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Terrorism: Somalia's conflict with al-Shabaab

Abstract: Somalia is a country that has been at the forefront of counter-terrorism discussions within Africa. The country has suffered conflict since 1991 following the collapse of a briefly Soviet-backed military government. Since then, various interest groups have sought to seize control over land, and various humanitarian groups have failed to provide aid to the region. The war between the Somalian government and al-Shabaab proves to be the most significant conflict in the region. This essay aims to provide a brief overview of the current situation in Somalia, focusing specifically on the role of terrorism in the conflict.

Overview: The CIA World Factbook offers basic geographic data about Somalia. Somalia is a coastal country in the easternmost region of the “Horn of Africa.” Somalia is bordered by Ethiopia to the west, Kenya to the south, and Djibouti to the northwest. The country held great historical importance as a trade location for the caliphates and European powers. The Majority of the country’s citizens are of Somali ethnicity, with roughly 15% of the country identifying otherwise. Sunni Islam is both the official religion and the most practiced by a wide margin. [1]

The BBC’s country profiles explain that Somalia is comprised of three regional administrations of relatively equal size. The Republic of Somaliland is in the far Northwest, Puntland in the northeast, and Somalia in the south. The central government of Somalia governs from Mogadishu, located within southern Somalia. [2] An important thing to note about the three administrative districts is that the Republic of Somaliland is self-declared, and claims independence from Somalia. Puntland does not claim complete independence from Somalia. [3]

History: Encylopedia Britannica's section on Somalia states in 1969, a period of political instability following the assassination of the president led to a military coup. The new junta [4] government sought to align itself with the Soviet Union and proposed numerous reforms to solve domestic issues such as disease and literacy. Major General Mohamed Siad Barre was the head of this movement. In 1977 following a period of instability in Ethiopia, Siad backed ethnic Somalis within Ethiopia to conquer the region. The result of this proxy war was the dissolution of Soviet support, resulting in Somalia attempting to seek Western support instead. This defeat led to severe political consequences within Somalia. [5]

According to the US State Department website, the failure of the proxy war created much unrest between numerous family clans within Somalia. In the past, Siad dealt with other clans violently while giving preferential treatment to his own. This unrest became a full-fledged revolution as Said’s political rivals unified in 1990, ousting his government in 1991. The political vacuum spiraled into a massive humanitarian crisis as no groups within Somalia could agree on a replacement government. In 1992, the UN created UNOSOM, a joint organization to help provide humanitarian aid to Somalia. The US also joined with their aid operation. The UN’s United Task Force became involved in 1993 as violence against aid workers became more and more prevalent at the hands of warlords. A change in US opinion following the infamous Black Hawk Down incident led to the US leaving the country in 1994, with the UN leaving a year after. [6]

Encyclopedia Britannica’s entry on Somalia continues that throughout the 1990s, ten peace conferences between warring clans were held. It wasn’t until 2000, at a peace conference in Djibouti, that a transitional government had been negotiated. This new government was named the Transitional National Government (TNG). Though it wasn’t accepted by many and faced constant opposition, it represented a united front and the start of the nation-building process of Somalia. Eventually, another transition government named the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) took over in 2004. [7]

There were many key actors in opposition to the Somalian transitional government. Many of which had ties to Islamic terrorist groups. The most important of which was the Islamic Courts Union (ICU). The ICU was later renamed to the Supreme Islamic Courts Council (SICC). [8] Stanford Univerity’s writeup on the Islamic Courts Union discusses that The ICU was an association of Islamic courts that provided a sharia-based judicial system to the areas it occupied. It eventually came to govern the areas it occupied. This organization was prominent in northern Somalia, but later moved south, sparking conflict against the Somalian government. [9]

The ICU relied on clan militias to enforce their laws and were seen as more stable than other warlord-controlled regions of Somalia. With the formation of the Transitional National Government, the ICU lost much influence, though it still formed many courts throughout the capital of Mogadishu. The TNC at the time could not provide security and protect its citizens, which many warlord-led groups and the ICU benefited from. In 2005, some members of the courts were assassinated or otherwise disappeared. The ICU blamed disappearances on the US’s involvement in capturing al-Qaeda operatives, but no proof of the CIA directly assassinating ICU officials was ever provided. [10]

Regardless, in 2006 as part of the war on terror, the US stepped into Somalian politics to form a new initiative aimed at targeting terrorists within Somalia. Problems arose with groups joining this initiative, however. Many of these groups were already untrusted by many elements within Somalia, leading to a resurgence in the ICU’s popularity. The ICU later defeated the US-backed coalition and seized control over the capital of Somalia. The military success of the ICU was thanks to its prominent military wing. [11]

