Al-Shabab Resurgence: Policy Options for Somalia

Published on 20th August 2019


The idea of writing a comprehensive briefing policy paper on the state of security of Somalia arose from a one-to-one interview I had with two Al-Shabaab defectors, who were in the leadership circle of Al-Shabaab insurgent organization during my tenure as the Minister of Internal Security for Somalia. However, the recent attack of Banaadir Regional Administration and the subsequent death of the Mayor of Mogadishu Abdirahman Osman (Engineer Yariisow) have rendered more so to put together this paper, which aims to explain of what Al-Shabaab can be capable and not capable.

One of my Al-Shabaab interviewees was a highly-intelligent individual credited for the formation of Al-Shabaab’s intelligence unit known as the Amniyat. Educated in Pakistan, the interviewee met the Head of Al-Shabaab Ahmed Abdi Godane while at a university in Pakistan and eventually joined him during the Islamic Courts Union (ICU). In one of the interview sessions, I asked him how he set up the Amniyat institution. He recounted to me that, while he was researching on the internet, by virtue of a pure lack he found the French counterinsurgency plans in Algeria. Upon studying more on the Algerian insurgents, the interviewee decided to use the technique used by Algeria insurgent liberation movement against French between 1957-1962. That template has become the foundation of the current Amniyat architecture. He also shared with me a copy of that Algerian insurgent setup.

After reading the whole structure myself, I was amazed at how sophisticated the organizational setup of Al-Shabaab’s Amniyat is, not just in terms of their secrecy to conceal the identity of leaders, mid-level leaders, and unit commanders, but also how they use what is called a letter drop or dropbox, that is how information is passed to the person executing the assassination, suicide operation or other explosive attacks. This is the only way insurgents like Al-Shabaab have been successful in modern urban warfare.  I have also asked if he could help dismantle the Amniyat unit, he responded succinctly that is highly difficult, yet is only possible either with the defeat of Al-Shabaab militarily or through a negotiated settlement.

The Resurgence of Al-Shabaab

The resurgence of Al-Shabaab in the last two years is unthinkable and the pace at which it is capable of not only generating revenues from the port of Mogadishu but of investing the surplus revenue in businesses controlled by Al-Shabaab. This combination in earnest sets a dangerous trajectory and the fight against Al-Shabaab more difficult and cumbersome.

Al-Shabaab resurgence and its recent insurgency campaign of attacks and assassinations against AMISOM and Somali security forces have been predictable. As one of the antagonists of the Somalia conflict, Al-Shabaab remains a major destabilizing factor in the ongoing war and poses a major challenge to the international efforts in reconstructing the Somali state, albeit the heavy presence of a strong African Union peace-enforcement force (AMISOM) which is mandated by UN security council resolution to stabilize the country.

After realizing that there is no way it can win the conventional war in major urban Somali cities, Al-Shabaab has changed strategies and resorted to guerrilla warfare against the government and civilians by using improvised explosive devices (IED), vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (VBIED) and suicide attacks against government, AMISOM and civilians to cause maximum damage and minimize its casualties. Joanne Crouch explains that Al-Shabaab’s violence approach is a predictable response to the existential threat posed by the militarised counter-terror approach.[1] Thus, the dominant discourse among the international interventionists purporting Al-Shabaab can be defeated militarily is thus a categorically misleading narrative.

The current campaign of targeting Somali government officials including the latest suicide attack against Banadir Regional Administration resulting in the death of many including three district commissioners and the Mayor of Banaadir region reflects the complexity and superiority of its intelligence unit known as the Amniyat. Mohamed Haji Ingiriis contends that Al-Shabaab is puissant and potent in terms of social, political and military capabilities; not only in Somalia but also in the wider East Africa region.[2]

The Amniyat, as an intelligence unit for Al-Shabaab, is the most important pillar of the organizational structure. It is responsible on matters of internal justice and intelligence operations of the organization and is the most feared unit inside Al-Shabaab. It plans and executes assassinations done in a manner in which the assassin hardly knows the one who had given him such an order. Neither do assassins know the hierarchy of the leaders making brutal decisions to assassinate people, nor how such activities are interconnected to other layers such as Amniyat and other sleeping cells in cities.

The Governance System of Al-Shabaab

Al-Shabaab is also capable of self-financing by collecting local taxation known as Zakawat from areas under its control. According to the UN monitoring group report, Al-Shabaab’s domestic revenue generation apparatus is more geographically diversified and systematic than that of the federal government.[3] The modus operandi of Al-Shabaab of creating a climate of fear allows it to infiltrate, gather intelligence information and collect revenue at will. Many people collaborate with the insurgency group in fear of retaliation. Through such collaboration from the public, the Amniyat unit gets information about government plans, military movements, and members of the government civil servants and security services that are not cooperative with Al-Shabaab. Consequently, Al-Shabaab generates most of its revenues from urban cities under the authority of the Federal Government of Somalia (FGS). Most recently, a large amount of of its revenues came from Mogadishu’s main Bakaara Market, hotels, the Mogadishu port, land, and property sales tax.

