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Last updated: June 2022

Al-Shabaab is an Islamist Sunni Salafi jihadist armed group based in Somalia. It was formed in the early 2000s and seeks to establish an Islamic caliphate in the country [Actors, 4]. Its main unifying idea is the ‘opposition to the Western-backed government’ [Security 2021, 1].

Al-Shabaab previously held sway over Mogadishu but was pushed back out of major urban centres by military campaigns. Al-Shabaab de-facto controls territory and vast areas along the Juba and the Shabelle valleys (Middle Juba, the sole Somali region that falls entirely and exclusively under Al-Shabaab’s full control; Lower Juba; Bay; Lower Shabelle; Middle Shabelle), large coastal and swathes around Harardhere, El Dher, and El Buur in Central Somalia (Galgaduud), and vast portions of territory in other regions (Hiraan; Bakool; Gedo; Mudug) [Actors, 4.1, Security 2021,].

While the group controls large swathes of rural territory in central and southern Somalia, its level of penetration and influence has further widely permeated Somali society by means of threats and violence against individual and communities, infiltration and control of information sources, and the manipulation of formal institutions such as the financial sector [Security 2021, 1].

In terms of military outreach, Al-Shabaab reportedly remained undeterred in attacking SNA and AMISOM forces in the (contested) regions in South-Central Somalia. Al-Shabaab also retained operational military capacity in Puntland, where it has steadily become stronger, and in Somaliland, as well as presence in south of Puntland. Moreover, it regularly conducted bomb attacks and assassinations in Mogadishu (Benadir), causing dozens of civilian casualties. [Actors, 4.1, Socio-economic 2021,]

It has been reported that the Jabahaat, Al-Shabaab’s military wing, increased in terms of numbers of active fighters, from an estimated 2 000 – 3 000 in 2017 to 5 000 – 7 000 in 2020 [Targeting, 1; Actors, 4.2.1]. It comprises six main Jaysh (‘army’), two special ones, a reinforcement department, and a special battalion. Mine specialists, infantry small units with strong firepower, rapid reinforcement for emergency situations, medical units, communications, registrations, transportation, media and officers in charge of raising the morale of fighters constitute the forces of Al-Shabaab [Actors, 4.2.1]

The Amniyat is the intelligence and counter-intelligence agency of Al-Shabaab used to undermine local governance and enforce Al-Shabaab rules in enemy territory. It is also used, in combination with the Jabahaat, in the group’s wider strategy of defeating the allied forces. The Amniyat is also a special paramilitary force carrying out killings and assassinations against alleged collaborators of the government, a ‘justice provider’ punishing alleged ‘spies’ and committing summary executions without trial in court, and an ideological guide maintaining unity within the movement and disciplining its fighters [Actors, 4.2.2].

Improvised explosive devices (IEDs) continued to be Al-Shabaab’s most used type of attack/weapon. The group also conducted raids or hit-and-run attacks, large-scale complex attacks, mortar attacks, assassinations, and hand grenades attacks. Al-Shabaab maintains sieges on population centres that fall to the allied forces by manning checkpoints, laying ambushes, and conducting harassment raids on allied bases. The group’s main targets continued to be the SNA and AMISOM. Somali police force and civil servants working for the FGS and the FMS were also specifically targeted. [Actors, 4.2.3; Targeting, 6.1, 6.2]

In the context of the conflict against anti-Al Shabaab forces, Al-Shabaab committed the majority of the severe human rights abuses reported during the reference period, including attacks on civilians and targeted killings as well as disappearances. Moreover, Al-Shabaab was responsible for inhuman and degrading punishments, rapes and conflict-related sexual violence, attacks on employees of non-governmental organizations and of the UN. The group also blocked humanitarian assistance, recruited child soldiers, and restricted freedom of speech, press, assembly, and movement. For the period 1 August 2016 – 30 September 2019, the UNSG attributed to Al-Shabaab 10 000 violations against children, including child recruitment, killing, maiming and execution of children, rape and sexual violence, attacks on schools and hospitals, abductions, and denial of humanitarian access. [Actors, 4.5]

The relations between Al-Shabaab and clans are ambiguous. Though the Hawiye clan members dominate the different levels of the organisational structure of the group, all major lineages are represented in the organization, with Digil/Mirifle and Bantu constituting the main source of foot soldiers [Targeting, 1.1]. While, traditionally, the xeer and the clan logic rule Somali life, Al-Shabaab asserts that religion is what binds all clans together. At the same time, the group often appears to take advantage of clan loyalty as an effective attraction tool, using the frustration of minor clans with major clans for its own interest. [Actors, 3.5, 4.3.1]

Al-Shabaab has a dual education system including, on the one hand, the Islamic Institutes system, which is mandatory and is used to create a pool of new recruits for the group, and, on the other hand, the regular school system, which is optional and teaches an Al-Shabaab-designed syllabus. The group also has a ‘bush university’ that produces jurists and Islamic clerics who spread and reaffirm Al-Shabaab’s ideology. [Actors, 4.3.1]

Checkpoints taxation, business extortion, imports taxation at major seaports, and real estate companies are multiple sources of funds for the group. Al-Shabaab also taxes livestock, agricultural produce, and irrigation, collects the zakat (the annual religious obligation to pay a specific percentage of a person’s wealth to the poor), raises emergency funds when the local Al-Shabaab government is short in cash, and taxes government officials who leave part of their salaries to the group so as not to be targeted by it. This taxation system is underpinned by intimidation, fears over business continuity and personal safety, and violence in the case of non-compliance. [Actors, 4.3.2]

Al-Shabaab also operates its own justice mechanism in areas under its control and also elsewhere via mobile courts, and may impose severe punishments, such as executions and amputations [Actors, 4.4]. See also relevant profile of 2.6.1 Individuals (perceived as) contravening Islamic laws in Al-Shabaab controlled areas. For more information on Al-Shabaab’s justice mechanism, see Al-Shabaab under Actors of protection.

Women’s rights and freedom of movement are limited by Al-Shabaab. For more information on the treatment of women by Al-Shabaab, see Violence by Al-Shabaab under profile 2.11 Women and girls.

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For further information on human rights violations committed by Al-Shabaab forces and their relevance as potential exclusion grounds, see chapter Exclusion.