Abstract: For the past year and a half, al-Shabaab has continued to take advantage of the ongoing political and security turmoil between Somalia’s federal government, regional state administrations, and other powerful social groups, including the country’s clans and sub-clans and minority groups. Militarily, the jihadi-insurgent group retains significant capabilities to launch a range of attacks targeting both military and “soft” targets, including major suicide-vehicle bombings inside the most secure areas of the country such as central Mogadishu. In 2017, the group also overran a number of African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) and Somali government military bases and forcefully reasserted itself in the northern Puntland region. Meanwhile, the Islamic State in Somalia, al-Shabaab’s main jihadi competitor, continues to lag behind it in terms of numbers, military capabilities, and media reach, though there are recent signs that the Islamic State-Somalia has been able to penetrate more deeply into the Afgooye area to the west of the capital and outside of its Puntland base.

The election of Somali President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed “Farmajo” in February 2017 was greeted with hopes that he would be able to bring about real political change and improvements in national security. He vowed to defeat the al-Shabaab insurgency and secure the country in two years and called on the insurgents to surrender, offering them amnesty.a Despite his promise and signs of some political headway between the Somali federal and Somali regional state governments, together with a notable increase in direct U.S. military involvement on the ground since the start of the Trump administration, the situation in Somalia remains unsettled and al-Shabaab today is arguably in the strongest and most stable organizational and territorial state that it has been in since the group’s “golden age” between 2009 and early 2011.b In 2017, the militant group continued to carry out deadly attacks throughout the country including in its most secure area, central Mogadishu. It also dramatically reasserted its territorial reach by moving back into spaces abandoned by AMISOM and Somali government forces and continuing to launch coordinated, mass attacks on enemy military bases throughout 2017.

In addition to maintaining relatively strong organizational and operational stability and reach—complete with the capable Amniyat internal security apparatus, the frontline Jaysh al-Usra, and the domestic Jaysh al-Hisba security forces—al-Shabaab in 2018 also continues to take advantage of ongoing political infighting and the often competing interests of the country’s different political and social actors including clan/sub-clan leaders, politicians, and businesspeople. Al-Shabaab’s emir, Ahmed “Abu Ubayda” Umar, succeeded the late Ahmed Godane upon the latter’s death in a U.S. airstrike on September 1, 2014. The group’s senior leadership and civil regional administrators and military commanders have remained largely loyal despite a period of severe internal dissension between 2012 and 2014 and the rise of the Islamic State and its attempts, which began in earnest in 2015, to set up its own foothold in Somalia.

This article examines al-Shabaab’s organizational state, including its strengths and potential weaknesses, through an analysis of its administrative, military, and media activities in 2017 and into the first quarter of 2018. Primary sources produced by al-Shabaab and core Islamic State and Islamic State-Somalia have been used in tandem with relevant secondary sources, including local and international news reporting and NGO, United Nations, African Union, and U.S. government publications, and in consultation with sources on the ground when possible so that the militant groups’ claims are not simply taken at face value. Al-Shabaab’s continued governing administration over large amounts of territory, which is in its 10th year, lethality as both an insurgent and terrorist force, and the full rejuvenation of its robust media campaign receive particular attention in an attempt to sketch out possible future trajectories for the militant group, which continues to wage one of the modern world’s most successful and longest-running jihadi insurgencies.

Asymmetric Warfare and Strategic Suicide
On January 27, 2017, al-Shabaab launched a major attack on the Kenyan Defence Forces (KDF) base at Kulbiyow in Lower Juba.2 Using strategically deployed suicide vehicle-borne explosive devices (SVBIEDs) followed by a massed infantry assault by 150 to a few hundred fighters and mobile artillery, the insurgents successfully used the same plan of attack that had proved so successful one year before in their January 2016 attack on the KDF’s El-Adde base in Gedo.c

In September 2017, the insurgents used the same tactics again to overrun four Somali government military bases, demonstrating that they remain a potent security threat. In addition to base attacks and strategic suicide attacks targeting government buildings and busy urban areas in places like Mogadishu, al-Shabaab’s military strategy continues to include a wide variety of different tactics, including grenade and mortar shelling, ambushes, targeted assassinations using both firearms and explosive devices, hit-and-run attacks, and the use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs), and non-suicide vehicle bombs. In 2017 and the beginning of 2018, al-Shabaab has also proven that it remains capable of planning and executing major attacks, including coordinated assaults utilizing both SVBIEDs and teams of inghimasi (“storming”) gunmen, in the most secure zones in the country such as central Mogadishu.d

In the aftermath of the Kulbiyow attack, al-Shabaab secured a propaganda victory when the Kenyan government’s claim that its forces had not lost control of the base or suffered significant casualties and had instead repelled the insurgents was shown to be untrue by journalists who interviewed local eyewitnesses.e High-resolution photographs released by al-Shabaab’s Al-Kataib Media Foundation on January 31 and its lengthy propaganda film on the attack released in May 2017 also pointed to higher casualties.f

In the northern semi-autonomous Puntland region where it had laid low for two years, al-Shabaab dramatically reasserted itself on June 8, 2017, when 150-200 insurgents overran the Af-Urur military base in the Galgala Hills, killing at least 48 Puntland forces and wounding 20.g Al-Shabaab, through its military affairs spokesman Abdi Aziz Abu Musab, claimed to have inflicted higher casualties—60-61 dead.4

Al-Shabaab’s reemergence in Puntland, where it is estimated to have between 450-500 fighters, comes after the rise of a 200- to 300-man strong Islamic State-aligned faction led by former al-Shabaab official, Sheikh Abdi Qadir Mu’min, who defected and pledged allegiance (bay`a) to Islamic State emir Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in October 2015.5

Al-Shabaab closed 2017 by overrunning four Somali government bases in September. In each attack—at Bula-Gaduud, Beled Hawo, El-Wak, and Bariire—insurgent forces used SVBIEDs followed by massed infantry supported by mobile artillery. After capturing the bases and other government buildings in the nearby towns, al-Shabaab forces freed prisoners and looted government buildings and NGO warehouses, capturing vehicles and military equipment, and then withdrew before AMISOM or Somali government forces could organize a counterattack. The insurgents also scored propaganda victories by, for example, recording footage of al-Shabaab fighters raising the black-and-white flags the group uses after tearing down Somali national and regional state flags.6

