Al Shabaab (Arabic for "the youth") is an Islamic militant group that seeks to create an Islamic state in Somalia. Al Shabaab is linked to Al Qaeda both ideologically and through leadership contacts, training and joint operations in the Horn of Africa, according to U.S. officials.
In a February 2010 press conference, Al Shabaab announced it was aligned with Al Qaeda "to confront the international crusaders and their aggression against the Muslim people." In order to do so, an Al Shabaab leader said, "the jihad of the Horn of Africa must be combined with international jihad led by the Al Qaeda network headed by Sheikh Osama bin Laden."
In June 2011, Al Shabaab reaffirmed its affiliation to Al Qaeda by swearing allegiance to Ayman al Zawahiri, who assumed leadership of Al Qaeda after bin Laden's death in May 2011.
A joint communique issued by Al Shabaab and Al Qaeda in February 2012 further solidified the relationship between the two groups. Zawahiri welcomed "the joining of the Al Shabaab Al Muhajideen Movement in Somalia to Al Qaeda in support of the jihad gathering in the face of the Zionist Crusade campaigan."
Another indication of Al Shabaab's ties with Al Qaeda is Fazul Abdullah Mohammed's leadership role in the Somali-based terrorist organization. Mohammad, a member of Al Qaeda, traveled to Somalia for the first time in the early 1990s to train Somalis to fight the American and U.N. forces, after he had trained with Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. He brought Al Qaeda tactics, including suicide bombings to Somalia, and served as a conduit for foreign financing and fighters to join Al Shabaab.
Mohammed was wanted by the U.S. government for allegedly masterminding the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, which killed more than 220 people including 12 Americans. Kenyan officials have also alleged that Mohammed organized a November 2002 failed missile attack on an Israeli airliner and the bombing of an Israeli-owned resort in Mombasa, Kenya, which killed 15 people. Mohammed was killed at a checkpoint in Mogadishu in June 2011. At the time of his death, Mohammed was found with a list of targets including several prominent institutions in Britain.
Another Al Qaeda leader with links to Al Shabaab was Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, who was killed in a U.S. raid in Somalia in September 2009. He was also connected to the 1998 Embassy bombings as well as the attacks on the Israeli airliner and resort in Kenya.
Al Shabaab has also established links to the Yemeni regional affiliate, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). This relationship was highlighted by information gathered from an Al Shabaab leader, Ahmed Abdulkadir Warsame, who was detained by the American military while traveling between Somalia and Yemen. He reportedly confirmed that Al Shabaab seeks to expand its operations beyond Somalia and has received training and weapons from AQAP.
Al Shabaab started as the military wing of the Somali Council of Islamic Courts, which took over most of southern Somalia in 2006. Though this group was routed by the Somali government and Ethiopian forces, a clan-based insurgent terrorist group remained. The group has managed to exert control over much of southern and central Somalia including large portions of the capital, Mogadishu.
Al Shabaab finances itself through donations from abroad, taxing the areas under its control, and increasingly through piracy and ransom. There are also allegations that Eritrea finances Al Shabaab activities to use it as a proxy against its regional rivals.
The group has claimed responsibility for attacks against Ethiopian forces, African Union troops, and the internationally-supported Transitional Federal Government in Somalia. For example, a suicide bombing in December 2009 killed three government ministers along with 19 others during a graduation ceremony at Mogadishu's Benadir University. More recently, Al Shabaab recruited the Somali Interior Minister's niece, who assassinated the minister in a suicide bombing at his home.
The group has also stated its intent to target Western interests. After the U.S. designated Al Shabaab as a Foreign Terrorist Organization in February 2008, former Al Shabaab spokesman Sheik Mukhtar Robow reportedly told the BBC that, "Al-Shabab feels honored to be included on the list. We are good Muslims and the Americans are infidels. We are on the right path." In April 2009, Al Shabaab fired mortar shells at a U.S. congressman as his plane lifted off from a Somalia airport.
While Al Shabaab's terror-related activities had been confined within the borders of Somalia and its immediate vicinity, twin bombings in Uganda in July 2010 marked the first time the Somali-based organization launched an international terrorist attack. The bombings, which tore through two venues where crowds gathered to watch the broadcast of the World Cup finals, killed more than 70 people, including an American aid worker.
A member of Al Shabaab, who has been arrested for allegedly masterminding the Uganda bombings, reportedly admitted that he was motivated by hatred of the U.S. "My rage was with the Americans whom I deemed responsible for all the suffering of Muslims around the world," the alleged ringleader said. "I targeted places where many Americans go."
Al Shabaab spokesman Ali Mahmud Ragi, who claimed responsibility for the bombings, threatened additional attacks against Uganda and other African countries if they do not withdraw their soldiers from the African Union's peacekeeping mission stationed in Somalia to protect the country's transitional government.
Six months before the Uganda attacks, Somali national Mohammed Muhideen Gelle attempted to kill a Danish cartoonist who printed controversial cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad in 2005. While Al Shabaab did not claim responsibility for Gelle's actions, Danish intelligence officials have alleged that Gelle is linked to the Somali-based terrorist organization.
As further indication of Al Shabaab's intent to operate outside of Somalia, the group has declared an "open battle" against Israel, which it deems the "oppressing Zionist entity," and Jewish interests in Africa.
In November 2009, the terrorist organization announced the establishment of Al Quds Brigade, a military unit specifically tasked with attacking Israel and freeing "Islamic holy places" from the Israelis. A Somali was arrested at the Cairo airport in May 2011 and confessed to being part of a cell with plans to attack Western interest in Egypt and Israel. Previously, 720 Somalis affiliated with Al Shabaab were selected to travel to Lebanon to fight Israel in the 2006 Lebanon War, according to a U.N report. Part of the criteria for selection included combat experience in Afghanistan.
Further demonstrating Al Shabaab's international reach is its recent partnership with Boko Haram, which it announced in June 2011. Boko Haram is an Islamic militant group that wants to establish an Islamic state in northern Nigeria. The group claims that it has sent its militants for training with Al Shabaab in Somalia, and conducted its first suicide bombing in June 2011.