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Drone Use by Violent Extremist Organisations in Africa: The Case of Al-Shabaab

Drone Use by Violent Extremist Organisations in Africa: The Case of Al-Shabaab
5th July 2023 Ana Aguilera
In Insights


The widespread adoption of unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) systems, commonly referred to as drones, has had a significant impact on humanitarian and military operations in Africa. Non-state armed groups active in Africa have displayed a genuine interest in acquiring drones to serve their objectives; security forces have verified the usage of drones by notable entities such as the Islamic State and al-Qaeda. The use of drones by violent extremist organisations (VEOs) highlights their consistent technological advancements to enhance their operational capabilities. The successful integration of drones by VEOs represents a significant departure from the conventional military dominance historically enjoyed by terrorist organisations.

In East Africa, al-Shabaab employs drones for surveillance and reconnaissance objectives, though the precise extent of al-Shabaab’s access to and utilisation of drones as offensive weapons remains unconfirmed. However, the advancements made in recent years in terms of their surveillance system capabilities give rise to serious concerns regarding the potential deployment of drones as offensive instruments of war. This Insight delves into the utilisation of traditional insurgent tactics by al-Shabaab, a prominent VEO operating in Somalia, and explores its recent integration of drones into its operational strategies. The focus will be on examining how al-Shabaab employs drones for surveillance and propaganda dissemination, the limitations it faces regarding militarised applications and the wider implications of these developments on counterterrorism operations.

Al-Shabaab and Traditional Insurgent Tactics 

Al-Shabaab is a VEO operating in Somalia. Although its origins can be traced back to the 1990s, a significant turning point for Al-Shabaab occurred in June 2006 when they aimed to gain control over Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu. Affiliated with al-Qaeda, Al-Shabaab operates in both Somalia and Kenya, with the objective of establishing an Islamist state, overthrowing the central government and expelling foreign forces from the region. 

Al-Shabaab gained international recognition following a series of deadly attacks during the 2000s, targeting locations such as Mogadishu and cities in Kenya, Ethiopia, and Uganda. In response, African Union peacekeeping forces, known as AMISOM, have been engaged in combat against Al-Shabaab since 2007, with support from the United States (US) and the United Nations. In 2017, the Trump administration deployed troops and conducted manned and unmanned airstrikes in Somalia as part of the US effort to counter al-Shabaab.

In more recent years, al-Shabaab has orchestrated high-profile attacks, demonstrating its ability to carry out devastating acts of violence. Examples include the Westgate Shopping Mall attack in Nairobi in 2013, the Mogadishu bombings in 2017, and the targeting of multiple US military bases, as exemplified by the Lamu attack in 2020. In 2022, they executed a coordinated assault in Mogadishu, resulting in the tragic loss of 120 lives. 

Currently, al-Shabaab boasts a membership estimated between 7,000 and 12,000 according to recent sources and substantial revenues – approximately $24 million annually – of which 25% is allocated to military purchases.

Like most VEOs, al-Shabaab has heavily invested in technological advancements. In October 2016, it was revealed that al-Shabaab had adopted more sophisticated improvised explosive device (IED) technologies, facilitated by foreign trainers and knowledge exchanges from conflict zones, including Yemen and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. While counter-terrorism efforts have disrupted some of these connections, previous knowledge transfers and possible logistical support from al-Qaeda’s central command and its Arabian Peninsula franchises have proved vital to al-Shabaab’s technological advancements. 

VEOs’ Adoption of Drones 

VEOs have increasingly adopted drones in their operations due to their low cost and availability. This affordability allows VEOs with limited resources to acquire multiple drones, boosting their capabilities. Drones also offer the advantage of remote operation, reducing risks for VEO members. By controlling drones from a distance, VEOs can remain anonymous and difficult to track. This capability allows them to gather intelligence, conduct surveillance, and plan attacks without endangering their personnel directly. However, drones pose challenges for security forces as they are hard to detect with traditional radar systems, can fly at low altitudes, and blend in with civilian drones. 

