Al-Shabab’s attack on Nairobi’s Westgate shopping mall in September 2013 led many to question whether it signified the group’s increased focus on international targets. Yet since its inception in 2006-2007, al-Shabab has always issued global rhetoric. The group frequently attacked international targets in Somalia, and it conducted a terrorist attack in Kampala in 2010 as retaliation for the Ugandan government’s decision to send troops to Somalia. Although the attack on Westgate mall suggests that al-Shabab will continue to attack targets in the region, the bulk of its military efforts will remain concentrated in Somalia.

The Westgate mall attack depicted al-Shabab as a strong, coherent organization. Al-Shabab, however, suffered from a number of setbacks in 2013. Besides key battlefield losses, some of its top leadership was purged as a result of infighting. In June 2013, forces loyal to al-Shabab’s leader, Ahmed “Mukhtar Abu al-Zubayr” Godane, killed al-Shabab members Ibrahim al-Afghani and his close companion, Maa’lim Hashi.[1] Godane also reportedly ordered the death of the well-known American jihadist, Omar Hammami, in September 2013.[2]

This article first examines how al-Shabab has used tribal politics to gain support in Somalia, and then provides an in-depth look at some of the infighting that plagued al-Shabab in 2013. It argues that understanding the internal dynamics of al-Shabab will help to better determine the potential trajectories of the group. It finds that the group remains a potent threat to both Somalia and to African states that have deployed troops to Somalia.

Embedded in the Local Economy and Tribal Politics
Al-Shabab’s success can be partly explained by its ability to embed itself in Somalia’s local context. In Kismayo, for example, al-Shabab profited by taxing exports from the port city, which was accomplished by levying fees on the transport trucks on the road into Kismayo.[3] Although the Kenyan military took control of Kismayo in October 2012, al-Shabab still manages to earn significant revenues from the town. According to a report from the Arms Monitoring Group of the United Nations, “revenue that al-Shabaab currently derives [in 2013] from its Kismaayo shareholding, its Barawe exports and the taxation of ground transportation likely exceeds the estimated $25 million it generated in charcoal revenues when it controlled Kismaayo.”[4] Al-Shabab also controls parts of several of the most important roads in central Somalia, where it can demand taxes.

In terms of tribal politics, al-Shabab has harnessed manpower support, for example, from the Gaaljecel and Duduble, sub-clans of the Hawiye clan, and gained influence in their territories.[5] In Hiiraan and Galguduud respectively, these sub-clans have a strong presence.[6] Al-Shabab has posted videos purporting to show these clan members pledging allegiance to al-Shabab, although it is unclear to what extent these tribes support the group.[7]

Somali clan politics have provided al-Shabab several potential opportunities for growth, as the group can exploit clan grievances and clan conflicts. Members from the Ogaden clan (known as the Ras Kamboni militia), for example, initially used their allies in al-Shabab to gain partial control over Kismayo port in 2008, although this relationship eventually turned sour.[8] Similarly, in Beledweyne, one clan enlisted al-Shabab’s support to fight against a rival clan. Before 2010, al-Shabab was active in Murusade clan territories, and fought for the Murusade against that clan’s rivals.[9] By fighting on behalf of one side in a clan conflict, al-Shabab can earn that clan’s support in the future.[10]

Local clans, in return, have also taken advantage of al-Shabab. Clans have, at times, offered recruits to al-Shabab, intending to infiltrate the organization by moving its clan members into positions of leadership within the group. This allows them to influence al-Shabab and to gain access to resources or to enlist the support of al-Shabab in their clan conflicts. Some clans pursue a “hedging” strategy, where traditional clan leaders attempt to insert prominent clan members in high positions in both the government and in al-Shabab, thus gaining influence within both organizations, although it is hard to measure how widely this tactic is practiced.[11]

Al-Shabab leader Godane has few clan connections in al-Shabab’s main area of operations, yet he continues to operate in regions where he lacks established roots. Al-Shabab also has had sub-commanders from a diverse pool of clans operate in territories controlled by other clans, seemingly illustrating the group’s ability to transcend clan dynamics. Indeed, al-Shabab has been able to transcend clan politics more than other Somali organizations.

