Al Shabab’s Lessons for ISIS

What the Fight Against the Somali Group Means for the Middle East

An Islamic State flag hangs between electric wires over a street in Ain al-Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp, near the port-city of Sidon, southern Lebanon January 19, 2016. Ali Hashisho / Reuters

The so-called Islamic State (ISIS) lost approximately 14 percent of its territory in 2015, leading to hope that it might be possible to contain the group until it collapses under the strain of administering a state. That is an attractive idea. If correct, it would save the international community from a more robust, and therefore more perilous, intervention. 

ISIS is not, however, the first Islamist terrorist group to create a proto-state in the modern era. The Somali terrorist organization al Shabab conquered and administered territory long before ISIS did. Studying al Shabab’s experience provides clues for ISIS’ possible trajectory, and little comfort that the group can be contained until it withers away.

In early 2007, al Shabab rose from the ashes of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), a coalition of Islamist groups that had conquered most of southern Somalia. Its success provoked neighboring Ethiopia to invade and scatter the group. But al

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