In Depth

Al-Shabab: five key questions about the Somali terrorist group

Latest attack by Islamist militants leaves scores dead at African Union military base in southern Somalia

Militants from the Al-Shabab terrorist group have attacked an African Union (AU) base in Somalia, reportedly killing dozens of soldiers.

The Islamist group, which is allied to Al-Qaeda, has launched a string of attacks in the country and neighbouring Kenya in an attempt to overthrow the AU-backed government.

The latest assault targeted the African Union Mission in Somalia (Amisom) base in Janaale, south of the capital Mogadishu.

Locals reported seeing at least 20 bodies, but Al-Shabab claims to have killed as many as 70 people, Al Jazeera reports.

The attack began with a car bomb outside the building's entrance, followed by an armed assault with witnesses reporting that the gunfire lasted more than an hour, according to the BBC.

Captain Bilow Idow, a Somali military officer based nearby said the base had been cut off. "No reinforcement can reach there," he told Reuters. "There is much death and damage."

But Amisom insists that it is in control of the building, tweeting: "[We] can confirm that the base is still under Amisom control. Reports that the base has been taken over and our weapons captured are false."

Al-Shabab has stepped up its attacks in Somalia in recent months, targeting a hotel in Mogadishu and a military outpost in Lego.

The group's most infamous attack took place in 2013, when gunmen stormed the Westgate shopping centre in the Kenyan capital Nairobi, killing 67 people.

During a visit to the continent earlier this year, US President Barack Obama said that while Al-Shabab had been "weakened", it still remained a serious security threat.

Here are five key questions about the terrorist group:

When did it emerge? Al-Shabab began life as the "radical youth wing" of al-Ittihad al-Islami, one of many extremist groups formed in Somalia in the 1980s and 1990s, says The Atlantic. When a group called the Islamic Courts Union established a "modicum of central authority" in the Somali capital, Mogadishu, Al-Shabab became its military wing. In 2006, Ethiopia invaded Somalia and ousted the Islamic Courts Union from power, prompting Al-Shabab to begin an insurgency.

Who leads Al-Shabab? The group's leader is Ahmed Abdi Godane. He took control when his predecessor, Moalim Aden Hashi Ayro, was killed in a US airstrike in 2008. Godane consolidated his grip on the organisation in June by staging an internal coup in which four senior Al-Shabab commanders were executed. The Guardian's Simon Tisdall says the Westgate attack appears to be a "chilling statement of intent" from Godane, who is keen to cement his authority. It was Godane who ordered the 2010 suicide bomb attack on a screening of the World Cup final in Kampala, Uganda, that killed 76 people. He is also believed to be behind the 2011 decision to affiliate with Al-Qaeda and adopt its "global jihadist outlook".

How many fighters does it have? No one knows for sure, but the group is believed to have between 7,000 and 9,000 fighters. "Some of the insurgents' foreign fighters are from the Middle East with experience in the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts," reports the Daily Telegraph. "Others are young, raw recruits from Somali communities in the United States and Europe." There are reports that the influx of foreign fighters has caused Al-Shabab to "fracture". The outsiders are supportive of the decision to affiliate with Al-Qaeda and develop a regional strategy, while the group's Somali members believe its struggle should focus on their homeland.

How much of Somalia do they control? Al-Shabab had control of Mogadishu and "large swathes" of central and southern Somalia until 2011. They were pushed out of the capital that year by a United Nations-backed force from the African Union, including soldiers from neighboring Kenya and Uganda. The militants lost the vital port of Kismayo the following year, 2012. Al-Shabab still controls some rural areas of Somalia, however, where it has imposed strict Sharia law. Women accused of adultery have been stoned to death and thieves have had their hands amputated.

What does the future hold? Al-Shabab is under pressure on a number of fronts. The group's only ally in the region is Eritrea which allegedly supplies the group with arms and uses it as a proxy against Kenya. Al-Shabab has lost popular support inside Somalia by ejecting Western aid agencies trying to help victims of the country's famine. It has also alienated Sufis – the more moderate strain of Islam followed by the majority of Somalis – by destroying Sufi shrines. Somalia's first elected government in more than two decades won power a year ago and has "a window of opportunity to fundamentally change Somalia's trajectory," the US State Department says.

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