al-Shabaab: An Ongoing Threat to the Horn of Africa, the U.S. and its Western Allies

The Counterterrorism Group (CTG) is actively tracking and reporting on al-Shabaab within many of our teams, including AFRICOM, Weapons and Tactics, and Behavior and Leadership. This Intelligence & Analysis Report assess the rise to power and faltering leadership of Ahmed Umar Abu Ubaidah.


The Somali-based, and al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorist group, al-Shabaab is classified as an ‘Ongoing’ threat. Somalian, Djibouti, Kenyan and Ethiopian countries are frequently targeted with bombing and assault weapon attacks. There is a possibility that changes in al-Shabaab’s top leadership will occur due to frequent rows between al-Shabaab leader, Ahmed Umar Abu Ubaidah and his deputy, Ali Fidow, along with Ubaidah’s constant clan disputes with al-Shabaab councilmembers.


al-Shabaab fighters


Al-Shabaab is a radical Islamic, non-state actor known for its strict ideology and deadly missions throughout the eastern African regions. Also known as al-Shabaab al-Islaam, Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen (HSM), and “The Youth,” the organization’s ultimate goal is to forge an Islamic State throughout the Somalian, Djibouti, Kenyan and Ethiopian regions. Within the Somali capital city of Mogadishu, al-Shabaab terror campaigns consist of vehicle borne improvised explosive devices (VBIEDs), armed assaults, and targeted assassinations. Throughout the remaining parts of the country, militants utilize improvised explosive devices (IEDs), kidnapping assaults and organize ambushes on African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) outposts. For training purposes, al-Shabaab has erected hand-to-hand combat, suicide and hostage training camps throughout Somalia. Al-Shabaab soldiers not participating in organized attacks are charged with strictly enforcing sharia law and Salafi jihadism in Somali desert towns and villages.


Over the past six years, al-Shabaab has been heavily targeting Kenya with explosives and heavy gunfire. In September 2013, al-Shabaab gunmen attacked a Nairobi shopping mall killing sixty-seven people. Two years later, militants shot and killed an estimated 150 people at the Garissa University College in Garissa, Kenya. Most recently, on January 15, 2019, al-Shabaab gunmen raided the DusitD2 hotel in Nairobi, Kenya, killing twenty-one. Although assaults against government forces and third-party actors are decreasing in number, the destructive nature of al-Shabaab’s attacks on soft targets is increasing. Al-Shabaab militants have combined the use of explosives to create devastation and panic, while utilizing heavy gunfire to obtain the highest number of casualties, averaging at 4.3 deaths in 2019, up from 1.9 in 2018.


Al-Shabaab’s current leader, Ahmed Umar Abu Ubaidah, is a hostile Somali-national seeking to avenge the assassination of his predecessor. Ubaidah, who’s birth name is Ahmed Diriye, was born in Kismayo, Somalia in 1972, and derives from the Dir clan. Ubaidah assumed leadership of al-Shabaab after the death of its former leader, Ahmed Godane, who perished in a 2014 U.S. air strike. Ubaidah is presumably in Somalia, and is reported as being obsessed with the killing of non-Muslims. Ubaidah vows to engage in war with the Somali government and Somali allies over the death of Godane.


Over the course of thirty years, Ubaidah’s radical military and political occupation has led to global recognition. In 1996, Ubaidah joined the al-Ittihad al-Islamiya (AIAI) and the Ras Kamboni Brigade. In 2003, AIAI merged forces with the Islamic Courts Union (ICU). By 2006, Ubaidah became a low-ranking officer in the ICU. Later that year, ICU was ousted from Mogadishu by Ethiopia, and Ubaidah united with al-Shabaab. In 2008, Ubaidah served as the deputy governor of al-Shabaab’s Lower Juba region. The following year, Ubaidah assumed additional responsibility serving as al-Shabaab’s governor of the Bay and Bakool regions. Four years later, Ubaidah was assigned as Ahmed Godane’s assistant, and in 2013, his tenacious personality set him on the path to become Godane’s senior advisor. At this time, Ubaidah continued to serve in al-Shabaab’s Interior Department where he oversaw the group’s domestic activity. In September 2014, a U.S. air strike extinguished Godane’s tenure, and as a result of a council vote, Ubaidah, who was second in command, became the official leader of al-Shabaab. In April 2015, Ubaidah was listed as a “Specially Designated Global Terrorist” by the U.S. State Department.


Under Ubaidah’s leadership, al-Shabaab has reaffirmed its allegiance to al-Qaeda. Al-Shabaab serves as a key link between the Middle East and Africa for the al-Qaeda network and is gaining ground in Somalia. Al-Shabaab generates funding for al-Qaeda through taxation and trade control. Ubaidah’s hopes for al-Shabaab is to become an elemental part of al-Qaeda’s greater aspiration of global jihad.


Ahmed Umar Abu Ubaidah’s position as leader of al-Shabaab is failing as he is highly disrespected by al-Shabaab councilmembers due to alleged acts of fraud and his inability to alleviate clan disputes. After the death of Ahmed Godane, the al-Shabaab top decision-making council, “the Shura”, did not unanimously assign Ubaidah as Godane’s successor. As there is no documentation, or any inclination of Godane officially assigning Ubaidah as his successor, prior to his death in 2014, Shura members are uncertain as to whether Ubaidah is a qualified leader. Repetitive reports of internal spying and multiple attempts to kidnap elders from competing clans has demonstrated Ubaidah is unable to effectively mediate and organize al-Shabaab’s factions. Disagreement over al-Shabaab’s financial structure has also forced Ubaidah’s deputy, Ali Fidow, the overseer of al-Shabaab’s governorates and finance division, to openly challenge a misallocation of funds used for Ubaidah’s personal expenses.