More recently, Al-Shabaab has demanded electoral delegates that elected the current members of the federal parliament to attend to Al-Shabaab bases in three different locations to be pardoned or face death. The overwhelming majority heeded to Al-Shabaab threat and were pardoned. They were told to denounce the FGS and to collaborate with them on the election of MPs for the next parliament in 2020-2021. Al-Shabaab strategy is to have more Al-Shabaab MPs or sympathizers in the next parliament, a very dangerous but likely scenario.

The counter-insurgency fight against Al-Shabaab led by AMISOM and Somali security forces and supported by the American airstrikes in the form of drones has given Al-Shabaab a needed respite and allowed it to change its strategies by moving into major urban cities and infiltrate into the population as well as the national intelligence service.

In fact, over the last two years, Al-Shabaab became more potent and more effective, more so, because of largely revenues generated within the capital city Mogadishu. This has allowed it to increase its campaign on attacks against AMISOM and Somali security forces. There are also other important factors that have aided Al-Shabab and its recent resurgence;

1. By creating a climate of fear and through coercion Al-Shabaab controls the population, recruits from the population, controls massive territory, collects taxes and successfully enforces law and order and justice, hence meeting all the benchmark of a state. The climate of fear it creates complemented by the imposition of the Sharia-based justice has allowed Al-Shabaab to garner public support. This influenced the population in major urban cities to seek justice from Al-Shabaab courts. The majority of the population accepted this and is not resented.

2. Particularly, it is also the provisioning of justice that gives a wider public sympathy to the insurgent group in the absence of a government judiciary system that serves for a population longing for fair justice. The prevalence of wholesale corruption and the ineffective and corrupt judiciary system of the government which had failed the provision of justice to its citizens have to some extent convinced more people to seek justice from Al-Shabaab courts. This relatively successful justice system generated sympathy for Al-Shabaab and got amplified on social media and Al-Shabaab controlled social media and radios in major urban cities like Mogadishu.

With all these governance and security activities, Al-Shabaab has positioned itself well within the communities living in the territories under its control. It is therefore advancing a powerful narrative that it is an alternative to the western-backed government in Somalia in terms of provisioning needed services to attract popular support and public legitimacy. Exploring Al-Shabaab’s governance structures, Stig Jarle Hansen explains in his Al-Shabaab in Somalia that its governance structure is revolutionary and functioned better than other Western-backed entity in Somalia.[4]

Why Al-Shabaab Has Become More Potent

Somalia faces colossal challenges in achieving durable peace. Some of these challenges are inherent in the current leadership’s lack of foresight to think outside the box. Indeed, the conventional thinking of winning the fight against insurgent militant groups militarily is farfetched and an outdated narrative. Even with the international and donor partners' support with resources of close to 5 billion dollars and the African Union support with AMISOM forces who have sacrificed their lives since 2007, securing Somalia and flashing out Al-Shabaab remains too costly and too difficult to achieve.

The competing interest of internal and external stakeholders and a lack of capable leadership on the part of Somalia are major challenges to durable peace and security thus making Somalia as the posterchild for externally sponsored security sector projects. In essence, security is a very complex issue and is generally intertwined and integrated with other aspects such as political agreements among all stakeholders and social and political reconciliation. Political stability is a precondition for the fight against Al-Shabaab. The current political squabble between the FGS and federal member states (FMS) has created a further vacuum and Al-Shabaab has took advantage of it by intensifying its attacks against both the FGS and the FMS as demonstrated by the recent attacks on Mogadishu, Kismaayo, and Dhuusamareeb, respectively.

The AMISOM Operations

The use of regional forces (AMISOM) to enforce peace by fighting against Al-Shabab and supporting the FGS is hailed by the international donor partners as a success in Somalia. Despite pushing Al-Shabab and liberating more cities in 2012-2014, AMISOM forces have not brought about the envisaged stability to the country and Al-Shabaab is proving more resilient than before. Hence, pragmatic solutions are required for what evidently is a unique Somali problem.  

In the initial stages from 2012 to 2014, the AMSISOM forces have liberated many cities and towns and confined the activities of Al-Shabaab to few enclaves in southern and central Somalia. However, Al-Shabaab continues to remain the biggest challenge for AMISOM and Somali Security Forces, as Al-Shabaab is much more adaptable to the areas it has been ruling for many years. In addition to the lack of coordination within troop contributing countries (TCC), there is no clear and coherent policy with respect to the independent decision making of AMISOM head of mission commander as well as its command and control structures, and this ambiguity has implicated AMISOM offensive operations as sector commanders often tend to consult with their capitals and do not take instructions from AMISOM head of mission commander. As a result, offensive operations are often delayed or suspended citing coordination challenges.

