After Boko Haram recently pledged loyalty to the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), many are wondering whether al-Qai’da affiliate al-Shabaab will follow the same path.
ISIS supporters have been pushing al-Shabaab to align with the group for some time, and some militants in Somalia may want to heed their call.
On 2 March 2015, Rasmi News published a report alleging that there was a dispute in al-Shabaab over whether to maintain its affiliation with AQ or pledge loyalty to ISIS.
Rasmi News claimed that al-Shabaab’s intelligence chief Mahad Karatey and an unstated number of foreign fighters and others wanted to pledge bayah to ISIS, while the group’s chief Ahmed Diriye wanted to maintain loyaly to AQ.
This particular news outlet has long been dedicated to providing a forum for dissent among jihadists in al-Shabaab. As Somali analyst Adam Omar noted, “Since Rasmi News is set up by survivors of [ex-Shabaab leader Ahmed Abdi Godane’s] purge, it has a unique scope within al-Shabaab’s decision-making process.”
Nevertheless, the nature and scope of the dispute remain a target of speculation.
As a dissident website, Rasmi News is perhaps intentionally portraying the disagreement as one that is rocking al-Shabaab’s foundation, but it is not clear how strong the pro-ISIS faction is in al-Shabaab.
No other public sources have covered the dispute using substantially different and credible sources. Notably, the Somali government-run Radio Muqdisho’s account of the dispute further muddied the story.
As VOA reporter Harun Maruf noted, Radio Muqdisho reversed the claim in the Rasmi News report by alleging that Ahmed Diriye was in favor of merging with ISIS while Karatey and others wanted to remain within the AQ family.
Contrary to Radio Muqdisho’s report, it is doubtful that Ahmed Diriye would so quickly reverse his loyalty to AQ after just re-affirming ties to the group when he took power in September 2014 after Ahmed Abdi Godane was killed in a U.S. air strike.
Until more jihadists in al-Shabaab publish more evidence about the kind of support that ISIS has in the group, the issue will remain the subject of media speculation that is hard to verify. This is a net negative for al-Shabaab because it wants to portray itself as still a cohesive group.
Fighting Among Brethren
Intra-group rivalries and personal interests could be driving whether al-Shabaab militants want to pledge loyalty to al-Qai’da or ISIS.
Within al-Shabaab, there is still resentment about arrests by the Amniyaat (intelligence bureau) of suspected dissidents and secret prisons.
And, it wouldn’t be surprising if Amniyaat chief Mahad Karatey was bitter after not being picked to succeed Godane.
Other Somali sites recently claimed that al-Shabaab idealogue Fuad Shongole — who had previously criticized Godane before coming back into the fold — spoke out against Ahmed Diriye’s “weak” leadership. But, since there was no audio for Shongole’s statement, it is difficult to confirm whether he actually made these critiques. Instead, it may be part of an emerging pattern in which media stories are attempting to stoke more dissent in al-Shabaab.
If the pro-ISIS faction in al-Shabaab is truly one that can make waves, it will be up to Ahmed Diriye’s leadership to sort it out before some in the group try to undermine his leadership — a strategy which dissidents have been on the receiving end in recent years.
Would ISIS be able to effectively reconcile al-Shabaab’s fighting factions? There may be hints in its alleged approach with Boko Haram.
CNN claims that before Boko Haram pledged loyalty to ISIS, it required Boko Haram’s AQ-connected breakaway faction Ansaru to form a unity command structure with militants loyal to top leader Abubakar Shekau.
If the same precondition was put toward al-Shabaab’s factions, it would require a solution that AQ leader Ayman al-Zawahiri hasn’t found himself. Al-Zawahiri appears to have failed to address divisions in the group even after al-Shabaab co-founder Ibrahim al-Afghani wrote a public appeal for him to do so.
Al-Afghani was later killed by a militia led by Godane loyalists in al-Shabaab’s biggest bout of infighting in mid-2013.
It would be a formidable challenge for ISIS — as a foreign group unfamiliar with Somalia’s internal social dynamics — to tackle the intriguing personal and clan interests within al-Shabaab, especially without having a sustained presence on the ground.
Legitimizing a Shift in Loyalty
Ahmed Diriye’s reaffirmation of the group’s alliance with AQ upon taking the throne of al-Shabaab presents a serious issue for even considering a shift towards ISIS, and there are key bureaucratic obstacles for such a partnership to be legitimized.
Before his death, Godane chose to disband al-Shabaab’s Shura council (the key forum for making major decisions) in part due to fears that it could be used to undermine his monopoly on power.
In fact, it is highly likely that a meeting of all Shura council members was not able to convene in order to select Ahmed Diriye, who was close to Godane, as the new leader. The lack of outright opposition to Ahmed Diriye after his selection could have been because al-Shabaab needed to show solidarity and give the new leader a chance to make reforms, or alternatively, that many major dissidents had already fled or been killed.
