The Clash Between the Islamic State and Al-Shabaab in Somalia: Geopolitical Instability And Terrorist Threat

Somalia map
The map of Somalia (Credits: JRC, European Commission, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Geopolitical Report ISSN 2785-2598 Volume 39 Issue 8
Author: Christian Tratzi

Through the weekly magazine al-Naba (number 428), the Islamic State has published an account of the conflict that occurred since 2023 in Somalia with the terrorist group al-Shabaab, the most important al-Qaeda affiliate in Somalia.

The Islamic State (IS) reported the recent victory by describing territorial and military gains in a propagandistic way, showcasing its strategic interest in the region and the willingness to emerge as a primary actor in the global jihadist scenario, trying to increase its influence in the area.

The confrontation between the Islamic State – Somalia Province (or Abnaa ul-Calipha) and al-Shabaab presents significant challenges for regional stability and security. Recent developments underscore IS strategic earns in eastern Somalia, including territorial expansions following the clashes with al-Shabaab forces.

The Islamic State portrayed these gains as pivotal victories from a propaganda standpoint, with the purpose of attracting potential recruits and project an image of strength and resilience. Meanwhile, al-Shabaab is grappling with internal dissent and external pressure because of the intensification of counterterrorism efforts by regional and international actors.

Contemporaneously with the clash, in the last weeks, the two factions conducted a series of attacks within the territory targeting civilian and institutional objectives.

Background Information

In recent years, the Islamic State has strategically increased its activity and presence in eastern Somalia, marking significant territorial expansions and engaging in fierce confrontations with al-Shabaab and al-Qaeda forces. IS has launched an extensive propaganda campaign in the region, aiming to attract disgruntled individuals to its cause, inserting its work into a complex system of local alliances.

The growth of hostilities between IS and al-Shabaab in Somalia finds its deep roots in broader ideological and power struggles within the jihadist movement. Traditionally aligned with al-Qaeda, al-Shabaab had significant influence since its foundation, and kept control of the territory exploiting governance gaps and socio-economic difficulties to maintain its influence, particularly in southern and central Somalia.

Somalia has suffered through decades of conflict, instability, and governance challenges. Since the collapse of the Siad Barre regime in 1991, Somalia has struggled to establish effective governance structures, leading to prolonged periods of statelessness and fragmentation. The absence of a central authority created a power vacuum, exploited by different armed groups and militias, exacerbating internal tensions and perpetuating cycles of violence.

Islamic State’s regional rise has increased the risk and has added complexity to Somalia’s security dynamics, introducing a new scenario by challenging al-Shabaab’s dominance inside the jihadist organisations, and escalating tensions and violence.

Indeed, IS attempted to expand its influence and achieved significant progress, particularly in eastern Somalia, by engaging in violent clashes to establish control over strategic areas. Corresponding to the increase in the rivalry, both factions launched a series of terrorist attacks against opponents, civilians, and national institutions.

Somalia has geopolitical-strategic significance because of its position and proximity to key maritime routes, and attracts attention from regional and international actors interested in maintaining a level of stability.

International institutions and foreign military forces, including those from the United States, European Union, and African Union, underscore the importance of fight against terrorism and piracy to stop the escalation of regional risk. However, significant obstacles remain in addressing Somalia’s security challenges. The lack of control by the central authority, corruption, and socio-economic disparities provides fertile ground for extremist groups to exploit; moreover, the absence of border control allows militants to operate with impunity, perpetuating instability and terrorist activity.

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Geopolitical Analysis

The clash between the Islamic State and al-Shabaab in Somalia and the attack against civilians describes the elevate jihadi activity in the region. IS territorial conquests pose a significant challenge to al-Shabaab’s authority, leading to escalate fights and struggles.

Al-Shabaab’s internal challenges, including defeats to the Islamic State, highlight a rift within the group and its waning influence in Somalia; external pressure from regional and international counterterrorism efforts – such as the construction of five American military bases to counter al-Qaeda and its allies – compounds these challenges, limiting al-Shabaab’s operational capabilities and diminishing its appeal among local populations.