AMISOM has not taken a major offensive operation against Al-Shabaab since 2014. Indeed, the Operation Indian Ocean in mid-2014 was the last major offensive operation. Another offensive codenamed the Operation Juba Corridor was slated for 2015-2016, but never ensued and in a letter dated December 2015 the African Union admitted that the operation Juba corridor failed.[5] Below are the list of phases and tasks assigned to different AMISOM sectors under operation Juba Corridor:

Phase 1 (May-July 15)

Logistic and force preparation for offensive operation including reliefs in place, reconfiguration of forces and preliminary movements.

Phase 2 (July-August 2015)

(1) Sector 1 (UPDF): Clear Al-Shabaab in and around KURTUNWAAREY, MARKA, GANBOLE, and SABLAALE. Not achieved

(2) Sector 4 (DNDF and ENDF): Seize and block GABODAYO MSR intersection to isolate Al-Shabab in XARDHERE District and cut off the movement of men and equipment Partially achieved.

(3) Sector 5 (BDNF): Secure and consolidate CEEL-BARAF, BIO-CADDE, and ADAN YABAAL. Not achieved.

Phase 3 (September 2015 – Jan 2016)

(1) Sector 1 (UPDF): Destroy Al-Shabaab capabilities, secure and consolidate JILIB and BUAALE. Not achieved.

(2) Sector 2 (KDF): Destroy Al-Shabaab capabilities, secure and consolidate JAMAAME and SAAKOW. Not achieved.

(3) Sector 3 (ENDF): Destroy Al-Shabab, secure and consolidate DINSOR and BAARDHEERE. Achieved by ENDF and with KDF participating in BAARDHEERE.

The African Union cited inadequate manpower, equipment, and resources to fully accomplish the Operation Juba Corridor. Moreover, insufficient and poorly maintained APCs and inadequate Somali National Army were identified as justification for not completing the mission.

It is worth noting that AMISOM resources were slashed by 20% in 2016, and since then the AU was relying on UNSOS for logistical support and have asked for key enablers and multipliers such as helicopters for the future offensive operation to no avail. In fact, the AU-UN joint review report in June 2018 stated that “AMISOM lacks inherent capabilities and needs to utilize its current capabilities as optimal as possible. Additionally, the current mandated task of joint operations against Al-Shabaab is not sufficiently supported with the required multipliers and enablers such as additional attack helicopters”.[6]

Besides, the political, coordination and logistical challenges by AMISOM, other problems are intrinsically internal including the absence of a comprehensive counterterrorism strategy; capable and disciplined Somali National Security Forces; political instability, mismanagement of resources and widespread corruption within the armed forces.

Moreover, the coordinated military counter-insurgency supported by USA drone and airstrikes has given Al-Shabaab a much-needed time to change strategy and reorganize and to infiltrate into the populations in major urban cities. This has allowed Al-Shabaab not only to gather counterintelligence but to garner public sympathy and support by capitalizing the civilian casualties of the US airstrikes.

The Absence of Plan Implementation

The London conference in May 2017 was considered the first major event the FGS under the leadership of President Mohamed Abdullahi Faramaajo attended to showcase its intent on improving security. The FGS and International Partners agreed on the implementation of the National Security Architecture; a comprehensive approach to security which, viewed security from a holistic perspective that encompasses around joint security cooperation and coordination between the FMS and Federal Government as the best option in defeating Al-Shabaab.

This comprehensive approach to security entails the Federal Government supporting the FMS in training and equipping and to jointly cooperate in the fight against Al-Shabaab. Due to political disagreement between the FGS and regional administrations, the FGS failed in the implementation of the National Security Architecture. In the end, the recurring political disagreement has resulted in the FMSs completely suspending their relationship with the FGS.

Consequently, the overall security of Somalia deteriorated as the security vacuum due to the political dispute allowed Al-Shabaab to launch fresh attacks against AMISOM and Somali Security Forces. None of the benchmarks and milestones envisioned in the National Security Architecture were achieved.

The attitude inherent in the Somali leaders of ‘zero-sum-game’ that the winner takes all devoid of any political compromise and consensus resulted in the recurrence of this vicious cycle of political instability, that in turn has allowed Al-Shabaab to regroup, reorganize, and strategize its high target attacks against government and civilians. The attack of political opponents, the violations of basic rights, such as freedom of expression and association, which are all fundamental pillars of democracy have created political infighting and perpetuated security instability.

The Transition Plan

There are major fundamental flaws with the condition based security transition plan (STP) for the handover of security to the Somali security forces; Firstly the term “conditions-based" is  ambiguous, the government might argue constructively to defer infinitely the handover of security responsibility from AMISOM to the Somali security forces until such desirable conditions avail; Secondly, one of the conditions is strong, integrated and disciplined national army that has passed through the test of operational readiness assessment (ORA) in order to take over security responsibility from AMISOM.

