Pledge al­le­giance to IS or al-Qaida? So­ma­lia’s al-Shabab mulls fu­ture

The China Post - - COMMENTARY -

So­ma­lia’s Shabab mil­i­tants are di­vided over whether to main­tain their al­le­giance to alQaida or shift to Is­lamic State ( IS), ac­cord­ing to mil­i­tant and se­cu­rity sources, an­a­lysts and clan el­ders.

The di­vi­sion comes at a time when Is­lamic State in Iraq and Syria has be­come the ji­hadist fran­chise of choice, at­tract­ing fighters from abroad and other mil­i­tant groups such as Boko Haram in Nige­ria, while alQaida too has re­cently ex­panded its ter­ri­tory in Ye­men.

“Why is it a sur­prise to hear that Shabab may join the Is­lamic State? All Mus­lims have to unite against their en­emy,” said a Shabab com­man­der, speak­ing to AFP on con­di­tion of anonymity.

The com­man­der said Shabab “would be more than happy to join forces to strike the en­emy of Is­lam harder.”

The ad­mis­sion comes at a time when Shabab is un­der pres­sure mil­i­tar­ily but re­mains able to launch guerilla and ter­ror at­tacks, seem­ingly at will, against civil­ian tar­gets in So­ma­lia and Kenya.

This month Shabab killed 148 peo­ple, mostly stu­dents, dur­ing an armed as­sault on a uni­ver­sity in Garissa, north­east­ern Kenya, while sui­cide bombers and gun­men have at­tacked ho­tels and a restau­rant in Mo­gadishu and a United Na­tions minibus in the north­ern So­mali town of Garowe.

Garissa echoed the 2013 West­gate Mall attack in Nairobi, with just four gun­men and mul­ti­ple ac­counts of the sin­gling out of non-Mus­lims for mur­der, a tac­tic also used in Shabab at­tacks on a bus and quarry in Man­dera, Kenya, late last year.

But Garissa was both Shabab’s most deadly and most bru­tal attack yet. The gun­men herded scores of young nonMus­lim men and women into a uni­ver­sity hall of res­i­dence. They were made to lie side-byside on the court­yard floor and ex­e­cuted.

It was an as­sault wor­thy in its thirst for blood of IS, which has dis­tin­guished it­self through mass ex­e­cu­tions, many of which are recorded and dis­trib­uted on­line.

‘ Cor­ri­dor to Afghanistan’

Some see Shabab’s vac­il­la­tions as a sign of weak­ness.

“Shabab is des­per­ate. They have lost ground in So­ma­lia, they may be con­sid­er­ing join­ing the so- called Is­lamic State in Iraq and Syria so that they get funds and moral sup­port,” said Mo­hamed Ibrahim, a So­mali se­cu­rity of­fi­cial.

But oth­ers sug­gest Shabab is still con­sid­ered a valu­able part­ner in ji­had.

“There’s a de­bate go­ing on be­tween the core lead­ers whether to switch to IS, whether to stay with al-Qaida,” So­ma­lia’s Prime Min­is­ter Omar Ab­di­rashid Ali Shar­marke told AFP.

“Both ISIS and al-Qaida are ap­peal­ing to Shabab to join them,” he said, us­ing an al­ter­na­tive ab­bre­vi­a­tion for IS.

Shar­marke said that re­cent ter­ri­to­rial gains in Ye­men by alQaida in the Ara­bian Penin­sula ( AQAP), the strong­est of al- Qaida’s fran­chises, might em­bolden and strengthen Shabab.

“It’s re­ally cru­cial now be­cause this can spill over from the Ye­men con­flict and eas­ily come to So­ma­lia,” he said. “The Gulf of Aden can be­come a cor­ri­dor to Afghanistan and Pak­istan.”

Sources in south­ern So­ma­lia, where Shabab fighters and com­man­ders are now con­cen­trated, con­firmed that meet­ings have taken place to dis­cuss the IS/AQ is­sue.

“We have heard about a meet­ing by Shabab se­nior lead­ers,” said Has­san Nure, an el­der in Lower Sha­belle re­gion. “They haven’t agreed any­thing so far, some of them are still very re­luc­tant be­cause they want to main­tain re­la­tions with al-Qaida.”

“The dis­pute in Shabab over whether to re­main loyal to alQaida or align in­stead with IS is very real,” says Tres Thomas, a Wash­ing­ton- based So­mali ex­pert and manager of the re­spected So­ma­lia News­room blog.

Fi­nan­cial Benefits

An­a­lysts say Shabab leader Ahmed Diriye, also known as Ahmed Umar Abu Ubaidah, is an al-Qaida loy­al­ist, while the pow­er­ful se­cret po­lice chief, Ma­had Karate, is the most se­nior pro­po­nent of a shift to IS.

A shift to IS might bring fi­nan­cial benefits. “If Shabab were to align with IS it would mean an in­crease in money and re­sources that AQ can­not pro­vide at the mo­ment,” said a West­ern se­cu­rity source.

It might also pro­vide a po­lit­i­cal boost and a pro­pa­ganda coup.

“In some ways you in­herit the strength of the group to whom you pledge al­le­giance,” said Roland Marchal, a ter­ror­ism ex­pert and se­nior re­search fel­low at the Na­tional Cen­tre for Sci­en­tific Re­search (CNRS) in Paris.

But for Marchal, the long and strong links be­tween Shabab and AQAP would make switch­ing al­le­giance a fi­nan­cial and po­lit­i­cal wrench, as well as a tricky de­ci­sion.

“The Shabab lead­er­ship re­mains closely linked to AQAP and it’s hard to be­lieve that they would switch to IS just like that.”

And the ex­tent of in­ter­nal Shabab sup­port for a move is not known.

“It is un­clear how big and in­flu­en­tial the pro- IS fac­tion is and whether it would be able to shift broader opin­ion in Shabab, out­side of a num­ber of for­eign fighters who are also be­hind an IS al­liance,” said Thomas.

In any case, a sim­ple shift of al­le­giance may do lit­tle to in­crease Shabab’s ap­peal to po­ten­tial re­cruits.

“While Shabab would like to see ji­hadists, par­tic­u­larly those of So­mali de­scent, come to So­ma­lia in­stead of Syria and Iraq, an al­liance with IS would not change the fact that Shabab’s dwin­dling ter­ri­to­rial con­trol and ur­ban at­tacks against civil­ians are still a ma­jor dis­in­cen­tive for re­cruits.”

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