Al Shabaab and Regional Security Selly Neema, Rukia Abdi, and JoylynnWanjohi


The authors intend to examine the threat of terrorism on regional security. The paper adopts the Critical Theory of Security Studies to explore Al Shabab’s impact on the security of people and countries in the Horn of Africa. The study begins with a brief background of the militia and its leadership structure. The subsequent parts then give a brief of the continued fight against Al Shabaab in the region through various initiatives by continental and international actors. Effects of the militia’s activities are expounded in the following categories: social, political, economic and environmental effects. The paper then concludes with insights about the strategies in combatting the militia and concerns as well as recommendations for handling the crisis in the region.

Al Shabaab, which means “the Youth” in Arabic, is an Al Qaeda affiliate militia group. The Al Shabaab militia is based in the East African country of Somalia in the Horn of Africa. It has another rather uncommon name, Harakat Al Shabaab al Mujahideen. Al Shabaab came to be following a squabble among the long-term members of another militant group, Al-Ittihad Al-Islami (AIAI), which took up after the military regime of Siad Barre fell in Somalia. The AIAI aimed at establishing an Islamic Emirate state in Somalia with financial and arms supply from the then Al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden. It is after the disagreement that some of the ex-members (mostly the young) of the AIAI joined with the help of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), a political group that was formed to maintain law in Somalia after the Siad Barre Regime fell, as its radical militia so as to make Somalia “greater” under the fundamental Islamic rule (Masters, 2014). They later dissociated from the ICU. Their ideology can be linked to Wahhabism which is very rigid and often practised in Saudi Arabia.

The Al-Shabaab has a very clear and organized leadership hierarchy. The leader known as the Amir is the central commander who sits at the top of the hierarchy (Shuriye, 2012). Shuriye adds that there exists a body comprising ten members who aid the leader in deciding on major issues within the militia. Under that, there is another council of junior Amirs (general shura majlis) who are placed with the duty of consulting the top leaders. Members of this council have different roles to play in the different sectors i.e., military, politics and media. They also have a military department which upholds defence and sharia law and other representatives for the four main regions under their control: Bay and Bakool region, Mogadishu and south-central region, Juba Valley region and the Puntland and Somaliland regions of Somalia. Some of the methods that the militia employs are intimidation, bombing, suicide-bombing and open gunfire attacks (Afriyie, 2019).

Fighting Al Shabaab

Since Al Shabaab took control of most of south and central Somalia in 2007, no Somali force or coalition of forces has developed the capacity to counter the Al Qaeda affiliated organization. Militias under the control of Somali warlords were largely a spent force before Al Shabaab seized much of Somalia. The international community has trained a significant number of Somali Transitional Federal Government (TFG) forces members, but they have not yet achieved the numbers, tenacity and ability on their own to challenge Al Shabaab.
As a result, foreign military forces, often with the assistance of allied Somali troops, have taken on the task of trying to dislodge Al Shabaab from south and central Somalia. Several thousands of Ethiopian troops entered Somalia at the end of 2006 to repulse the Islamic Courts militias, which had taken control of Mogadishu and were moving towards Baidoa, a remaining soldiers-stronghold in central Somalia.The Ethiopian troops stopped the advance and succeeded in pushing the Islamic Courts out of Mogadishu. Ethiopian forces then remained in Mogadishu until they returned to Ethiopia in January 2009.  In the meantime, the most extreme elements of the Islamic Courts created Al Shabaab and seized control of most of south and central Somalia and eventually most of Mogadishu.

