Mentioning Somalia used to conjur up images of pirates off the coast and the distant but stark memories from 1993 of clan militias dragging the bodies of dead U.S. commandoes through the streets of Mogadishu, brought to life in the movie "Black Hawk Down."
Now, the troubled Horn of Africa nation returns to the headlines following news at the end of September that a regional gang of thugs has now ballooned into a transnational terrorist organization.
Fully understanding the threats posed by al-Shabab, which continues attacks in the region and recruitment elsewhere, requires a better understanding of the area from which it was forged.
Check out this primer on the major groups in East Africa that are contributing the ongoing struggle between extremists and burgeoning governance.
There have been several iterations of the extremist group since it was founded early in this century. Aden Hashi Farah Ayro formed al-Shabab, whose name translates to "the youth," as an armed and more hardliner sect within the Islamic Courts Union, a collection of courts within Somalia designed to enforce Islam's Sharia law.
The ICU was attacked by a force of largely Ethiopian troops in December of 2006 and driven into exile, allowing Shabab to become the new umbrella organization for Islamic militancy in the region. That conflict also forged an anti-Ethiopian sentiment among its members.
A strong financial foundation from foreign actors, including al-Qaida groups, allowed al-Shabab to gain control from 2007 to 2011 of most of southern and central Somalia, as well as most of the capital Mogadishu and the port town of Kismayo.
Widespread famine throughout East Africa beginning in 2011, combined with a push from the African Union Mission in Somalia, or AMISOM, contributed to weakening al-Shabab's hold on these parts of the country. Dissension spread through its ranks, particularly among those who believed in the establishment of an Islamic state in Somalia.
This allowed the rise of Moktar ali Zubeyr, known under many aliases, as the new emir of the organization. He eliminated any member who contributed to this infighting or the marginalization of al-Shabab.
"It became much smaller but much more radical," says J. Peter Pham, the director of the Atlantic Council's Africa Center and frequent adviser to Congress and the White House.
"Clearly what they were doing is making a leaner, meaner Shabab that has shown itself to be a transnational terrorist organization," he says.
The goals of al-Shabab have shifted slightly as it moved from a localized fighting force into a Somali-based international extremist group. It is one of, if not the only Islamist terrorist organization to recruit and operate within the U.S. It forges lone wolf operators and may have actively recruited Somalis living in Minnesota to participate in the Sept. 21 assault on a mall in Nairobi, Kenya.
'Al-Qaida in East Africa'
This is a term used mostly by Western or Western-backed forces to describe Islamic militancy in the region outside of al-Shabab. It has not existed in the same, centric form as other groups, a defense official tells U.S. News, such as al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
Al-Qaida affiliates such as these have, however, long been financial backers of al-Shabab. Many of its founding leaders have come from other al-Qaida syndicates or received training from them, and carried on many of the same governing principles. Among these is the basic tenet from founder Osama bin Laden, derived from his idol Egyptian Islamist Sayyid Qutb, of the ultimate goal of establishing an Islamic state independent of Western influence.
Bin Laden, however, was always hesitant to endorse al-Shabab. Experts on his brand of extremism, including the Atlantic Council's Pham, say the terrorist leader was speculative of whether Somalis were committed to the core causes of al-Qaida. And while he was alive, bin Laden never fully accepted them as a legitimate franchise.
Al-Shabab later reached an agreement with Ayman al-Zawahiri, who ascended to the head of al-Qaida, in 2012. A video emerged at that time depicting representatives of the Somali group pledging loyalty to the top commander.
The African Union Mission in Somalia is comprised largely of Ugandans, Burundians and Kenyans -- three major players near Somalia which each contribute thousands of troops to the roughly 17,000 total force. Nigeria, Sierra Leone and Djibouti also each contribute hundreds of soldiers.
AMISOM is designed to enforce two goals: protecting the fledgling Somali government from attacks by groups such as al-Shabab, and attempting to dismantle the Islamic group itself.
Its commander, Ugandan Maj. Gen. Fred Mugisha, assumed command in 2011 and has bolstered the force with tougher training and better equipment for its counter-insurgency mission.
Mugisha has warned against the limits of military action, which he says can clear ground held by al-Shabab, but should not fill it.
"We need the support of all peace loving Somalis to help us restore peace and stability to the city," he said in 2011, shortly after taking power about restoring the Somali government to a position where it can control Mogadishu. "We urge the civilian population to support their government and isolate and reject criminals."
"That way we can start to provide effective security together," he said.
The Forces of the Federal Republic of Somalia
The State Department has heralded Somalia as one of the greatest success stories in Africa, according to the department's chief diplomat for the continent.
"There has been substantial progress in Somalia over the last four years," says Johnnie Carson, who until March served as the assistant secretary of State for African Affairs. "One should not look at incidents [at the Westgate mall in Nairobi] -- as horrific as they are -- as indicators of backsliding."
"The opposite is true: Look at what Somalia wrought over the two decades in which there was rampant instability," he says.
Others are more critical of the prospects for the country, still largely defined by 1993's "Black Hawk Down" incident.
The Atlantic Council's Pham refers to these government forces as "so called."
"The president is elected by a parliament which itself is appointed by a group of self-appointed elders," he says. The country may have made incremental progress since militias overran U.S. special forces there 20 years ago, but it is still a far cry from a true democratic process.
These forces are largely similar clan militias aligned with the leaders who have rebranded themselves as national parliamentarians. This government offers negligible services to its own people and still relies heavily on international aid for supplies and support.
"It's weak and it's force is comprised of guys who pretend they're making progress," says Pham. "If it were up to them they'd all be chased into the sea and Shabab would still be controlling much of Somalia."
A Defense official confirms to U.S. News that the American presence in the region is limited to an air base in Djibouti, support troops for AMISOM and for the hunt for notorious Lord's Resistance Army guerilla leader Joseph Kony, and the ship-borne Marine Expeditionary Units that continuously patrol the region's seas.
The Marine's 26th MEU spent much of the summer off the Horn of Africa and in the Red Sea. Most recent reports indicate it is in the Mediterranean as a part of the U.S. mission to respond to Syria or other crises.
At least one Marine from the 26th MEU was in, or rather "over," Djibouti on this deployment as a part of the Marines' occasional operations on land.
The 26th MEU replaced the 24th, commanded by Col. Francis Donovan, which returned to the U.S. in January.
Donovan described to U.S. News some of the missions these Marines conduct, which under his command included training Ugandan forces how to use hand-held RQ-11 Raven drones.
"The ultimate goal of bringing up security forces in other countries is so they can fight so we don't have to," Donovan said of missions like AMISOM's.
But the benefit of the Marines' presence works both ways, he said.
"Anytime I can get someone ashore, we're learning about that environment," Donovan said. "So if we have to respond to Uganda or respond to Djibouti, or respond to Tanzania or Rwanda or the places we went, we know about it."
And this is valuable information to add to the intelligence gleaned from the U.S. presence in Djibouti, which among other tasks operates a large drone base there. That force had to relocate earlier in September after a string of crashes prompted concern from the locals.
U.S. special operations forces also perform a key mission in the region, advising AMISOM troops in Kenya as well as the African Union mission in Central Africa trying to track down Kony.
A defense official says the U.S. Army Special Forces troops assisting in catching Kony advise and routinely go on patrol with African forces, which could allow their involvement in direct action. Such troops in support of the AMISOM mission are strictly there as advisers.