Date: 22nd Feb 2016 


This study presents a new take towards the ongoing fight against Al-Shabaab. Special attention is given to the Al-Shabaab militant group as part of the core topics covered in class. The review will analyse the strategies used by radical Islamic terrorist organisations in recruiting members in an attempt to understand why individuals join terrorist groups, and henceforth providing effective solutions to the problem. The study will also examine the history that led to the uprising, reasons behind the militants’ motives and ways through which the whole project can be brought into collapse.


As per April 2016, Kenyans contributed more foreign recruits to Al-Shabaab than any other country, the Connecticut Public Television (CPT) reports. This being despite the fact that the militant group was behind the Garissa University college attack in April 2015 killing 147 students and leaving hundreds of other students injured, and also responsible for the Westgate mall attack in 2013 killing at least 67 innocent civilians. In fact, the report claims that most of the Kenyan recruits were actively involved in these particular attacks against their fellow countrymen, posting a disturbingly inherent question as to why one would turn against his people, let it alone join such an organisation in the first place.

Ideally, any rational individual should see these militant and rebel groups for they are – the inevitable hateful sociopaths and religious extremists who are really just an outgrowth of the peaceful and loving religion that is the Islamic faith, and they only represent a small percentile of the whole religion. But of course this is far from the truth, the groups attract more numbers now than ever which means either these individuals abide by this hateful nature on a massive scale or they are compelled by something else that we haven’t critically thought of.

Understanding these kinds of scenarios can be hard. In fact, it is even harder for individuals with progressive and liberal minded views. Progressive individuals tend to have troubles when envisioning what’s really happening in the world versus what they wish would have happened instead. This trouble arises because of as much as we want to have a set global moral and ethics standards, the brutal reality points in another direction. As a matter of fact, the moral standards spectrum or the moral compass is continuously getting unequally distributed now more than ever. Individuals’ justification towards their action seems to be getting more and more airheaded as time progresses. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise as to why Kenyans would join a rebel group in the neighbouring country even after they attacked their families and friends.

This, however, should not stop our efforts in finding solutions towards stopping extremism for good. In fact, it should encourage us to change our approach to tackling the problem head on, and instead, try to understand the root cause first. There have been a lot of research on the reasons to why people would appeal to the rebel groups’ ideologies, but most of them have been based on mere assumptions rather than critical analysis on the basis of empirical evidence.

This study will try to examine the ideological background of the Al-Shabaab militant group and try to understand the strategies used by the group in aligning with as many people as possible and hence maximising their recruits numbers. The study will attempt to do so with as little assumptions as possible so as to not fall in the dead end trap that most researchers have.

In understanding this narrative, consider multiple case studies were democratic nations have elected leaders with lunatic and fascist views – in a free and fair election – and disregarding the assumed consequence. Backed by history, this has happened over and over again; in fact, it is happening the USA with Donald Trump’s election. So what does this say about the people who aligned with these leaders’ ideologies? Did they not pre-determine the consequence? Were they not literate enough? Or are individuals just extremists and unapologetically irrational in nature?

Of course, these scenarios are complex and different from each other, but research has shown some interesting similarities with the rise of extremist groups in the midst of political, economic, social, cultural and military/strategic crisis. Failure and crisis of any sort in an economy are normally used by individuals with rather abnormal doctrines as an excuse to form a Kurt like rebel movements. With a lot of anger and desperation accompanied with fear of missing out, it normally seems logical for a lot of individuals to seek for rather odd supportive-ideological pillars would never otherwise attract such numbers under normal circumstance. Historical evidence has shown this happening on multiple occasions over and over again, such as with China’s Mao Zedong, Nazi Germany’s Hitler, Italy’s own Benito Mussolini and Soviet Union’s Joseph Stalin just to name a few.

Well, one might still ask, how is all that connected to AL-SHABAAB’s emergence?

To answer the question and to understand this study’s core disquisition on Al-Shabaab’s recruitment, it will be helpful if we got a little perspective and background information on the uprising of the group, which of course goes hand in hand with the history of the Somali civil war.

Background information

Based in East African, Harakat Al-Shabaab Al-Mujahideen or simply Al-Shabaab is a radical Islamic group that is part of the Salafi movement – a movement within the Sunni Islamic faction that emerged during the 18th century in the Middle East campaigning against European colonialism and advocating a return to the traditional and holy ways.

The group’s history can be traced further back from 1991 during early stages of the Somali civil war when Somalia’s dictator Mohamed Siad Barre was overthrown. Having led Somalia (Somali land included) in dictatorship manner for over twenty-two years since the 1969 coup, the political climate was never the same in the country. Different rebel clan groups led by warlords had started revolting since the early 1980s, and were successful in 1991 forcing Mohamed Siad Barre to flee following the capture of the capital Mogadishu.

