Non-State Actors

Al-Shabaab: Fractured but Active

July 3, 2020

Eren Ersozoglu


Al-Shabaab for 13 years has been a source of terror and insecurity in the Horn of Africa, visualised by not only the mass terror attacks in Somalia, but also cross-border attacks in Kenya. Since 2016, the organisation has been suffering from both territorial and leadership losses:

  • There is a realistic probability that Al-Shabaab leadership may split, if not already in the process of doing so.
  • The continued combination of SNA, AMISOM, and AFRICOM operations will likely deny any resurgence in major strongholds, which is now being lost in the Gedo region, Somalia.
  • While leadership, financing, territory, and capacity has been reduced, the group remain active and will almost certainly continue to carry out terror attacks.






Fighting among Al-Shabaab leadership somewhat highlights the complexity of the situation they now operate within. Leader of the group Ahmed Diriye, aka Abu Ubeyda, frustrated over the control of limited resources attempted to remove two senior leaders. The two leaders were Mahad Karate, and Bashir Qorab, who (Qorab) has since been killed by a US airstrike following the counter-operations from the January Manda Bay attacks. Both leaders resisted the removal, and this itself indicates a growing fragmentation of the group. No longer does the group control large swathes of territory, and this limits the interaction of different ‘units’ from different parts of the country. Clan allegiances within the group make it problematic for Diriye to take control from Karate, who he accuses of hoarding Al-Shabaab finances. There are allegations that Diriye orchestrated an assassination of Muse Maalim Muawiye, head of intelligence in Banadir and a key part of Karate’s organisation. With leaders being lost on both sides, allegations are being thrown around, which certainly reduces the overall capabilities of the group. The crackdown from SNA, AMISOM, AFRICOM, combined with internal fighting has seen the reduction of leadership, of which many were capable intelligence arms of the group. This inadvertently limits the operational intelligence capability of the group and may be linked to a growing rise in attack failures.




Al-Shabaab’s last key stronghold in Somalia is in the Gedo region, which is now facing military operations from the SNA orchestrated by Somalia’s Federal government. Jubaland forces in the region are witnessing attacks from Al-Shabaab forces against bases, notably on the 10th June in the El-Wak town near the Kenya border. This is another failed attack from Al-Shabaab, the third in the last few weeks, indicating frustration with the new offensive and showing eagerness to regain control. The presence of Kenyan and Ethiopian forces limits the possibility of this but increase tensions between Somalia and Kenya, while increasing tensions with Ethiopia and Jubaland. The presence of AMISOM forces are key in the battle for territorial control, but the tensions rising between respective factions are hindering the longevity of AMISOM, which would be highly beneficial conditions for a later Al-Shabaab resurgence. A series of failures also indicate that Al-Shabaab capabilities have been reduced in organising large attacks on bases, and instead it is likely we will see a rise in terror attacks rather than military style tactics.



Next Steps

Al-Shabaab is seeking to regain some of its lost standing within communities, even setting up a Covid-19 pandemic centre close to the capital of Mogadishu. This is done to highlight the government’s lack of capacity to meet the requirements of good governance. Operations have reduced capacity and placed Al-Shabaab’s area of operations to focus on rural areas and cross-border operations from Kenya’s Garrisa county. The 14th June attack on communication masts are not a new tactic which Al-Shabaab orchestrates to limit the offensives in the region against the group’s cross-border operations. The attack however, failed, which seems to be a trend in the last couple months, indicating a degree of desperation from the group. The loss of many leaders linked to intelligence roles may be an important factor in the lack of operational effectiveness. On the 18th June, four civilians were killed in a roadside bomb in Mogadishu, Hodan district. The explosion was close to a Turkish-run Maarif foundation school. The explosions intended target was meant for military vehicles, said Somali government spokesman Ismael Mukhtar Omar. IEDs are highly likely to be utilised as the group desperately tries to stay relevant and regain some form of control and standing in Somalia. While the cracks in leadership are positive to countering the overall capability of the group, even a fractured Al-Shabaab will be highly likely to carry out similar attacks. While this also reduces any chance of a dialogue as seen with the Afghan government and the Taliban.





Image: Screen capture of Al-Shabaab propaganda video

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