The Islamic State Is Running Out of Time in Somalia
Al Shabab has remained loyal to Al Qaeda ... and cracked down on its rival
The Islamic State wants to spread its influence wherever it can, and propaganda efforts aimed at the Somali insurgent group — and longtime Al Qaeda affiliate — Al Shabab have resulted in both high and low-level defections.
Yet the Syria and Iraq-based terrorist army has failed to outbid Al Qaeda for control over the group. Al Shabab’s leadership is committed to Al Qaeda, and has attempted to stamp out I.S. influence within its ranks with arrests and assassinations.
Following from these developments, terrorism analysts believe it’s unlikely that the Islamic State will expand significantly in Somalia, at least in the short term. The inter-jihadi conflict shows, in Somalia at least, that there are limits to Islamic State’s model of expansion and recruitment.
Thus far, the Islamic State has attempted to divide Al Shabab internally, producing and distributing six videos which the group has distributed inside Somalia, according to Veryan Khan of the Terrorism Research and Analysis Consortium. “I.S. in [Syria] has put in a strong media effort courting Al Shabab membership,” Khan said.
Other broadcast sources come from within. Shaykh Abdulqadir Mumin — a prominent Somali religious leader — has distributed pro-I.S. sermons, although with more of a footprint in the online world. “Mumin’s influence within Al Shabab is limited, essentially confined to Puntland area, but […] his sermons distributed on the Internet also have [a] moderate following,” Khan added.
In October, the Somali splinter group “Sons of Calipha” reportedly distributed pro-Islamic State propaganda materials within Al Shabab’s territory.
Al Shabab’s leadership has not taken these moves lightly. Al Shabab chief Ahmed Diriye called for the arrest of 30 alleged Islamic State sympathizers in October. Mohammed Makkawi Ibrahim, a high-ranking Sudanese Al Shabab terrorist who was responsible for the 2008 assassination of a USAID diplomat, was himself reportedly assassinated in 2015 by Al Shabab following his pledge of allegiance to the Islamic State.
Al Shabab’s actions have the growing appearance of a political purge, yet Khan rules this out. “A purge within Al Shabab does not seem likely. So far, Ahmed Diriye has prioritized ‘arrests’ out of the ‘negotiate, arrest, or purge’ options.”
Under Al Shabab’s more loosely-distributed leadership arrangement, a widespread purge may not be possible. “A renewed purge now would probably shift more fighters toward [the Islamic State] and not benefit Ahmed Diriye, as was the case with Al Shabab’s former leader [Ahmed Abdi] Godane, because there are likely more mid- and senior-level independent thinkers now than in 2013 Godane years.”
Godane lived with a seven-million dollar bounty on his head for three years until an American drone strike killed him in 2014. During his tenure, he maintained a strict counter-intelligence regime to keep order, in contrast to Diriye, who is more restricted. “Diriye can’t kill all his opposition like Godane did,” Khan said. “Not without many more negative consequences.”
Above — a Ugandan soldier in Somalia in 2007. David Axe photo. At top — Al Shabab militants in a propaganda video. Al Shabab propaganda capture
But is Al Shabab’s loyalty to Al Qaeda still worth it? There is no clear answer. Terrorist groups choose umbrella organizations for name recognition, a raised international profile, funding and logistics. “Of course all of this comes at a price, which is ‘do as the parent does, not as you may wish.’”
Al Shabab began working with Al Qaeda in 2012, when the group officially became an affiliate. Today, most of the original advantages of working with Al Qaeda remain, such as access to a decades-old East Africa network and ties to Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which holds territory in nearby Yemen.
Moreover, historic ties between the two groups have fostered trust. Many Somalis went to fight alongside the Afghan Mujahideen in the 1980s, in which the nascent members of Al Qaeda cut their teeth. Relationships forged during Afghanistan persisted throughout the 1990s when Al Qaeda trained Somalis in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
There’s a cultural element, too. In jihadi custom, pledging to another organization — what is referred to as making a bayah — is a permanent commitment. “[Changing allegiance] would reflect on Al Shabab as haram [forbidden]. Al Shabab would have to change leadership in order to have a legitimate new bayah to I.S.,” Khan said.
Al Shabab’s distrust of the Islamic State also likely reflects strategic differences. Indeed, actually holding territory like the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria — as opposed to fighting within it — is a tall order for a terrorist organization with relatively few fighters. Conquering a “caliphate” would be even taller.
Other risks are harder to ignore. Al Shabab is already dodging American drone strikes and battling a multi-national African Union coalition. The globally-hunted name of “Islamic State” could bring even more unwanted attention. Thus, despite all of the zeal, pomp and propaganda of the Islamic State, Al Shabab will likely keep a relatively lower profile with almost-exclusively local goals.
The Islamic State’s only unique bargaining chip is perhaps its coffers. “I.S., if they wanted to donate, are the richest terrorist group in the world,” Khan says.
But for now, the prospect of cash does not seem to be enticing to Al Shabab, which heavily relies on Somalia’s charcoal trade to make ends meet.
Islamic State militants in a video calling on Al Shabab members to leave the group. Islamic State propaganda capture
Diriye’s counterpunch has diminished the already-minimal presence of pro-I.S. militants within his organization. “In Somalia, [I.S. has] small numbers. Each of the three main pledges to have come out recently showed roughly a dozen to 20-odd numbers pledging their allegiance [in videos],” Khan said.
But few indicators are truly decisive. Terrorist organizations are often adaptable — and Al Shabab and the Islamic State are both descended from older groups which mutated after coming under sustained attack by stronger powers. Al Shabab developed from the Islamic Courts Union, which splintered after an Ethiopian invasion in 2006. The Islamic State developed from Sunni insurgent groups active during the U.S. occupation of Iraq.
The Islamic State is certainly preparing for the future. A January 2016 video by the group’s Libyan affiliate cryptically outlined its future goals — which included expanding south. “This new video […] is the first direct indication of pressure shifting towards Somalia from Islamic State in Libya,” Khan said.
How to undertake such an expansion remains murky, leaving the timeframe open-ended. “[The] Islamic State does not live in time tables, if they need to expand into an area they will bide their time,” Khan said.
But if losses continue to rise in Somalia, biding their time will be their only option.