In addition to attacks on Somali government and AMISOM military bases, al-Shabaab since mid-2016 has possessed the operational capability to carry out successful major attacks using suicide bombers and inghimasi gunmen, often in coordinated attacks together on “soft targets” including hotels, restaurants, and near government buildings in central Mogadishu, the most secure part of the country. Al-Shabaab, unlike some other jihadi-insurgent organizations such as Boko Haram, primarily deploys suicide bombers against Somali government and AMISOM targets as well as their international allies.7 Places attacked in 2016 by trained suicide bombers and inghimasi gunmen, who know they will likely die in the attacks, included the Ambassador Hotel on June 18 and the Nasa-Hablod Hotel on June 25,9 two suicide bombings targeting AMISOM forces near the airport,10 the Somali government’s Criminal Investigative Police Division on July 31,11 the Bakaara Market on November 26, and the seaport on December 11,12 all in Mogadishu, as well as twin suicide bombings in the city of Galkayo on August 21.13

Throughout 2017, al-Shabaab also continued to carry out deadly bombings and other types of attacks across the country. These included attacks in central Mogadishu—a February 19 attack in the Kawo Godey Markey in the Wadajir district;14 a suicide attack targeting the new head of the Somali army, General Ahmed Mohamed Jimale, near the Ministry of Defense on April 9;15 an attack on the Pizza House restaurant and the Posh Hotel on June 14;16 and suicide bombings outside the gates of Mogadishu’s main AMISOM base on July 26.17 The insurgent group also assassinated the Galguduud regional governor in August and a senior Somali army general in September, both in Mogadishu.18

On October 14, 2017, in one of the deadliest terrorist attacks in Africa in recent decades, a massive suicide truck bomb set off a nearby fuel truck on a busy street in the Hodan district of central Mogadishu. The attack, which no one has claimed but is suspected to have been carried out by al-Shabaab because no other militant group in the country has routinely demonstrated the operational or military engineering capability of carrying out such an attack,h killed at least 512 people and wounded 295 others.19 Somali government officials have suggested that a new Turkish military training base near the place of the bombing may have been the intended target.

Two weeks after the Hodan SVBIED attack, on October 28, 2017, al-Shabaab launched a multi-pronged suicide attack on the Nasa-Hablod Hotel in central Mogadishu, the same hotel it struck in June 2016, using an SVBIED and inghimasi gunmen who stormed the hotel. The gunmen were reportedly wearing either Somali military or National Intelligence and Security Agency (NISA) uniforms and reportedly carrying forged ID cards.20 This attack was followed by a December 14 suicide bombing at the police training academy in Mogadishu that killed 18 police officers.21

In the first two months of 2018, al-Shabaab continued to carry out major attacks in Mogadishu and other parts of the country. These included two SVBIED and gunmen attacks on February 23 near the Villa Somalia presidential residence and NISA headquarters that killed at least 45 people;22 an SVBIED attack on a Somali military base in the major town of Afgooye located about 20 miles from Mogadishu and the temporary capture of the town of Balad after a deadly ambush on an AMISOM convoy on March 2;23 and the IED killing near Wanlaweyn, Lower Shabelle of two officials from the Hirshabelle and Southwest regional states.24 In early March, AMISOM and Somali government officials acknowledged that al-Shabaab has successfully cut off large swaths of the highways linking major cities and towns including Baidoa, Kismaayo, and Jowhar, setting up checkpoints to tax humanitarian aid and other shipments and launching ambushes on AMISOM and Somali government convoys.25

The numbers in these three graphs are based on analysis of six al-Shabaab official monthly operations reports organized according to the Islamic lunar calendar from the month of Dhu al-Qida 1438 (which began on July 25, 2017) to the month of Rabi’a al-Thani 1439 (which ended on January 17, 2018), the latter of which was the most recent report available at the time this article was written. A significant number, though not all, of these attacks can be verified through secondary sources including news reporting and local sources. But it is also important to issue a note about their origin in al-Shabaab’s own official operations reports, which serve in part as propaganda. With this caveat in mind, the figures are still instructive with regard to pinpointing, alongside secondary and other sources, the insurgent group’s current geographical spread of operations and the most frequent types of attacks it employs against Somali federal and regional government, AMISOM, and other international forces. 

Robust Insurgent Media Capabilities 
Al-Shabaab’s media operations production and dissemination capabilities remained robust in 2017 and into early 2018 with the group’s official and affiliated media outlets continuing to produce propaganda videos, news reports, radio broadcasts, photography, and artwork aimed at domestic, regional East African, and international audiences. The insurgent group has also maintained an active presence online through social media platforms, such as Telegram and Twitter.26

Al-Shabaab launched a coordinated, multi-part influence campaign that sought to impact the Kenyan national general elections that were held in August 2017. Beginning in the fall of 2016 and continuing through the summer of 2017, the group released a series of audiovisual and print messages from insurgent officials and East African, particularly Kenyan, foreign fighters. Ali Rage, al-Shabaab’s spokesman, told Kenyans that their country’s military intervention in Somalia, Operation Linda Nchi (Protect the Country), had led to more, not less, insecurity in Kenya and was also negatively impacting the national economy by hitting the tourism sector hard.27

In July 2017, Al-Kataib released a documentary-style film in English targeted at the Kenyan electorate. Narrated by the same U.K.-native foreign fighter and narrator who has appeared in all of al-Shabaab’s English-language videos and audio releases since June 2010, the film painted a stark economic, political, and security picture of Kenya’s “adventure” into Somalia.28 In between graphic footage and images from al-Shabaab attacks inside Kenya and on KDF bases in Somalia, the narrator warned Kenyan voters, “[This is] a stark reminder of the ramifications of the ill-advised, ill-conceived, opportunistic war your government wants you to pay for. The images of blood-spattered shopping malls, blazing houses, and ordinary Kenyans being butchered by the mujahideen will continue to haunt you for the rest of your lives. And we are still in the initial stages of the war.”29