It would be incorrect, however, to assume that al-Shabab is a clan-based organization due to these internal dynamics. Instead, al-Shabab is an organization that attempts to survive in an environment plagued by the fragmented forces of Somali clan politics. Al-Shabab takes advantage of clans at times, while at other times clans take advantage of al-Shabab.[12]

This local dynamic, however, should not detract from the global aspect of al-Shabab’s rhetoric and the group’s ties to other jihadist organizations. Al-Shabab itself is a complex organization with both global and local aims, but its focus is primarily local, which is seen as a stepping stone to achieving more global objectives.[13] Nor should it detract from the fact that al-Shabab’s attacks in Mogadishu have increased in severity in February 2014. This was best displayed by al-Shabab’s assault on the presidential palace on February 21, illustrating an ability to penetrate even the most secure areas of Mogadishu.

Al-Shabab’s Internal Divisions
Internal divisions have also weakened al-Shabab. The roots of the current split date as far back as 2010 and the ill-fated Ramadan offensive, when al-Shabab attempted to oust the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) forces in a frontal attack, rather than the asymmetric operations it usually favors. The Ramadan offensive left sub-commanders Hasan Yaqub and Mukhtar Robow disgruntled with Godane’s leadership.[14] After the offensive, one of al-Shabab’s strengths, its shura council, ceased to exist, probably due to animosity between members and fear of attack from the United States.[15] Anger within the organization, however, was not only directed against Godane, but also against sub-commanders such as Robow for withdrawing from combat too quickly.[16]

Al-Shabab re-established itself along looser lines of command. By 2011, it became a rather decentralized organization. According to a military source, al-Shabab’s centralization of taxation was weakened, as were training and command lines. Local al-Shabab leaders less frequently sent or received recruits from centralized training institutions.[17]  The level of decentralization varied, however. For example, al-Shabab’s secret police, the Amniyat, which is controlled by Godane, was disbanded as a concession to dissenters in al-Shabab, but then later re-established. Over time, as battlefield losses increased and al-Shabab suffered more defeats, old issues of contingency resurfaced, as did the discussion of the treatment of Muslims and disregard for Muslim casualties.

Al-Shabab and its leader, Godane, had been criticized on this specific subject as early as 2009 by Usama bin Ladin and al-Qa`ida operative Fazul Abdullah Mohammad.[18] In 2012, these criticisms burst into the open when the American jihadist Omar Hammami broke ranks and launched a video attack on al-Shabab’s leadership, which he later directed more forcefully at Godane. Hammami also focused his criticism on issues of military strategy, the marginalization of foreign fighters in the organization, Shari`a implementation, and al-Shabab’s general mistreatment of other Muslims.[19]

In response, al-Shabab tried to kill Hammami on a number of occasions,[20] and forces reportedly loyal to Godane succeeded in killing the American jihadist in September 2013.[21] Al-Shabab’s attacks on Hammami after the latter’s critique of the militant group’s central leadership led to further discussions and the breakdown of cooperation between leaders within al-Shabab.

Several al-Shabab leaders announced a fatwa (religious ruling), removing the requirement that al-Shabab fighters be loyal to the amir if he was violating the Qur’an, which they alleged Godane guilty of by targeting dissenters within al-Shabab.[22] These leaders ranged from al-Shabab’s second-in-command, Ibrahim al-Afghani, to late-comer Hassan Dahir Aweys, a leader more or less forced into al-Shabab after his clan-based Islamist organization, Hisbul Islamiyya, had been defeated by al-Shabab on the battlefield.

Godane’s retribution was swift, and veteran al-Shabab leader and internationalist Ibrahim al-Afghani was killed on June 20, 2013.[23] Fighting ensued in all al-Shabab-controlled provinces, and al-Shabab leaders in opposition to Godane, such as Fuad Khalif “Shongole” and Mukhtar Robow, retreated.[24] A propaganda battle ensued, where Robow accused Godane of failing to protect Muslims, being “an American spy,” and not respecting other Muslims.[25] Godane, however, seemed to outflank Robow on his home turf, while Shongole remained on the defensive. Important sub-commanders in the organization—such as spokesperson Ali “Dheere,” Ali Jabal, Yuusuf Ciise “Kabakutukade” and Maxamad Dulyadeyn—made no indications of supporting the al-Shabab opposition, although as of December 2013 there were rumors that Godane made attempts to arrest Kabakutukade.[26] Additionally, al-Shabab’s Kenyan allies in the Muslim Youth Center (MYC), now known as al-Hijra, seemed to indicate support for Godane.[27]

