ISIS supporters have been pleading al-Shabaab to drop its affiliation with al-Qai’da (AQ) and pledge loyalty to the Islamic State — like its counterpart “Boko Haram” (aka Islamic State in West Africa).
To date, small nodes of support to ISIS in Somalia have developed in Middle Jubba, Lower Jubba, and Puntland. Most significantly, fighting between pro-AQ and pro-ISIS factions near Sakow last week resulted in 9 deaths, including that of a pro-ISIS commander.
The battle between al-Shabaab and ISIS will probably have implications for legitimacy in the jihadist arena, competition for east African recruits, and the tactics and targets that al-Shabaab employs.
Legitimacy and Influence Among Jihadists
Al-Shabaab has explicitly stated that it is the only legitimate jihadist group in Somalia and East Africa, so any faction operating in support of ISIS is a fundamental challenge to al-Shabaab’s feisty claims. Ironically, al-Shabaab recently praised the “heroic [ISIS] mujahideen” that participated in recent Paris attacks, but it is also seeking to erase any ISIS influence in Somalia.
Given al-Shabaab’s superior numbers and capability in Somalia, the greatest mistake ISIS supporters in Somalia may have made was to declare their support for ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi before they organized sufficient resources.
These nascent factions did not heed lessons learned from American al-Shabaab fighter Omar Hammami, who was an outspoken critic of al-Shabaab leadership before becoming one of many dissenters gunned down during the great 2013 purge.
The lesson? It is a mistake to challenge al-Shabaab if you are weak on the ground and lack local support. Before his death, Hammami proclaimed he was part of the Rahanweyn clan, but that was not enough to buy him enough local support or armed bodyguards to protect him from al-Shabaab’s Amniyaat assassins.
Negotiations with pro-ISIS factions to date have failed, and al-Shabaab is prosecuting a violent solution to the dilemma. Judging from the estimated small sizes of the pro-ISIS contingents, these factions currently do not have the capability to withstand a sustained offensive from rival factions, unless it redoubles efforts to recruit other elements of the group.
Pro-ISIS factions also have few options. They cannot expect to gain support by flooding Somalia with foreign fighters to boost their presence and power because it would probably go against both the will of al-Shabaab and Somali communities. And, as shown by the Hammami case, being a foreign fighter in al-Shabaab is increasingly unappealing.
Absent successful negotiations or a miraculous increase in power on the ground, pro-ISIS factions may have to simply hope criticism from across the jihadist spectrum against al-Shabaab’s onslaught convinces the group to pull back from eliminating any hint of an ISIS presence in Somalia.
Pro-ISIS and pro-AQ factions in al-Shabaab are competing primarily for Kenyan and Tanzanian extremists, who appear to be al-Shabaab’s main source of fresh recruits outside Somalia.
Most aspirant jihadists around the world are choosing anywhere but east Africa in part due the aforementioned purge in 2013 of foreign fighters who opposed the dictatorial rule of then leader Ahmed Abdi Godane.
ISIS’s superior social media strategies also explain the shift in jihadist travel preferences. Unfortunately for al-Shabaab, videos showcasing its fighters hiding in the bush and living off giraffe meat — which the group touted as “free food” — are not compelling recruitment narratives.
Lastly, Western media houses have promoted ISIS arguably as the “biggest threat” to the United States and Europe — which probably drives appeal among recruits, despite ISIS’ proclivity for gruesome execution videos.
Thus, while Kenyan and Tanzanian extremists continue to flock to al-Shabaab, the appeal of joining the group would probably increase significantly if al-Shabaab wholeheartedly adopted the more “appealing” ISIS brand.
Tactics and Targeting
There has been speculation that ISIS-affiliated militants in the Sinai region of Egypt detonated military grade explosives on a commercial Russian airplane this past October, sparking the question: could affiliation with ISIS change the targets and tactics of al-Shabaab factions in east Africa?
Al-Shabaab has predominately used suicide bombers and siege tactics in operations to hit Uganda, Kenya, Djibouti, and Somalia. The targets have included restaurants, hotels, schools, government buildings, and most prominently Westgate Mall and Garissa University College.
Airports have also been a key target for al-Shabaab. One of the group’s most notable attacks in the last two years occurred on Christmas Day 2014 when armed gunmen attacked the AMISOM HQ within Mogadishu International Airport, killing at least nine people.
If al-Shabaab succumbed to joining ISIS, the group could shift tactics from attacking airports with armed gunmen to seeking ways and means to place a bomb on an airplane like Sinai jihadists have appeared to do.
Having an increased number of fighters with Kenyan and Tanzanian passports — as mentioned above — would make Nairobi and Dar es Salaam especially vulnerable targets. More broadly, this capability would change the nature of al-Shabaab as a regional and international threat.
For now, the way in which al-Shabaab contingents have sought to eliminate ISIS supporters in Somalia do not bode well for the prospect of an alliance in the near term. But, this could change if the right mix of costs and benefits to joining ISIS present themselves. In this scenario, the evolution of recruitment and terror tactics in east Africa will be the most critical factors to assess.