The film—together with a series of hostage videos of Kenyan and Ugandan soldiers captured during insurgent attacks on AMISOM bases, including a final message execution film of one captive Ugandan soldier—also directed specific messaging to rank-and-file AMISOM soldiers and their families.30 “We know exactly how many of your soldiers died in Somalia; we killed them with our own hands,” the narrator said. “The KDF knows exactly how many of its soldiers died in Somalia; they buried them with their own hands. We know exactly how many of your soldiers are now in captivity; we captured them in their bases. The KDF knows exactly how many of its soldiers are now in captivity; they abandoned them in their bases.”31 Repeating a message first used in al-Shabaab’s media operations campaign in the summer of 2010, he warned rank-and-file soldiers that their political and military leaders did not care about their safety and instead viewed them as expendable and “simply … another statistic.”32

In a lengthy interview with Ahmad Iman Ali, the commander of its Kenyan foreign fighters and a key ideologue, insurgent media warned Kenyan Muslims not to participate in the elections because democracy was a form of unbelief (kufr) as it allows for human beings to reject God’s law and the Prophet Muhammad’s teachings if popular will supports it.33 Ali, who resurfaced in a March 2017 al-Shabaab video after a lengthy period of silence and quashed rumors that he had defected to the Islamic State,34 rejected the notion that the Islamic concept of shura, or “consultation,” permitted participation in democratic elections and government.35 He also asserted that any Muslim who works for “Crusaders” or an apostate (murtadd) government abandons Islam and becomes an apostate himself, a capital offense.36 i Al-Shabaab’s ability to coordinate and produce a targeted messaging campaign while also continuing to produce a number of other print, audio, audiovisual, and visual propaganda products in multiple languages for multiple audiences has demonstrated that the group remains not only a formidable on-the-ground insurgency but also prolific in terms of its media capabilities.

How Strong is the Islamic State in Somalia?
The main Islamic State-aligned faction in Somalia led by Mu’min remains primarily based and most active in Puntland, though small pro-Islamic State groups have also emerged in parts of western and southern Somalia, though whether these other groups are directly controlled by Mu’min is unclear.37 In comparison to al-Shabaab, which organizationally possesses a far greater number of fighters, a more capable and deeply rooted governing administration, and a more sophisticated media operations capability, the Islamic State-Somalia continues to play second fiddle in the insurgency field. The ties between core Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, which itself continues to suffer major losses, and Islamic State-Somalia remain unclear, but there is little evidence that the latter has enjoyed any significant funding from the former.38

Propaganda output from Somalia officially branded by official Islamic State and semi-official or affiliated media organs such as Al-Furat and the Al-Amaq News Agency have also remained limited in terms of frequency and number.j The majority of videos and photography sets originate in Puntland, presumably from the group directly led by Mu’min.

Beginning in November 2017, Islamic State-Somalia began to take credit for an increasing number of attacks in Afgooye, located about 20 miles west of Mogadishu. Between November 2017 and early March 2018, the Islamic State’s official media network and the affiliated Al-Amaq News Agency claimed at least nine separate attacks there, all assassinations using firearms targeting individuals accused of working for the Somali government, including several alleged intelligence agents, two soldiers, and an employee of the Ministry of Finance. All victims in the attacks, where photographs or short video recordings were released by official or semi-official Islamic State media outlets, were dressed in civilian clothing and not government uniforms.39 The attacks also overlapped with regular attacks carried out by al-Shabaab in and around Afgooye. In early February 2018, a Somali police commander in Afgooye denied an Islamic State-Somalia presence in Afgooye and near Mogadishu but was inconsistent in doing so, telling Voice of America that the police were also “on alert and investigating the claims [of Islamic State-Somalia attacks in Afgooye].”40 Most of the attacks claimed by Islamic State-Somalia have not been claimed by al-Shabaab.k

On Christmas Day 2017, official Islamic State’s media released a video from the “province” (wilayat) of Somalia (Wilayat Sumal), marking the first time that the core organization has referred to Islamic State-aligned militants in Somalia officially as a “province.”41 The use of the new name, however, was inconsistent with a later official infographic on attacks in Somalia published in the 118th issue of the Islamic State’s Al-Naba news bulletin, released on February 8, 2018. Unlike other recent infographics for other official “provinces” such as Khorasan and West Africa, the February 8 infographic for Somalia did not list it as a “wilayat” but merely as “Somalia.”42 In the February 8 infographic on Somalia, the Islamic State claimed to have carried out a total of 14 attacks between September 21, 2017, (Muharram 1, 1439 Hijri) and February 1, 2018, (Jumada al-Awwal 15, 1429 Hijri)—three in Bosaso, Puntland, and 11 in Afgooye, Lower Shabelle—killing a total of 30 alleged Somali government police, soldiers, or intelligence agents.

Al-Shabaab and Territorial Governance
Al-Shabaab, unlike its Islamic State rival, continues to govern large swaths of territory, including in the regions of Gedo, Bay and Bakool, Lower and Middle Shabelle, Lower and Middle Juba, Hiraan, Puntland, Galguduud, and Mudug.43 The group’s civil administration continues in 2018 to carry out a variety of governance activities, including the running of sharia courts, holding meeting with clan leaders, and providing aid collected as religiously mandated charity (zakat).44 Al-Shabaab administrators also ran sharia institutes, schools, and courses for clan youth, merchants, and craftspeople and organized traveling health and vaccination clinics for people and livestock.45 During Ramadan and for the Islamic holidays of Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha, insurgent officials also organized special religious courses and competitions for local clans/sub-clans and minority Bantu (Jareer) communities, particularly around the group’s de facto administrative center, the large town of Jilib in Middle Juba.46 Al-Shabaab also continued to tax humanitarian aid organizations as part of its revenue extraction, which in turn funds its military operations and governing administrations.47

Despite their stated rejection of nationalism and “destructive clannism,” al-Shabaab leaders and administrators remain keenly aware of the need to maintain ties with local clans/sub-clans. Al-Shabaab’s administrators and courts continue to mediate inter-clan disputes and hold meetings with local clan/sub-clan elders and leaders of Bantu communities.48 The insurgent group also opened up religious institutes and schools for the young and the elderly from particular clans/sub-clans, including the all of the major clan families and a diverse array of their sub-clans.49 Sharia, medical education, and other courses were also organized by al-Shabaab for women, craftspeople, merchants, pharmacists, teachers, members of specific clans/sub-clans and Bantu communities, and al-Shabaab’s own members and mosque preachers.50

