The Islamic State has made a big push to win the loyalty of Shabaab, al Qaeda’s official branch in East Africa, and fighters in its ranks. For months, Islamic State boosters on social media have predicted Shabaab’s imminent defection. And the “caliphate” recently released numerous propaganda videos encouraging Somali jihadists to switch their allegiance from al Qaeda head Ayman al Zawahiri to Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the self-proclaimed “Caliph Ibrahim.” The videos targeting Shabaab’s rank and file have starred jihadists in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere.
Thus far, however, the Islamic State’s anti-al Qaeda push in East Africa has had little success. While additional defections are possible, or even likely, the “caliphate” has not yet won over a substantial number of Shabaab members.
The only noteworthy defection to date came last week, when Abdiqadir Mumin, a Shabaab leader in the Puntland region, purportedly announced his allegiance to Baghdadi in an audio message released online. Mumin declared his fealty to Baghdadi on behalf of the “the mujahideen of Somalia,” but that was an exaggeration.
According to Reuters, which interviewed one of Mumin’s men, just 20 jihadists out of the 300 located in the Galgala hills of Puntland, where Mumin was based, have joined the Islamic State. According to SITE Intelligence Group, the Shahada News Agency, a pro-jihadist media group that reports on Somalia, has confirmed these figures based on “independent sources.”
If accurate, this obviously means that the remaining 280 or so fighters in the area have not followed Mumin’s lead. Indeed, Shahada News Agency reported that the “rest of the soldiers are loyal to” Shabaab “in its allegiance to al Qaeda.” The follower of Mumin interviewed by Reuters said the same: “The other fighters rejected us and remained in the Galgala hills.”
It is possible that more fighters have joined Mumin than these reports suggest. Still, the Islamic State has failed to win over a large number of defectors from within Shabaab’s guerrilla army. To put things in perspective, consider the overall scale of Shabaab’s operations.
The State Department notes that Shabaab “is estimated to have several thousand members, including a small cadre of foreign fighters.” Shabaab doesn’t possess as much territory as it once did, but the al Qaeda branch still controls significant turf and remains one of the most prolific insurgency organizations in the world. According to the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), Shabaab executed the third most terrorist attacks (nearly 500) of any perpetrator organization in 2014. Only the Islamic State and the Taliban carried out more.
By way of comparison, the Islamic State has yet to claim a single attack in Somalia, although it may do so in the near future. And while the “caliphate” may very well announce a wilayat (or province) in East Africa, there is no reason to believe, absent significant defections, that it will be nearly as strong as Shabaab.
One reason the Islamic State has been slow to expand into East Africa, even as it has declared “provinces” elsewhere on the continent, is that the “caliphate’s” men have run into stiff opposition from Shabaab’s leadership.
Shabaab’s leadership remains loyal to al Qaeda, hunts down defectors
Al Qaeda’s leadership is, of course, well aware that the Islamic State is attempting to poach from Shabaab’s ranks. In the long-delayed first episode of his “Islamic Spring” series, which was released last month, Ayman al Zawahiri recounted his communications with Ahmed Abdi Godane, who headed Shabaab until his demise in September 2014. Zawahiri explained that he and Godane had discussed the Islamic State’s attempt to split the jihadists’ ranks.
In a message sent in July or August of 2013, according to Zawahiri’s testimony in “Islamic Spring,” Godane asked Allah “to forgive the brothers” in the Islamic State for their “transgression” and to “restore them to the truth.” Godane addressed Zawahiri as “my sheikh” and asked him to be “patient” with the Islamic State and “attempt reconciliation and amendment.”
Godane was especially offended by the Islamic State’s rhetoric, because he and his men “strive for the restoration of the Islamic caliphate” incorporating Muslims around the globe. The Islamic State acts as if this is not the case, and has demanded the submission of al Qaeda’s regional branches.
In the spring of 2014, as explained in “Islamic Spring,” Zawahiri sent Godane a message of his own. “I know how sad you are about what is happening in the Levant, the eruption of blind strife there, the disdain for holy sanctities, the disavowal of settled matters such as the [Islamic] State’s pledge of allegiance to al Qaeda, their duplicity in this respect,” and “how they deem it permissible to practice takfir [labeling other Muslims as infidels] against their opponents,” Zawahiri explained to Godane, according to a translation obtained by The Long War Journal.