The disbandment of the Shura council also raises the question of whether al-Shabaab could feasibly convene a forum for senior leaders to discuss a formal alliance with ISIS, which was also aligned with AQ before a violent break-up took place in early 2014.
Making a decision of this magnitude without consensus from al-Shabaab’s senior leadership would risk almost certain public pushback from dissidents, and it would be risky for Ahmed Diriye to finalize any decision on the matter so early in his tenure when he is still attempting to stamp his authority in the organization.
Troubled Cooperation with Foreign Leadership
Another factor is whether Ahmed Diriye would be able to effectively manage a partnership with ISIS after the group’s already tenuous relationship with AQ.
Al-Shabaab’s history with AQ leadership and liaisons is seeped in its own rivalry and mistrust. Even after al-Shabaab publicly declared loyalty to AQ in February 2009, ex-AQ chief Osama bin Laden advised the group against publicly aligning itself with AQ and encouraged the group to avoid civilian casualties in its attacks – two points of advice bin Laden’s successor Ayman al-Zawahiri and al-Shabaab later ignored.
Though al-Zawahiri eventually accepted al-Shabaab as an official affiliate in 2012, Godane’s mistrust among AQ officials continued. Many analysts believed that Godane purposefully arranged the killings of Harun Fazul and other AQ-linked commanders and foreign fighters in al-Shabaab due to the threats that Godane believed these men posed to his leadership.
The question for Ahmed Diriye is whether making a radical change to the group’s foreign alliances would sit well with key AQ-linked commanders, including architect of the Westgate attack Abdikadir Mohamed Abdikadir “Ikrima,” who may interpret a shift in loyalty to ISIS as a potential threat to their standing in the group.
In the case that al-Shabaab should choose to formally switch allegiances to ISIS and could avoid the aforementioned barriers, cooperation could yield key support to al-Shabaab at a watershed moment in its history.
Ethnic Somali jihadists and east Africans (and to a much lesser extent other non-Somalis) could be persuaded to fight with an ISIS-affiliated al-Shabaab in Somalia rather than go to Syria and Iraq as is now the trend. However, the fact that al-Shabaab has been reduced to controlling smaller rural areas could be a greater disincentive.
For example, ISIS fighters are often shown parading through the streets in towns they control or through areas where they were recently victorious. In addition, the international media has constantly broadcast the “existential” threat that ISIS poses to the West, which — realistic or not — heightens the group’s notoriety among jihadists.
Al-Shabaab, on the other hand, has recently portrayed its fighters “happily” making life in the woods while waiting to execute attacks along rural roads — which may not be as attractive as “normal” life in Raqqa or the frontlines of Kobane. The group has also struggled to make post-Westgate international headlines that portray it in the ascendancy. The best coverage it gets is that it’s “down but not out.”
If al-Shabaab wouldn’t benefit from a recruitment perspective, the group could try to network with other ISIS affiliates in Africa, most notably in Nigeria, Libya and the Sinai in Egypt.
However, coordination between jihadists from west and north Africa with al-Shabaab is difficult due to the geographical boundaries between them, as evidenced by the very sporadic connections between Boko Haram and Somali militants over the last five years.
In addition, there has been increasingly stingy efforts by Ethiopia and Djibouti to guard its borders after a “foiled” al-Shabaab attack in Addis Ababa and a successful suicide bombing in the two countries, respectively.
So, would a potential alliance with faraway jihadists be more valuable than al-Shabaab’s existing relationship with AQ and its affiliate in Yemen AQAP (which is also dealing with pro-ISIS dissidents)?
ISIS could boost al-Shabaab’s international recognition and offer al-Shabaab part of its financial largesse, which would put more pressure on banks to shut down money transfer services to Somalia that Western governments already fear are being used by illicit networks — despite massive appeals to the contrary.
But, for now, the group’s alliance with AQAP would be more fruitful. The fact that al-Shabaab has a contingency of fighters on the coast between Puntland and Somaliland while AQAP control areas in southeastern Yemen allows many opportunities to share resources across the Gulf of Aden.
ISIS could also look to enhance or influence al-Shabaab’s kidnapping operations. In recent months, ISIS has made a name for itself for its gruesome execution videos of hostages, and al-Shabaab has supported similar violent kidnappings by Boko Haram, while also taking its own hostages.
Overall, there are many risks — without necessarily greater rewards — for the prospect of al-Shabaab joining ISIS.
An al-Shabaab alliance with ISIS would give AMISOM, Somali forces, and the international community an exponential boost in motivation to come out from the slumbers of the currently stalled offensive, and instead, move to make even greater gains against the group.
This is the last thing that al-Shabaab wants or can withstand at this point.