Additionally, drones can swiftly change flight patterns and evade countermeasures, complicating efforts to neutralise them. Equipped with cameras, drones provide VEOs with high-quality aerial footage, enhancing their propaganda campaigns. The footage captured by drones can be easily shared on social media and other platforms, facilitating mass access to their messages and magnifying their impact. Despite efforts to remove radical content from the Internet, VEOs persist in employing aggressive communication campaigns to engage global audiences.

Drone Use by al-Shabaab 

Surveillance and Intelligence Gathering

Limited available information suggests that al-Shabaab has embraced the use of drones for surveillance and intelligence gathering in Somalia and Kenya, although their utilisation has been recent and limited. Reports indicate that between 2018 and 2020, al-Shabaab were able to employ drones for surveillance purposes but did not have the capability to use them in attacks.

An incident worth noting occurred in 2020 when al-Shabaab allegedly used drones to coordinate an attack on a US military base in Manda, Kenya. This raises concerns that al-Shabaab may expand its drone usage for broader surveillance and reconnaissance purposes. Such expansion could involve gathering strategic information on potential targets, assessing enemy forces’ presence and strength, identifying depots and sensitive infrastructure, and locating vulnerable locations.

While concrete examples of al-Shabaab’s use of drones for surveillance are difficult to find, the group’s capabilities in this area are suggested by credible military sources familiar with al-Shabaab’s true potential. Additionally, al-Shabaab is likely to draw lessons from other VEOs, such as Boko Haram, which have utilised drones for surveillance in Nigeria. Drones have become increasingly integral to the operational strategies of extremist groups, aligning with the global trend of employing more effective methods to amplify propaganda and gain visibility, especially in the digital era. It is conceivable that al-Shabaab receives support and guidance from its parent organisation, al-Qaeda. By capturing drone footage, al-Shabaab can use it as a persuasive recruitment tool and reinforce its propaganda campaigns.


The communication strategy of al-Shabaab has had significant consequences. The Somali administration’s stance on disseminating al-Shabaab propaganda through media outlets often leads to direct clashes with the media, applications, and websites involved in distributing the organisation’s online propaganda. These conflicts underscore the role played by these platforms in amplifying al-Shabaab’s messages and contribute to tensions between the administration and the media regarding the coverage of such content.

Militarised Drones

When discussing the offensive capabilities of drones, it is crucial to differentiate between commercially-intended drones and militarised drones. While al-Shabaab primarily relies on commercially-intended drones due to their affordability, remote operation capabilities, and broad accessibility, militarised drones are less accessible without state sponsorship, and any leaked military drone is more likely to be traced by authorities and law enforcement agencies. It is therefore expected that al-Shabaab would heavily rely on commercial drones, however, despite their attractive features, al-Shabaab does not prioritise them in its political agenda and communication strategy.

One plausible explanation for al-Shabaab’s limited use of commercial drones is the current restrictions in terms of payload capacity, range, and accuracy. Commercial drones are primarily designed for civilian applications such as photography, videography, and product delivery, and lack the advanced military-grade features necessary for large-scale attacks or advanced surveillance options.

The affordability and accessibility of commercial drones mean that they are widely available to various end-users, including counterterrorism agencies. This increases the likelihood of detection and interception by authorities, making it challenging for al-Shabaab to effectively employ them without drawing attention.

It is essential to acknowledge the ongoing evolution of technology, particularly in the field of commercial drones. These drones are continuously advancing in capabilities. A notable example is Ukraine’s recent adoption of drone-on-drone combat warfare, where non-professional drones equipped with cameras are used for surveillance and intelligence gathering on Russian positions. These drones have successfully intercepted small aircrafts while airborne, without causing damage. The continuous technological progress presents opportunities to exploit these advancements and adapt them for various purposes, potentially opening the door for future offensive drone strategies employed by al-Shabaab.