The conflict between these two groups in Somalia embeds within complex geopolitical dynamics that extend beyond the borders of the country, affecting continental stability and security. Somalia constitutes a strategic area and a transition-point for important shipping routes (such as the Bab al-Mandab strait, which connects the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden). Control over Somalia might allow extremist groups to maintain local and maritime influence, also posing a threat to international shipping and commerce.

External actors, including neighbouring countries and international powers, also play a significant role in shaping the conflict dynamics. Ethiopia, Kenya, and Djibouti, all with vested interests in Somalia’s stability, have intervened militarily to counter the IS threat and al-Shabaab. The United States and European Union have provided support to regional governments and security forces in their efforts to combat terrorism to monitor and control the potential arrival of terrorist through migration routes. The continued presence of these extremist groups not only threatens Somalia’s territory but also has broader implications for the Horn of Africa, Europe, and the United States.

Somalia: Risk Assessment

The conflict between the Islamic State and al-Shabaab in Somalia represents a serious risk for regional stability and security, with potential ramifications that extend far beyond the borders of the country.

Intensified fighting between the two groups could lead to widespread violence and humanitarian crises, exacerbating existing vulnerabilities in Somalia. Islamic State’s temporary supremacy could drive toward an increase in terrorist activity, both in conducting attacks against civilians and in targeting rival groups, to legitimise its position in the area. Furthermore, al-Shabaab’s internal challenges and external pressure increase the possibility of attacks and asymmetric warfare, further destabilising the region.

The actions of the past few weeks have shown how, simultaneously with the conflict, the two organisations have committed a series of attacks targeting sensitive objectives. If the Islamic State mainly targeted local police authorities by detonating two explosives in as numerous vehicles (killing at least six people), al-Shabaab has claimed an attack against international military targets, killing 4 Emirati troops and 1 Bahraini officer.

On a global scale, rising terrorist attacks in Somalia might have profound implications, particularly for Europe, because poses a direct threat to diplomatic missions, businesses, and citizens in the region. The potential for radicalisation within Somalia, coupled with the return of foreign fighters to Europe, increases the risk of terrorist attacks on European soil. The global nature of terrorism means that instability in Somalia could have far-reaching consequences, with Europe serving as a potential target for terrorist activities originating from the region.

Scenario Analysis

  1. Islamic State supremacy and control in Somalia. Following the victories over rival factions and the conquest of territories and villages, The Islamic State increases its influence in the area by expanding its presence and control.
  2. Al-Shabaab and al-Qaeda response. Following the recent defeats, al-Shabaab and al-Qaeda launch an offensive against the Islamic State, attacking enemy positions and increasing activity in the region.
  3. International Intervention. Considering the presence of numerous militants and the intensification of terrorist activity targeting civilian and military targets, international powers start a plan to counter terrorism and slow down violence in the country.

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The developing dynamics of the conflict between the Islamic State and al-Shabaab in Somalia need a comprehensive approach to counter extremism and terrorism. Initiatives must accompany efforts to disrupt IS propaganda and recruitment operations to contrast the group structures and activity.

Regional and international cooperation are crucial for mitigating regional terrorist risk. Terrorist groups’ exploitation of migratory routes might represent an additional risk factor at the international level. The presence of extremist groups not only undermines efforts towards peace and reconciliation but also poses a direct threat to neighbouring countries in the Horn of Africa.

The Somalian weak borders of facilitate the movement of militants, weapons, and illicit activities, elevating the risk of terrorism across the region. Enhancing international and regional cooperation, reinforcing border control and security, and fostering intelligence-sharing mechanisms might be fundamental to mitigate the risk of terrorism spreading beyond the Horn of Africa region and its global consequences.

For those with an interest in acquiring comprehensive insights into the geopolitical dynamics of terrorism, we encourage you to reach out to SpecialEurasia by emailing We are ready to assist you in evaluating the possibility of acquiring a carefully crafted and customised report to meet your intelligence requirements.

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