Early in 2007, the African Union authorized the establishment of a peacekeeping mission in Mogadishu. Designed to replace the Ethiopian forces, the initially modest force of Ugandans and Burundians was slow to build up its numbers, which partly explained why Ethiopian troops remained in Mogadishu for quite a long time. Somalia and Ethiopia have been traditional enemies, therefore, Al Shabaab successfully used the Ethiopian military presence in Somalia as a rallying cry to attract support within Somalia and from the Somali diaspora.
The African Union force, known as the African Union Mission to Somalia (AMISOM), with roughlyabout 10,000 Ugandan and Burundian troops was joined by a small contingent from Djibouti. In 2011, AMISOM eradicated Al Shabaab from the capital, Mogadishu, and early in 2012 began efforts to take positions on the outskirts of the city. Al Shabaab insisted that it made a tactical withdrawal from Mogadishu and subsequently responded by stepping up suicide bombings inside the capital, where security remains fragile.

Kenya had plans of sending troops into Somalia going back at least two years.  The series of kidnappings inside Kenya, by persons not necessarily affiliated with Al Shabaab, who took them to an Al Shabaab-held territory in Somalia provided the excuse to launch its October 2011 attack. By most accounts, there was little consultation by Kenya with anyone on the decision to move into Somalia. The United States said that it was not informed of Kenya’s decision to invade. The reports from the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) were conflicting, some saying there had been consultation and others denying any consultation.

From the beginning, the stated goal of the Kenyan intervention had been confusing. Early in the campaign, it was to seize the port of Kismayu from Al Shabaab and create a buffer zone inside Somalia along the Kenya-Somalia border. As the military effort eased off, partly due to the onset of the rainy season, the Kenyan government said little about its military goals or progress.
Early in 2012, Kenya requested that its forces become part of the force operation, adding that it wanted to complete the job of smashing the Al Shabaab and Al Qaeda networks in Somalia. The Kenya Defense Forces spokesperson added that Kenya would only get out of Somalia after it regained the status of a normal, stable nation. Still, there have been several Al Shabaab inspired terrorist attacks inside Kenya and there are indications that increasing elements of Kenya’s Muslim minority were being radicalized.A former leader of the Kenyan Muslim Youth Center even claimed that it represented Al Shabaab in Kenya.

Though outnumbered significantly, Al Shabaab has been able to weaken those that opposed them, including the Somali government and the Ethiopian military. Al Shabaab formed squads of 8-10 men that initially conducted small arms offensive attacks on civil servants, activists, businessmen, and the Ethiopian backed Somali military. Soon, possibly due to foreign influence, they shifted to suicide attacks and the use of remote-controlled devices (Hansen 2013). One interesting tactic that has been used is the occupancy of military outposts or unoccupied cities for short periods of time and subsequent evacuation.
This was possibly done for two possible reasons. The first is that Al Shabaab wanted to scare their opposition and lower their morale, ultimately leading to defection and even the refusal of Somali troops to occupy these posts, creating a path for Al Shabaab to establish a regional stronghold. On the other hand, this could expose a training and logistics flaw. After a post was taken, it is possible that they were not trained to establish defensive positions. Also, they may not have planned reinforcement rotations, or resupply to allow them to maintain the post. Regardless of potential problems, this unique tactic worked, and played a key role in forcing Ethiopian troops to withdraw in 2009.

The US government has also intervened in the war against Al Shabaab by supporting the AMISOM and even offered their troops to go fight in Somalia. The intervention was mainly motivated by the need to help bring back Somalia’s stability and protect the stability of Somalia’s neighbours who are US allies for the benefit of the US as well. Regarding the US support to AMISOM, their government offered financial and logistical assistance. The US has provided an estimate of half a billion dollars to the AMISOM for the purposes of proper training and equipment replenishment. In September 2014, the US troops launched a drone attack and managed to kill 6 militants. Among the 6 was Ahmed Abdi Godane, a controversial leader of the militant group. This destabilized the militia but they managed to hand the leadership to Ahmed Umar. The US also launched a strike using drones and a manned aircraft at a training camp for the militia in North Mogadishu. They managed to kill 150 Al Shabaab militants (Council on Foreign Relations, 2021). The US has since withdrawn from Somalia in early 2021.