With prospect anticipation on a more reconciled and automatic shift of power to follow upon, the country disappointed by going on a more doomed pathway. Having no centralised government in power the clan lords of two rebel groups – Ali Mahdi Mohamed and Mohamed Farah Aideed- started scrambling for power in what resulted in casualties among thousands of civilians. In the end Ali Mahdi Mohamed declared himself a president of the republic of Somalia (Southern part of Somalia); while Somaliland (the Northern part) self-declared its independence under the leadership of Abdirahman Ahmed Ali Tuur as their first president and have since gone to form a peaceful and sovereign republic, although it is still internationally recognised as an autonomous region of Somalia.

History was right again since over time statistics have shown that any economy is bound to experience an emergence of a rebel movement/group in the midst of political, social and economic crisis – which was true for Somalia during Siad Barre’s regime and after his overthrow.

In the absence of a centralised government, persistent tension continued in Somalia especially the southern parts. The nation divided among various armed factions who consistently fought each other competing for large-scale political influence in the country. This saw Somalia with high mortality rates due to starvation, disease and very poor standards of living. The UN and the US government had unsuccessfully intervened on multiple occasions in the so-called ‘failed state’ with various peacekeeping attempts. Finally, with reduced tension and conflicts the transitional national government was established in the year 2000.  

The trend towards reduced conflicts continued until 2006 when the Al-Shabaab militant group emerged. The group was an offset of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), which was a joint force of four major clan-based rebel groups who had proclaimed their own territories in Mogadishu and many central and southern parts of Somalia. ICU had enforced legitimation of their will following the strict sharia laws in the captured territories. In 2006, with the help of Ethiopian military troops, the UN-backed transitional government regained most of the South territories from ICU. This sparked the breakdown of ICU into more radical groups, Al-Shabaab being on of them.  

Ideological shifts over time

With over five thousand militant fighters, Al-Shabaab has publicly claimed responsible for casualties caused by their attacks both within and outside Somalia’s borders. Following these attacks the group has been listed as a terrorist group by United Nations, the African Union and a number of major economies in the world including the UK, the USA and Australia.

It is understood that Al-Shabaab’s primary goal is to overthrow the Somali government and establish their ideological legitimation that is based on the Sharia law. As mentioned earlier, the group is part of the global Salafi movement that is campaigning against the Western ideals and advocating the old good and holy ways.

Al-Shabaab’s core ideologies have been reformed on multiple occasions over time, what they stood for then isn’t their mission anymore. With the first group leader, Aden Hashi Ayro, Al-Shabaab modelled the Taliban’s principles because he had received his military training in Afghanistan. During his time the group wasn’t as violent to civilians but they got super vigilant if one broke one of the Taliban version of the sharia code. For instance, thieves would have their arms amputated, execution for those committing adultery and banned a wide range of activities and items that were considered unethical in the Muslim community.

After Aden Hashi Ayro’s death by the US missile attack, Ahmed Abdi Godane (2008-2014) succeeded him. During his time the group retained some of Ayro’s Taliban principles – in 2010 the group banned the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) for its promotion of unethical and antimuslim propaganda – and reformed others in order to align with Al-Qaeda’s ideologies. This came after Al-Shabaab pledged loyalty to Al-Qaeda and its leader of the time, Ayman Al-Zawihiri. The group thereafter redefined their mission stating that their struggle is part of the global jihad. This helped Al-Shabaab to attract more foreigners to its ranks, and more funding from Al-Qaeda and other organisations abroad appealing to their renewed purpose. It was during this time that the group started targeting civilians within and outside its borders through suicide attacks, making the whole of East Africa – Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi the group’s top target. In the name of global jihad, the group had also extended threats to other countries overseas including the big three westerners (the UK, the USA and Canada).  

Following the assassination of Ahmed Abdi Godane by the US air force in 2014, the group declared allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in the following year. This tie denoted yet another reform to their ideologies following the ISIS’ manuscript. This move came with desperation as Al-Shabaab’s influence was constantly weakening in the region.


Al-Shabaab is now weaker than ever. Having lost influence in Mogadishu the militant group has been pushed further into the rural areas of Somalia. And with constant attacks from government forces especially from Kenya and the USA, the group has now dispersed into smaller groups for a higher survival rate of their jihad movement. KDF (The Kenyan Defense Forces) attacked the militant group’s graduation for their recruits’ training, instantly killing several of the group’s leaders including their intelligence chief Mohammed Katarey.  

This means Al-Shabaab is desperately recruiting new members to in order to regain their former influence and possibly surpassing it. The proximal targeted group has customarily been young men of age sixteen to twenty-five from within Somalia and other neighbouring countries, but there have been growing rumours that the group has started recruiting young women too.

During the leadership of Aden Hashi Ayro, the group had gained a lot of support in the country by promising to restore peace and security in the country. This made most individuals to envision them as heroes rather than villains. In fact, the group was a direct ramification of the clan rebel groups which played a huge role in overthrowing Somalia’s dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991. So a lot of numbers joined the group because to them it made sense to be in the winning group that is fighting for the good of the whole public. Over time this vision was skewed when Al-Shabaab rejected Western food aid in the global efforts to combat the 2011 starvation crisis due to drought and famine. Moreover, the group started killing civilians within and outside the country for what it seemed like a strategic move in renouncing their competence as a global threat.  

