In August 2010, al Qaeda emir Osama bin Laden sent a letter instructing the leader of Shabaab, Mukhtar Abu al Zubayr, to hide the ties between the two terror groups so as not to draw international attention and thereby hinder nongovernmental organizations and businessmen from providing humanitarian aid to Somalia. The document confirms an exclusive report by The Long War Journal from August 2010 that stated al Qaeda had ordered Shabaab to downplay its links to al Qaeda.
Bin Laden’s letter to Zubayr (a.k.a. Ahmed Abdi Aw Mohamed or Godane), which is dated Aug. 7, 2010, addresses a previous letter from the Shabaab leader that has not been released. While thousands of documents were seized during the raid in Abbottabad, only 17 have been released to the public.
In Zubayr’s initial letter, he appears to have asked bin Laden’s advice on declaring an Islamic state in Somalia and requests the official merger with al Qaeda. Bin Laden responds by calling Zubayr his “Most Generous Brother,” and advises the Shabaab leader to not officially declare an emirate and to keep the merger, or “unity,” between al Qaeda and Shabaab a secret.
“Now, in relation to the issue of unity, I see that this obligation should be carried out legitimately and through unannounced secret messaging, by spreading this matter among the people of Somalia, without any official declaration by any officers on our side or your side, that the unity has taken place,” bin Laden wrote, according to a translation of the document by the Countering Terrorism Center at West Point.
But bin Laden then tells Zubayr that the relationship can be disclosed within the ranks of Shabaab.
“But there remains the situation of the brothers on your side and their talking about their relationship with al Qaeda, if asked. It would be better for them to say that there is a relationship with al Qaeda which is simply a brotherly Islamic connection and nothing more, which would neither deny nor prove,” bin Laden wrote.
Bin laden’s rationale for keeping the ties secret was twofold. First, he feared that an official merger, once it “becomes declared and out in the open, it would have the enemies escalate their anger and mobilize against you.”
“This is what happened to the brothers in Iraq or Algeria,” bin Laden cautioned, referring to the creation of al Qaeda in Iraq and the North African affiliate, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. But the ties would eventually be disclosed, bin Laden wrote.
“It is true that the enemies will find out inevitably; this matter cannot be hidden, especially when people go around and spread this news. However, an official declaration remains to be the master for all proof,” he stated.
Bin Laden also said that “those who would like to provide rescue assistance to Muslims in Somalia” would be able to do so if “definitive evidences” of the merger did not exist.
Additionally, bin Laden said that obscuring the merger would allow him to “press the merchants in the countries of the Arabian Peninsula to support pro-active and important developmental projects which are not expensive.”
“Therefore, by not having the mujahidin openly allied with al Qaeda, it would strengthen those merchants who are willing to help the brothers in Somalia, and would keep people with the mujahid,” he concluded.
Bin Laden’s letter to Zubayr confirmed the The Long War Journal‘s exclusive report of Aug. 15, 2010, which noted that al Qaeda had ordered Shabaab to suppress ties between the two groups. [See LWJ report, Al Qaeda advises Shabaab to keep low profile on links, attack US interests.]
“Al Qaeda’s top leadership has instructed Shabaab to maintain a low profile on al Qaeda links,” a senior US intelligence official who closely follows al Qaeda and Shabaab in East Africa told The Long War Journal in August 2010. The official, who requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of the subject, said the information was passed between the top leadership of both groups.
“Al Qaeda has accepted Shabaab into the fold and, and any additional statements would only serve to draw international scrutiny,” the intelligence official said. “Al Qaeda is applying lessons learned from Iraq, that an overexposure of the links between al Qaeda central leadership and its affiliates can cause some unwanted attention.”
Zubayr and Ayman al Zawahiri, al Qaeda’s new emir, discarded bin Laden’s advice on Feb. 9, 2012, when Shabaab formally announced its merger with al Qaeda. The Muslim Youth Center, Shabaab’s affiliate in Kenya, said it has become “part of al Qaeda East Africa.”
For more information on Shabaab’s longstanding ties to al Qaeda, see LWJ report, Shabaab formally joins al Qaeda.