It has been a huge challenge combatting the militia as the African Union faces a shortage of funds and depends on states like the US for such. Somalia’s government also barely has resources to supplement its forces. The US withdrawal may also impact the operations and probably Al Shabaab may regain momentum.

Al Shabaab’s strengths and Weaknesses

For strengths, Al Shabaab has been able to acquire sophisticated weapons through raiding AMISOM camps and security forces, and illicit transactions from Iran,Yemen and Ethiopia (Havlí?ek, 2020). They have been known to use Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), some of which they make themselves, which are fatal and cumbersome to the peacekeeping activities. Also, the Somali government is very weak hence cannot provide proper arms supply and equipment for the security forces giving Al Shabaab a cutting edge. The current political situation as well gives a conducive environment for the prevailing of Al Shabaab. Another factor that makes Al Shabaab to continue with its reign of terror is its strong leadership. They have also been able to amass money to pay their members and equip themselves through the illegal trade practices. Social media also makes it easy for them to recruit and radicalize people into joining them.

The militia is also compromised by various factors that come off as weaknesses. Tensions and disagreements within the militia pose a threat to its success. Some members end up doubtful of their leaders or betray the other members by exposing them to the authorities. Death orkidnappings of Al Shabaab leaders by governments has also been known to destabilize the militant group’s operations. Change of leadership has an effect too i.e., Godane’s leadership which brought about various disparities within the militia. The enhancement of security and reclaiming of territories by AMISOM and other international troops also hinders the success of the militia.

Social Effects of Al Shabaab’s activities

Terrorism is known to cause various social effects, mostly negative ones, to the people affected by them directly or indirectly. Here, the main point of focus is how the relationship between human beings or what surrounds them is affected by Al Shabaab in the Horn of Africa region and internationally.

Loss of lives

In response to the 2011 intervention by Kenya, AlShabaab has committed more than 150 attacks in Kenya, a long-time United States ally. The most brutal was the January 2016 attack on a Kenyan army camp in El Adde which killed 200 soldiers. In the month of April 2015, there was an attack on a Kenyan college campus in Garissa, North Eastern Kenya, that killed 148 people. Another infamous attack by Al Shabaab was the attack on the Westgate Mall in September 2013.On 21stSeptember 2013, four gunmen attacked the Westgate Shopping mall in Westlands, Nairobi. The attack resulted in the death of 72 people in total with 62 of them being civilians (Edmund, 2013). Another 175 were left with injuries. Among the 72 who succumbed to the attack were international citizens from the United Kingdom, France, India, South Korea, Ghana and China among other states. Another attack on the Kenyan capital was the attack on the DusitD2 complex in January 2019 where 22 people lost their lives.

Al Shabaab has also waged attacks on the government-employed teachers and doctors who worked in North Eastern, Kenya. They attacked the Kamuthe Primary School in Garissa where they murdered three teachers. All the teachers who were murdered were non-locals as Al Shabaab was majorly targeting Christian employees who were posted to work in Northern Kenya. They also attacked the Kamuthe Police Station and set fire on the camp and attempted to bring down a communication mast located about 300 meters away to render communication ineffective for the other people.Moreover, in November 2014, AlShabaab militants killed 28 Kenyan teachers going on holiday to Nairobi after separating all the Muslims that were with them in Mandera. Also in Mandera, the militants targeted some quarry workers and killed 36 of them in December, 2014.

Al Shabaab’s attacks may have subsided in Kenya but are still rampant in Somalia where they are situated. There have been several recent attacks in Somalia of which Al Shabaab has claimed responsibility. The militants in July 2019 waged an all-night attack on the Asasey Hotel situated in the port-city of Kismayu. In this attack, they managed to execute a suicide bombing at the entrance and proceeded to open gun-fire within the hotel. The hotel is often a hub for politicians and lawmakers. There were 26 fatalities after the attack among them being a renown Canadian-Somali journalist and a presidential candidate for Somalia’s regional elections that were upcoming. In 2020, the militia executed a blast attack in the capital of Mogadishu. They targeted the national stadium which was stationing the Somali National Army (SNA) soldiers. Around eight people died and fourteen others were wounded. In March 2021, the militia also bombed the Luul Yamani hotel killing at least 20 people.