Al-Shabaab’s courts mediated inter-clan disputes, tried criminal cases, and passed sentences of flogging, amputations, financial penalties, and execution for violations, including different types of fornication, homosexuality, apostasy for spying or practicing magic, theft, and unlawful killing.51 Insurgent leaders remained particularly concerned about the danger posed by locally recruited spies following the targeted killings of a number of the group’s senior leaders and officials—including Ahmed Godane in September 2014, Mohamed Mohamud Ali “Dulyadeyn” in June 2016, and the shadow governor of the Banaadir region, Ali Jabal in July 2017.52 The group announced the trial and execution of at least 16 accused spies for Kenya, Ethiopia, Djibouti, the United States, the United Kingdom, the Somali government, or other AMISOM forces between late July 2016 and mid-January 2018.53

The withdrawal of AMISOM and Somali government forces from the countryside has forced local civilians to recognize that al-Shabaab remains a strong territorial force over large parts of the country. It overtly governs some areas, maintains an open and regular presence in others, and runs clandestine cells to carry out military and terrorist attacks in even the most secure areas of the country such as major cities like Mogadishu, Baidoa, Bosaso, and Kismaayo.54

Continued corruption and the poor overall capabilities of the Somali military and security forces—many of which remain inadequately trained and led, go regularly unpaid, and even unarmed—has led to the suspension of most U.S. military aid following the Somali military’s repeated failure to account for food and fuel and Germany’s decision to withdraw from the European Union’s training mission by the end of March, citing frustration with the continued slow progress of developing a viable Somali national army and “deficits in political and institutional structures.”55 l Regularly unpaid, different parts of the government’s security forces instead rely on the control of lucrative checkpoints and the fees and bribes they can charge civilians, and they have engaged in gun battles over these checkpoints and regular protests decrying the government’s failure to pay them.56 Large parts of the security forces also remain largely clan-based and cannot be reliably deployed outside of their home areas.57 These serious deficits in the Somali government’s political and security capabilities and the continuing lack of significant improvements and reforms enables al-Shabaab to take advantage of mistakes made by the Somali federal and regional governments, AMISOM forces, the United States, and other countries, such as the accidental killing of Somali civilians in restive regions that inflame local public opinion and clan dynamics.58

The Somali government, with the support of U.S. military officials, is attempting to lure defectors away from al-Shabaab in an attempt to both weaken the group and, they hope, force its leadership to accept a politically negotiated settlement.59 Somali government officials have claimed that recent defections have set “record numbers,” but the reliability of these claims and the number of actual number of defectors are difficult to independently verify. It is possible that the government is purposefully exaggerating the numbers in a bid to try and create internal divisions within the group.60

Increased U.S. military involvement in Somalia, which has included a significant jump in the number of airstrikes on al-Shabaab and Islamic State-Somalia targets, has reportedly forced al-Shabaab to change tactics in order to better protect its forces, particularly after U.S. African Command (AFRICOM) claimed to have killed over 150 al-Shabaab insurgents in strikes on a training camp north of Mogadishu in March 2016 and another 100 militants in a November 2017 strike on another training camp northwest of the capital.61 m While airstrikes have taken a significant toll on al-Shabaab, including the targeted killings of senior leaders and administrators and despite claims made in late January by a senior African Union official that drone attacks were “wiping out al-Shabaab in good numbers” the insurgents continued throughout 2017 to be able to assemble large forces of fighters and launch major attacks on AMISOM and Somali government bases.62 Increased U.S. military strikes in the country also run the risk of inflaming local tensions and have increased the chances that Somali civilians will be negatively impacted and even killed, as happened in a joint Somali government and U.S. raid in Bariire in August 2017 that killed 10 civilians including children and inflamed tensions between the Somali government and the large and influential Habar Gidir/Hawiye clan.63 The incident also underlined the delicate political balance that needs to be maintained between the Somali government and its international partners and the country’s multiple constituencies including its influential clans/sub-clans and civil society.64

The August 2017 defection of Mukhtar Robow, a founding al-Shabaab member and senior commander, and the defection of other insurgents have been heralded by the Somali government.65 Al-Shabaab, after remaining largely silent about Robow’s defection and subsequent public criticisms of the group, finally denounced him through its spokesman, Ali Rage, who called Robow an “apostate” who should be killed for allying with the “enemies of Islam and the Muslims.”66 Robow, since his defection, has met with Ethiopian and Somali federal and regional state officials to discuss ways to combat al-Shabaab, including another former insurgent, Ahmed Mohamed Islam “Madobe,” the president of the Jubaland regional state.67 They hope that Robow may be able to serve as a symbolic as well as political and paramilitary weapon against al-Shabaab, though this prospect remains untested.n

When interviewed about why they continue to seek adjudication from al-Shabaab’s sharia courts, local residents said that it was because they, unlike government courts, were not marked by rampant corruption and nepotism. Locals also said that while many government forces continued to loot and extort money at will, al-Shabaab, at least, more strictly regulates its own forces and punishes members for infractions against its edicts including against the local population.68 This is not to say that al-Shabaab does not also perpetrate numerous abuses against local civilians; it has and continues to do so. But it does underline the importance of perception in the campaign to roll back the group. Only sustained political progress between the Somali federal and regional state governments will ultimately be able to eliminate the threat to Somalia’s national security posed by al-Shabaab and, to a much lesser extent, Islamic State-Somalia. Forging political, economic, and security cooperation, reducing rampant levels of corruption and nepotism, and improving the training and maintenance of its soldiers, police, and other security forces, including regular pay, will significantly aid the Somali government’s ability to convince local communities and leaders that they do not have to continue to recognize al-Shabaab’s de facto role as a territorial governing power and should instead invest solely in supporting the government.

The United States, AMISOM, United Nations, and European Union Training Mission Somalia (EUTM-S) can play an important political and security role in preparing Somali government forces to eventually function on their own by supporting Somali efforts to combat al-Shabaab and Islamic State-Somalia. Improvements in security will also help to improve the government’s reach into rural areas in which al-Shabaab is currently able to operate with impunity. But aid should be tied to tangible, regularly reviewed progress on the ground by the Somali government, military, and security and intelligence forces to combat corruption, improve organization and performance, and crack down on human rights and other legal abuses.69

Although the international community can and should continue to support the Somali government and Somali civil society actors in building up their country’s capacity and institutions, it will ultimately be the Somalis who close the doors to al-Shabaab and other militant groups and prevent them from being able to play the role of spoilers and de facto proto-state authorities. This will only happen when local leaders and communities feel that it is no longer in their interest to continue interacting with al-Shabaab as an alternative government.70     CTC

Christopher Anzalone is a research fellow with the International Security Program at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and a Ph.D. candidate (ABD) at McGill University. He has written extensively on al-Shabaab and Somalia, political Islam, and jihadi organizations in East Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia and authored a major NGO report on the role of media and information operations in al-Shabaab’s insurgency, “Continuity and Change: The Evolution and Resilience of Al-Shabab’s Media Insurgency, 2006-2016.” Follow @IbnSiqilli

Substantive Notes

[a] President Farmajo promised that those insurgents who surrendered would be rehabilitated and trained to both rejoin mainstream Somali society and be ready for regular employment.