According to research by the Institute for Security Studies, Anneli Botha and Mahdi Abdile found out that people join the extremists’ organisations for economic and religious reasons, and others through force of course. These reasons don’t come as surprise especially for individuals in Somalia – as for them there is a lot at stake, including social and political dynamics accompanied with poor governance in the country. For individuals from neighbouring countries, it is the religious and ethnic discrimination that makes the recruitment much easier.

However what’s shocking is the fact that even the ones who were taken by force would still choose to stay when set free. When asked why they would choose to stay, the militants attributed to the sense of responsibility and belongingness installed by the group’s daily religious teachings as the main reasons, followed with economic dependence and fear of being hunted down as mere reasoning.  

Al-Shabaab’s recruitment techniques have been changing over time. This is to make the system more sustainable and also partly because times have changed, we seeing more technological advances now more than ever. For instance, the group never used social media platforms back in 2006 but by around 2012 the method became the main form of recruitment. Social media use had been adopted from the major terrorist groups in the Middle East (Al-Qaeda and ISIS). Seeing their immense success, Al-Shabaab had to emulate the process – something that has seen them multiply enormously. In fact, what’s a better way for survival than the ability to adapt to change?

Online recruitment doesn’t not only target the common unemployed and spiritual fulfilment driven youth, but also individuals from wealthy and comfortable backgrounds who are frustrated, angry and alienated seeking to fight for what’s right (whatever that means) in an attempt to bring change. With online recruitment the process is divided into five small processes: discovery, the creation of micro-community, isolation, private communication and finally encourage action.

With the discovery, Al-Shabaab discovers potential recruits through what’s called targeted recruiting. Here the recruiting members search for vulnerable individuals mostly without a sense of life purpose or otherwise with a hatred trigger or doubt towards the western involvement in other countries especially in Africa and the Middle East. The recruiters then move to the next stage, where Al-Shabaab supporters flock onto the potential recruits with answers to their inquisitive questions and suggesting them into groups with supporters and other recruits.

After some months of teachings, brainwashing and conversion for the compelled Christians, the potential recruits are encouraged to isolate themselves from mainstream influence. After this, individuals are confined to classified information about the militant groups through skype or encrypted messaging platforms. Finally, potential prospects are encouraged to either join the group or carry attacks at their home countries.

Solutions & Conclusion

Now having roughly over 7000 active members, effective counter-radicalisation strategies proposals are to be developed imminently. Sympathisers and various activists have organised groups in social media networks engaging in conversations on how to tackle the problem once and for all. But of course, this fight is larger than life, and can not be won by people sitting behind their screens protesting. In fact, even the in-place counter-radicalisation strategies and solutions by different geopolitical organisations such as the EAC(East African Community), AU (African Union), UN and big economies like the US can not and will not be successful if an alternative approach is not taken into account.

In limiting and eventually demolishing Al-Shabaab’s influence in the region, we need to go down the roots and cut down their source of manpower supply. This can start as small as raising awareness among the targeted individuals and groups for recruitment. Ruling out the forced percentile of the militants in the group, this strategy can be enforced through providing alternative economic incentives to the targeted young men and women who tend to join the military groups partly because of economic reasons – many of the recruits were unemployed before joining Al-Shabaab.

Nevertheless, this has been done unsuccessfully against ISIS and AL-QAEDA in the Middle-East by international organisations allied with the local governments. Although bureaucracy, implementation and control had posed a major problem; this also suggests that maybe providing economic incentives is too ideological, and cannot produce positively in practice.

Meaning, we need to understand the incentives behind people joining the group or any other terrorist group, and then place a deterrent solution accordingly. Having learnt various recruitment techniques done by the groups, it is important that we place deterrent and restrictive laws that will either counteract the process or limit the numbers of the recruited.

Firstly, this can be done through working closely with the local Islamic communities and individuals from the affected countries in raising awareness on what is really happening in an attempt to bridge the gap between perception and reality.

Secondly, it is important that the intelligence agencies around the world work closely with different tech companies in coming up with algorithms that will easily decrypt and point alerting texts and conversations. The US CIA agency has been working with Twitter for years now in countering terrorism, but whenever the blocked a suspicious account a lot more accounts were created immediately afterwards. This is surely a wake-up call in developing more effective counter-radicalisation strategies as soon as possible if we are to win this cyber war.

Finally, in all the counter-radicalisation strategies, it is important to reckon that more than a single way is needed to solve the problem of extremism. There is no one ideal model that can counter all terrorist and revivalist problems in our society. We need tackle the problem from every single angle; let it be the use of force in the battlefield, limiting the recruitment process, ceasing their financial networks and support and limiting their ammunitions supply.


Author: Mr.Clevance

I am starting this journey as a self-realization process that I have been meaning to do years now. I hope it changes and inspires you as it will to me.

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