The militant group has also waged attacks on Kenya’s neighbour, Uganda. In 2010, Al Shabaab waged a twin-blast in the city of Kampala near the Kyandondo Rugby Clubhouse. People had come together to watch the 2010 World Cup but sadly around 74 people ended up losing their lives.

Psychological effects

It is expected that people will have to experience psychological aftermaths of shocking incidents such as terror attacks. People have suffered loss of loved ones, injuries, fear and have had to deal with the trauma from the Al Shabaab attacks in the region. Some children have been left orphaned and a majority without a place to call home. The poor living conditions some of these victims have to live in are expected to also lead them into anxiety and even depression as there are barely mental health support programs for the many victims especially in Somalia.

Migration and Human Displacement

According to Yousuf and Whitaker (2020), millions of people have fled from Somalia due to rising insecurity caused by the Al Shabaab attacks. Kenya has sheltered thousands of Somali refugees for the past 20 years. Some Somali people have also fled to Ethiopia as asylum seekers and refugees. As of 2013, Kenya had hosted about 492,046 refugees while Ethiopia hosted 240, 086 from Somalia (ICMC Europe, 2013). The refugee camps in Kenya that are hosting them are the Dadaab and Kakuma refugee camps. In these camps, the refugees still live in poor conditions as a result of their rapid increase which is overwhelming to handle efficiently especially to the Kenyan government. However, countries like the United States have stepped in to provide support to the refugees through providing amenities like education, healthcare and food programs.


With the increment of Somali refugees in Kenya has come a lot of xenophobic attacks on people of Somali descent whether they are from Somalia or are Kenyan-Somali nationals. There have been derogatory remarks made by people, even prominent political figures, regarding the Somalis. The late Mr. Orwa Ojode, Kenya’s former deputy minister of internal security, is recalled to have said that it was possible that Al Shabaab’s attacks were being masterminded in the Eastleigh area in Nairobi which still happens to be highly populated by Somali people. Many refugees have addressed their grievances claiming that the Kenyan government is not looking out for them because the policy of not issuing the refugees work permits. Kenyan locals have also been reported to attack Somalis and even stoning their houses and other property. It was also noted that Somalis would be denied entry into public service vehicles. The police would also randomly arrest anyone “who looked like a Somali”. It is quite clear that all these were a consequence innocent Somalis had to face as they were linked to terrorism performed by the Al Shabaab militia from Somalia (Wambua-Soi, 2012).

Reduced movement

Following increased attacks by the Al Shabaab, countries such as Kenya, Uganda and Somalia put forth restrictions on movement and gatherings. Intelligence reports also aided in avoiding or handling other possible attacks by issuing warnings to the public about particular areas to avoid and what precautions to take. This thus denied a lot of people the ability to enjoy freedom of movement due to the rising insecurity. Other countries like United States and European states also issued travel bans and advisories to their citizens against visiting some of these affected countries in the Horn of Africa region. Several international embassy also issued warning to their nationals living in the affected countries on places to avoid and even taken measures to ensure proper security of their nationals.

Economic effects

Terrorism without a doubt often has negative effects on a state’s economy. This impact can be felt within the state and the economic partners of the state. Al Shabaab has for sure disrupted a lot of economic activities within the Horn of Africa region.

