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Without a doubt, the self-proclaimed Islamic State (also known as ISIS) is currently the most preeminent global jihadist group in the world. Yet al Qaeda is still fighting for influence, in both the Middle East and Africa. In recent months, the showdown between the two groups has been most apparent in East Africa, where ISIS has attempted, but thus far failed, to convince the al Qaeda–linked Somali militia al Shabab to switch allegiances.
Unlike in the west of the continent, where Boko Haram has declared allegiance to the Syrian jihadist group, in al Shabab territory al Qaeda still holds sway. However, there is no doubt that for more junior members of the group, joining ISIS is becoming an increasingly attractive proposition.
ISIS, for its part, has for months been desperate to announce a province, or wilayat, in East Africa, as it has long been fertile ground for global jihad. As part of this effort, ISIS members have been pressuring al Shabab to help them achieve this goal. Earlier this year, for example, its media wing released a propaganda video showing Somali men, apparently ISIS members, encouraging Somalis to join them. More recently, Wilayat Sinai, ISIS’ affiliate in Egypt, also released a video urging the group to switch allegiances, likely seeking to take advantage of reports about al Shabab members agitating to join them.
Last month, al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri also weighed in, declaring in his latest propaganda message, which was broadly critical of ISIS, that al Shabab had shunned the group’s advances. The information, he claimed, came from his correspondence with Ahmed Abdi Godane, who was head of al Shabab, in which Godane informed Zawahiri that he disapproved of ISIS’ methodology.
The reasons for al Shabab’s current stance are more complex than Godane and Zawahiri allow. In order to understand them, and the unlikely possibility of al Shabab eventually joining ISIS, one must look at the history of the group and al Qaeda’s presence in Somalia. Although al Shabab is still standing firm, and is likely to resist the advances of ISIS in the near future, there are factors that may cause a change of heart.
Al Shabab officially joined al Qaeda in 2012, shortly after Osama bin Laden’s death, but it had been courting the terrorist network since at least 2009, when al Shabab released a video in which Godane praised the al Qaeda leader and offered him his services. Godane had long been associated with bin Laden, having trained with the Taliban in Afghanistan in the late 1990s. The fact that Godane eventually came to see himself as an important part of the al Qaeda network helps explain his reticence toward joining ISIS, and thus far there is little evidence that members of the al Qaeda old guard have sought to switch allegiances.
Letters seized from bin Laden’s compound in 2011 show that al Qaeda wasn’t always as publicly enthusiastic about al Shabab as Godane was about al Qaeda. In 2010, writing in response to a letter from Godane about a possible official merger with al Qaeda, bin Laden urged him to keep the connections between the two as informal as possible, claiming it would protect them and their supporters in the region from gaining unwanted attention from Western security forces. Bin Laden nonetheless retained a deep interest in the group and, a week before his death, had written to one of his most trusted officials, Atiyah Abd al‐Rahman, asking him to ensure that al Qaeda’s allies in Somalia had proper systems in place for the implementation of sharia law.
It isn’t hard to understand ISIS' appeal: al Shabab’s insurgency in Somalia is faltering against both African Union and Somali forces, whereas ISIS has made incredible gains in Syria.Despite the delay in any formal merger, al Qaeda has had a presence in Somalia since the early 2000s, and senior members have worked alongside al Shabab since its official formation in 2006. The two most prominent of these were the now deceased Fazul Abdullah Mohammed and Saleh Ali Nabhan, who were part of efforts to set up al Qaeda in East Africa. Both were also strongly suspected of being involved in the planning of the bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998. Thus, al Qaeda has deep roots in the region, giving it a distinct advantage over ISIS for the time being. Indeed, when Godane was killed by an American drone in August 2014, al Shabab had an opportunity to change course, but his replacement, Ahmed Umar, quickly moved to reaffirm the alliance with al Qaeda and pledged loyalty to Zawahiri.
ISIS has managed to gain some support among elements of the lower ranks in al Shabab. It isn’t hard to understand the appeal: al Shabab’s insurgency in Somalia is faltering against both African Union and Somali forces, whereas ISIS has made incredible gains in Syria. For now, much of the agitation to join ISIS appears to be coming from the foreign fighters within the group. This may be because their ideological commitment to global jihad, which brought them to Somalia in the first place, has led them to conclude that Syria is now the most important battlefield for the future of Islam. According to recent reports, al Shabab leaders have already detained five foreign fighters under suspicion of working to shift the group’s allegiances to ISIS. Judging from the fate of other fighters who have defied his leadership, their prospects are grim.
This newest internal disagreement within al Shabab must be seen in the context of ongoing divisions within the group that go back to its very inception. Rival clan allegiances, fights over distribution of finances, and disagreements over military strategy—and even whether to join al Qaeda in the first place—have created tensions. In 2013, these issues came to a head when Godane’s internal rivals, which included founding member Mukhtar Robow, openly began to criticize both his refusal to work with dissenters and his brutal treatment of locals as part of his implementation of Sharia law in Somalia. Godane responded by conducting a brutal putsch, using his feared Amniyat—a deadly cadre of ultraloyal secret police—to either scare off or kill those who stood against him.
The most well-known incident during this period involved one of the group’s most famous foreign fighters, the American Omar Hammami, who had publicly criticized Godane’s brutal methods and was subsequently tracked down and killed by the Amniyat in September 2013. It therefore comes as no surprise that al Shabab may yet again crack down on its foreign fighters (who hail from around the globe, from Pakistan to Norway), whose heads have been turned by the glamour and success of ISIS.
It is not just foreign fighters and lower-ranking members of al Shabab who have begun to question where their loyalties should lie; jihadists from the wider region are also beginning to flock to Syria instead of to Somalia. Over the last decade, al Shabab has been very active in setting up recruitment bases in East Africa, with a particular focus on Kenya. Its successful efforts to inject jihadist ideology into Kenyan Islam have seen many Kenyans cross the border to fight in Somalia. ISIS has been able to take advantage of al Shabab’s ideological groundwork in the region, with radicalized East African Muslims turning their attention to Syria. Just as in the West, young and in many cases affluent Kenyans are traveling to join ISIS, having been won over by the rhetoric of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his cohort.
Among those to have openly switched allegiance is the influential Kenyan jihadist preacher Hussein Hassan, who, once a champion of al Shabab, now urges followers to travel to the one true Islamic state. In a recent audio message to his followers, he told them to look beyond al Shabab’s “little emirate” and accept Baghdadi as the Amir al-Muminin (“Commander of the Faithful”).
ISIS will continue to attract recruits in the region and attempt to sow discord within al Shabab. However, the Amniyat are a dangerous enemy to have in Somalia, and many may prefer to keep their sympathies toward ISIS to themselves rather than risk their wrath. ISIS nonetheless highly values the perception of its global reach and may succeed in convincing supporters within al Shabab to create a splinter group and announce an East African province in the near future. The struggle between ISIS and al Qaeda for the leadership of the global jihad movement is therefore ongoing, and East Africa is one of the theaters where things are not going as smoothly as Baghdadi would have hoped.