As ISIS Fades Al-Shabaab is Building its Own Islamist State

Published November 23rd, 2017 - 12:17 GMT
Al-Shabaab soldiers, Al Bawaba
Al-Shabaab soldiers, Al Bawaba


  • ISIS is on the verge of total military defeat in the Middle East
  • As the world looks to where 'ISIS 2.0' will spring up, attention should go toward Al-Shabaab in Somalia
  • The group maintains its own Islamic state, and threatens to only become more dangerous
  • Local troops have proven to be ineffective at fighting the group, and African coalition troops are pulling out, providing a window of opportunity for Al-Shabaab to thrive


By Ty Joplin


“There are different forms of government such as democracy or dictatorship imposed by the military. But these are all created by people. Only the Islamic state is based on the word of God. God is the only true principle and it is the duty of all Muslims to follow God’s word.” These words sound like they come from a member of the notorious Islamic State (ISIS), but they have not.

They are from a former fighter for Al-Shabaab, an extremist group operating in Somalia.

As the remnants of ISIS’ so-called caliphate is stamped out in Iraq and Syria, many are cautiously optimistic to see the group’s waning power while holding their breaths in anticipation for its next iteration.

An ‘ISIS 2.0’ lurks in the future, but Al-Shabaab has been here all along, cementing its hold on much of southern Somalia while the world watches the ISIS’ unfolding thousands of miles away in the Middle East.

Another extremist Islamic state is already here. Al-Shabaab is on the rise and promises to only become more dangerous in the near-future.

Al-Shabaab, meaning ‘the youth,’ in Arabic, first came to prominence in 2006 when it broke off from the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), a coalition of Sharia courts attempting to rival Somalia’s government. After a few years, it briefly captured Mogadishu, Somalia’s capital, and pledged allegiance to Al-Qaeda, formally integrating it into the global jihad.

A successful campaign by African Union troops (AMISOM) drove the group back into more rural areas of southern Somalia, but was unable to defeat the group entirely.


Understanding Al-Shabaab’s Success

Al-Shabaab militants, AFP/File

The group, which has integrated into the social dynamics of Somalia’s clans and has dynamically changed its tactics from conventional to guerrilla warfare and terrorist tactics, has a staying power that neither ISIS nor its counterpart, Boko Haram, has.

When ISIS stormed the scene in 2014 with the capture of large swathes of northern Iraq and Syria, it became apparent their brand of jihadism did not involve ingratiating itself with locals.

With tens of thousands of foreign fighters, mass executions, and a socio-political vision of creating an entirely new society, ISIS isolated itself from its local context.

Al-Shabaab, on the other hand, has comparatively fewer foreign fighters, and though its propaganda routinely refers to the global jihad, its goals and strategies remain firmly entrenched in Somalia.

It organizes its troops largely according to clan affiliation and has only attacked targets outside Somalia in response to those states’ involvement in Somalia. For instance, its attack on a Nairobi mall in 2013 was meant to be revenge for Kenya’s military engagement against it.



Boko Haram is the Central African-based group that gained widespread notoriety after it kidnapped 276 schoolgirls in 2014 and seized parts of northeastern Nigeria. And while it has killed more people than Al-Shabaab, it was cut down by a large military campaign co-run by Nigeria and elite South African mercenaries.

Al-Shabaab is able to attract a steady stream of recruits. “I joined mainly for economic reasons because I wanted to make more money,” a former fighter told Deutsche Welle. Al-Shabaab is one of the few organizations in Somalia that has been able to provide a competitive and stable wage to Somalis, making it a rational choice to join in a deprived and lawless environment.

As a governing body too, Al-Shabaab has been able to assert a level of control and stability rarely seen in the wartorn country. “Al-Shabab collects taxes from the population. They tax you for your house, for your land and for your children. If you want to send your child to school, it costs around five dollars a month.”

Part of the reason why it is able to assert such control is its brutality. It routinely executes civilians and even members of its own group, and exploits desperate populations, coercing women to be sex slaves and training children to be soldiers for its cause.


Al-Shabaab’s Dangerous Future

Somali soldiers AFP/File

The Trump Administration has recognized the unique danger of Al-Shabaab, and ramped up airstrikes on the group. One airstrike on Tuesday Nov. 21 reportedly killed around 100 Al-Shabaab militants. Trump also increased U.S. troop presence from 50 at the beginning of the year to 500.

Meanwhile African Union troops (AMISOM), the only force that has been capable of combating Al-Shabaab with any success, is beginning to withdraw from Somalia.

Though Turkey has invested millions in training local troops and even built its largest overseas base made to train thousands of Somali soldiers, it will likely not be enough to seal the political vacuum that AMISOM’s departure will cause. Local Somali soldiers have been historically unable to cope with Al-Shabaab.

The group has already exploited AMISOM’s change from offense to defense and begun recapturing territory it lost, taking numerous towns in the Middle Shabelle of southern Somalia, an reportedly overran a military base in the Hiran region on central Somalia.

On Oct. 14, Al-Shabaab carried out the deadliest attack in Somali history, killing over 350 in Mogadishu with truck bombs.

Al-Shabaab is here to stay, and promises to exacerbate an already-dire humanitarian situation.

If ISIS is a blueprint of how to not construct a lasting, extremist Islamic state, Al-Shabaab may show to future jihadists how to build one with terrifying lasting power.



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