Feisal Omar / Reuters

Terrorist Tug-of-War

ISIS and al Qaeda Struggle for al Shabab's Soul

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.

hitchens_terroristtugofwar_captured.jpg Reuters

A captured fighter from the Islamist group al Shabab is seen at the headquarters of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) in Mogadishu, September 21, 2010. The 24-year-old combatant was captured by AMISOM peacekeepers during an attack on one of the mission's detachments.

Captured al Shabab fighter. A captured fighter from the Islamist group al Shabab is seen at the headquarters of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) in Mogadishu, September 21, 2010. The 24-year-old combatant was captured by AMISOM peacekeepers 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. Read the full article on ForeignAffairs.com