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A Threat To MENA and Western Interests: Al-Shabaab's Foreign Fighters


On March 29, 2017, President Donald J. Trump advanced proposals, designed and endorsed by senior officials at the Department of Defense, to designate Somalia as an “area of hostilities”. These proscriptions enabled the Trump administration and military assets to conduct increased offensive operations against al-Shabaab in Somalia without significant interagency oversight. Such offensive operations propagated in subsequent years after the enactment of such recommendations and exceeded those conducted under the Obama administration. On March 1, 2019, U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM), a global combatant command tasked to combat al-Shabaab, reported that the military conducted 23 strikes this year that mitigated the threat posed by al-Shabaab to American interests and regional security in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). However, due to state fragility and weakness in Somalia and MENA, in addition to the organization’s international network, al-Shabaab remains a viable threat.

I. Group Name and Identity:

Al-Shabaab, an international Islamist insurgent organization, traces its roots to its distant predecessor, al-Ittihad al-Islami (AIAI). AIAI emerged as a substantial threat to Somalia’s stability and helped shape the nation’s trajectory after the fall of Siad Barre’s regime that controlled Somalia from 1969 to 1991. This militant Salafi organization garnered significant support from well-educated Somalis and obtained funds, knowledge, and weapons from al-Qaeda’s infamous leader, Osama bin Laden. However, at an AIAI alumni conference in 2003, this extremist organization factionalized when its elder members quarreled with younger insurgents who sought to establish a fundamentalist Islamic state subjected to Sharia law. The latter constituted the inception of al-Shabaab and served as the militant component of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), an alliance of Sharia-governed courts. These organizations seized Mogadishu, the capital of Somali, in June 2006 and alarmed the Ethiopian government who launched an American-backed invasion of Somalia in December 2016. While this invasion decimated the ICU’s strength in Mogadishu, it radicalized al-Shabaab’s initial members who fled to southern Somalia and commenced its independent operations in 2007. The efforts of such insurgents, now referred to as al-Shabaab (Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen), translated as “the Youth” from Arabic, countered the Ethiopian intervention.

Al-Shabaab first established informal ties to al-Qaeda in February 2008 after Anwar al-Awlaki, a prominent leader in al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), praised al-Shabaab’s attacks against American and Ethiopian forces. Due to these demonstrated informal ties to al-Qaeda, on March 18, 2008, the U.S. State Department designated al-Shabaab as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO). Therefore, this designation, per Title 18 Section 2339A of the U.S. Code, caused the provision of material support and resources to al-Shabaab to constitute a federal offense. In February 2012, al-Shabaab pledged its allegiance to al-Qaeda. This alliance afforded al-Shabaab financial and technical assistance that enabled it to broaden its operations. Al-Shabaab, armed with this assistance, conducted significant attacks in Somalia and MENA, in recent years, that heightened the Trump administration’s threat perception. Therefore, as aforementioned, the Trump administration propagated resources allocated to combat al-Shabaab in Somalia. Yet, al-Shabaab still constitutes a viable threat to American interests and MENA due to its international network and regional instability.

II. Area of Operations and Recruitment:

Al-Shabaab, as aforementioned, operates in Somalia due to the government’s inability to afford adequate government services and security to its citizenry. While this FTO controlled significant territory at its peak in central and southern Somalia, American and African Union Mission in Somalia’s (AMISOM) forces liberated substantial al-Shabaab occupied land. However, the decimation of al-Shabaab’s physical assets failed to reduce its capability to execute attacks.

Al-Shabaab’s recruitment campaigns are concentrated in Somalia and employ several tactics. First, this FTO has orchestrated rallies and talks throughout Somalia to forge networks and relationships with local communities. At such events, al-Shabaab recruiters distribute resources to the poor, expedite criminal trials, and resolve local disputes to win hearts and minds. This tactic proved to be effective due to the Somali government’s inability to administer sufficient political and social goods to the public. Further, al-Shabaab holds a notable capability to recruit Somalis because of the historical presence of radical Islamism in Somalia. Returned foreign fighters, who countered the Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, cemented this ideology’s prevalence in Somalia. Foreign fighters are characterized as “non-citizens of conflict states who join insurgencies during civil conflicts”.

Second, al-Shabaab employs coercion and force to compel adolescent Somalis to join their organization. In January 2017, Antonio Guterres, the Secretary-General of the United Nations (UN), asserted that adolescents constitute a bulk of al-Shabaab’s membership. Lastly, al-Shabaab offers salaries to entice non-coerced Somali adolescents to join their organization. Somali officials assert that al-Shabaab employs and recruits young Somalis to replace their aging forces. Al-Shabaab employs diverse media to disseminate their propaganda to bolster their support among the Somali population.