[b] Since the start of the Trump administration, the United States has carried out over 40 airstrikes against al-Shabaab and Islamic State-Somalia. In early 2018, there have also been signs of some political progress between the Somali federal and regional state governments on a number of issues, including security cooperation, resource sharing, and preparations for national elections scheduled for 2020. If this early progress is successfully sustained and expanded, it may lead to an improvement in the overall security situation by increasing stability and luring away the support or continued acquiescence by local leaders and communities to al-Shabaab’s presence and operation as an insurgent organization and proto-state. There have also been positive signs in Kenya, chiefly the recent reconciliation meeting between bitter rivals for the presidency, President Uhuru Kenyatta and opposition leader Raila Odinga. See Eric Schmitt, “Under Trump, U.S. Launched 8 Airstrikes Against ISIS in Libya. It Disclosed 4,” New York Times, March 8, 2018; Jason Burke, “Somali citizens count cost of surge in US airstrikes under Trump,” Guardian, January 23, 2018; “Somalia chides its regions for cutting ties with Qatar,” Al Jazeera, September 22, 2017; Stig Jarle Hansen and Christopher Anzalone, “After the Mogadishu Attacks: Will the Weakened Al Shabaab Rise Again?” Foreign Affairs, November 3, 2017; “Jawari challenges opposition MPs to oust him through the ballot,” Garowe Online, March 18, 2018; George Obulutsa, “Kenya’s president and opposition leader pledge to heal divisions,” Reuters, March 9, 2018; and Kate Hairsine, “Political confusion reigns in Kenya after Odinga, Kenyatta deal,” Deutsche Welle, March 13, 2018.

[c] Following the El-Adde base attack, al-Shabaab warned it would try to carry out similar attacks in the future. These comments were made in al-Shabaab radio broadcasts as well as in the group’s propaganda film about the attack. See “The Sheikh Abu Yahya al-Libi Raid: Storming the Crusader Kenyan Army Base, El-Adde, Islamic Province of Gedo,” Al-Kataib Media Foundation, April 9, 2016.

[d] The term inghimasi refers to fighters who literally charge into and penetrate the enemy’s lines. It is used by al-Shabaab and other Sunni jihadi groups to refer to teams of fighters who participate in seeming or actual suicide attacks in which they will almost certainly be killed or captured. The term is sometimes used alongside terms for “martyr” (shahid) and “martyrdom-seeker” (istishhadi).

[e] The Kenyan Ministry of Defence claimed that its forces had only suffered nine dead—seven soldiers and two officers—in the attack, with 15 more wounded. The Kenyan government also initially denied having lost control of the base and instead claimed that the garrison had repelled al-Shabaab, killing 70 insurgents, and was in active pursuit of the surviving attackers. Local eyewitnesses, however, reported seeing the surviving KDF garrison flee the base as well as a large but unclear number of casualties, higher than the KDF’s official number. See “Follow Up Operational Update-Kolbiyow,” Kenyan Defence Forces press release, January 27, 2017; Jason Burke, “Witnesses say dozens killed in al-Shabaab attack on Kenyan troops,” Guardian, January 27, 2017; Harun Maruf, “Al-Shabab Captures Military Base in Somalia Before Withdrawing,” Voice of America, January 27, 2017; Nancy Agutu, “Kulbiyow deaths surpass KDF number, al Shabaab releases photos,” Star (Kenya), February 1, 2017.

[f] The attack was named by al-Shabaab after one of its slain senior commanders, the Kenyan-Somali Mohamed Mohamud Ali (also known as “Dulyadayn”) who was killed in a joint operation by U.S. Special Forces and Somali government commandos on June 1, 2016. Before his death, Dulyadayn had been a senior al-Shabaab commander and official in the Lower and Middle Juba regions and was also suspected of masterminding attacks inside Kenya.

[g] An undetermined number of survivors also defected to al-Shabaab after the battle. Harun Maruf, “Somali Officials Condemn Attacks, Vow Revenge,” Voice of America, June 9, 2017; “Al-Shabab attack Puntland army base leaves scores dead,” Al Jazeera, June 8, 2017.

[h] There is some precedent for al-Shabaab denying responsibility or remaining silent about an attack, particularly when the domestic Somali reaction was as overwhelmingly critical as it was following the October 14, 2017, attack. In December 2009, a suicide bomber struck a graduation ceremony for medical students at the Hotel Shamo in Mogadishu, killing 22 people. See “Somalia ministers killed by hotel suicide bomb,” BBC, December 3, 2009; “Blast kills 19 at graduation ceremony in Somalia,” CNN, December 4, 2009; and Ibrahim Mohamed, “Somali rebels deny they carried out suicide bombing,” Reuters, December 4, 2009.

[i] In the final days before the August 2017 elections, al-Shabaab also released propaganda videos featuring messages from a diverse array of East African fighters in its ranks who addressed the Kenyan electorate in a number of languages, including Swahili, Bajuni, Digo, Luo, Kikuyu, Luhya, Oromo, and Sheng, a Nairobi working class dialect of Swahili. It was an apparent attempt to project both an image of diversity among its ranks as well as an effort to reach the widest possible audience in East Africa. See “Are You Content With … ? Questions to the Muslims in Kenya,” Al-Kataib Media Foundation, July 27, 2017; “A Message to the Muslims in Kenya a Few Days before the Country’s General Elections,” Al-Kataib Media Foundation, August 4, 2017.

[j] To date, the Islamic State’s central media department has released only one film branded as being from Somalia and two photography sets from outside of Puntland totaling only three photographs. The Islamic State-affiliated Al-Furat Media has released two films, and the affiliated Al-Amaq News Agency has recently released five short video recordings of assassinations in Afgooye.

