A daring attack on a hotel in central Mogadishu turned into a 20-hour hostage crisis that left eight civilians dead. Such attacks are the most common news when it comes to one of the world’s poorest countries.
In the summer, another attack on a hotel in the capital killed 21 civilians and injured another 120. Two suicide bombings at a busy intersection killed more than 100 people in October in the deadliest attack since 2017, when more than 500 people were killed in the same area when a truck packed with explosives exploded.
Al-Shabaab, the most active and dangerous ally of Al-Qaeda in East Africa, is responsible for these and many other such bloody terrorist attacks.
The organization’s name means “The Youth” and its roots are in the Islamist alliance “Al Ittihad Al Islamiya” (“Islamic Unity”), which ruled much of the country in the 1990s. It represents a coalition of various militarized Islamist movements that dominated Somalia during the turbulent period following the fall of the Siad Barre dictatorship in 1991.
Even then, the first connections with “Al-Qaeda” were born, as Osama bin Laden saw the potential for spreading his radical ideology against the background of the bloody civil war and the complete collapse of the state.
Sometime at the beginning of the new century, the most radical elements within the “Islamic Unity” teamed up with influential clerics to form the “Union of Islamic Courts” (ICU) and managed to take control of Mogadishu for a few months in 2006.
This was a short-lived success, as at the end of that year the declared jihad against neighboring Ethiopia provoked a military response by the Christian state, culminating in the intervention and occupation of the capital.
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IS disbanded, but a major part retreated south and became what is known today as Al-Shabaab. The most radical former members of “Islamic Unity” and SID gather there, many of whom have experience from the wars in Afghanistan.
In a few years, the organization grew significantly and today it is believed to have about 7,000-12,000 active fighters and an unknown number of sympathizers.
During this period, the ties with “Al-Qaeda” were also confirmed – in 2012, the leadership of “Al-Shabaab” officially took an oath of allegiance to the then leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri.
The alliance between the two jihadist organizations is based on pragmatism and shared values. On the one hand, al-Shabaab has the freedom to operate completely autonomously in the region and takes advantage of al-Qaeda’s global network to attract finance and members from around the world. On the other hand, it helps spread the ideology of the global terrorist organization.
At the regional level, al-Shabaab aims to establish a government operating in accordance with a radical reading of Sharia refracted through the prism of Salafi Islam. The organization uses religion to unite different communities, transcending traditional tribal-clan conflicts and differences.
To build legitimacy and gain popular support, the organization presents itself as an alternative to a failed and corrupt state. In the places under its authority, it provides social services, solves communal problems and settles legal disputes, and its main enemy is represented by all foreign powers in the country, considered the main culprits of its poverty.
In the areas it controls, al-Shabaab rules extremely strictly and according to its radical interpretation of Islam, imposing bans on movies and music, smoking and shaving beards. Adulterers and thieves were considered apostates and often received the harshest possible punishments by stoning or amputation.
At the same time, the group bans cooperation with humanitarian agencies and does not allow the delivery of humanitarian aid in the presence of severe droughts in recent years.
The group takes advantage of various means of financing, which include the collection of various types of taxes and fees, along with kidnapping for ransom, racketeering and piracy along the busy routes leading to the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea.
However, through various international missions, they managed to limit piracy in the region, but despite this, Al-Shabaab continues to be an extremely strong organization and to carry out attacks on the territory of Kenya and Uganda, which have the greatest contribution to the UN mission in Somalia ( AMISOM).