Given the current capacity of our armed forces, it is not feasible in the near future to realize such desirable conditions. Resulting in AMISOM drawdown completion as planned in 2020-2021 to be delayed. The only milestone the government highlights as a major success of the transition plan is the transfer of Mogadishu stadium to the Somali security forces.

Corruption within the Somali Security Sector

In a report entitled corruption in the defense sector; identifying key risks to US counterterrorism aid, the US suspended counterterrorism support to Somali National Army, except for Danab Special Forces effective December 2017 citing, inter alia, widespread corruption within the Somali National Army.[7] The logistical and stipend support to 12,000.00 Somali National Army was suspended immediately due to widespread corruption. This is almost half of SNA forces pending on implementation of biometric registration.

Corruption is a major impediment to security sector reform, including eliminating ghost soldiers and reintegration of the army. This system of neopatrimonialism is more pervasive in the security sector agencies including National Intelligence and Security Agency (NISA). Moreover, through a network of client patronage NISA has awarded logistical contracts to close business colleagues and partners in total violation of the procurement law.The financial governance committee (FGC), a committee tasked to monitor tender processes, review and evaluate contracts and enforce compliance with procurement law was kept in the dark of these logistical contracts awarded by NISA and other security sector institutions.

Policy options and Recommendations

The current approaches to defeating Al-Shabaab insurgency has not worked. The current state of security has worsened, while Al-Shabaab has doubled its campaign of attacks against Somali security forces taking advantage of an army that is weak, highly corrupted and underpaid. The counterintelligence and counter-insurgency of NISA is no match to the competent and superior counterintelligence of the Amniyat.

The makeup of the Somali security forces is appalling and can not defeat Al-Shabaab militarily without a comprehensive security sector reform, including disbanding the current lot and building afresh a new Somali army. The current approach of the federal government has been making a cosmetic change to the leadership of the force and replacing sector leadership of the security forces, such cosmetic makeover will not get the job done.

New Strategies and Policies

To win over Al-Shabaab insurgent and defeat it militarily, the government must have an effective counterinsurgency strategy. Al-Shabaab, even though still capable of launching attacks, also has weaknesses and with the right counter-insurgency strategy could be degraded. Al-Shabab has capitalized justice to get public sympathy. An effective counterinsurgency strategy must have its foundation on functioning judicial service, as functioning justice is one of the fundamental tools to counter Al-Shabab Justice and combat terrorism.

During my tenure as Minister of Internal Security, the government has adopted a counterinsurgency strategy based on five pillars; Confront, Consolidate, Contain, Communicate and Convert. Also, the government put in place policies which addressed the risks of radicalization in three key areas; Education, Poverty and Youth Unemployment.

The absence of comprehensive counterinsurgency strategy, such as effective post-incident response and victim support services have contributed to spiral down of public trust in government.      

Negotiated settlement: An Option Worth Considering

There are a plethora of practical policy options and perspectives of addressing violent insurgent organizations like Al-Shabaab, while military counterinsurgency is one option to end the fight against Al-Shabab, it is not the only option. It is also difficult to defeat militarily to an insurgent that avoids conventional warfare and uses modern guerrilla warfare to remain effective and protract the conflict.

With the vast territory under Al-Shabaab control and the revenue it generates to stay effective, the only viable option to end the conflict is through a negotiated settlement. The USA is mediating between the Taliban and the government of Afghanistan after realizing the Taliban couldn't be defeated militarily.  This should be an option that the government must consider if it is serious in protecting its people, as the current trajectory of using force to defeat Al-Shabaab has failed to end the conflict.

By Abdirizak Omar Mohamed

The author is a Member of the Federal Parliament and a Former Minister of the Federal Government of Somalia from 2015-2017. He can be reached at and twitter through @AbdirizakOm

Courtesy: Hiraan

[1] Crouch, J. (2018). Counter-terror and the logic of violence in Somalia’s civil war: Time for a new approach. Retrieved from

[2] Ingiriis, M (2018). Building peace from the margins in Somalia: The case for a political settlement with Al-Shabaab, Contemporary Security Policy, DOI: 10.1080/13523260.2018.1429751,

[3] UNSEMG (2018). Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea – 2018 Report on Somalia. Retrieved from:

[4] Hansen, S. (2013) Al-Shabab in Somalia: The History and Ideology of a militant Islamist group, 2005-2012. New York, NY: Oxford University Press Inc.

[5] Confidential AU internal memo in the possession of the author.

[6] AU-UN report (2018). Joint AU-UN review of AMISOM.

[7] Goodman, C. Arabia, c. (2018) Corruption in the defense sector: identifying key risks to US counterterrorism aid.  

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