Illegal economic practices

Despite the current economic state of Somalia of around 40% of the population living in poverty (Ramadane, 2014), terrorists have further made the survival of the other civilians difficult economically. The militia group is known to make huge profits from selling illegal charcoal. They sell the charcoal with an added tax of around 50% the marked price of the charcoal (Petrich, 2018). Other reports by the Somalia and Eritrea Monitoring Group (SEMG) estimated the tax to be about 25%. It is also alleged that there have been traces of sugar smuggling to neighbouring countries, more so, Kenya. The militia then earns import taxes from the Kenyan people, mostly businessmen, who work with them in the illicit trade. This in turn earns the Al Shabaab militia around four hundred thousand to eight hundred thousand dollars of which much is used in funding their operations and paying members. They also earn such revenue from taxing the trucks carrying the sugar and other imports at the checkpoints, ports or at the border. Even with the increasing poverty in Somalia, the militants also demand for taxes from the locals who reside in the areas under their control (Makori, 2019). The militants have also been alleged to partake in piracy with the help of pirates who smuggle in weapons and other weapon equipment thus meaning that there is a possible good relationship between the pirates and militants making it harder to curb the rife of piracy at the coast of Somalia.

Decline in tourism

Kenya has also had to feel the pinch of Al Shabaab’s existence within and across their borders. The tourism sector is a huge source of foreign revenue to the Kenyan economy but it took a shift once terrorist attacks by the Al Shabaab had become a rampant issue of concern. Tourism contributes about 25% to Kenya’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). An analysis by Buigut and Amendah (2015) showed that a 10% increase in terrorist attacks likely meant a decline of tourist visits by 0.132%. Instances such as kidnappings at hotel resorts at the Kenyan coast prompted huge security concerns by international governments hence countries like the United States and other European countries declared travel advisories or even entirely banned travels to Kenya by their citizens. This eventuallyled to unemployment and salary cuts for the staff working in or associated with the tourism and hospitality sector in both Kenya and Somalia.

Destruction of infrastructure

Terrorist attacks also lead to destruction of infrastructure and private property such as schools, shopping centres and transportation networks. Kenya has had quite a number of such experiences due to attacks such as that of the Al Shabaab attack on the Garissa University and the Westgate Mall. This incurs a lot of loss as property of immense value is destroyed or damaged. This thus means more money is needed to recover from the losses by both the private entities and the respective governments.

Poor business environment

Gatimu (2014) after a study of the effects of terrorism in Eastleigh in Nairobi, a popular trading centre, collected findings from the traders of the area. Following the terrorist attacks, the traders’ customer turn-out reduced as many feared for their safety hence businesses experienced a fall in income. There was also a decline of job opportunities for people providing casual labour such as cleaners and carriers in the trading centre. The traders thus invested in enhancing the security of their businesses through buying equipment, hiring private military companies such as G4S and applying for business insurance which increased operational costs hence the hiking of goods’ prices. Huge enterprises also opted to shift their investments to more secure areas and as a result Kenya lost a lot of foreign direct investment.

Political Consequences

Since the rise in attacks by Al Shabaab in Somalia and its neighbours, various governments have put in place some new policies and have taken up some initiatives to counter the militant group. This has as a result agitated the militants hence forcing them to wage war especially on political figures and even worsening Somalia’s political state. Some of these attacks are also waged on the different governments’ troops as revenge.

New Policies and Operations

Governments both in the region and internationally have engaged in policy making to safeguard their citizens’ safety. Kenya, for instance, implemented the Security Laws Amendment Act in 2014 to further enhance security measures and regulations within the country (Momanyi, 2015). The most common Kenyan government initiative regarding terrorism was the Operation Linda Nchi. The operation kicked off in October 2011 so as to safeguard Kenya’s territory against the Al Shabaab militants. In 2014 the Kenyan government launched the Operation Usalama Watch as well so as to enhance security after many church and bus attacks in the country. Some of these policies were a step towards regaining the governments’ legitimacy. This is because people over time lost confidence in the government due to poor performancein handling issues like terrorism and would render the ruling government unpopular among thepeople.

