In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Al-Shabaab

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • The Islamic Courts Union and Al-Shabaab’s Emergence
  • Al-Shabaab’s Ideology
  • Al-Shabaab’s Financing
  • Al-Shabaab’s Fighters and Recruitment
  • Al-Shabaab’s Violence
  • Al-Shabaab’s Governance and Civil Society Relations
  • Al-Shabaab, al-Qaeda, and the Islamic State
  • Al-Shabaab Propaganda and Strategic Communications
  • The War against Al-Shabaab: Counterinsurgency and Counterterrorism

International Relations Al-Shabaab
Christopher Anzalone, Jason Warner
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 June 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 June 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199743292-0303


The Somali militant Islamist and proto-state insurgent organization known as “Al-Shabaab” (Harakat Al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen in Arabic and Xarakada Mujaahidiinta Al Shabaab in Somali) is a group with multiple layers of identity. Ranging from the local and national to the regional and transnational, it is a group whose multifaceted self-perception and public portrayals have been some of its greatest sources of endurance since its emergence in 2006. On the one hand, Al-Shabaab’s ideology, goals, and membership are grounded in the domestic Somali context, though it has been able to localize and establish networks of sympathizers and recruits in neighboring East African states, including in Kenya, Ethiopia, Tanzania, and Uganda. On the other hand, Al-Shabaab is also the official East African affiliate of the transnational militant Islamist group al-Qaeda. Al-Shabaab first emerged publicly in 2006 as the most radical faction within the military wing of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU). The ICU succeeded in forming a coalition that led to the establishment of an environment of both relative law and order as well as economic stabilization. When, in 2006, the Ethiopian military invaded Somalia and occupied parts of the country to prop up the Somali Transitional Federal Government (TFG), the ICU collapsed. Al-Shabaab emerged as an independent group spearheading a growing insurgency against Ethiopian military forces and, later, African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) peacekeepers. Beginning in 2008, as Al-Shabaab started to rapidly capture territory, it pursued the establishment of civil-governing mechanisms in areas it controlled. These mechanisms and institutions included a judiciary, police force (the Jaysh al-Hisba), a military wing (the Jaysh al-Usra), and offices of taxation, political affairs and clan relations, education, religious affairs and missionary propagation (daʿwa), health services, agriculture, and social services and charity programs, including a drought and humanitarian relief committee. Alongside its domestically rooted identity, Al-Shabaab also has a transnational, globalist aspect to its organizational identity and is an official affiliate of al-Qaeda, with its leadership having pledged allegiance to the group publicly in February 2012, an oath accepted by al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri. As of 2021—and despite national, bilateral, and multilateral efforts to combat it—Al-Shabaab continues to operate as both an insurgency and a proto-state power, controlling and governing wide swathes of land within the southern, central, and western parts of the country. This article seeks to provide an overview of the best literature available on the history, evolution, activities, and multifaceted identity of Al-Shabaab as an organization with local/domestic Somali, regional East African, and transnational/globalist markers. While existing literature on the group is heavily focused on security issues, more-recent studies have also begun to pay more attention to other aspects of the group, including its proto-state governance and engagement with domestic Somali and local dynamics in other East African countries.

General Overviews

Despite Al-Shabaab’s emergence in 2007, book-length works about the group were rare until the 2010s and still are not as numerous as one might expect. The most important book to date remains Hansen 2013, which emerged as—and still serves as—the authoritative history of the group. More recently, three new book-length overviews of the group have come to light. Most notably, Maruf and Joseph 2018 is the newest and most rigorously authored work on the subject, and the nearest analogue to Hansen 2013. Added to these are the expansive and high-quality Keating and Waldman 2019 as well as Harper 2019, the latter of which is less traditionally academically focused than the preceding works. For its part, International Crisis Group 2018, an overview of Al-Shabaab, remains a useful reference. Though many other works touch on specific dimensions of Al-Shabaab’s rise and evolution, it is the case that few comprehensive pieces have been written on the group.

  • Hansen, Stig Jarle. Al-Shabaab in Somalia: The History and Ideology of a Militant Islamist Group. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199327874.001.0001

    This is the first full-length, scholarly book analyzing the rise and expansion of Al-Shabaab. The author covers the group’s disputed origins, its time as a minority faction with the military wing of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), its emergence in 2007 as a fully independent armed insurgent group, and its 2007–2012 expansion into a territorial proto-state complete with multitiered military, civil bureaucracy, and media structures.

  • Harper, Mary. Everything You Have Told Me Is True: The Many Faces of Al Shabaab. New York: Oxford University Press, 2019.

    Part personal memoir and part analysis of Al-Shabaab, this book includes a particularly detailed look at Al-Shabaab’s complex media and information operations campaign and political propaganda as well as the insurgent group’s relations with civilian communities.

  • International Crisis Group. Al-Shabaab Five Years after Westgate: Still a Menace in East Africa. International Crisis Group Report 265. New York: International Crisis Group, September 2018.

    Five years after the September 2013 Al-Shabaab siege of the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya, the International Crisis Group offers an assessment of the status of Al-Shabaab. While giving a useful overview of the emergence and evolution of the group, and steps taken to fight it, the ICG report argues that overly harsh and unnuanced counterterror efforts will ultimately be unsuccessful.

  • Keating, Michael, and Matt Waldman, eds. War and Peace in Somalia: National Grievances, Local Conflict and Al-Shabaab. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019.

    In what is arguably the most wide-ranging edited volume on Al-Shabaab, a series of forty-four contributors write individual chapters about sundry facets of the group’s rise, evolution, and possible future.

  • Maruf, Harun, and Dan Joseph. Inside Al-Shabaab: The Secret History of al-Qaeda’s Most Powerful Ally. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2018.

    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctv6mtfn2

    Based on extensive interviews with former members of Al-Shabaab’s leadership, military wing, and rank and file, this book traces the history of the group from ca. 2005 to 2017. Attention is paid to Al-Shabaab’s military strategies, recruitment practices, media campaigns, and civil governance, as well as its responses to the challenge of Islamic State–Somalia.

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