Shabaab leaders divided? Not quite
Has a rift developed between Shabaab's top leaders over the group's decision to formally join al Qaeda, in the face of pressures from the Somali, Ethiopian, and African Union offensive that has seen the fall of several of key Shabaab strongholds over the past year? This meme has been pushed by The Jamestown Foundation, Al Jazeera, and The Associated Press, among other outlets, and was even repeated by US ambassador David Shinn. This paragraph from The Jamestown Foundation pretty much sums up the narrative of the supposed split:
The ongoing rift between al-Shabaab official leader Shaykh Ahmed Abdi Godane "Abu Zubayr" and Shaykh Mukhtar Robow "Abu Mansur," a senior commander and former spokesman of the group, has now been joined by Shaykh Hassan Dahir Aweys, a founder of Somalia's Islamic movement and former leader of the now defunct independent Islamist movement Hizb al-Islam, which merged with al-Shabaab in December, 2010. Aweys, whose group was pressured to merge with al-Shabaab by Godane's allies, now appears ready to back Abu Mansur should he make a bid for the group's leadership.
But the reality is that Shabaab's top leadership has presented a united front even while under severe pressure over the past year. The photo above shows Aweys leading Eid al Fitr prayers for Shabaab in the port town of Barawe in the Shabaab-controlled Lower Shabelle region. The image of Aweys was published on Somaliamemo, a Shabaab-linked site.
We've noted in the past that false statements have been attributed to Shabaab leaders, and even fake interviews, including one with Robow, have been published in the Somali press [see LWJ report, Shabaab denies top leader granted interview, for more information on this subject]. Abdulkadir Wa'ays, the former Somali researcher for the United Nations Security Council and a leading authority on Shabaab, explained the disinformation campaign to The Long War Journal back in March:
"Over the past years there has been a misleading campaign of bogus reports alleging that Shabaab has been teetering on the brink of a major split because of a rift between its top two leaders into two camps of hard-line Islamists from Somalia's North led by Leader Sheikh Mukhtar Abu Zubayr and nationalist Islamists from Somalia's South led by the group's deputy, Sheikh Mukhtar Robow ... This campaign is being waged by groups with vested interests who want to use this fabricated classification of Shabaab as a means to protect their criminal clansmen in Shabaab from being held responsible for their crimes."