The Use of Drones in Counterterrorism Operations 

The use of commercial drones by VEOs poses a security challenge in Africa, while military drones offer the potential for effective counterterrorism efforts. Data indicates a significant increase in the number and capabilities of US drones deployed in counterterrorism operations from 2002 to 2012.

Armed drones are favoured by some national security experts due to their advantages over traditional manned aircrafts like enhanced safety, improved precision, extended surveillance capabilities, and cost efficiency.

Firstly, unmanned drones mitigate risks faced by pilots in traditional aircraft. Pilots are susceptible to potential harm, such as injury, capture, or death if their aircraft is damaged or destroyed. By eliminating the need for human pilots, drones substantially reduce these risks.

Secondly, unmanned drones exhibit superior precision compared to manned aircrafts; they can manoeuvre closer to ground-based targets, facilitating precise targeting and minimising the chances of unintentional harm to noncombatants. This precision targeting has yielded notable successes. A recent example took place in May 2023 when a coordinated drone strike by the US and Somalia wounded Moalim Osman, the head of external operations for al-Shabaab, in the southern region of Somalia.

Additionally, drones excel in extended surveillance capabilities. They can remain in a target area for prolonged periods, providing continuous surveillance and intelligence gathering. This surpasses the capabilities of manned aircraft, which have limited endurance.

However, several challenges arise, particularly in terms of human protection. According to a report by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism in 2014, between 2004 and 2014, drones were responsible for the deaths of 416 to 959 civilians in Pakistan, out of which 168 to 204 were children. Similarly, in Yemen, from 2002 to 2014, drones caused the deaths of at least 64 to 83 civilians, and there are potentially an additional 26 to 68 deaths that remain unaccounted for. In Somalia, Amnesty International exposed a disturbing incident, where three individuals were falsely identified as al-Shabaab terrorists and killed in a US military air strike in March 2019. It was later revealed that these individuals were civilian farmers with no connections to the armed group.

These instances raise concerns about the human rights implications of using drones in modern conflicts and the need to prioritise human protection in the ongoing debate. The US administration argues that groups like al-Shabaab should be treated as “co-belligerents”, justifying the use of drones against them. However, critics defend that the use of drones only exacerbates violence and human rights abuses and that alternative approaches must be considered to defeat al-Shabaab, recognising that military means alone are insufficient. Overall, the civilian population becomes the direct victim of a continuous airstrike environment, complicating counterterrorism efforts and undermining social support, which al-Shabaab seeks to exploit, as it already controls over 20% of the Somali territory.


The use of drones in counterterrorism operations presents both benefits and challenges. Armed drones offer advantages such as enhanced safety, improved precision, and extended surveillance capabilities, aiding in targeting and neutralising high-value individuals within VEOs. However, concerns exist regarding the human rights implications of drone usage, particularly regarding civilian casualties. Instances of civilian deaths caused by drone strikes raise questions about prioritising human protection and exploring alternative approaches to defeat VEOs.

In conclusion, the utilisation of drones by al-Shabaab and other VEOs in Africa goes beyond the conventional military dominance historically employed by terrorist organisations. Whilst al-Shabaab currently focuses on surveillance and propaganda with drones, their potential militarised applications should not be underestimated. Efforts must be made to address the evolving drone technology landscape and develop comprehensive strategies that balance counterterrorism objectives with protecting civilian lives and human rights.

Ana Aguilera is a consultant and analyst with expertise in international security, terrorism, and organised crime. She works as a researcher at the International Observatory for Terrorism Studies (OIET) and has taken the lead on two research projects exploring the interrelation between terrorism and organised crime in Africa. Ana collaborates with various national and international organisations and universities, and her contributions have been published in prestigious journals such as the Spanish Institute of Strategic Studies (IEEE), the European Eye on Radicalization (EEY), and the International Journal of Terrorism Studies (RIET).

Twitter: @Aguilera_Ana_