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.
Big Think
Sponsored by Lumina Foundation

Upvote/downvote each of the videos below!

As you vote, keep in mind that we are looking for a winner with the most engaging social venture pitch - an idea you would want to invest in.

Keep reading Show less

Essential financial life skills for 21st-century Americans

Having these financial life skills can help you navigate challenging economic environments.

Photo by Jp Valery on Unsplash
Personal Growth
  • Americans are swimming in increasingly higher amounts of debt, even the upper middle class.
  • For many, this burden can be alleviated by becoming familiar with some straightforward financial concepts.
  • Here's some essential financial life skills needed to ensure your economic wellbeing.
Keep reading Show less

New study finds the egg may actually 'choose' the Sperm

Here's the first evidence to challenge the "fastest sperm" narrative.

popular
Keep reading Show less

New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.

Surprising Science
  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
  • Researchers speculate it could be a previously unknown species and one of humanity's earliest evolutionary ancestors.
  • These fossils may change how we view the evolution of our species.

Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.