Degrading al-Shabaab in Somalia’s security Transition: lessons learned from Afghanistan

Resource type: Blogs


Abdikarin Ali-Hasan, the Leaders for Global Change Scholar at the Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford,

As Somalia readies itself to assume full security responsibility from AMISOM by 2023, it should draw insights from Afghanistan and develop an anti-Al-Shabaab strategy anchored to the Somali Transition Plan. Deliberate and targeted degradation of al-Shabaab’s operational capabilities will ensure that transition and post-transition will be less volatile `and prone to the aftershocks of withdrawal witnessed in Afghanistan.

The fall of Kabul on 15 August 2021 highlights the difficult task of balancing the rebuilding and reconfiguring of a national army and, in parallel, fighting an insurgency. The speed of the collapse of the Afghan national army and subsequently the government illustrates that an effective anti-insurgency strategy must accompany a security transition plan. Whilst there are clear differences between Al-Shabaab and the Taliban in terms of external support, political maturity, ambitions and social complexities, Somalia and its partners should still draw insights from Afghanistan as the Federal Government of Somalia (FGS) plans to assume full security responsibility from the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) by 2023.

The Taliban relied on four factors that facilitated their military victory: IED capability, multiple funding streams, a superior intelligence capability and illicit supplies of weapons and ammunition. Al-Shabaab has the very same toolkit as the Taliban at their disposal, and a prerequisite for the FGS to assume security responsibility is contingent upon degrading al-Shabaab’s operational capabilities.

Suicide attacks, IEDs and VBIEDs have been methods that the Taliban have frequently deployed to target military bases and high-level government officials[1] despite limited efforts by the Afghan Government and international forces to destroy the Taliban’s bomb-making factories.[2] Conversely, Al-Shabaab’s IED capability has impeded the Somali Security Forces’ (SSF) operational tempo and has affected troop morale because it allowed Al-Shabaab to target SSF bases and Main Supply Routes (MSR) due to the SSF’s limited counter-IED capability. In Somalia, al-Shabaab relies on IED capability to project their power, enhance their visibility and influence.[3]

A recent UN report estimated that the Taliban’s annual revenue can stretch up to $1.5bn[4] with tax levies imposed on all major industries, including the illicit sphere, where the Taliban collects 10% at each stage of the opium supply chain.[5] NATO recently warned that unless the Taliban’s ‘’wealth-generating activities’’ is countered, Afghanistan will become an ‘’ungoverned space for violent jihadism’’.[6]

Like the Taliban, Al-Shabaab employs multiple funding streams across Somalia in both the public, private and illicit sectors such as local businesses and illegal checkpoints, generating a significant budgetary surplus.[7] A conservative estimate of al-Shabaab’s revenue collection stands at $15million per month or $180m per annum[8] with an annual operational expenditure averaging only $21million, with 78% of this allocated to the military and intelligence wing[9]. This gives al-Shabaab the ability to deploy various strategies, including wholesale incentivized surrenders and deals, a replica of the Taliban.

Military expenditure on the acquisition of illicit weapons, which is inherently transnational in nature in Afghanistan, has enabled the Taliban to continuously replenish, upgrade, and diversify its stockpiles. This is aided by Afghanistan’s porous borders with Pakistan, Iran and Tajikistan, where weapons cross into the country with smugglers using a variety of methods.[10] Similarly, despite an existing arms embargo on Somalia, al-Shabaab continues to receive a steady supply with an average of 4 illicit shipments of weapons and ammunition per month to Somalia[11] with the northern coastline identified as a key entry point for Yemeni dhows.[12] The readily available supply of illicit weapons and ammunition in Somalia as both an end-user for terrorist groups as well as a transit hub for arms traffickers undermines Somalia’s state-building efforts by challenging the state’s monopoly of violence as well as contributing to regional instability.

The glue to all the above for the Taliban has been their intelligence wing (Amniyaat). It is estimated around 900 Taliban spies were active within Afghan’s security and government apparatus and a total of 5300 intelligence operatives nationwide.[13] Somalia faces challenges with al-Shabaab infiltration within government institutions and the security apparatus. But equally, al-Shabaab’s Amniyaat capabilities, including their counter-intelligence and targeted assassinations, continue to frustrate government efforts. As played out in Afghanistan, without the Taliban’s superior intelligence capability, the meticulous planning resulting in sweeping territorial gains would not have been possible.

A comprehensive anti-al-Shabaab strategy should be developed that is anchored to the Somali Transition Plan. This includes developing an IED disruption plan as well as building the counter-IED capabilities of the SSF. In addition, the current arms embargo should include steps to prevent non-state actors from acquiring illicit weapons and ammunition supported by international naval enforcement along the coast of Somalia.

An anti-al-Shabaab strategy should also be underpinned by an exhaustive plan on disruption of all of al-Shabaab’s funding streams, including extortion, taxation, external donations, drug trafficking, and businesses. To facilitate this, the Federal Government of Somalia should develop legislation fit to combat money laundering and terrorist financing and establish a Joint Money Laundering Intelligence Taskforce.

Above all, an anti-Al-Shabaab strategy should aggressively pursue degrading al-Shabaab’s Amniyaat network through a high-level defections program, encouraging al-Shabaab’s most skilled intelligence personnel to defect. In addition, the strategy should build security agencies’ capacity and capabilities to disrupt and arrest Amniyaat operatives as well as deploy other best CT practices intended to cause internal dissension within their organization, leading to the ultimate degradation of al-Shabaab’s Amniyaat wing.


[1] Al Jazeera (2020). Afghanistan: 34 people killed in two suicide bombings.

[2] Ministry of Interior (2020). Taliban Bomb Making Factories Destroyed in Helmand.

[3] Kester, J. and Winter, J, (2017). ‘Pentagon Report: IED Casualties surge in Afghanistan’.

[4] UN Security Council (2020). Eleventh report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring team. Pp.14{65BFCF9B-6D27-4E9C-8CD3-CF6E4FF96FF9}/s_2020_415_e.pdf

[5] Adentuji, J. (2020). The Taliban are megarich – here’s where they get the money they use to wage in Afghanistan.

[6] [6] Bezhan, F. (2020). ‘’Exclusive: Taliban’s Expanding ‘Financial Power’ Could make it ‘impervious’ to pressure, confidential report warns.

[7] [7] UN Security Council (2020). Final report of the Panel of Experts. Pp.8

[8] Hiraal Institute. A Losing Game: Countering Al-Shabab’s Financial Systsem.

[9] UN Security Council (2020). Final report of the Panel of Experts. Pp. 12.

[10] Small Arms Survey (2012). Surveying the Battlefield. Illicit arms in Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia. Pp.328.

[11] UN Security Council (2019). Panel of Experts Report(S/2020/949). Pp.29 file:///Users/MacBook%20Air/Downloads/S_RES_2498_(2019)-EN%20(1).pdf

[12] Ibid, pp.29

[13] Giustozzi, A. (2018). Afghanistan: Taliban’s Intelligence and the intimidation campaign.