Who Are Al-Shabaab?

Twin blasts ripped through the Ugandan capital of Kampala Sunday while the rest of the world watched Spain claim the World Cup title. A group called al-Shabaab has claimed responsibility for the attacks, which killed 74, saying they would "carry out attacks against our enemy wherever they are." While al-Shabaab is not yet a household name like al-Qaeda or the Taliban, these twin attacks are a devastating sign that the West cannot ignore the threat of terrorism from Somalia anymore.  So today Big Think asks:

Who are al-Shabaab?


Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen, or simply al-Shabaab, is an Islamist insurgency group currently waging war in Somalia. Al-Shabaab (meaning "the Youth" in Arabic) claims to have ties to al-Qaeda, and its former leader Adan Hashi Ayro may have trained with the Taliban in Afghanistan. Al-Shabaab endorses a strict interpretation of Sharia law, which may include beheading, amputations, or stoning to death those who violate what is seen as God's law. Many Somalis, who are traditionally moderate Muslims, are shocked by al-Shabaab's actions, but some credit the insurgents with having restored order to the areas under their control. According to The New York Times, experts place al-Shabaab's numbers around 3,000, with an additional 2,000 allied gunmen


What do they want? 

Al-Shabaab's stated goal is to overthrow the government and implement Sharia law in the largely lawless Somalia, which has been torn by war for almost two decades. The group controls about a third of the country, including much of the capital Mogadishu, where a U.N.-backed government clings tenuously to control. Were it not for 5,000 African Union peacekeepers, Somalia's government would have already been driven out of the capital. Ugandans make up the majority of those troops, which explains why al-Shabaab targeted Kampala in yesterday's attack. Two days before, an al-Shabaab commander encouraged militants to target Uganda and Burundi for contributing to the African Union peacekeeping mission.  

Who's in charge?

Al-Shabaab is divided into three geographical units, which operate fairly independently of one another, according to The Times. Muktar Ali Roobow (Abu Mansoor), the leader of the Bay and Bakool regions in south-central Somalia, is considered to be the spokesperson of al-Shabaab. The group's former leader Adan Hashi Ayro was killed by a U.S. missile strike in 2008.

Why Somalia? 

Somalia has lacked an effective government since 1991, when President Siad Barre was overthrown by tribal warlords. These disparate clans failed to fill the power vacuum, plunging the country into decades of civil unrest, with over a dozen failed attempts to establish a viable government. In 2006, the situation grew even more complicated with the emergence of Islamist insurgents, including al-Shabaab, who seized control of much of the south, including the capital Mogadishu. Since then the provisional government of the moderate Islamist president Sheik Ahmed has battled al-Shabaab for control of Mogadishu and the south. There are signs that Somalis may be turning against al-Shabaab's strict rule, but experts say a strong central government is crucial for eliminating the threat posed by al-Shabaab.

This timeline documents the full history of violence and instability that has plagued Somalia in recent years.

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Image courtesy of Pfizer.
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