Godane’s victory over his opposition was interpreted by some as a victory for internationalists over nationalists, claiming that Godane himself had been the main impetus behind al-Shabab’s increasingly international focus on targeting the West, and for following the global agenda of al-Qa`ida.[28] This view, however, is filled with inconsistencies because it puts individuals such as Omar Hammami and Ibrahim al-Afghani in the so-called nationalist camp. Hammami delivered a four-part lecture criticizing al-Qa`ida for being too nationalist, and al-Afghani was a veteran of Afghanistan who was highly respected internationally. This view also overlooks Godane’s references and allegories in speeches to local Somali issues, although these references are carefully phrased to appeal to nationalist sentiments without using the word “nation” or mentioning “sacrifices for Somalia,” instead emphasizing the position of the Somali fight in the wider struggle of the umma (Islamic community). It also overlooks Mukhtar Robow’s more internationalist statements.[29] By taking a nuanced view of the infighting, the major disagreements were not about internationalism vs. nationalism, but instead about other ideological and tactical issues.

These issues included al-Shabab’s actions toward Muslims—specifically, the group’s killing of large numbers of Muslim civilians—as well as the treatment of al-Shabab figures who disagreed with certain policies of the group’s leader, Godane. Other disagreements centered on strategy, Shari`a implementation, and the control of power within the organization. Rather than interpret the Westgate attack as an indication of increased focus on international targets, it should instead be viewed as an extension of al-Shabab’s ongoing strategy of striking their opponents in Somalia in their home countries, as they did in Kampala, Uganda, in 2010.[30]

Godane has strengthened his control over al-Shabab. Although Mukhtar Robow still wields militias, according to sources within his own clan as well as in the United Nations he is on the defensive, even in his own areas. Al-Shabab will likely still attack civilian targets in the region and kill foreigners to gain international attention. Al-Shabab will likely continue to attack countries that have deployed forces in Somalia. Additionally, although al-Shabab has formally merged with al-Qa`ida, it appears to still operate parallel to the al-Qa`ida structure.

Al-Shabab’s biggest danger to the West is most likely through potential logistics support for other al-Qa`ida units, its indoctrination of Somalis into al-Qa`ida’s ideology, and its growing reach in African countries. Its Western members are decreasing, and a majority of members appear to be ethnic Somalis, but returning foreign fighters will clearly remain a threat. Similarly, it is possible that al-Shabab would target the United States, especially since U.S. drones and special forces have targeted and killed al-Shabab members in Somalia.[31] Moreover, the United States and other Western targets serve as a “media enhancer” for al-Shabab; it gains more attention through attacks on Western targets and creates the impression that the organization is increasingly powerful.

Dr. Stig Jarle Hansen is an associate professor and head of the masters program in international relations at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences. He is an expert on radicalism in Africa (especially the Horn), and he has appeared frequently as an expert commentator on CNN, BBC and al-Jazira.

[1] “Godane Loyalists Reportedly Execute al-Shabaab Leader Ibrahim al-Afghani,” Sabahi, June 28, 2013.

[2] Nicholas Kulish, “American Jihadist is Believed to Have Been Killed by His Former Allies in Somalia,” New York Times, September 12, 2013.

[3] “United Nations Report of the Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea,” United Nations, 2013, p. 39.

[4] Ibid.

[5] For an example, see “Hubayr Sub-Clan Pledges Allegiance to al-Shabaab,” al-Shabab, June 24, 2012; “Bay’at of the Gaaljal Clan to al-Shabaab in the Shao Region in the Islamic State of Hiraan,” al-Shabab, November 15, 2012; Stig Jarle Hansen, Al Shabaab in Somalia: The History and Ideology of a Militant Islamist Group (London: Oxford University Press and Hurst, 2013). For an overview of recruitment patterns, see “Somalia: Rekruttering til al-Shabaab,” The Norwegian Country of Origin Information Centre (Landinfo), July 6, 2012.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] “The Smiling Warlord Who Controls Ras Kamboni,” Daily Nation, June 12, 2012.

[9] See, for example, Roland Marchal, “The Rise of a Jihadi Movement in a Country at War: Harakat al-Shabaab al Mujaheddin in Somalia,” SciencesPo/CERI, March 2011; Hansen.

