The Harakat Al-Shabab al- Mujâhidîn (more commonly known as al-Shabab) was founded in 2004 but rose to prominence in 2007. It is an armed faction which assumes many other names, including: Harakat Shabab al-Sumâlî, Harakat al- Mujâhidîn, Al-Shabab al-Jihâdî, etc. The first action of the Somali al-Shabab movement was to weaken the Sufi brotherhoods, including the Qâdiriyya brotherhood. It is an ideological battle which former students in Saudi Arabia and Sudan have led for more than thirty years by accusing the Sufi brotherhoods and their Sheikhs of “Kufr” (denial) of the “Shirk” (associationism), and by posing as “missionaries” to “purify” the practices of Islam in Somalia.
In the 1970s and 1980s, many young Somalis left to study in Saudi Arabia when the Wahhabis Salafism started to impact the Somali religious landscape with a vast movement to “rectify dogma” (Tashîh al-‘aqâid) and to fight against Sufism, notably the Qâdiriyya brotherhood. This brotherhood is quite active in Somalia in the form of a branch called Rabî’iyya, founded by Shaykh Muhammad Rabî’u Dîn.
In the context of the promotion of Salafism since the 1960s, Saudi Arabia has contributed significantly to the formation of young Somalians who frequently attended university in Medina and Mecca (Ummul Qurâ University) through funded scholarships. This financial support enabled the birth of Al-Ittihâd al-Islâmî (The Islamic Union), which was heavily invested in “da’wah” (preaching) between 1982 and 1984 and was led by Sheikh Ali Warsma.
This union was born of the fusion between two Salafist movements: la Jamâ’a Islâmiyya and Wahdat al-Shabâb al-Islâmiyya. In addition to students from Saudi Arabia, other members also came from Sudanese universities and even Egypt (such as al-Azhar University). It is necessary, as well, to take into account the strategy of “Islamic Missions” which aimed to counter-evangelize under the influence of Ethiopia and other Christian organizations.
It was under the reign of King Fayçal bin Abdul Aziz, who arrived in Mogadishu in 1964, that the first Islamic mission to study of the situation of Muslims in Somalia was launched under the auspices of Sheikh Mohammed Nasser Al-Amoudi, Deputy Secretary General of the World Islamic League. Following the release of this study, the idea to intensify the work of preaching and purifying Islamic dogma from what was considered impure Sufi “innovations” was championed.
In response, the Saudi Arabian government began providing the funds to send preachers and guides to Africa; instituting Islamic institutes in Somalia, Uganda, and Kenya; and constructing mosques. In 1966, the World Islamic League, in collaboration with Sheikh Abdulrahman Hussein, the Saudis led efforts to preach, teach, and publish thousands of documents to support the spread of Salafism, calling for a return to Islam to the age of “the first generation of Muslims.”
The al-Shabab terrorist group was first known as the armed wing of the Organization of Islamic Courts. But the alliance with Somali opposition at the Asmara conference in September 2007 was one of the main reasons for the dissolution of the Somalian movement of youth, which was accused of sympathizing with secularism.
Al-Shabab prescribes to the Salafist-Jihadist orientation and aims to establish an “Islamic State.” The movement is described as a member of global Salafist-Jihadist organizations and is armed with men in Somalia and various other Arab countries. The groups affirm that their armed men have led attacks against the Westgate Shopping Center in Nairobi in September 2013, which killed at least 68 people. It is essential to remember that al-Shabab was also responsible for the double suicide attack in Kampala, Uganda in 2010, which killed 76 people after the World Cup finale. The group attacked Uganda because Ugandan troops – in addition to Burundian troops – were the backbone of the African military power operating in Somalia before the arrival of Kenyan forces.
Al-Shabab is becoming a continental movement and more analysis agree that it possesses capacity to attack neighboring countries, such as Kenya, where young activists can travel without hinderance due to porous borders. As an example of the group’s extent of networking and capacity to facilitate logistics, it has been reported many times that al-Shabab linked operatives have been able to go to Nairobi to seek treatment in Kenyan hospitals.
For all these reasons, this movement constitutes a real threat, not only for East Africa, but for all the countries on the continent. Indeed, al-Shabab maintains extensive connections with other groups, such as al-Qaeda and Boko Haram and through these networks, it can facilitate operations and attacks on neighboring countries.
What is most worrying is that there are active Wahhabi Salafist movements in all countries of the Sahel today, including Mali, Niger, Senegal, Burkina Faso, Mauritania, Chad, and others. They prescribe to several denominations, but all claim the same dogma of “purifying” the religious practices which led to takfir (excommunication) and attacks against other denominations of Islam that do not share their vision.