Following the collapse of the former military government of Siad Barre in 1991, warlords took control of large swathes of land, turning Somalia into a lawless republic.
A system of Sharia-based courts subsequently became the country’s main judicial system and eventually took on other responsibilities, including establishing law and order. A group of these courts later united to form the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), a rival administration to the Ethiopian-backed Transitional Federal Government formed in 2004. The ICU’s armed branch took up arms to fight the warlords in the capital, Mogadishu.
The ICU’s militia later suffered significant defeats while battling the Ethiopian army, which invaded the country in 2006 to fight it, and lost most of the territory it controlled in southern Somalia. On Dec. 28 that year, the ICU abandoned Mogadishu and moved south, allowing Ethiopian troops to take over the city. By the time it abandoned the city of Kismayo, it had been stripped of nearly all its territory.
It was then that hardline militants broke ranks with the ICU and formed other militant groups to continue their war against the government.
They included a new militia that was given the name Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahidin, which was formed when extremist ideologues hailing from nearly all parts of Somalia held a series of secret meetings in the capital.
According to the Hiraal Institute, a Mogadishu-based security think tank, al-Shabaab began its reign of terror in 2007.
“From 2007, Al-Shabaab had a significant impact in Mogadishu, killing aid workers, journalists and officials from the transitional government. Using wealth accumulated from small businesses it ran, the group established itself across the country. Al-Shabaab also robbed businesses such as Khat dealers, which it considered legitimate targets, and quickly amassed weapons and recruits,” it said.
Between 2007 and 2009, al-Shabaab managed to become the main armed militant group in Somalia through its use of brutality and media tactics.
The al-Qaeda affiliated group by that time controlled a large part of the capital and other major towns and cities in the country, including the port city of Kismayo and the southwestern city of Baidoa. The group said they were fighting an “apostate government” and “foreign invasion” in Somalia, referring to the fragile UN-backed government and African Union peacekeepers.
Experts say the group’s main objectives are to lay claim to the country politically and economically but above all to establish a religious-based rule of law.
“The group’s main purpose in fighting is to run the country with its interpretation of Sharia law,” Mahamed Gulled, an al-Shabaab expert and law professor in Mogadishu, told Anadolu Agency.
“The political game they have in mind is that they want to create an Islamic state in Somalia, but not even only Somalia. They want to control the Horn of Africa as an Islamic state which will be cut from the rest of the world,” he added.
According to the Hiraal institute based in the Somali capital, Mogadishu, the group collects revenue from the taxation of the areas it controls through its Zakawat unit (tax unit). This unit collects detailed information on businesses operating under its control in the south and central Somalia, including agriculture and livestock businesses. Their value is assessed and taxes are imposed. The unit collects $8 million annually.
Bashir Ahmed, a security analyst, told Anadolu Agency by phone that the group also received financial support from Gulf countries, without elaborating.
In the nearly two decades of its existence, al-Shabaab’s insurgency has claimed the lives of thousands of people, including civilians, government officials, aid workers, foreigners and members of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), a UN-backed African peacekeeping mission created in 2007 by a UN Security Council resolution mandate.
In 2009, al-Shabaab claimed responsibility for a major attack that targeted a graduation ceremony in Mogadishu’s Shamo Hotel which left many students, government ministers and other senior officials dead.
Sharif Abdullah, a survivor of the attack, who is currently working as a doctor in Mogadishu, told Anadolu Agency by phone that more than 15 medical students, including his friends, were killed in the attack.
“We were students who went there for the graduation ceremony. But what happened was one of the darkest days of my life. More than 15 students, including my friends, lost their lives. I myself also lost two fingers from that brutal attack,” Abdullah said.
In 2011, a devastating car bomb blast targeted students who were planning to travel to Turkey after receiving scholarships at the Hargaha Iyo Saamaha building in Mogadishu, killing more than 100 people. Al-Shabaab claimed responsibility for the attack.
“I lost a lot of my friends, family. I was also wounded badly in the attack. My dream was to become one of the best gynecologists in the country, but it was shattered, Rahma Hussein told Anadolu Agency.
On Oct. 14. 2017, a double truck bombing at Mogadishu’s busy Kilometer 5 intersection killed more than 500 people and wounded many others. The Somali government blamed al-Shabaab for the attack.
On Dec. 28, 2019, a truck full of explosives went off at a busy intersection in Ex-Control Afgoye, a southwestern suburb of the capital, killing more than 90 people, including two Turkish nationals, government soldiers and university students. Al-Shabab claimed responsibility for the attack.
Hiraal Institute chairman Hussein Sheikh Ali told Anadolu Agency that al-Shabaab is targeting every nationality.
“They’ve attacked every nationality since 2007. There is nothing particular to Turkey,” he said
The group also claimed responsibility for attacks in neighboring Kenya and Uganda which killed hundreds of people.
Abdirashid Hashi, executive director of the Somalia-based popular think-tank the Heritage Institute for Policy Studies (HIPS), told Anadolu Agency that al-Shabaab will not be defeated militarily but through negotiations.
“Al-Shabaab is a decade-old insurgency and they exist because of the collapse and existing weakness of the Somali state and its security apparatus,” he said.
Al-Shabaab will probably not be defeated militarily, as international military efforts have more or less stagnated and there is no sign of a schism within which an internal implosion could result. Thus, a negotiated settlement — though not attractive now to all parties — may be what will finally be needed.”