Al-Shabaab map
Somali terror group calls for mall attacks
01:17 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

Al-Shabaab is an al-Qaeda-linked militant group based in Somalia

It was once allied with Sharia courts, which tried to impose order on the lawless country

The U.S. government designated Al-Shabaab as a foreign terrorist group in 2008

Al-Shabaab claimed responsibility for the deadly attack at a Kenyan mall in September 2013

CNN  — 

The attack is harrowing: Al-Shabaab militants raid a quarry in Kenya, separating non-Muslim workers from their Muslim counterparts and executing them.

The brutal act comes just days after the Islamists ambushed a bus and sprayed bullets on those who failed to recite Quran verses.

The attacks reminded the world once again how brazen the group can be.

What does Al-Shabaab want? Here’s an explainer.

What is Al-Shabaab, and what does it want?

Al-Shabaab is a Somali group that the United States designated as a foreign terrorist organization in March 2008. It wants to turn Somalia into a fundamentalist Islamic state, according to the Council on Foreign Relations.

The group has been blamed for attacks in Somalia that have killed international aid workers, journalists, civilian leaders and African Union peacekeepers.

It has a history of striking abroad, too. Before admitting to the Kenya quarry attack, Al-Shabaab claimed responsibility for the July 2010 suicide bombings in Kampala, Uganda, that killed more than 70 people, including a U.S. citizen, who had gathered at different locations to watch the broadcast of the World Cup final soccer match.

How big is it?

The total size of Al-Shabaab is not clear.

In 2011, a U.S. official who declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the information said the group was estimated to control up to 1,000 fighters.

A United Nations report identified one insurgent leader who is believed to command “an estimated force of between 200 and 500 fighters,” most of them Kenyans.

And Al-Shabaab has links to other organizations. In February 2012, the group’s leader, Ahmed Abdi Godane, and al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri released a video announcing the alliance of the two organizations.

How did Al-Shabaab start?

Decades of weak government amid grinding poverty have long made Somalia a target for radical Islamist groups.

Al-Shabaab’s predecessor was al-Ittihad al-Islami (AIAI), which worked to create an Islamist emirate in Somalia. It was partially funded by former al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, according to the Council on Foreign Relations.

AIAI, which the U.S. State Department designated as a terrorist group, strengthened after the fall in 1991 of Siad Barre’s military regime and during the years of lawlessness that ensued.

In 2003, a rift erupted between AIAI’s old guard – which was seeking to establish a new political front – and its younger members, who wanted to impose fundamental Islamic rule. (Al-Shabaab means “the youth.”)

That strife led the younger members to ally with a group of Sharia courts – the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) – that was seeking to impose order over a landscape marked by feuding warlords in the capital city.

Working together, the Islamic Courts Union and Al-Shabaab gained control of Mogadishu in 2006. That sparked fears in neighboring Ethiopia that violence would spill over there, according to the Council on Foreign Relations.

Those fears – combined with a request from Somalia’s transitional government – led Ethiopian forces to enter Somalia in December 2006 to remove the ICU from power.

And that move inflamed Al-Shabaab, which then attacked Ethiopian forces and gained control of parts of central and southern Somalia, according to a 2011 case study by Rob Wise, who was then with the Counterterrorism Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

What is Al-Shabaab’s relationship with neighboring countries?

In 2011, after attacks on tourist destinations in northern Kenya blamed on Al-Shabaab, the Kenyan government ordered a cross-border incursion aimed at creating a security buffer zone in southern Somalia.

Ethiopian troops have also crossed the border and expelled Al-Shabaab from Baidoa, a strategic town midway between the Ethiopian border and Mogadishu.

The group then targeted African Union soldiers and government buildings in the capital in suicide attacks. A suicide bombing in March 2012 killed five people at the presidential palace.

Analysts say tension appears to have been growing within Al-Shabaab between Somalis and foreign fighters, several hundred of whom are thought to have entered Somalia in recent years to join the group.

How does Al-Shabaab recruit?

The group has a sophisticated public relations arm that includes a Twitter account and video production abilities.

Al-Shabaab has even made a video that’s as slickly produced as a reality TV show, complete with a hip-hop jihad voice and a startling message:

“Mortar by mortar, shell by shell, only going to stop when I send them to hell,” an unidentified voice raps in English.

But Al-Shabaab’s enemies – and alliances – can shift.

Abu Mansour al-Amriki, a former Al-Shabaab fighter and prolific English-language propagandist for the group, said in a video posted online last year that he had had a fallout with Al-Shabaab “regarding matters of the Sharia and matters of s