Sahan Research, led by Matt Bryden, has published a new report on al-Shabaab and how the group is handling the death of its former leader Ahmed Abdi “Godane”, courtship from ISIS, its partnership with regional jihadists, and its overall strategy.
The introduction of the study is below, and the full report is here.
In the early hours of 2 April 2015, Al-Shabaab militants raided the Garissa campus of Moi University College in northeastern Kenya, killing at least 148 and wounding 79 more, mainly students. It was the worst terrorist attack in Kenya since the bombing of the U.S. embassy by Al-Qaida in 1998, surpassing even the Westgate Shopping Mall carnage of September 2013.
Some commentators have been quick to portray the Garissa operation as an act of ‘desperation’ by an organisation in decline. Others have suggested that Al-Shabaab has changed tactics in order to emulate foreign jihadist groups (“deliberately evoking Boko Haram”) or is positioning itself to join the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
Such impromptu analysis is not entirely without foundation: Al-Shabaab is undeniably on the military defensive in Somalia and there are very real pressures on the organisation to consider an affiliation with ISIS. But the Garissa operation was neither a sign of Al-Shabaab’s desperation, nor a new departure in terms of strategy or tactics: on the contrary, it was a manifestation of the group’s resilience, adaptability and strategic continuity.
In recent years Al-Shabaab has been steadily ceding ground to African Union forces (AMISOM) and its Somali allies, while the ranks of its senior leadership have been depleted by deaths and defections – including the loss of ‘Amir’ Ahmed Abdi ‘Godane’ in an American airstrike in September 2014. Al-Shabaab’s new leader, Ahmed Omar Diriiye ‘Abu Ubeydah’, has taken the reigns of a movement that remains overmatched on the battlefield and deeply divided over strategy and tactics. Yet Al-Shabaab’s operational tempo inside Somalia, and its ability to strike beyond Somalia’s borders appears to remain intact.
Al-Shabaab’s resilience during this difficult period testifies to the group’s internal cohesion and discipline, as well as the new leadership’s commitment to organisational stability and strategic continuity – at least in the near term. Moreover, after roughly a decade of continuous operations, Al-Shabaab has developed sufficient leadership at all levels to be able to continue functioning under adverse conditions and to regenerate even after losses among its senior ranks. And Al-Shabaab’s decentralised command structure, together with its expanding regional presence, means that a successful strike against one branch of the movement does not necessarily impact its operations elsewhere.
Perhaps most importantly, Al-Shabaab is now well on its way to becoming a truly transnational organisation, merging with its Kenyan affiliate, Al-Hijra and attracting a growing number of followers and recruits from across East Africa. Although Somalia still remains Al-Shabaab’s geographic centre of gravity, its identity and its aspirations have transcended the movement’s Somali origins, transforming both the theatre and the nature of its ‘jihad’. Governments determined to counter Al-Shabaab’s expansion should resist the temptation to look for answers in Iraq, Syria and Nigeria, and focus instead on the stresses and fissures in their own societies – precisely the vulnerabilities that Al-Shabaab will seek to exploit as it propagates its toxic ideology throughout the region.
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