[k] An exception was the killing of a man accused by Islamic State-Somalia in January 2018 of being a government intelligence agent, which was captured in very brief video footage released by Al-Amaq. On the same day, al-Shabaab also claimed to have assassinated a government intelligence agent but released no media proof in the form of photographs or video.

[l] The United States said that it would continue to provide aid to Somali military units that are directly overseen by U.S. military advisers or are actively in combat. See Ryan Browne, “US is cutting some military aid to Somalia amid allegations of misuse,” CNN, December 14, 2017.

[m] In the March 2016 strikes, Somali intelligence sources claimed two senior al-Shabaab administrative officials were among those killed—regional commander Yusuf Ali Ugaas and Mohamed Mire, the shadow governor of the Hiraan region. Al-Shabaab, through its military affairs spokesman Abdi Aziz Abu Musab, denied AFRICOM’s casualty figures, and a week after the strikes, Mohamed Mire appeared at the public execution of a man accused of being a government soldier, giving an interview to al-Shabaab’s Al-Andalus and Al-Furqan radio stations. See Robyn Kriel, Barbara Starr, and Greg Botelho, “Somali source: U.S. attack killed 2 high-level Al-Shabaab figures,” CNN, March 10, 2016; Hamza Mohamed, “Al-Shabab denies top leaders killed in US air strikes,” Al Jazeera English, March 10, 2016; “Alshabaab Commander Denies He was Killed in US Airstrike,” Radio Dalsan, March 11, 2016; and “Somalia’s Al-Shabab: Toll of US Air Strikes Exaggerated,” Al Jazeera, March 8, 2016.

[n] The extent of Robow’s ability to mobilize capable forces to fight for the government against al-Shabaab remains untested, and his clan militia performed with mixed results against sustained insurgent attacks against him in July and August 2017, forcing him to defect in order to protect his life. However, his ability to recruit clansmen loyal to him has alarmed al-Shabaab and its supporters who have routinely accused him in their media, since his defection, of “collaborating” with “apostates” and “Crusaders” to form a new “Awakening” (Sahwa) militia. This is a reference to the Iraqi Sunni Arab tribal militias recruited and financed by the U.S. military to fight the Islamic State of Iraq beginning in 2006 and 2007.

[1] “President Farmaajo vows to defeat Al-Shabaab and secure Somalia,” AMISOM press release, April 13, 2017; “Al-Shabab fighters offered amnesty as new Somali president declares war,” BBC, April 6, 2017; “At inauguration, Somali president calls on al Shabaab to surrender,” Reuters, February 22, 2017.

[2] Jason Burke, “Witnesses say dozens killed in al-Shabaab attack on Kenyan troops,” Guardian, January 27, 2017; “The ‘Sheikh Muhammad Dulyadeyn Raid’: Kenyan Soldiers Massacred in Kulbiyow,” al-Shabaab communiqué, January 31, 2017.

[3] Al-Shabaab photographs, Al-Kataib Media Foundation, January 31, 2017; “They Are Not Welcome, They Will Burn in the Fire: The Sheikh Muhammad Dhulyadeyn Raid,” Al-Kataib Media Foundation, May 30, 2017.

[4] Jason Burke, “Al-Shabaab fighters kill dozens in attack on military base in Somalia,” Guardian, June 8, 2017.

[5] Harun Maruf, “Somali Officials Condemn Attacks, Vow Revenge,” Voice of America, June 9, 2017. On Abdi Qadir Mu’min (Abd al-Qadir Mu’min) and the evolution of Islamic State in Somalia, see Jason Warner and Caleb Weiss, “A Legitimate Challenger? Assessing the Rivalry between al-Shabaab and the Islamic State in Somalia,” CTC Sentinel 10:10 (2017); Christopher Anzalone, “From al-Shabab to the Islamic State: The Bay‘a of ‘Abd al-Qadir Mu’min and Its Implications,” Jihadology, October 29, 2015; and “JTIC Brief: The Expansion of the Islamic State in East Africa,” Jane’s Terrorism & Insurgency Monitor, March 27, 2017.

[6] On the September 2 attack on the Bula-Gadud base near Kismaayo, see “Al Shabaab attacks military base near Somalia’s Kismayu: military,” Reuters, September 3, 2017; “Al-Shabab militants launch deadly attack on military base in Somalia,” Deutsche Welle, September 3, 2017; and “Be Harsh with Them,” Al-Kataib Media Foundation, November 13, 2017. On the September 11 attack on Beled Hawo near the Kenyan border, see Harun Maruf, “Somalia: 20 Killed in Three Separate Attacks,” Voice of America, September 11, 2017; “Somalia: Al-Shabab Fighters Briefly Seize Beled Hawo After Dawn Attack,” Shabelle Media Network, September 11, 2017; “Several dead as al-Shabab storms Somali border town,” Al Jazeera, September 11, 2017; and “Be Harsh with Them: Part 2,” Al-Kataib Media Foundation, December 13, 2017. On the September 16 attack on El-Wak, see Harun Maruf, “Al-Shabab Fighters Temporarily Occupy Somali Town, Raid Storage Facility,” Voice of America, September 16, 2017; “Be Harsh with Them: Part 2.” The temporary recapture of El-Wak by al-Shabaab followed similar insurgent movements back into areas and bases abandoned by AMISOM or Somali government forces that began in 2015 including in areas of the Hiraan region and from the Leego AMISOM base in the Bay region in August 2017. On the September 29 attack on Bariire, see Mohamed Olad Hassan, “Somalia Forces Capture Key al-Shabab Town of Bariire,” Voice of America, August 19, 2017; “Somalia: Al-Shabab seizes army base, kills soldiers,” Garowe, September 29, 2017; and “Al-Shabaab militants recapture Bariire town in southern Somalia,” Xinhua, October 14, 2017.

[7] For an in depth analytical study of al-Shabaab’s strategic use of suicide bombers, see Jason Warner and Ellen Chapin, Targeted Terror: The Suicide Bombers of al-Shabaab (West Point, NY: Combating Terrorism Center, 2018), particularly Section Three.

[8] “Somalia ends operation to secure hotel bombed by al Shabaab,” Reuters, June 2, 2016.

[9] “Al-Shabaab launches fatal attack on Mogadishu hotel,” Guardian, June 25, 2016.

