate with impunity. But aid should be tied to tangible, regularly reviewed progress on the ground by the Somali government, military, and security and intelligence forces to combat corruption, improve organization and performance, and crack down on human rights and other legal abuses.69
Although the international community can and should continue to support the Somali government and Somali civil society actors in building up their country’s capacity and institutions, it will ultimately be the Somalis who close the doors to al-Shabaab and other militant groups and prevent them from being able to play the role of spoilers and de facto proto-state authorities. This will only happen when local leaders and communities feel that it is no longer in their interest to continue interacting with al-Shabaab as an alternative government.70
Christopher Anzalone is a research fellow with the International Security Program at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and a Ph.D. candidate (ABD) at McGill University. He has written extensively on al-Shabaab and Somalia, political Islam, and jihadi organizations in East Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia and authored a major NGO report on the role of media and information operations in al-Shabaab’s insurgency, “Continuity and Change: The Evolution and Resilience of Al-Shabab’s Media Insurgency, 2006-2016.”
This article was first published by the Combating Terrorism Centre.