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Al Shabaab: the Rise and Fall from Black Hawk Down to Westgate and Beyond

However, the risk of al Shabaab should be placed in context. It is estimated that they lack the capability and popular support to continue Kenyan attacks and overseas operations[16]. The finances of al Shabaab derive from extortion and protection rackets in Somali-controlled territory and from expat communities such as East Leigh in Kenya. But censorship of free speech, the strict enforcement of women fully covering themselves and unrelenting poverty in both communities have led to backlashes against their strict Islamist rule[17]. In Somalia AMISOM has progressively forced al Shabaab out of 80 per cent of Mogadishu[18]. This, combined with the loss of control of the Kenyan border and its shrinking control over the Ethiopian border has left the group isolated and in retreat. The stunning advances made by AMISON in 2011-2013 which have culminated in the capture of the port of Kismayo and the cities of Baidoa, Beledweyne and Marka has signalled the death knell for al Shabaab’s domestic territorial integrity. Without these vital areas it is estimated that al Shabaab has lost between $35 million to $50 million a year[19].

More worrying for al Shabaab, the United States has learned of links between the group and Iran, Uganda and Eritrean governments[20]. This, united with their links to al Qaeda and Yemen, has made them a prime target in Washington’s ongoing War on Terror. Since 2007 there have been at least twelve targeted drone and naval strikes on key leadership targets and logistical sites by United States intelligence and Special Forces as part of the efforts to erode al Shabaab’s operational capabilities[21].

The latest of these occurred on October 6th in the wake of the Westgate attack, in which US Navy SEALs unsuccessfully attempted to kill or capture senior al Shabaab leader Abdulkadir Mohamed Abdulkadir, known as Ikrimah, in a villa in Barawe[22]. Ikrimah, of Kenyan citizenship and Somali birth[23], is believed to be the senior al Shabaab commander responsible for planning international attacks and is thought to have an additional, logistical role within al Shabaab’s structure. He is also known for maintaining relations with al Shabaab’s Kenyan, al Qaeda-affiliated ally al Hijrah, formerly known as the Muslim Youth Center, who took part in the joint attack on the Westgate shopping mall. As Ayman al-Zawahiri was, and likely still is, obsessed with toppling the Government of his native Egypt, so Ikrimah appears to have a preoccupation with Kenya. A leaked Kenyan intelligence report suggests that Ikrimah was behind a string of foiled plots in Kenya between 2011 and 2012[24]. The document, dated one year to the day before the Westgate attack, also mentions Westgate as a likely target. The earlier attacks were reportedly supposed to happen in late 2011 and early 2012 and targeted the Kenyan Parliament, the UN offices in Nairobi, camps belonging to the Kenyan Defence Forces and also high-profile assassinations of Kenyan political and security officials. It is also believed that these attacks were planned by Ikrimah in conjunction with the White Widow Samantha Lewthwaite, who is believed to have been involved in the Westgate attack. In the raid on Barawe, Navy SEALs entered into a protracted fire-fight with al Shabaab militia-men and whilst it is reported that several militants were killed it was later confirmed that Ikrimah was not amongst the dead[25].

The recent failed operation notwithstanding, these killings have eroded al Shabaab at a time when it desperately needs the experience and strength to turn the tide against the AMISOM offensives. Whilst operational recruitment for suicide bombers and foot-soldiers is, if anything, becoming a simpler task for the likes of al Qaeda and al Shabaab, there is no substitute for knowledge, experience or talent. This is the hallmark of an effective military-based counterterrorism strategy: neutralising functional nodes in the terror network that cannot easily be replaced such as strategists, ideologues, explosives experts, veteran fighters etc. As with multinational corporations, procurement of talented, learned strategists and commanders is a long, arduous and resource-intensive process.

However, the greatest danger currently facing al Shabaab is not from external factors, but from its own internal strife. When Ethiopia ousted the UIC from Mogadishu, the defeat had a powerful effect on the leadership and their perceptions UIC’s limitations and the need to retreat South to morph into a fully-fledge guerrilla movement[26].

The split from the UIC also removed a vast Islamic base for the movement in Somalia, forcing al Shabaab to accept ever growing numbers of radical Muslim militants from the wider global jihadist movement to continue to maintain its dominant position in Somali society. Masters of international propaganda and glitzy videos, they attracted an estimated 300 to 1,500 foreign fighters to join the ranks of the estimated 8,000-12,000 indigenous personnel[27]. They arrived from neighbouring Kenya and Tanzania and from its international allies not only in Yemen and Afghanistan, but crucially from Nigeria, Sudan, Algeria, Morocco, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Chechnya, the US, Scandinavia and Britain[28]. These new arrivals brought new and unexpected difficulties. Their firebrand Islamist views and differing national experiences diluted the movement’s message of national Islamic liberation. Moreover their willing to cause mass civilian casualties did not chime with the nationalistic portrayal of Islam that al Shabaab spreads throughout its controlled regions. This is one of the challenges that globalisation poses for all globalised, networked jihadist group as mentioned in a previous article published by the HIC, ‘Heads of the Hydra – al Qaeda’s new direction’[29]. Jihadist groups are victims of their own successful propaganda, radicalising aggressive men so strongly that they engage in extreme, frenzied violence so vigorously that local population are frightened away from the group’s wider message of a unified ummah against Western, hedonistic imperialism. The most prominent example of this phenomenon is Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the erstwhile leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, now the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria or ISIS, which is very active in the Syrian conflict. A Jordanian militant known for running one of the terror camps in Afghanistan which was closed during Operation Enduring Freedom in 2001, Zarqawi masterminded a bloodthirsty campaign of beheadings and bombings which al Qaeda’s central leadership recognised as harming their appeal to the wider Shia community in Iraq[30].

About Philip Cane and Simon Schofield

Philip Cane is a former junior Fellow at the HIC. Simon Schofield is a Senior Fellow at the HSC and the Assistant to the Directors' Office. His main research interests lie in the fields of national security, intelligence and counterterrorism.