There have been rumblings of a shift of allegiance by al-Shabaab from al-Qa’ida to the Islamic State/Da’esh for some time. In February, for instance, their media reported that a senior leader, Karate, was strongly in favour of the move, in direct opposition to the relatively new and un-established leader of al-Shabaab, Diriye. (The story was grossly exaggerated, though, claiming that, in a moment of tension in the discussion, Karate had threatened to behead Diriye: while authentically Da’esh, the likelihood of even a senior leader making such a threat and surviving is very unlikely.)
During the Holy Month of Ramadan, the rumour appeared again, with claims of an announcement of the change of allegiance to come at Eid al-Fitr. But it didn’t. Eid al-Adha brought a different, albeit indirect message, hidden within a video product focused on al-Shabaab’s attack on the Burundian camp in Leego: quotations from Usama Bin Laden, but also from Ayman al-Zawahiri, the current leader of al-Qa’ida. Al-Shabaab was never going to answer the rumours directly, but this concluded the discussion.
Except that it didn’t conclude the discussion. Mumin, a relatively well known al-Shabaab religious ideologue, declared his allegiance via an audio message on Thursday evening along with 20 of his followers, somewhere in Puntland.
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‘Da’esh has an appeal,’ says a chum in the Somali intelligence community. ‘Da’esh are Manchester City right now, al-Qa’ida are… Born. Mouth.’ (Ah, Bournemouth, I realise after a moment.) ‘The young people, the footsoldiers, and the foreign fighters, they are taken by Da’esh, by their daring, by their media. Al-Qa’ida is for the old men.’
Foreign fighters can mean both non-Somalis but also Somali Diaspora. Which does he mean?
‘A group of foreigners declared in the mosque a few weeks ago, two Arabs and three Kenyans. In a village somewhere between Barawe and Jamame, where they have no internet, no television or radio. They didn’t know what was happening and they were arrested by the Amniyat.
‘But it is not just foreigners – other groups, Somalis, all from the same clan, they declared their allegiance to Da’esh and are strong enough with their own clan militia that al-Shabaab has sent religious men to negotiate with them.’ (Where? Near Jilib, also in the hinterland between Mogadishu and Kismayo.)
(This raises an interesting point, the clan dynamics of al-Shabaab. As much as the group claims to be above clan, no Somali is not influenced by clan and al-Shabaab itself regularly mediates in clan disputes, using the ancient system to their advantage. And as much as al-Shabaab has representatives of virtually every clan within its ranks, the leadership of al-Shabaab, the Shura Council, is dominated by one clan. It was only a matter of time before the clan issue appeared.)
So this isn’t a one off. There are elements within al-Shabaab, not just one isolated group, but groups of foreigners, Somali Diaspora and ‘real’ Somalis, swearing allegiance to Da’esh. The response from al-Shabaab depends on how strong the individual group is. For now, at least.
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Kulwa, an al-Shabaab leader in Puntland, condemns Mumin’s move and states that al-Shabaab will fight anyone who opposes ‘the movement’. This is a standard approach by al-Shabaab, low level responses first: a tweet here, a statement to local media there. Al-Shabaab then assesses the response. If the story goes away, they leave it at that. But if the story is ‘sticky’, they respond commensurately: a more senior leader responds, a statement might be issued, it might even go all the way up to Diriye if required. (‘If only the government adopted that approach,’ my intelligencer acquaintance wryly comments.)
But al-Shabaab isn’t just about communications. It is also about deeds.
In 2013, when Godane purged al-Shabaab of those who opposed his ideology of the Global Jihad and his alliance with al-Qa’ida, there were no Tweets or statements. Al-Shabaab’s actions spoke for themselves, and there is no reason to doubt that al-Shabaab won’t adopt a similar course in the coming months against its errant, vacillating members.
Stephen Harley is an Albany Associates consultant in Mogadishu