The United States, the United Nations and other international agencies are taking action against al-Shabaab and its leadership. The UN has placed al-Shabaab on the UN 1844 sanctions list, imposing a travel ban, freezing the group’s assets and establishing an arms embargo. In conjunction with the UN, the U.S. has listed al-Shabaab as a terrorist threat and has frozen al-Shabaab’s assets. The U.S. Rewards for Justice Program has issued a $6,000,000 bounty against al-Shabaab group members. Along with the U.S., the Somali government has offered $250,000 for information leading to Ubaidah’s capture, along with $150,000 for al-Shabaab’s intelligence chief, Mahad Warsame Qaley, and $100,000 for al-Shabaab’s spokesman, Ali Mohamed Raage. Other al-Shabaab commanders with assigned $100,000 bounties include: Abdullahi Abdi Jumaale, Mohamed Mohanoud Nor, Ali Mahamed Huseen, Hasan Mahaed Ali, Abdullahi Ismaan, Mahamed Abdi Musa, Mahamed Mahamuud and Yasin Ismman.


By appealing to impoverished Somali communities, al-Shabaab and its members remain an ongoing threat to eastern African countries, the U.S. and Western allies. As famine looms in Somalia, al-Shabaab has the potential to broaden its support base by providing security and aid to local towns and villages. Presently, foreign governments continue to assist Somalia via financial, logistical and troop support, while law enforcement agencies actively track the whereabouts of Ahmed Umar Abu Ubaidah. However, more needs to be done to subjugate al-Shabaab’s authority. Once Ubaidah’s location is determined, law enforcement officials should act immediately to extract Ubaidah and other top-ranking al-Shabaab members from the region.


To suppress al-Shabaab influence in underdeveloped Somali desert regions, international agencies should cooperate with non-profit organizations to re-stabilize the community. Assisting foreign and local agencies, The Counterterrorism Group (CTG) analysts presently monitor communication feeds through sources like Twitter, which highlight al-Shabaab activities in and around the country of Somalia. Analysts also closely survey AMISOM press releases and live news coverage from within Somali regions to pinpoint potential areas of attack. Monitoring political developments, hazardous environmental situations, and terrorist activity, CTG works to provide foreign and domestic agencies with a schematic of identified threats, vulnerabilities and potential impact resulting from al-Shabaab terror campaigns. Please contact us if you have any questions.


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1. Image from Flickr, https://www.flickr.com/photos/53911892@N00/12496207603/in/photolist-k3fkae-7t3j7z-aRvbjM-aK852n-7bD89q-cMaGvG-pVzJ8B-d92Kn5-a9ioMS-bUJM16-cb4Ga9-nACSqm-c7he3u-cMaMb5-bTi6D6-bisfze-2ed3VQy-DjBxuq-XthY1Y-bEon5G-cMaKK1-diQruy-bTi6gH-7Y4JHw-DJgPh9-avoist-qDRZoi-mWzvvs-mWxA12-7AcwWM-biwzwV-dt8Sts-EMP1Eo-dxy5Gv-dJ8EYS-dieZPG-bEomQQ-bZsiFj-bTi5BR-bmv7m2-bEomWL-c7he71-c7hemd-7x4iPx-fvGwyC-eiTs34-anHn4K-cb4HVY-dgkSgj-9yi5md

2. Al-shabab, Counter Extremism Project, 2019, https://www.counterextremism.com/threat/al-shabab#history

3. Nairobi DusitD2 hotel attacked by suspected militants, BBC News, January 2019, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-46880375

4. Not with a Whimper but with a Bang: Al Shabaab’s Resilience and International Efforts Against the Rebels, The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), 2019, https://www.acleddata.com/2019/01/27/not-with-a-whimper-but-with-a-bang-al-shabaabs-resilience-and-international-efforts-against-the-rebels/

5. Ahmed Umar Abu Ubaida, Counter Extremism Project, 2019, https://www.counterextremism.com/extremists/ahmed-umar-abu-ubaida

6. Ahmad Umar, Wikipedia, April 2019, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ahmad_Umar

7. Profile: Ahmad Umar (Abu Ubaidah), Critical Threats, February 2015, https://www.criticalthreats.org/analysis/profile-ahmad-umar-abu-ubaidah

8. Sheikh Ahmed Umar Abu Ubaidah aka Ahmed Diriye; Al-Shabaab’s Indifferent Takfiri Emir, Strategic Intelligence News, June 2016, https://intelligencebriefs.com/sheikh-ahmed-umar-abu-ubaidah-aka-ahmed-diriye-al-shabaabs-indifferent-takfiri-emir/

9. Hussein Ali Fiidow’s Challenge to al-Shabaab Leadership, The Jamestown Foundation, June 2018, https://jamestown.org/brief/hussein-ali-fiidows-challenge-to-al-shabaab-leadership/

10. Security Council 751 and 1907 Committee on Somalia and Eritrea Adds Ahmed Diriye to 1844 Sanctions List, United Nations, September 2014, https://www.un.org/press/en/2014/sc11579.doc.htm

11. Somalia puts bounty on al-Shabab leaders, BBC News, April 2015, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-32242632

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