Ethiopia hosted the TNG and TFG at different points in the conflict. Following the ICU’s takeover of Mogadishu, Ethiopia became the new base of operations for the exiled Somalian government. In late 2006, negotiations between the TFG and the ICU fell through and a UN-backed military intervention, carried out by African Union Peacekeepers, began in December of 2006. Within the month, the ICU’s governing structure fell apart, leaving only its military wing to carry on. To this day, the military wing of the ICU still engages in rampant terrorism within Somalia under its new name, al-Shabaab. [12]

According to the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), AMISOM [13], the UN-backed intervention in Somalia became the new central force of stability. The new dynamic of instability in Somalia from 2007 onward is mostly between AMISOM (and AMISOM-aligned forces) and al-Shabaab militants (and ISIS associates). An important note about AMISOM is the involvement of other African countries in the operation. Uganda, Ethiopia, and Kenya in particular constitute a large part of the stability of the Somalian government. Ethiopian forces contributed to AMISOM from the formation of the TNG and TFG, and Kenya became most involved in 2011. [14]

According to the BBC’s timeline, In 2012, Somalia held its first congress in 20 years, signaling the end of an eight-year transitional period. Though the country was far from stable, this event was the first step towards normalization in the region. It also represents a turning point in al-Shabaab’s strategy towards terrorism. Al-Shabaab’s attacks from this point onward tend to align much more with guerrilla warfare and bombings of civilians than conventional warfare. The history of Somalia post-2012 is a prolonged nation-building process disrupted by terrorism and aided by international support. The support comes in the form of humanitarian aid to help stabilize the country, and military aid to help combat Al-Shabaab. [15]

Al-Shabaab: In my interpretation of CFR's timeline, al-Shabaab’s main role in the conflict occurred over two different periods. The first period (2007-2010) resembled conventional warfare, while the second (2010-present) focused much more on asymmetrical warfare and terrorism. 2010 represented a major change in al-Shabaab’s strategy because they started targeting international forces, civilians, and regions outside of Somalia. [16] To be clear, this is not to say terrorism did not occur before 2010, or that conventional warfare did not happen post 2010. This distinction aims to elucidate a trend from conventional warfare to terrorism and help cluster different sprees of terrorist acts. The U.S. for example designated al-Shabaab as a terrorist organization in 2008. [17]


CFR’s publication on Al-Shabaab discusses many key features of al-Shabaab. Al-Shabaab is mostly centered in Southern Somalia, with some presence in neighboring countries of Kenya and Ethiopia. The insurgency remains a top security challenge affecting the region. Membership of al-Shabaab is somewhere between seven-thousand and twelve-thousand members, and engages in forced conscription of children and presents numerous financial incentives for volunteers. [18]

Al-Shabaab’s main goal is to overthrow the central Somalian government, remove intervention forces, and create an Islamic state governed by their version of Sharia Law. They offer services, particularly a judicial system based on sharia, to provide services that the central Somalian government has struggled to provide thus far. [19] This does not mean their system of justice is any more moral than other governments in the region, only that they have a security apparatus that can enforce sharia law. According to CFR, al-Shabaab’s interpretation of Sharia prohibits entertainment such as movies and music, shaving of beards, and enforces stonings and amputations as punishments for crimes. The group also has banned any cooperation with humanitarian agencies and goes out of its way to target and kill intervening agencies within Somalia. [20]

The US Office of the Director of National Intelligence lists some of the most notable attacks committed by al-Shabaab. In 2013, four al-Shabaab gunmen killed 67 and injured 200 at Westgate Mall in Kenya in response to Kenya’s military intervention in Somalia. This was followed in 2015 by an attack at Garissa University in Kenya, killing 148 and injuring 100. In 2017, al-Shabaab detonated a car bomb in downtown Mogadishu, killing 500 and injuring 200. This remains the deadliest single terror attack in Somalia. At this point, Al-Shabaab remains most active in Somalia, Kenya, and Ethiopia. [21]

Human Rights: The US State Department writes annual country reports on Human rights. Their section on Somalia includes sections detailing respect for civil liberties, freedom of speech, corruption, and other categories associated with various groups in the region. For this section, I will focus on these issues regarding terrorism. The first section will discuss al-Shabaab, and the second will discuss issues with counter-terrorism operations committed by the government. [22]

