On 21 January 2015, al-Shabaab released a public statement praising the 7 January attack by the AQAP-connected Kouachi brothers in Paris at the offices of the provocative satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and the subsequent siege at a Jewish deli by a co-conspirator named Ahmed Coulibaly.
The press release from the group’s al-Kataib media office extended their “congratulations” to the attackers for “defending Muslims” in response to the magazine’s insulting portrayals of Islam’s prophet Muhammed.
Al-Shabaab also encouraged all Muslims “to follow in the footsteps” of the Kouachi brothers and Coulibaly.
Support for al-Qai’da
Al-Shabaab’s outspoken support in the statement to its “brothers” in al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula [AQAP] (which has criticized its rival ISIS) may cast more doubt on any possibility in the near term that al-Shabaab could withdraw its pledge of loyalty to al-Qaida to seek a greater public alliance with ISIS in Syria and Iraq.
Interestingly, the statement did not mention that the attacks in France were the product of supporters from the two rival groups, as Coulibaly was inspired by ISIS while the Kouachi brothers were linked with AQAP.
To date, the most prominent official statement from al-Shabaab on the ISIS vs. AQ rivalry came from ex-Shabaab leader Ahmed Abdi Godane.
The leader, who was killed in a September 2014 drone strike, had attempted to take a centrist position in the rivalry by urging both groups and their jihadi allies to cease fighting among themselves in Syria and Iraq.
There’s no public evidence that the Kouachi brothers or Coulibaly was aware of this statement, but they perhaps heeded Godane’s words more than the leader himself, who was responsible for significant internal bloodletting.
For now, al-Shabaab has lost the capacity to bring down the Somali government.
It currently relies in part on high-profile raids and media statements to remain relevant and to expose continued political and security gaps to defeat it.
This new statement, which was picked up by many major news outlets, offered the group an opportunity to stay involved in the global conversation about free speech and debate over “appropriate” responses to hate speech.
Al-Shabaab’s call for violence comes just days after university students in Mogadishu organized a peaceful protest against the magazine’s content.
The students held placards with the French phrase Je Suis Muslim (I am Muslim), which has been popular in social media among those who denounce Charlie Hebdo’s often insulting portrayal of Muslims as much as it does violent retaliation for such content.