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Policy Thoughts

09 November, 2015


Al Shabaab and Islamic State


by Hussein Solomon


The audio recording appeared at the end of October 2015 on YouTube, “We, the mujahideen of Somalia, declare allegiance to the caliph as Ibrahim ibn Awad ibn Ibrahim al-Awad al-Qurashi”. With this pledge of allegiance, Al Shabaab commander Abdiqadir Mumin and 20 of his fighters in the Puntland[2] region of Somalia defected to Islamic State[1]. Some commentators have pointed out that those defecting represent only a handful of Al Shabaab fighters. After all, Al Shabaab has several thousand fighters. Moreover, the 20 who defected formed part of a group of 300 fighters encamped in the Galgala Hills in Puntland . Statistically then, the 20 fighters represents a minuscule amount of support for Islamic State amongst Al Shabaab.
The announcement, however, is significant in that it represents an important indicator of divisions amongst jihadists in Somalia as well as providing some insight into Islamic State’s evolving strategy and tactics in the African theatre.



Al Shabab_AMISOM operations, Photo by Stuart Price

Under the leadership of its previous leader, Ahmed Abdi Godane[3], Al Shabaab merged with Al Qaeda’s East African franchise and indeed the operations embarked between the two organizations and personnel utilized became indistinguishable. Moreover, many of Al Shabaab commanders trained in Afghanistan and had struck up personal relationships with Al Qaeda members – especially across the Red Sea – where Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula centred on Yemen remains Al Qaeda’s strongest and most active franchise.

Following Godane’s death in a US drone strike in Somalia in September 2014[4], Ahmed Diriye aka Ahmed Umar Abu Ubaidah, another Al Qaeda loyalist, took over the reins of Al Shabaab[5]. Despite having his leadership endorsed by Al Qaeda leader, Aymann al-Zawahiri[6], the new Al Shabaab leader is having a torrid time getting the support of his rank-and-file. His attempts to stamp his authority over the organization has been severely undermined by the military setbacks, the organization has been suffering of late. US drone strikes have been steadily eliminating senior operatives within the organization. In March 2015, Al Shabaab’s Adnaan Garar was killed in Diinsoor in southern Somalia. He was responsible for planning all Al Shabaab’s external operations – including the infamous atrocity on Kenya’s Westgate Shopping Mall in September 2013 which claimed the lives of 67 people[7].

The elimination of a number of senior commanders has undermined both command and control within Al Shabaab as well as the professionalism with which the Islamists have traditionally conducted their operations. This was seen in early November 2015 when Kenyan Defence Forces together with the Somali National Army killed nine Al Shabaab fighters in Jungal, 30 kilometres north-west of Bardhere. They also seized a large amount of ammunition in this one engagement. Whilst Al Shabaab retains a deadly capacity to engage in asymmetric warfare as seen in the repeated attacks on hotels in Mogadishu as well as on African Union forces in September 2015[8], they are a pale shadow of their former selves when in 2011 they occupied large swathes of southern Somalia and threatened Mogadishu itself[9]. The reality is that the 22,000 African Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) forces together with the Somali armed forces, various clan militias and US drone attacks have Al Shabaab on the backfoot.

Under the circumstances, a younger generation of Al Shabaab fighters believe that if the group could strategically re-align itself with Islamic State, it would also benefit from Islamic State’s large war chest and its resources. Moreover, other Islamist groupings in Africa, notably Boko Haram in Nigeria, have pledged allegiance to Islamic State[10] and now forms part of its West African Wilayat. Boko Haram has already benefited from the largesse of Islamic State and have encouraged Al Shabaab fighters with whom they have had a strategic alliance to also join them in the embrace of Islamic State. Islamic State has also directly appealed to Al Shabaab to join the caliphate and its global jihadist cause. In May 2015, it put out a video which featured Taymullah al-Somali, a Somali-born Dutch national and appealed to Al Shabaab to align itself with them. This marked a change on the part of Islamic State’s recruitment drive. In the past, it appealed to individuals to join it, now it was appealing to whole organizations to join its cause[11]. Islamic State could be buoyed by the fact that 17 regional affiliates from Asia, across the Middle East, to Africa is now part of this global jihadi franchise and it could also sense the internal weakness within Al Shabaab.

Al Shabaab’s Al Qaeda aligned leadership is fighting back. The organization’s internal security organ, the Amniyat, has been killing and detaining those Al Shabaab members for months now who demonstrate any Islamic State sympathies[12]. The fact that Abdiqadir Mumin and his 20 fighters could defect in this context of fear and repression and the fact that it was done in such a public manner may well open the sluice gates for more defections from Al Shabaab to Islamic State. These defections will continue given the macro-strategic context which is not in Al Shabaab’s favour – constraining its ability to mount large-scale offensives as well as the fact that within the Amniyat itself, some senior commanders[13] have expressed a desire to re-align the movement from Al Qaeda to Islamic State.


[1]Abdi Sheikh, “Small group of Somali al Shabaab swear allegiance to Islamic State,” Reuters. 23 October 2015. Internet: Date accessed: 9 November 2015.
[3]Robyn Kriel and Briana Duggan, “Military sources: Al Shabaab attack in Somalia kills dozens of AU troops,” CNN. 3 September 2015. Internet: Date accessed: 9 November 2015.
[5]“Islamic State or Al Qaeda? Somalia’s Al Shabaab Mulls Future,” Israel National News. 26 April 2015. Internet: Date accessed: 9 November 2015.
[6]Thomas Jocelynn, “Shabaab’s leadership fights Islamic State’s attempted expansion in East Africa,” The Long War Journal. 26 October 2015. Internet: Date accessed: 9 November 2015.
[7]“Al Shabaab leader killed in drone strike,” The Guardian. 18 March 2015. Internet: Date accessed: 9 November 2015.
[8]Robynn Kriel and Briana Duggan, op. cit.
[9]Abdi Sheikh, op. cit.
[10]“Islamic State or Al Qaeda? Somalia’s Al Shabaab Mulls Future,” op. cit.
[11]Olivia McCoy, “Islamic State Calls for Al Shabaab to Pledge Allegiance,” Centre for Security Policy. 22 May 2015. Internet: Date accessed: 9 November 2015.
[12]Thomas Jocelynn, op. cit.
[13]“Islamic State or Al Qaeda? Somalia’s Al Shabaab Mulls Future,” op. cit.

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