According to the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, al-Shabaab is responsible for 94% of civilian deaths associated with violence. [23] The US State Department follows this analysis by stating that al-Shabaab and clan militias are primary perpetrators in extrajudicial killings of civilians. Al-Shabaab is also the only organization that actively abducts and traffics civilians and humanitarian workers. Overall, the harshest punishments, worst war crimes, and greatest denial of human rights come at the hands of al-Shabaab in the region. [24]

The US State Department also criticizes the central government's use of arbitrary detentions and mistreatment of suspects at the hands of the Somalian, Puntland, and Somaliland governments. Although the state has safeguards in place, these are often ignored, with many facing obscured and non-transparent trials and court procedures. Oftentimes, associations with al-Shabaab are used as justification to conduct arrests. [25] This is important because many countries that face terror threats often use broad counter-terrorism laws to imprison suspected terrorists without due process or a fair trial.

In regards to the conflict, the US State Department also records abuses and population displacements. Al-Shabaab routinely attacks NGO employees, UN staff, peace activists, community leaders, government officials, intervention forces associated with AMISOM/ATIMS, and government-aligned clan militias. Al-Shabaab associates its enemies as false prophets or enemies with Islam and uses these justifications to target civilians. Al-Shabaab tends to attack civilian targets in urban environments using suicide bombers, mortars, and IEDs. [26]

Current Events: In November of 2023 Reuters reported that President Hassan Sheikh Muhamud, the leader of Somalia, announced an end date for African Union peacekeeping operations within Somalia. Since last year, the central government of Somalia has made much progress in winning over regional militia forces to help combat al-Shabaab. Although the terror group continues to launch attacks in the region, the Somalian government claims that they are currently dealing with residual terror threats and that significant progress is being made in combating the threat. [27]

Barrons reports that since the president came into office in August of 2022, the Somalian government has engaged in a widescale offensive against al-Shabaab. The incorporation of regional militias had aided tremendously in combating the terrorist group early on, but operations have seemingly slowed down as of mid-2023. A “relaunch” of operations was announced by the president in August, but there are some concerns over how practical this will be. [28] Voice of America discusses major factors contributing to this analysis as setbacks, military defeats, and routs of government-aligned forces in August. Regardless of these setbacks, Somalian forces are holding newly gained territory and remain optimistic about defeating al-Shabaab. [29]


[1] Somalia.” Central Intelligence Agency. Accessed December 4, 2023.

[2] “Somalia Country Profile.” BBC News, April 26, 2023.

[3] Ibid

[4] A style of authoritarian regime where the military runs internal and external affairs

[5] Janzen, Jörg H.A., and Ioan M. Lewis. “Somalia.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Accessed December 4, 2023.

[6] “Somalia, 1992–1993.” U.S. Department of State. Accessed December 4, 2023.

[7] Janzen, Jörg H.A., and Ioan M. Lewis. “Somalia.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Accessed December 4, 2023.

[8] Ibid.

[9] “Islamic Courts Union.” Mapping Militants. Accessed December 4, 2023.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] This would later become ATIMS

[14] Center for Preventable Action. “Conflict with Al-Shabaab in Somalia | Global Conflict Tracker.” Council on Foreign Relations. Accessed December 4, 2023.

[15] “Somalia Profile - Timeline.” BBC News, January 4, 2018.

[16] Center for Preventable Action. “Conflict with Al-Shabaab in Somalia | Global Conflict Tracker.” Council on Foreign Relations. Accessed December 4, 2023.

[17] “Timeline: Al Shabab (2004–2022).” Council on Foreign Relations. Accessed December 4, 2023.

[18] Klobucista, Claire, Jonathan Masters, and Mohammed Aly Sergie. “Al-Shabaab.” Council on Foreign Relations, December 6, 2022.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] “Al-Shabaab.” National Counterterrorism Center | FTOs. Accessed December 4, 2023.

[22] “Somalia - United States Department of State.” U.S. Department of State, March 20, 2023.

[23] Somalia: Türk decries steep rise in civilian casualties amid surge in ... Accessed December 4, 2023.

[24] “Somalia - United States Department of State.” U.S. Department of State, March 20, 2023.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Jones, Marc. “Somalia Has Year to Eliminate Al Shabaab Militants - President.” Reuters, November 21, 2023.

[28] Valmary, Simon. “Somalia’s al-Shabaab Offensive Stalls after Early Success.” Barron’s, November 9, 2023.

[29] Maruf, Harun. “Somalia Military Offensive Suffers Setback as Troops Retreat.” Voice of America, August 29, 2023.

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