Zawahiri noted that he “even found” a video on the Internet “debating whether God’s humble servant [as Zawahiri referred to himself] is an infidel.”
“The one who declares God’s humble servant [Zawahiri] to be an infidel and blows up Abu Khalid al Suri, may God have mercy on him, will not abstain from blowing up, or declaring to be an infidel, anyone who criticizes him or opposes his projects,” Zawahiri continued (Abu Khalid al Suri, an al Qaeda veteran, was Zawahiri’s representative in Syria and a senior leader in Ahrar al Sham until his death in February 2014).
Zawahiri told Godane that he ordered Al Nusrah Front to avoid any “aggression” against the Islamic State and that he would also encourage Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s organization to return to Iraq for the sake of unity. After summarizing these messages to and from Godane, Zawahiri eulogized Shabaab’s fallen emir. The al Qaeda leader praised Godane’s “martyrdom.”
Turning to more recent events, Zawahiri used his first appearance in the “Islamic Spring” series to address his “brothers, the lions of Islam in East Africa,” telling them to “stand firm on the path.” Zawahiri also approved of Godane’s successor as Shabaab’s leader.
“I endorse their [Shabaab’s] choice of the noble brother, Shaykh Abu Ubaydah Ahmad Umar, as their emir, and I ask God to grant him success in bearing the responsibility of dawa [Islamic proselytizing] and jihad,” Zawahiri declared. “I request of him to exert all of his efforts to institute sharia as the undisputed ruler and master in East Africa.”
Al Qaeda’s most senior leader went on to offer Shabaab’s new emir advice, speaking as if Ahmed Umar rules over an emirate (state) or province. “May he seek recourse to gentleness, patience, and kindness, for they are the best helpers of the governor over his wilayat [province] and of the emir over his emirate,” Zawahiri said.
Shabaab’s leaders have repeatedly made their loyalty to al Qaeda’s leadership known. Just days after Godane’s death last year, the group reaffirmed its oath of fealty to Zawahiri. Shabaab’s propaganda throughout this year has routinely featured pro-al Qaeda messaging as well.
All of this means that the Islamic State has to overcome Shabaab’s role in al Qaeda’s international network in order to spawn a new “province” for the “caliphate” in East Africa. Shabaab is not making it easy.
Voice of America (VOA) reported in late September that Shabaab’s leadership had “issued an internal memo aimed at silencing pro-IS elements, who are accused of stirring up dissent.” The memo “reportedly stated the group’s policy is to continue allegiance with al Qaeda and that any attempt to create discord over this position will be dealt with according to Islamic law.” Any “speech made in public or in mosques about policies, operations and guidance first must be cleared with [Shabaab’s] media office,” VOA reported.
There is little doubt that some of the Shabaab’s younger members want to join the Islamic State. There may be additional figures like Mumin as well. But there is no way to accurately assess how many jihadists in Somalia belong to this pro-Islamic State category. And, to date, the Islamic State has little to show for its efforts.
While the Islamic State has loudly tried to woo Shabaab, the al Qaeda branch has been quietly silencing dissent. Shabaab’s Amniyat, an internal security organ that protects the group’s leadership, has been hunting down fighters who refuse to give up their pro-Islamic State ambition. Shabaab has reportedly detained or killed dozens of members who have gravitated to the Islamic State’s camp.
And Mumin’s decision to switch his allegiance has already provoked a backlash. On October 24, Al Muhajiroun, a group of “emigrant” fighters in East Africa, released a statement in English objecting to the “unhelpful pronouncement of a minority of individuals and their so-called bayat [allegiance] to those that have thus far failed to follow the Sunnah but expect to [unite] the Mujahideen.” Although Al Muhajiroun did not explicitly mention the Islamic State or Mumin, its statement was clearly aimed at them.
“As stated previously, the Emigrants of East Africa remain united behind our beloved brothers in Al Qaeda and [Shabaab],” Al Muhajiroun’s propaganda arm wrote.