The secret behind al-Shabaab’s longevity: A formidable spy wing

Al-Shabaab SomaliaMORE THAN HALF OF all terrorist groups fail within a year, while 95 percent of them are extinct within a decade. Yet al-Shabaab, Somalia’s al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorist outfit, has been projecting strength in the Horn of Africa for over 15 years, despite having faced much stronger opponents. Today, with an operational presence in both Somalia and Kenya, the group maintains a force of between 5,000 and 10,000 full-time fighters. Pointing to its longevity, some observers view it as the most successful terrorist group of the 21st century.

What accounts for al-Shabaab’s endurance? According to a recent article by researcher Zakarie Ahmed Nor kheyre, the secret rests with the group’s sophisticated intelligence wing, the Amniyat. Nor kheyre’s article, entitled “The Evolution of the Al-Shabaab Jihadist Intelligence Structure”, was published on Friday in the peer-reviewed journal Intelligence and National Security. The author argues that counter-terrorism researchers have been focusing on al-Shabaab’s operational, logistical and financial capabilities, to the detriment of its formidable intelligence wing. The latter, Nor kheyre claims, has been a priority of al-Shabaab for years, and is today more efficient that the Somali federal government’s own intelligence agency, the National Intelligence and Security Agency (NISA). He quotes one Somali insider who exclaims that “without Amniyat, al-Shabaab would be nothing”.

Based on interviews with 15 former senior members of Amniyat and the Jabha (al-Shabaab’s military wing), as well as with several former NISA senior officials, Nor kheyre’s article provides a remarkably detailed and up-to-date insight into Amniyat’s command structure and modus operandi. He delineates the spy unit’s place within al-Shabaab’s “well-defined organizational structure” and outlines its “centralized-decentralised cell-based system”, which consists of just a few hundred full-time operatives. These operatives are tasked with internal security, information collection and analysis, covert action, as well as espionage and counterintelligence (primarily “detecting and neutralizing government spies”), Nor kheyre says.

The author provides detailed accounts of two major areas of Amniyat’s work, namely covert action (primarily targeted assassinations of Somali politicians and military officials) and counterintelligence. The latter rests on a strong human intelligence component, and is both defensive and offensive. The overall picture of Amniyat’s counterintelligence operations reveals the remarkable extent to which the group has managed to penetrate the echelons of the Somali federal government. True to its clandestine mission, Amniyat “operates largely independently [within al-Shabaab], with its own leadership and logistical and financial resources”. Operationally, it remains under the direct control of its commander, Abdulkadir Mohamed Ibrahim (known as Gees Adde), who reports to al-Shabaab’s Emir, Ahmad Umar (Abu Ubaida).

Nor kheyre’s insightful article makes a useful contribution to a little-researched topic, namely how violent non-state actors employ intelligence and counterintelligence in support of their operations and mission. Those interested in the topic may also consult Blake Mobley’s book Terrorism and Counterintelligence: How Terrorist Groups Elude Detection (Columbia University Press, 2012).

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 11 July 2022 | Permalink

One Response to The secret behind al-Shabaab’s longevity: A formidable spy wing

  1. Anonymous says:

    Its interesting that al-Shabaab has the money and support to have the full suite of human intelligence capabilities. This usually requires the backing and sponsorship of a large regional intelligence agency(ies).

    Reading about al-Shabaab’s “Wahhabi roots” suggests likely past or present Saudi help. This is noting Saudi’s usual fusion of untraceable private and organizational funding.

    The Saudi General Intelligence Directorate (GID), is the primary intelligence agency of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

    Perhaps there is an ongoing, modern, iteration of the “Safari Club” …an alliance of intelligence services formed in 1976 that ran covert operations around Africa…The group executed a successful military intervention in Zaire in response to an invasion from Angola. It also provided arms to SOMALIA…”

    There are methodological problems in gaining more information about any Saudi intelligence connections, in that Western security and intelligence organizations reputedly have warm direct or indirect relations with Saudi external intelligence.

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