[10] Radina Gigova, “At least 12 killed in twin suicide bombings near Mogadishu airport,” CNN, July 26, 2016.

[11] “Al-Shabab attacks CID headquarters in Mogadishu,” Al Jazeera, July 31, 2016.

[12] “Suicide bomb kills at least 29 at Somalia’s main port,” Telegraph, December 11, 2016.

[13] “Twin suicide bombs claimed by al Shabaab kill 20 people in Somalia,” Reuters, August 21, 2016.

[14] Omar Nor, “Car bomb in Somalia leaves at least 30 dead,” CNN, February 19, 2017.

[15] Hussein Mohamed and Mohamed Ibrahim, “10 Die in Somalia Suicide Attack on New Army Chief,” New York Times, April 9, 2017.

[16] Abdi Sheikh, “At least 20 people being held hostage in Somalia’s capital after suicide bomb attack,” Reuters, June 14, 2017; “Somalia: Suicide car bomber targets Mogadishu restaurant,” BBC, June 15, 2017.

[17] Abdi Sheikh and Feisal Omar, “13 people killed in Somali suicide bombing claimed by al Shabaab,” Reuters, July 26, 2017.

[18] Harun Maruf and Abdulaziz Osman, “Al-Shabab Militants Kill Provincial Governor in Mogadishu,” Voice of America, August 4, 2017; “Senior Somali General Gunned Down in Mogadishu,” Voice of America, September 24, 2017.

[19] Jason Burke, “Mogadishu truck bomb: 500 casualties in Somalia’s worst terrorist attack,” Guardian, October 16, 2017; Matt Rehbein and Omar Nor, “Death toll spikes nearly two months after Somalia truck bombings,” CNN, December 3, 2017.

[20] “At least 23 dead in bombing and gun attack at Mogadishu hotel,” Guardian, October 29, 2017; Samuel Osborne, “Mogadishu attacks: Death toll from Islamist car bombing and siege of hotel in Somalia rises to 25,” Independent, October 29, 2017; Hussein Mohamed, “In Mogadishu, Truck Bomb and Gunmen Kill at Least 23 in Hotel Attack,” New York Times, October 28, 2017; Jason Burke, “Militants who killed 23 at Mogadishu hotel used intelligence service ID cards,” Guardian, October 29, 2017.

[21] Abdi Sheikh and Feisal Omar, “Suicide bomber kills at least 18 at police academy in Somalia’s capital,” Reuters, December 14, 2017.

[22] Abdi Sheikh and Feisal Omar, “Death toll from Somalia blasts rises to 45: Government official,” Reuters, February 23, 2018; “21 killed in twin car-bomb blasts in Somalia’s capital,” Associated Press, February 24, 2018; “Twin car bombings kill nearly 40 in Somalia’s Mogadishu,” Al Jazeera English, February 24, 2018; and “Somalia: Death toll mounts after Mogadishu palace attack,” Deutsche Welle, February 24, 2018.

[23] “UPDATE 3—Suicide bomber rams car into Somali military base, military says,” Reuters, March 2, 2018; “At least 3 soldiers injured in two Al-Shabaab attacks in Somalia,” Xinhua, March 2, 2018; Mohamed Olad Hassan, “At least 5 Somali Soldiers Killed in Related Attacks,” Voice of America, March 2, 2018.

[24] Mohamed Olad Hassan, “Somalia: Roadside Bomb Kills 4, Including 2 Officials,” Voice of America, March 7, 2018.

[25] “We Are Under Siege By Alshabaab, Hirshabelle Says,” Radio Dalsan, March 11, 2018; Harun Maruf, “AMISOM Warns of Increased Al-Shabab Ambushes,” Voice of America, March 6, 2018.

[26] For an overview of the role of media and information operations as an integral part of al-Shabaab’s insurgency, see Christopher Anzalone, “Continuity and Change: The Evolution and Resilience of Al-Shabab’s Media Insurgency, 2006-2016,” Hate Speech International, November 2016; Stig Jarle Hansen, Al-Shabaab in Somalia: The History and Ideology of a Militant Islamist Group, 2005-2012 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013); and Peter Chonka, “Spies, Stonework, and the Suuq: Somali Nationalism and the Narrative Politics of Pro-Harakat Al Shabaab al-Mujahidiin Online Propaganda,” Journal of Eastern African Studies 10:2 (2016): pp. 247-265.

[27] “An Analysis of Events: Part 2,” Al-Kataib Media Foundation, June 13, 2017.

[28] “The Kenyan Invasion before and after ‘Linda Nchi,’” Al-Kataib Media Foundation, July 23, 2017.

[29] Ibid.

[30] “So They May Take Heed: The Final Message from the Ugandan POW,” Al-Kataib Media Foundation, January 18, 2017; “An Urgent Plea: Message from the Ugandan POW, Masassa M.Y.,” Al-Kataib Media Foundation, September 27, 2016; “An Urgent Plea: Message from the Kenyan POW Leonard Maingi Kiiyo,” Al-Kataib Media Foundation, September 28, 2016; “An Urgent Plea: Message from the Kenyan POW David Ngugi Wataari,” Al-Kataib Media Foundation, September 30, 2016; “Free Us or Kill Us: Your Decision is Our Fate: Urgent Plea from the Kenyan POW David Ngugi Wataari,” Al-Kataib Media Foundation, April 2, 2017; “Message from the El-Adde POW Senior Private Alfred Kilasi,” Al-Kataib Media Foundation, May 18, 2017.

[31] “The Kenyan Invasion before and after ‘Linda Nchi.’”

[32] Ibid.

[33] “Interview with Mujahid Brother Ahmad Iman Ali regarding the General Elections in Kenya,” parts 1 and 2, Al-Kataib Media Foundation, July 26 and August 1, 2017.

[34] “Fight Them so that God will Punish Them by Your Hands” (Piganeni Nao Allah Atwaadhibu Kwa Mikono Yenu), Al-Kataib Media Foundation, March 31, 2017. The title is taken from Qur’an 9:14: “Fight them so that God will punish them by your hands and disgrace them and give you victory and heal the chests of the believers.”

[35] “Interview with Mujahid Brother Ahmad Iman Ali regarding the General Elections in Kenya,” parts 1 and 2.