However, al-Shabaab utilizes their propaganda capabilities to garner international support and recruit Somali diasporas and non-Somalis as foreign fighters. Al-Shabaab’s demonstrated capacity to recruit foreign fighters who possess specialized experience and skillsets is a notable strength of this organization. Recruiters use diverse messages in Arabic, English, and Somali, dependent on their target audience, to recruit foreign fighters.

Their recruitment of foreign fighters is concentrated in Kenya for several reasons. First, ethnic Somalis and Muslims constitute two and twelve percent of the Kenyan population, respectively. Second, there is a sizeable Somali diaspora community that resides in Kenya, as there are an approximated one million Somali refugees in the nation. Third, Kenyans often speak both Arabic and English and therefore, are enabled to serve as translators to bridge the language barrier between Somali and Western recruits. Lastly, al-Shabaab maintains strong relations with an affiliated network in Kenya, al-Hijra, which supplies fighters and assists al-Shabaab to orchestrate attacks.

Messages designed to recruit Kenyan foreign fighters employ diverse strategies. First, al-Shabaab recruiters cite and employ the 2006 Ethiopian invasion of Somalia to recruit Somali diasporas who live in Kenya. Second, these recruiters target Islamic Kenyans through the utilization of extremist sermons designed to radicalize such individuals. Lastly, al-Shabaab designs messages to the Kenyan population that rely on psychological manipulation.

Al-Shabaab leverages its relationship with al-Qaeda and English propaganda to recruit Western foreign fighters. This organization targets American, British, Canadian, German, and Scandinavian Islamic and Somali diaspora populations for recruitment. Al-Shabaab recruiters employ a distinct set of means to mobilize such potential Western recruits. Recruiters, in order to recruit American and European foreign fighters, target those who attended certain mosques and youth centers and seek to exploit their status as unassimilated persons. Messages to such potential recruits focus on how Western governments and populations deprive Somali diasporas, refugees, and Islamists of adequate employment opportunities and engage in discriminatory acts to limit their ability to succeed.

III. Data on Transnational Recruits:

Al-Shabaab’s recruitment efforts to attain foreign fighters prove to be successful. While data on foreign fighters in al-Shabaab fails to be definitive and precise, government and think tanks have produced estimates since 2011. This data, when employed to compare such data over time, illuminate critical trends in the relative strength of al-Shabaab. In 2011, an undisclosed U.S. government official asserted that an internal report indicated that al-Shabaab controlled a mere thousand fighters. Yet, another estimate from 2011 concluded that al-Shabaab possessed three to seven thousand fighters in its ranks. The number of domestic and foreign fighters in al-Shabaab propagated from 2011 to 2014, as a 2014 report disseminated by the U.S. Army War College cited an estimate that al-Shabaab maintained six to seven thousand fighters. This report concluded that seven hundred fifty to one thousand such individuals proved to be foreign fighters. However, the levels of foreign fighters declined from 2014 to 2015, as Somali officials in 2015 dictated that al-Shabaab had an approximate four hundred fifty fighters in its forces.

Collected data on the number of al-Shabaab foreign fighters demonstrates that al-Shabaab’s strength in manpower fluctuated between three to twelve thousand fighters from 2016 to 2018. The latest estimates published by the U.S. Department of Defense, in August 2018, indicate that al-Shabaab possesses three to seven thousand fighters. As of March 2019, there are several hundred foreign fighters in al-Shabaab’s ranks. Therefore, while the number of estimated al-Shabaab fighters have decreased, in recent years, the number of foreign fighters in this FTO has increased. While unclassified aggregate data on the number of foreign fighters from individual nations are unavailable, it is evident that most foreign fighters are Somali diasporas and ethnic Somalis with significant ties to Somalia and local fighters. Al-Shabaab proved to be most effective in their recruitment of Kenyan foreign fighters, due to the proximity of the conflict and substantial Somali diasporas and refugees that reside in the nation. However, this organization’s recruitment of American, British, Canadian, German, Pakistani, and Scandinavian foreign fighters proved to be extensive and successful. Further, a notable number of foreign fighters often hold close relations and kinship to fighters who recruited them.

Al-Shabaab maintains significant levels of foreign fighters in their ranks for several reasons. First, as aforementioned, their partnership with al-Qaeda afforded al-Shabaab with legitimacy and international prestige among jihadis. Second, al-Shabaab benefited previously from an insecure land border between Kenya and Somalia that facilitates foreign fighters’ travels to Somalia. Today, due to increased border security, such recruits are transported by al-Shabaab fighters, who operate as pirates, from MENA nations to the conflict zone. Al-Shabaab foreign fighters boast the highest success rate for successful travels to the conflict zone. One dataset published in a report funded by the U.S. State Department concluded that while al-Shabaab recruits constituted fourteen percent of American foreign fighters, they represented twenty three percent of individuals who reached the conflict zone. Lastly, as aforementioned, they developed effective messages that resonate with potential foreign fighter recruits.