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Al Shabab (Somalia)



Al Shabaab, which means “the youth” in Arabic, is an organized, but shifting, Islamist group in Somalia. It has had several incarnations. It is frequently referred to as a terrorist group in the media, and the U.S. State Department designated it a terrorist group in March, 2008. However, it also may be understood as a political party, a militia, and a movement.

Home Base:


Founded in :

2003 or 2004

Notable Attacks:

  • February 2009: A suicide car bomb attack killed 11 African Union soldiers who were part of a peacekeeping force in Mogadishu
  • January 2009: The group captured the national Parliament building in Baidoa, and took control of the city without the use of violent force.
  • June 2007: A suicide bomber blew himself up outside the Somali Prime Minister's house. The PM was not killed; but there were other injuries and substantial property damage.
  • 2007-2008: Assassinations. The group claimed responsibility for a number of assassinations of government officials.
  • 2003-2004: The group was linked to the murder of four foreign aid workers

Leadership and organization :

Al Shebab was headed by Aden Hashi Ayro until he was killed by a U.S. airstrike in early May, 2008. Al Shabab members are reported to be mostly adolescents and young men in their early twenties. They are for the most part poorly educated and some have criminal backgrounds. When it first emerged, it had a small membership. The group maintained a loose organization and are reportedly inspired by Al Qaida. There are no organic links between the two groups, however, although it is reported that Ayro may have trained in Afghanistan.

Origins: the Islamic Courts Union and Al Shabab:

According to a number of accounts, Al Shabab grew out of the youth wing of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU).The ICU are a group of united Islamic courts that slowly took on increasingly substantial governance tasks, since the central government was entirely dysfunctional following its 1991 collapse. By 2006, the ICU were in control of much of Southern Somalia.
According to this account, the youth wing of the ICU reconstituted itself as a militia after 2006. In 2006, the ICU hold on Somali territory was loosened, and a transitional central government established. While much of its leadership left for neighboring countries while the youth wing re-established itself as a militia.
Dr. Moshe Terdman, in a report for the S. Daniel Abraham Center for International and Regional Studies at Tel Aviv University, characterizes Al Shabab rather differently as an independent movement that was "integrated quite tightly with the ICU armed forces, acting as a sort of 'special forces' for the ICU" (In Somalia at War-Between Radical Islam and Tribal Politics, March 2008). In Terdman's accounting, the link between the ICU and al Shebab arose from Ayro's appointment as the head of a militia for one of the courts.


The defeat of the ICU in 2006 serves as the immediate context for al Shebab's evolution into an insurgent group. The transitional government, backed by Ethiopian troops who were, in their turn, backed by US and other Western governments, asserted rule in 2007.
ICU members, as well as others, formed insurgent forces for different reasons related to their opposition to either the transitional government, the Ethopian occupiers, the U.S. relationship, or specific losses of power related to clan politics. One of these groups was organized under Ayro, and called itself the Youth Mujahidin movement (Harakat Shabab al Mujahidin).
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