[10] Somalia today faces several contingent clan issues, such as the discrimination of the Ayr sub-clan of the Hawiye against Benadiris in Lower Shabelle, the wider discrimination of minority clans, and the issue over the control of the southern port of Kismayo, the latter putting the Ogaden clan against the government in Mogadishu, a government that many Ogaden clan members consider dominated by the Hawiye clan family.

[11] The author personally observed this “hedging” strategy when in Somalia interviewing government and al-Shabab leaders from the same clan.

[12] Marchal; Hansen.

[13] Remote global issues in line with al-Qa`ida’s narrative.

[14] Hansen.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.; Mohamed Shil, “Al-Shabab: What Will Happen Next?” Somalia Report, September 3, 2011.

[17] Hansen.

[18] Nelly Lahoud, Beware of Imitators: Al-Qa`ida Through the Lens of its Confidential Secretary (West Point, NY: Combating Terrorism Center, 2012); Nelly Lahoud et al., Letters from Abbottabad: Bin Ladin Sidelined? (West Point, NY: Combating Terrorism Center, 2012).

[19] Omar Hammami, “Urgent Message to Whoever it Might Reach,” 2012, available at

[20] Kulish.

[21] Ibid.

[22] “Officials in Shabaab Faction Give Fatwa Against Targeting Hammami,” SITE Institute, January 15, 2014.

[23] “Godane Loyalists Reportedly Execute al-Shabaab Leader Ibrahim al-Afghani.”

[24] Personal interview, human rights activist based in Baidoa, January 1, 2014; personal interview, Yahya Ibrahim, professor based in Mogadishu, December 22, 2013.

[25] Zubair al-Muhajir, “Yes There is a Problem – Open Letter From Sheikh Zubayr al-Muhajir to Sheikh Abu al-Zubair,” April 18, 2013, available at; Ibrahim al-Afghani, “Urgent and Open Letter to Our Amiir Shaykh Ayman al-Zawahiri,” April 2013, available at; Hammami; Mukhtar Robow, “The Martyrdom Night in Barawe, [and what happened ] Before and After It,” 2013, available at

[26] Personal interview, Yahya Ibrahim, professor based in Mogadishu, December 22, 2013.

[27] “Swift and Appropriate Action Demanded to Deal with Abu Mansoor Al-Amriki,” Muslim Youth Center, March 29, 2013, available at; Abu Hamza al-Muhajir, “Turning Away From The Truth Won’t Make It Disappear: Demystifying the Abu Mansur Saga,” February 23, 2013, available at; Sam Adams, “Terrorist Widow’s Angry Twitter Rant at al-Qaeda ‘Prat’: Wife of 7/7 Bomber Breaks Cover to Accuse Rival Extremist of Being ‘Irritating,’” Daily Mail, April 11, 2013; Bosir Boniface, “Kenyan Jihadist Resurfaces, Sheds Light on Current State of al-Shabaab,” Sabahi, July 12, 2013.

[28] See, for example, Magnus Taylor, “Westgate Attack Puts Al Shabaab Top of the Global Jihadist Premier League,” African Arguments September 24, 2014.

[29] See, for example, M. Hassan, “Al-Shabaab Bans Somali Flag,” Hiiraan, 2010. Also see “Audio Speech of Sheikh Mukhtar Abu Al-Zubair Amir of the Harakat Al-Shabaab Al-Mujahideen About the Recent Developments in the Country,” April 2012, available at

[30] Nevertheless, the huge increase in alleged al-Shabab activity targeting East Africa is notable. Al-Shabab has gained a foothold in Kenya, and Tanzanian and Ethiopian authorities report internal al-Shabab activities as well. See, for example, ”Training Video AK 47,” al-Shabab, June 26, 2013, available at In Ethiopia, there were at least two court cases against an alleged al-Shabab cell in Haraar and a wider network in 2012-2013. In Tanzania, al-Shabab-related materials were confiscated in 2013, and Tanzanian police allegedly closed down an al-Shabab-affiliated “radicalization camp,” although the “camp’s” exact purpose is not known.

[31] See, for example, Mohammed Ibrahim, “U.S. Drone Strike Kills Foreign Commander Fighting for Militants in Somalia,” New York Times, January 22, 2012; David D. Kirkpatrick et al., “U.S. Raids in Libya and Somalia Strike Terror Targets,” New York Times, October 5, 2013.

Stay Informed

Sign up to receive updates from CTC.

Sign up