The United States government through its foreign policy chimed in to achieve its biggest foreign policy goal of countering global terrorism. It was also a means of the US government safeguarding its interests in the region. The United States has significantly increased the tempo of air strikes against AlShabaab since 2016 and increased its troop presence and involvement in Somalia in 2017. Sadly, some of them have succumbed to the militia’s attacks for instance in June 2018, Al Shabaab claimed responsibility for an attack that killed one US personnel, a special operations forces soldier, the first US combat death in Somalia since a member of the Navy SEALs was killed in a raid in May 2017. The Trump administration,however, decided to withdraw U.S. troops from Somalia and the withdrawal exercise was done by mid-January 2021. There have been speculations that Biden’s administration may reverse the action and head back but it is yet to be confirmed. The U.S. troop withdrawal increased fears in Somalia as the people feared for the worst from the Al Shabaab militia.

Further political instability

The militants as a means of retaliation towards the current Somalia government and that of the other states that are “meddling” in their affairs have waged specific attacks at prominent figures of the countries. Such figures include politicians, diplomats and other policy makers. By doing so, the militia further implicates more instability in the country of Somalia and those around them. The political instability is heavily affected in Somalia especially considering how inefficient the current Somali government has been since the fall of Barre’s regime. The inefficiency is due to Somalia’s huge number of insurgencies and poor economy which has been contributed by the tensions and harsh climatic conditions that have hit Somalia over the years. Attacking political figures and other professionals further decreases the hope of Somalia achieving stability hence much wiser and well-calculated decisions need to be made by the national government as well as the international governments aiding in this war against terrorism in the Horn of Africa.

Environmental effects

Terrorism may not have a huge impact on the environment as other causes but it still does contribute to environmental pollution and degradation to some extent. The environment is another crucial factor that sustains human life through providing food and a habitat, however, Al Shabaab’s activities have threatened the latter two through their attacks.
Al Shabaab has led to environmental degradation due to the many explosives and their charcoal trade. Their explosives have not just caused deaths but also environmental pollution. They further impose a threat to human health due to the chemicals released by the explosives. Furthermore, Acacia is the most common tree in Somalia and even in North Eastern Kenya and is used for charcoal production. Al Shabaab produces and sells charcoal as a form of earning income. This has led to increased deforestation of which have other impacts such as drought, flooding and dispersion of animals. Emission of greenhouse gases from charcoal production in 2009 was estimated at 71.2 million tonnes of carbon dioxide and 1.3 million tons for methane which are greenhouse gases that contribute to the greenhouse effect on the Earth. A continuation of such by the Al Shabaab will pose huge environmental threats to Somalia and the region.

Al Shabaab has recently exemplified unclarity concerning their true goals as at the beginning of their uprising and has continued to grow in numbers and power over the years. The militant group still stands as a huge obstacle to Somalia and the international system as a whole considering how important Somalia is geopolitically. These further challenges more in-depth analysis of the group so as to come up with well-calculated operations by the governments involved in the fight against Al Shabaab. For sure, much heightened security measures should be put in place at the borders of Somalia’s neighbours and a thorough crackdown of piracy at the Somali coast. This may help in destabilizing the group’s financial ability and deplete them of supplies such as weaponry from the pirates. This would render them weak and probably surrender. It is, however, still a challenge to weaken them when over the years they have been able to make weapons for themselves. Hefty punishments should also be issued to the states proven to support the militia’s activities.
While much is done to fight the militants, much is still needed to support the victims of their activities. Somali refugees still deserve be provided with the basic and important secondary needs. Policies that may be harsh to them can be lifted i.e., the issue of work permits. They should be given opportunities to work after they follow legal steps that allow them to do so and they may eventually be of benefit to the host country and the home-country, directly or indirectly. Proper security measures should be implemented in the refugee camps rather than shutting them as it is known that they may also be hideouts for other militants. The innocent refugees should not have to suffer because of the militants.
To sum up, the war against terrorism is far from over and hopes of regaining stability in Somalia may seem impossible. However, there is still hope this would eventually be achieved especially with proper, organized and efficient regional and international cooperation.

The Authors are the Students of Riara University, Kenya


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