Isil is trying to lure al-Shabaab away from al-Qaeda, but this has split the Somali movement
Al-Shabaab fighters Photo: Reuters
ISIL and al-Qaeda are fighting a tug-of-war for the allegiance of al-Shabaab in a battle which could hasten the demise of Somalia’s jihadist movement, according to researchers.
The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil) have released another video – purportedly filmed in Libya – urging the “brothers” in al-Shabaab in Somalia to join their struggle.
So far, two senior al-Shabaab commanders have pledged allegiance to Isil.
But this has split a movement which once controlled almost all of southern Somalia.
Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, Somalia’s president, said the defections from al-Shabaab were “symptomatic of a group that has lost its way”, and warned that Somalis “do not need a new brand of horror and repression”. He called on disillusioned al-Shabaab fighters to take advantage of a government amnesty.
Experts believe that winning over al-Shabaab, a formidable terrorist group which has carried out attacks in Kenya and Uganda as well as Somalia, would represent “a massive scalp” for Isil.
Africa’s other key terrorist organisation, Boko Haram in Nigeria, pledged allegiance to Isil in March this year. In return its fighters are purportedly being sent to Isil camps for training.
Isil hailed Boko Haram’s pledge, with a spokesman saying in a recording posted online that it allowed “the expansion of the caliphate to west Africa”.
Senior al-Shabaab leaders are however said to be reluctant to break away from al-Qaeda, which provided financing, training and logistical support after the struggling group pledged allegiance to the late Osama bin Laden’s movement in 2012.
Others believe al-Shabaab should not be distracted from its domestic, nationalistic aims by the more ambitious plans of Isil. Some of the same militants reportedly objected to the alliance with al-Qaeda for the same reason.
Successive heads of the movement have repeated their allegiance to Ayman al-Zawahiri, its current leader, and the group’s official media, while praising Isil commanders, continues to speak “respectfully” of the al-Qaeda chief, one commentator said.
Al-Zawahiri is himself said to have suggested in a recent propaganda message that al-Shabaab’s leadership disapproved of Isil’s methodology, including its bloodthirsty displays such as the filmed beheading of hostages.
Ryan Cummings, chief Africa analyst for Red24, a crisis management firm, said the allegiance debate was largely generational.
“The senior leadership of al-Shabaab has remained quite loyal to al-Qaeda – the younger guys who don’t hold the purse strings might be more drawn to Isil,” he said.
“Al-Shabaab is still very rooted in local Somali dynamics rather than something that’s more indicative of an ideology.”
Al-Qaeda also has an established network in Africa to deliver funding and logistical support while Isil networks are not yet thought to be well-established, he added.
“It’s not clear yet what swearing allegiance to Isil would translate into tangible benefits,” he said.
Members of al Qaeda’s Nusra Front carry their weapons as they walk near al-Zahra village, north of Aleppo city, November 25, 2014.
Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens, the head of research at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, at Kings College London, said younger militants would be more drawn by Isil’s successes in Syria, compared to the steady shrinking of al-Shabaab’s territory through a combined onslaught by local troops and Amisom, the African Union force.
“In the long run, al-Shabaab are purely fighting a losing battle so Isil is more attractive, even though in the long term, it will be too,” he said.
Among those to have defected to Isil is Abd al-Qadir Mu’min, an influential preacher with a distinctive fluorescent orange beard from al-Shabaab’s Puntland branch.
Abd Mu’min, who returned to Somalia from London in 2010 and helped the group shore up the loyalty of local community leaders and religious scholars, declared his change of allegiance, along with those of his local fighters, in a poor quality MP3 recording that was posted online last month.
Meleagrou-Hitchens said that al-Shabaab’s fierce Amniyat internal police would likely to be working overtime to suppress too many defections from within the group.
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This week, Abu Abdalla, a senior al-Shabaab commander, was quoted as saying that disunity would be punishable by death.
“If anyone says he belongs to another Islamic movement, kill him on the spot,” he said in a radio broadcast on Monday. “We will cut the throat of anyone if they undermine unity.”
Mr Meleagrou-Hitchens added that al-Shabaab’s recruitment drive might suffer as east African jihadists opted to skip the local terror branch and head straight to Isil camps.
Among those recently known to have tried to join Isil from the region was Abdirahim Abdullahi, a law graduate and Kenyan councillor’s son who was one of four gunmen to kill 142 students in an attack on Garissa University in April.
Mr Abdullahi was said to have been turned back at the Kenyan border because he had no passport and joined al-Shabaab instead in 2013.
Dr Meleagrou-Hitchens said that al-Shabaab could still draw on a deep pool of impoverished and marginalised Kenyans and Somalis but for those with the means to travel, Isil was now the more attractive option.
“There are a number of cases now of Kenyan middle class students going to Isil,” Dr Meleagrou-Hitchens said.
He said al-Shabaab was supportive of Isil’s aims but preferred to work alongside it, rather than formally pledge allegiance.
But for Isil and its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Ryan Cummings said, the formal pledge was key, taking it one step closer to its declared aim of toppling secular governments and creating a global caliphate.
“They want to create this perception that they are continually growing – Isil is all about the PR,” he said.
“Al-Shabaab is probably the largest and most sophisticated jihadi group in Africa. It would be a massive scalp for Isil and would loosen al-Qaeda’s stranglehold in Africa, one of its last bastions.”
The Isil campaign could however backfire spectacularly if the trickle of al-Shabaab commanders switching loyalties increases to a flood, according to Christopher Anzalone, a commentator on terrorist groups based at the Institute of Islamic Studies at McGill University in Montréal.
“If discord grows within al-Shabaab’s ranks, it may also enable the Somali government and AMISOM to woo away fighters disillusioned with internal infighting and violence,” he said.