Al-Shabab-Daesh ri­valry erupts in Somalia

The Daily Star (Lebanon) - - REGION -

NAIROBI: A bloody ri­valry has emerged be­tween ex­trem­ist groups in Somalia as the Al-Qaeda-linked Al-Shabab hunts up­start fighters al­lied to Daesh (ISIS) who have be­gun de­mand­ing pro­tec­tion pay­ments from ma­jor busi­nesses, of­fi­cials tell the As­so­ci­ated Press.

The ri­valry sup­ports some ob­servers’ sus­pi­cions that AlShabab, now scram­bling to de­fend its monopoly on the mafia-style ex­tor­tion racket that funds its high­pro­file at­tacks, is drift­ing from its long-de­clared goal of es­tab­lish­ing a strict Is­lamic state.

The man­hunt be­gan in Oc­to­ber with the killing of a top leader of the Daesh-linked group by a sus­pected Al-Shabab death squad in the cap­i­tal, Mo­gadishu, ac­cord­ing to sev­eral So­mali in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cials who spoke on con­di­tion of anonymity be­cause they were not au­tho­rized to speak to the me­dia.

When the body of Ma­had Maalin, deputy leader of the Dae­shaf­fil­i­ated group, was found near a beach in Mo­gadishu, it set off a hunt for sus­pected Daesh sym­pa­thiz­ers within Al-Shabab’s ranks, of­fi­cials said. Maalin had been sus­pected of try­ing to ex­tend his group’s reach into the cap­i­tal.

Last month, Daesh’s Al-Naba news­let­ter noted deadly at­tacks on its fighters in Somalia and warned that “when the time of re­sponse comes from Daesh, with God’s will, we will be ex­cused.”

The Daesh-af­fil­i­ated group in Somalia, largely made up of AlShabab de­fec­tors, first an­nounced its pres­ence in 2016 with at­tacks in the far north, far from Mo­gadishu and most Al-Shabab strongholds.

Though es­ti­mated at a few hun­dred fighters at most, the group’s emer­gence in one of the world’s most un­sta­ble coun­tries has been alarm­ing enough that the U.S. mil­i­tary be­gan tar­get­ing it with airstrikes a year ago.

While Al-Shabab and its thou­sands of fighters have hunted down sus­pected Daesh sym­pa­thiz­ers be­fore, they had not taken the young group’s ex­pan­sion se­ri­ously un­til now, ob­servers say. “Al-Shabab mis­cal­cu­lated Daesh’s or­ga­ni­za­tional ca­pa­bil­ity and am­bi­tions to ex­tend its reach beyond the north, hav­ing judged it by its hand­ful of fighters there, and thus missed the big­ger pic­ture,” said Mo­ham­mad Sheikh Abdi, a Mo­gadishu-based po­lit­i­cal an­a­lyst.

The rev­e­la­tion by busi­ness­men that Daesh-linked op­er­a­tives had be­gun mak­ing ex­tor­tion de­mands took Al-Shabab’s lead­er­ship by sur­prise, prompt­ing the man­hunt that has led to as­sas­si­na­tions and the de­ten­tion of over 50 sus­pected Daesh-linked ex­trem­ists, in­clud­ing for­eign fighters, two So­mali in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cials told AP. One sus­pected Daesh-linked fighter from Egypt was shot dead on Nov. 18 in Jilib.

As mem­bers of Daesh flee shrink­ing strongholds in Iraq and Syria, fears have grown that the fighters will find a new and wel­come home in parts of Africa.

Alarmed by Al-Shabab’s deadly at­tacks, the Daesh-linked group has ex­panded its own as­sas­si­na­tion cam­paign. Daesh’s Amaq news agency, turn­ing its at­ten­tion to the young af­fil­i­ate, has re­leased videos show­ing what it called killings by the group’s death squad.

Daesh-linked fighters had al­ready claimed re­spon­si­bil­ity for 50 as­sas­si­na­tions in south­ern Somalia be­tween Oc­to­ber 2017 and Au­gust, of­ten against fed­eral gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials, ac­cord­ing to a re­port re­leased last month by the United Na­tions panel of ex­perts mon­i­tor­ing sanc­tions on the coun­try.

While ex­tor­tion is the fighters’ lat­est tac­tic, it is noth­ing new in Somalia, where Al-Shabab has long used death threats and other in­tim­i­da­tion to pres­sure busi­nesses to pay what is called “za­kah,” or char­ity. The money is their main source of fund­ing.

“In­deed, Al-Shabab is likely gen­er­at­ing a sig­nif­i­cant bud­getary sur­plus,” the U.N. panel of ex­perts said, not­ing that one of its check­points brought in about $10 mil­lion a year.

With no strong gov­ern­ment to pro­tect them, busi­ness­men of­ten say they have no choice but to pay in ex­change for pro­tec­tion. Among the com­pa­nies tar­geted by sus­pected Daesh-linked ex­trem­ists is Somalia’s tele­com gi­ant, Hor­muud, which in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cials say has lost up to 10 em­ploy­ees in at­tacks in re­cent weeks. Hor­muud of­fi­cials did not re­spond to re­quests for com­ment.

Busi­nesses worry that the rise of an­other ex­trem­ist group seek­ing cash, as well as a new ef­fort by Somalia’s cen­tral gov­ern­ment to im­pose taxes, will bleed them dry.

“At this point, [busi­nesses] are faced with two equally un­de­sir­able al­ter­na­tives,” said Ab­disamad Barre, a pro­fes­sor of busi­ness man­age­ment in Mo­gadishu.

“Re­jec­tion to the de­mands for ex­tor­tion will pave way for at­tacks by Daesh, and pay­ing them to evade dan­ger will anger Al-Shabab.”

So­mali in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cials say Al-Shabab’s new man­hunt is aimed at pre­vent­ing the Daesh-linked ex­trem­ists from ex­pand­ing their ex­tor­tion de­mands into south­ern Somalia, where Al-Shabab levies mil­lions of dol­lars in taxes per year on trav­el­ers and cargo meant for the lu­cra­tive port of Kis­mayo.

An­other Al-Shabab tac­tic against its young ri­val is pres­sur­ing re­li­gious lead­ers to is­sue a fatwa declar­ing Daesh “un-Is­lamic,” thus le­git­imiz­ing a war against them, ac­cord­ing to sources close to Al-Shabab who re­quested anonymity for fear of reprisal.

Se­cu­rity ex­perts, how­ever, say Al-Shabab will find it dif­fi­cult to un­earth Daesh sup­port­ers even within its own ranks. “That will be a ma­jor chal­lenge,” one of­fi­cial said, not­ing that Daesh-linked loy­al­ists could be wait­ing qui­etly even in Al-Shabab’s lead­er­ship to make a move. “But that will prob­a­bly take a long time given Al-Shabab’s vig­i­lance.” –

Al-Shabab and its thou­sands of fighters have hunted down sus­pected Daesh sym­pa­thiz­ers be­fore.

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