[36] Ahmad Iman Ali, “Those of You Who Have Friendship with Them are the Wrongdoers,” Al-Kataib Media Foundation, July 29, 2017; “Except for Those Who Repent before You Overpower Them,” Al-Kataib Media Foundation, August 29, 2015.

[37] Christopher Anzalone, “The Resilience of al-Shabaab,” CTC Sentinel 9:4 (2016); “JTIC Brief: The Expansion of the Islamic State in East Africa.”

[38] Warner and Weiss.

[39] Al-Amaq News Agency communiqués released in 2017 on November 29, December 1, December 8, and December 13, and in 2018 on January 23, January 27, February 8, February 26, and March 5.

[40] Harun Maruf, “Police Deny IS Presence Near Mogadishu,” Voice of America, February 5, 2018.

[41] “Hunt Them, O’ Monotheists,” Media Office of Wilayat Somalia, December 25, 2017.

[42] Al-Naba news bulletins no. 119 (February 15, 2018), no. 118 (February 8, 2018), and no. 117 (February 1, 2018).

[43] Al-Shabaab monthly operations reports organized according to the Islamic lunar month from Dhu al-Qida 1438 (which began on July 25, 2017) and Rabi’a al-Thani 1439 (which ended on January 17, 2018), a total of six Islamic lunar months.

[44] Ibid.

[45] Ibid.

[46] Ibid.

[47] Sam Kiley, “Funding al-Shabaab: How aid money ends up in terror group’s hands,” CNN, February 12, 2018.

[48] Al-Shabaab monthly operations reports.

[49] Ibid.

[50] Ibid.

[51] Ibid.

[52] “U.S. says took part in Somalia raid that killed al Shabaab commander,” Reuters, August 4, 2017; Harun Maruf, “US Airstrikes in Somalia Increasing Pressure on al-Shabab,” Voice of America, December 29, 2017; “And Sheikh Ali Jabal Dismounted: Statement from the General Leadership Announcing and Congratulating the Islamic Umma for the Martyrdom of Sheikh Ali Mohamed Hussein (Ali Jabal),” Al-Kataib Media Foundation, August 20, 2017.

[53] Al-Shabaab monthly operations reports.

[54] Hansen and Anzalone.

[55] Katharine Houreld, “U.S. suspends aid to Somalia’s battered military over graft,” Reuters, December 14, 2017; “Exclusive: U.N.-approved weapons imports resold in Somalia, diplomats say,” Reuters, October 11, 2016; “German military to end role in EU training mission in Somalia,” Reuters, February 1, 2018; and Harun Maruf, “Somalia: Up to 30 Percent of Soldiers Unarmed,” Voice of America, December 19, 2017.

[56] Mohamed Olad Hassan, “At Least Six Killed as Rival Somali Troops Clash in Mogadishu,” Voice of America, September 16, 2017; Abdi Sheikh, “Hundreds of Somali soldiers protest in Mogadishu over unpaid wages,” Reuters, March 12, 2017; “Government forces seize Defense Ministry HQ over unpaid salaries,” Garowe Online, May 18, 2017.

[57] John Aglionby, “Deadly blasts point up weakness of Somali government,” Financial Times, October 16, 2017.

[58] Abdi Sheikh, “U.S. troops risk inflaming clan conflict after deadly Somalia raid,” Reuters, August 30, 2017.

[59] Katharine Houreld, “Exclusive: Somalia lures defectors in new push against insurgents,” Reuters, January 24, 2018; Kevin J. Kelley, “Somalia: Leader Plans Talks with Al-Shabaab, says U.S. Commander,” East African, March 8, 2018.

[60] Aislinn Laing, “Al-Shabaab fighters give up terrorism in record numbers,” Times, January 25, 2018; Tricia Bacon, “Strategic progress remains elusive in America’s expanded air campaign against Al-Shabaab,” War on the Rocks, March 5, 2018.

[61] Barbara Starr and Ryan Browne, “US airstrike in Somalia kills more than 100 al-Shabaab militants,” CNN, November 21, 2017; “U.S. mounts air strike against al Shabaab militants in Somalia,” Reuters, November 15, 2017; Phil Stewart, “U.S. strikes al Shabaab training camp in Somalia, more than 150 killed,” Reuters, March 7, 2016.

[62] “How drones could be game-changer in Somalia’s fight against al-Shabab,” CBS, December 8, 2017; “US drones ‘wiping out’ Al-Shabab in Somalia: AU mission head,” AFP, January 26, 2018.

[63] Abdi Sheikh, “U.S. forces in Somalia raid; three children reported among dead,” Reuters, August 25, 2017; Mohamed Olad Hassan, “Somalis Protest Military Raid That Killed 10 Civilians,” Voice of America, August 26, 2017; Jason Burke, “Trump’s offensive to ‘wipe out’ al-Shabaab threatens more pain for Somalis,” Guardian, April 22, 2017; Lolita C. Baldor, “US Commander Orders New Probe into Somalia Raid,” U.S. News & World Report, December 13, 2017.

[64] Sheikh, “U.S. troops risk inflaming clan conflict after deadly Somalia raid.”

[65] “12 Killed in Alshabaab & Mukhtar Robow Militia Fighting,” Radio Dalsan, December 16, 2017.

[66] Abdi Sheikh, “Somalia’s al Shabaab denounces ex-spokesman as apostate who could be killed,” Reuters, January 16, 2018.

[67] Khadar Hared, “Former Al-Shabaab Deputy Commander Helping Somalia Government’s Fight on Terrorism, say Officials,” Somali Update, December 15, 2017; “Ex Alshabaab Leader Robow Eyeing for SW State Presidency,” Radio Dalsan, March 8, 2018.

[68] Jason Burke, “Al-Shabaab plundering starving Somali villages of cash and children,” Guardian, February 21, 2018; Hansen and Anzalone.

[69] On human rights and legal abuses by different parts of the Somali government and security forces, see “Somalia 2016 Human Rights Report,” U.S. Department of State.

[70] On AMISOM’s history and mixed performance, see Omar Shariff, “Africa force key to stability: analyst,” Gulf News, March 8, 2018; Paul D. Williams, “Joining AMISOM: Why Six African States Contributed Troops to the African Union Mission in Somalia,” Journal of Eastern African Studies 12:1 (2018): pp. 172-192; and Joshua Meservey and Kelsey Lilley, “Is the Coalition Fighting Al-Shabaab Falling Apart?” War on the Rocks, October 26, 2016.

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