Most terrorist groups fold within three or so years of their first attack. Yet al-Shabaab is closing in on its 20th birthday. Despite active military campaigns from Somalia's neighbours and the international community, it has shown little sign of collapse.
Why is al-Shabaab proving to be so resilient?
A large part of the answer lies in its strategies : they're early adopters of tactics and technologies that work for other groups, they're particularly good at extorting taxes from large swaths of the population in Southern Somalia and the Somali diaspora , and they invest heavily in support networks beyond their immediate area of control that exploit governance gaps.
This model allows them to effectively operate an insurgency on a shoestring .
But an overlooked element of al-Shabaab's success is their tactical diversification into criminal activities. I set about tracing the group's criminal activities throughout the Horn of Africa. Based on my findings, I concluded that these made the group significantly more resilient to counterterrorism and counterinsurgency campaigns, extending both its lifespan and operational capability.
This “criminal pivot” is acting as a pipeline of money and fighters, reinvigorating the group, particularly as it continues to strike in Kenya.
Who is al-Shabaab?
Al-Shabaab emerged around 2004 as the youth wing of the Islamic Courts Union, a collection of neighbourhood Sharia courts that had arisen to fill Somalia's governance void of the 1990s. When the courts union was overthrown by an Ethiopian invasion in 2006, al-Shabaab transformed from a fundamentalist footnote to an independent insurgency. It was quickly able to gain control of Southern and Central Somalia .
The organisation was designated a terrorist group by the US two years later. But it wasn't until 2010 that al-Shabaab successfully carried out a terrorist attack in a country other than Somalia. The group deployed suicide bombers to Uganda in July. Seventy four civilians who had gathered to watch the World Cup were killed . In the ten years since then it has continued to strike outside its area of territorial control and built its “brand” as a nationalist movement with intent to displace foreign troops from Somalia .
In 2011, Kenya became the group's primary international target after the country launched Operation Linda Nchi and deployed the Kenyan Defence Forces into Southern Somalia.
In 2018, I went to Nairobi to explore how and to what extent al-Shabaab was operating outside of Somalia. Al-Shabaab has been described as a “semi-territorial” organisation that is deeply entrenched in communities far beyond its nominal area of control. I thought these external networks would be key as to why al-Shabaab is so durable.
I spoke to militants, gang members, family members, as well as law enforcement, intergovernmental organisation representatives, and community leaders. The picture that emerged showed the critical importance of one specific network – crime and criminals– for al-Shabaab's inter-state strength.
Recruitment and funding
Al-Shabaab uses crime in two ways: for funding and for recruitment. The funding mechanism makes obvious sense – the group has operational costs and crime ensures the group avoids the attention of authorities.
The recruitment of petty criminals makes less obvious sense. Why would burglars or low-level drug dealers want to join up with an extremist organisation?
A few explanations emerged. Criminals – or suspected criminals – who have been arrested were often offered the services of a lawyer and bail in exchange for joining al-Shabaab, paid for by the group.
Recruitment also offers a psychological escape hatch. Family members relayed that their son or brother had become dissatisfied with his life of petty crime and was “looking for something more”.
Finally, my interviews showed that the high rate of extrajudicial killings in Nairobi pushed gang members and petty criminals to join al-Shabaab as a defensive measure.
Al-Shabaab's revenue stream is significant. In 2018, the UN Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea estimated that the group made somewhere between $70 to $100 million annually .
Most of those funds come from extortion: taxes on trucks that pass through their territory, businesses that operate in their area of influence, pastoralists bringing their animals to market, and other fees for daily transactions.
But a significant percentage of their revenue comes from illicit transactions: the buying and selling of guns , commodities , and other internationally restricted substances.
One of the major areas of al-Shabaab's criminal profit is centred around commodities like sugar and charcoal smuggling. Raw sugar is shipped from Brazil into ports in Somalia controlled by al-Shabaab, and then moved overland across the border. Charcoal is often trafficked out of Somalia via Iran and Kenya and resold internationally.
Livestock is another commodity from which al-Shabaab profits. This is because livestock markets in Somalia and Kenya are robust and under-regulated. Al-Shabaab requires farmers to provide some of their animals for sale by the organisation. According to the Hiraal Institute – an independent Somalia-based security think tank – the al-Shabaab tithe rate is one camel out of every 25, or one goat out of 40.
This may seem insignificant. But these animals represent a significant profit – camels on the open market fetch between $400-$600 and goats about $30.
Policymakers in Kenya and the international community need to recognise that regional crime networks are allowing al-Shabaab to thrive. By treating crime as an important and permanent feature of extremist groups rather than a temporary or accidental divergence, better policy recommendations and security strategies can be developed.
Such solutions will require a shift away from tactical thinking about territorially bound threats and towards regional strategies. They would require a concerted emphasis on creating partnerships and a strategic pivot toward understanding the intersection of terrorists and criminals.
In the shorter term, crime, illicit flows, smuggling, and corruption should be reframed as national security concerns – not just policing problems. Doing so would require building law enforcement capacity with integrity and oversight. Heavy handed tactics and extrajudicial killings will serve only to deepen the pool of possible recruits.
Katharine Petrich received funding from Northeastern University to conduct research on this project.
By Katharine Petrich, PhD, Political Science, Santa Clara University