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Dozens of Al-Shabab fighters are marching and brandishing weapons. Photo: AP Photo/Mohamed Sheikh Nor, File
Image: picture alliance/AP Photo/Sheikh Nor

About Al-Shabab

Philipp Sandner / gu
December 15, 2014

The militant group al-Shabab originated in Somalia, but the Islamists are now terrorizing much of East Africa. Kenya has been hit particularly hard for its participation in the African Union military mission in Somalia.


Al-Shabab's origins: Somalia's long civil war

Al-Shabab means "The Youth." The group was formed between 2004 and 2006, at a time when Somalia was mired in a civil war that had already been raging for about 15 years. Al-Shabab has its roots in two older Islamist organizations in the country, the Islamic Union and the Islamic Courts Union (ICU). Ostensibly to put an end to the lawlessness in the country, the ICU decided to found an armed wing, al-Shabab. It was initially led by Dahir Hassan Aweys from the Islamic Union and Aden Hashi Ayro.

In mid-2006 the ICU took over southern regions of Somalia. Its victory, however, was short-lived. In December neighboring Ethiopia, with the backing of the United States, declared war on the group and forced its members to flee within a matter of days. The al-Shabab militia went underground and continued to fight. By 2009 it was able to regain control over the areas it had lost.

Its ascent: alliance with global terrorism

Under Ayro's leadership, the militia broke with the ICU and expanded its contacts to international jihadist organizations such as al Qaeda. In May 2008 the United States designated al-Shabab as a terrorist organization; Britain and Canada followed suit two years later. When Ayro was killed in a drone attack shortly thereafter, Mukhtar Abu Zubeyr continued where his predecessor had left off and intensified the contacts to the terrorist organization al Qaeda. Much like Ayro, Zubeyr increasingly relied on propaganda via the Internet and also recruited fighters abroad, for instance from the Somali diaspora in the United States and Britain. Al-Shabab began to expand its operations into neighboring countries.

Its enemies: the neighboring countries and the West

Map documenting al-Shabab attacks in Kenya and Somalia. DW-Grafik: Peter Steinmetz
Al-Shabab is increasingly targeting neighboring Kenya

From the beginning, the militia painted the West and especially Ethiopia as enemies conspiring to destroy Islam. Because the relations between Somalia and Ethiopia had been weighed down by old conflicts, it took the militia very little time to garner broad support within the country.

After the militant group repeatedly kidnapped Europeans in neighboring Kenya, Kenyan soldiers entered Somalia at the end of 2011.

There is a Muslim minority in Kenya, which consisted mostly of Somali refugees. Arguing that this minority was being oppressed, al-Shabab has been trying to mobilize these compatriots and fellow Muslims for its purposes.

Somali government soldiers stand near the wreckage of a car after a suicide attack targeting peacekeeping troops. REUTERS/Feisal Omar (SOMALIA - Tags: CIVIL UNREST POLITICS
Al-Shabab has lost control over some areas, but the group is still carrying out devastating attacksImage: Reuters/F. Omar

Participating in the military mission of the African Union in Somalia (AMISOM), Kenya has been able to push back the Islamists in much of Somalia. But this comes at a high price. Al-Shabab has again gone underground. Countless people in Kenya have since lost their lives in attacks carried out by the Islamists. The most spectacular attack was that on the Westgate Mall in Kenya's capital Nairobi in September 2013, in which at least 67 people were killed. Due to the terrorist attacks, the Kenyan population's support for the military effort appears to be in decline.

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