Al-Shabaab was originally formed by individuals who disagreed with or could not make it in the elitist hierarchical system of Al-Ittihad Al-Islamiya (AIAI), which later became Al-I’tisam (AI). Not having a say on the increasingly non-violent Jihad path being taken by AI pushed these individuals to break away and form an organisation that would continue the Jihad without imposing elitist restrictions on upward mobility within the group. Formal qualification was never a requirement to rise up the AS ranks. Instead, belief in the system, obedience, and ability to do the job were and remain the only requirements. Consequently, Al-Shabab has always lacked a large number of senior cadres with higher education, though the original founders were generally better educated – and more often from an urban background – than its current leaders.

Nowhere is this clearer than in the top leadership of the group. The late leader, Ahmed Godane, had an MBA and experience working in the private sector and in local nongovernmental organisations before he set out to establish the group. His successor, Ahmed Dirie, and almost all current leaders, have no higher educational background. This is in stark contrast with other Somali Islamist groups that stress the importance of formal education and flaunt the degrees held by their leaders. For instance, almost all of the executive body of the main Salafist movement in Somalia, Al-I’tisam, have university degrees.

The group disregards formal education and instead emphasises ideological conformity and loyalty to the group’s core beliefs. This is clear from the highest education level of 58 mid and high-level defectors who left the group from 2015-18.

In order to lay the groundwork for future leaders and ensure a steady stream of ideologically pure fighters, the group has created an educational system that pays for itself and is highly efficient in producing dependable recruits. The Office of Education is headed by influential Sheikh Ali Dhere, who is also the AS spokesman, which shows the importance of this department to the group.

Download the complete report here: Education in Al-Shabab

This report was authored by Mohamed Mubarak. You can follow Mohamed on Twitter @somalianalyst and subscribe to his substack at

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