Al-Shabaab is an extremist organization based in Somalia seeking to establish an austere version of Islam. The group operates in Kenya, Ethiopia, and Tanzania. It initially pledged allegiance to al-Qa’ida in 2008, and the current leader is Ahmad Umar.
- In May 2015, ISIS made an appeal for al-Shabaab to abandon al-Qa’ida. In an effort to limit support for ISIS within al-Shabaab’s ranks, Umar called for the capture, torture, and killing of any member attempting to defect to ISIS. Since that time, some members have left to join a newly formed organization, Jabha East Africa, which has allied with ISIS and operates in Somalia, Uganda, and Kenya.
- In Somalia, al-Shabaab primarily targets African Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) forces, attacking government bases and soft targets such as hotels and restaurants that foreign diplomats and officials frequent. In June and October 2017, al-Shabaab claimed responsibility for two separate suicide attacks in the Somali capital of Mogadishu involving individuals ramming explosive-laden cars into hotels, collectively killing at least 40 and injuring more than 56.
As of October 2017, al-Shabaab reportedly has 7,000 to 9,000 fighters operating in Somalia and parts of Kenya. Between September 2006 and October 2017, al-Shabaab deployed at least 216 suicide attackers who killed approximately 2,200 people, according to the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point. Al-Shabaab’s most notable coordinated attacks include the Westgate Mall siege that killed 67 in 2013 and the Garissa University attack in 2015, which killed 148.
Threat to New Jersey: Low
Al-Shabaab has encouraged homegrown violent extremists to execute attacks in the United States, with little success. The group lacks the capability to direct attacks against the United States and continues to focus operations on Africa.
In July 2017, al-Shabaab released the first installment of a new English-language news magazine, Al-Hijrah Bulletin. The magazine featured articles entitled “Beware of the Plots of Those who Want to Water Down Al-Shabaab” and “The West is the Main Source of Terror,” vilifying the West for attacking Muslims.
- In March 2017, the United States designated Somalia as an “area of active hostilities,” allowing offensive strikes that do not require interagency vetting. In June 2017, the United States conducted its first strike under these new rules, destroying an al-Shabaab training and command center. In 2017, the US conducted at least 34 airstrikes in Somalia, at least twice the total for 2016.
- In February 2016, al-Shabaab claimed an attack against a departing Daallo Airlines flight. The attack targeted Western intelligence officials and Turkish NATO forces, but it was unsuccessful in injuring anyone except the attacker, who had concealed a bomb inside a laptop. In 2010, federal authorities arrested New Jersey residents Mohamed Alessa and Carlos Almonte at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York for attempting to travel to Somalia in support of al-Shabaab. Both men received sentences of over 20 years in prison.
- In May, a federal judge sentenced Maalik Jones, a US citizen from Maryland, to 35 years in prison for providing material support, conspiring to receive military training, and carrying and using an AK-47 machine gun, rocket-propelled grenades, and other destructive devices in furtherance of his support for al-Shabaab. Jones traveled via commercial aircraft from New York to Kenya in 2011 and fought for the organization in 2011-15.
Between 2009-11, al-Shabaab was responsible for the most federally indicted individuals in counterterrorism cases in the United States. A majority of these cases occurred in Minneapolis, which is home to a large Somali diaspora. In 2007-11, at least 27 known males left Minneapolis to join al-Shabaab.
In 2006, Omar Hammami, a US citizen from Alabama, traveled to Somalia to become a commander, propagandist, and recruiter for the group. In 2012, he was added to the FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorists list, but al-Shabaab killed him in 2013 for publicly disagreeing with leadership over the strategic direction of the group.