Shabaab and al Qaeda have announced their formal merger, according to a video disseminated online today and translated by the SITE Intelligence group. In the video, Mukhtar Abu al Zubayr (a.k.a. Ahmed Abdi Aw Mohamed or Godane), the emir and cofounder of Shabaab, pledges his organization’s allegiance to al Qaeda, and Ayman al Zawahiri, the emir of al Qaeda, accepts.
“O our beloved Emir, on behalf of my brothers in al Shabaab al Mujahideen Movement, commanders and soldiers, I say: We give allegiance to you to follow the Book of Allah and the Sunnah [traditions] of His Messenger, to listen and obey in good and bad, to have altruism and not dispute with people in their fields except when we see clear unbelief that is proven in the revelation from Allah as much as we can,” Zubayr says in his address to Zawahiri, according to SITE’s translation.
“Lead us on the path of martyrdom and jihad, on the steps drawn by our martyred Imam Usama [bin Laden],” Zubayr adds.
In his portion of the video, Zawahiri claims that the “jihadi movement is growing…despite the fiercest Crusader campaign in history launched by the West against Muslims.” Zawahiri continues: “Today, I have pleasing glad tidings for the Muslim Ummah that will please the believers and disturb the disbelievers, which is the joining of the Shabaab al Mujahideen Movement in Somalia to Qaedat al Jihad, to support the jihadi unity against the Zio[nist]-Crusader campaign and their assistants amongst the treacherous agent rulers who let the invading Crusader forces enter their countries.”
The announcement is hardly surprising. Al Qaeda and Shabaab have long been closely linked. And Shabaab’s leaders have repeatedly proclaimed their allegiance to al Qaeda.
During an interview in December 2011, Zubayr highlighted the role al Qaeda has played in Somalia since the 1993 Battle of Mogadishu. In 2010, according to an account published by Reuters, Zubayr signed a statement saying that Shabaab had “agreed to join the international jihad of al Qaeda.”
Al Qaeda has praised Shabaab and its predecessor, the Islamic Courts Union, for years prior to accepting Shabaab into the fold. And for years al Qaeda has helped produce propaganda for the Islamic Courts and Shabaab, and has addressed the group in its own propaganda tapes. Osama bin Laden endorsed the Islamic Courts during a speech back in 2006.
“We will continue, God willing, to fight you and your allies everywhere, in Iraq and Afghanistan and in Somalia and Sudan until we waste all your money and kill your men and you will return to your country in defeat as we defeated you before in Somalia,” bin Laden said. Al Qaeda leaders Ayman al Zawahiri and Abu Yahya al Libi have also directly addressed Shabaab and voiced their support for the terror group’s activities.
During the summer of 2008, Shabaab sought to formally join al Qaeda. By the end of that year, al Qaeda had indicated that it had all but formally accepted Shabaab as its official affiliate in East Africa.
In September of 2008, Shabaab formally reached out to al Qaeda’s senior leadership in an effort to better integrate with the network and its strategic nodes across Africa and the Middle East. The effort came in the form of a 24-minute video that featured Saleh ali Saleh Nabhan, a dual-hatted al Qaeda and Shabaab leader.
In the tape, Nabhan declared an oath of bayat (loyalty) on behalf of Shabaab to bin Laden and al Qaeda and encouraged fighters to train in Shabaab-run camps and participate in the fight against the transitional federal government, Ethiopian forces, and African Union peacekeepers. A public response to Shabaab’s declaration came two months later, on Nov. 19, 2008, when al Qaeda operations chief Ayman al-Zawahiri acknowledged the group in a propaganda video by calling them “my brothers, the lions of Islam in Somalia.”
“[R]ejoice in victory and conquest,” Zawahiri said, in an official transcript acquired by The Long War Journal, “and hold tightly to the truth for which you have given your lives, and don’t put down your weapons before the Mujahid state of Islam and Tawheed [oneness with god] has been set up in Somalia.”
Despite the close ties between the two terror groups, al Qaeda’s senior leadership “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 any additional statements would only serve to draw international scrutiny,” the intelligence official said.
Longstanding organizational ties
Despite abundant evidence that Shabaab has long been a part of al Qaeda’s international network, some analysts have claimed the two groups lack organizational or operational ties. Of course, al Qaeda does not publish an organizational chart for public consumption. But the depth of operational ties between the two can best be seen in the biographies of the men who have led Shabaab:
Aden Hashi Ayro was, along with Zubayr, a co-founder of Shabaab and its military commander until he was killed in an American airstrike in 2008. Ayro was a senior al Qaeda operative in East Africa. Shabaab’s official biography of Ayro, released after his death, said that “he fought under the supervision of al Qaeda, and with its logistical support and expertise.”
Fazul Mohammed was a dual-hatted al Qaeda and Shabaab operative until he was killed in June 2011. In November 2009, Osama bin Laden named Fazul the head of East Africa Al Qaeda (EAAQ). Zubayr, the emir of Shabaab, attended the ceremony in which Fazul was named to this leadership position. Fazul continued to seek Osama bin Laden’s direction even while the al Qaeda master was in hiding in Pakistan, according to a leaked Joint Task Force-Guantanamo (JTF-GTMO) memo. Fazul was long wanted by US authorities for his role in al Qaeda’s 1998 embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, as well as the 2002 attacks in Mombasa, Kenya. Prior to assuming a leadership position within Shabaab, Fazul was the intelligence chief for the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), which spawned Shabaab. Fazul served as an al Qaeda operative inside Somalia since the early 1990s and reportedly fought in the 1993 Battle of Mogadishu.
Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, who was killed in a US airstrike in September 2009, was also a dual-hatted Shabaab and al Qaeda commander. Like Fazul, Nabhan was also wanted for his role in al Qaeda’s 1998 embassy bombings and the 2002 attacks in Kenya. Nabhan was tasked with training foreign recruits for Shabaab, including at least some of the young recruits Shabaab attracted from the US. In a video recorded in July 2008, Nabhan praised Osama bin Laden as “the courageous commander and my honorable leader.” The Shabaab cell that carried out the July 11 double suicide attack in Kampala, Uganda, killing 74 people, was named the Saleh Ali Nabhan Brigade, which indicates the importance of Nabhan and al Qaeda to Shabaab.
Abu Talha al Sudani, who was killed in 2007, was a senior al Qaeda leader in East Africa. Like Fazul and Nabhan, he was wanted in connection with the 1998 and 2002 terrorist attacks. Sudani was reportedly “close” to the aforementioned Ayro. In fact, Nabhan announced Sudani’s death in an online video that also discussed the 2008 airstrike that killed Ayro.
Mukhtar Robow (a.k.a Abu Mansur) is a senior Shabaab leader and spokesman. Like other Shabaab leaders, Robow received his terrorist training in Afghanistan. Robow also does not hide his allegiance to al Qaeda. In August 2008, according to the Los Angeles Times, Robow admitted: “We are negotiating how we can unite into one [with al Qaeda]. We will take our orders from Sheik Osama bin Laden because we are his students.” Robow continued: “Al Qaeda is the mother of the holy war in Somalia. Most of our leaders were trained in Al Qaeda camps. We get our tactics and guidelines from them. Many have spent time with Osama bin Laden.”
Issa Osman Issa was sanctioned, along with Zubayr and Robow, by the US Treasury Department in November 2008. Leaked Joint Task Force Guantanamo documents reference intelligence reports tying Issa to both al Qaeda and Shabaab. In one such memo, Issa is described as “a mobile commander for al Shabaab forces.” Issa reportedly took part in al Qaeda’s 1998 embassy bombings and the 2002 attacks in Mombasa, Kenya.
Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys was co-leader of the Islamic Courts Union. In early 2009, he founded Hizbul Islam, a coalition of four Somali Islamic groups. Although the two organizations cooperated in attacks against their common enemies, Hizbul Islam became a rival of Shabaab after the two unsuccessfully attempted to merge forces. The two clashed in southern Somalia, including in Kismayo. Hizbul Islam was weakened by infighting, however, and Sheikh Aweys eventually merged the group with Shabaab. Aweys is now a Shabaab commander.
Aweys is a longtime ally of al Qaeda and was trained in al Qaeda’s pre-9/11 Afghan camps. He was reportedly involved in the 1993 Battle of Mogadishu. In November 2001, the US State Department added Aweys to its list of Specially Designated Terrorists. Aweys has long advocated suicide attacks, including the use of children as suicide bombers. According to a leaked Joint Task Force Guantanamo file, Sheikh Aweys “sponsored” Saleh Ali Nabhan in Mogadishu after Nabhan fled there following al Qaeda’s Nov. 28, 2002 terrorist attacks in Kenya.
Sheikh Hassan Turki was a leader in Al Ittihad al Islami (AIAI) and then the Islamic Courts Union before forming his own organization, the Ras Kamboni Brigade. Sheikh Turki originally merged the Ras Kamboni Brigade into Sheikh Aweys’ Hizbul Islam, but later broke from Aweys’ group to join Shabaab in early 2010.
Zubayr, Shabaab’s emir, and Sheikh Turki released a joint statement announcing the merger. The statement read: “We have agreed to join the international jihad of al Qaeda …. We have also agreed to unite al Shabaab and Kamboni mujahideen to liberate the Eastern and Horn of Africa community who are under the feet of minority Christians.” Sheikh Turki operates terrorist training camps in southern Somalia and has trained suicide bombers close to the Kenyan border.
Bashir Mohamed Mahamoud is, according to the United Nations, a Shabaab “military commander” and “one of approximately ten members on al Shabaab’s leadership council as of late 2008.” The UN notes that Mahamoud and “an associate were in charge of the 10 June 2009 mortar attack against the Somali Transitional Federal Government in Mogadishu.” A leaked Joint Task Force Guantanamo (JTF-GTMO) file notes that a current Gitmo detainee, Abdul Malik Bajabu, has admitted to having “a close relationship” with Mahamoud. The same file describes Mahamoud as an “EAAQ member.” Mahamoud “planned to assassinate the Somali Prime Minister and conduct unspecified suicide attacks,” the JTF-GTMO file adds.
Abdul Malik Bajabu is currently held at Guantanamo. A JTF-GTMO threat assessment summarizing the intelligence on his activities alleges that he was a member of East Africa Al Qaeda (EAAQ) and the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), and also “has ties to the al-Ittihad al-Islami (AIAI).” Bajabu has allegedly “admitted that he participated in the planning and execution” of the Nov. 28, 2002 attacks on the Kikambala Paradise Hotel and an Israeli airliner in Kenya. Several of the dual-hatted al Qaeda and Shabaab leaders on this list were involved in that attack.
The details of Bajabu’s career alleged in the threat assessment show a high degree of
coordination between al Qaeda members and Shabaab leaders. The file cites intelligence reports that say Bajabu operated out of Mogadishu and conspired with Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, Fazul Mohammed, Issa Osman Issa, and Bashir Mohamed Mahamoud, as well as with other terrorists working for al Qaeda, Shabaab, and the ICU. The JTF-GTMO threat assessment also alleges that a member of a group called the “London Boys” was a “close associate” of Bajabu’s. The “London Boys” allegedly received terrorist training under Fazul Mohammed and may have been recruited by al Qaeda to be sleeper agents for future attacks in the West.
Ibrahim al Afghani was reportedly killed in a Predator strike in late June 2011. Afghani previously served as Shabaab’s regional governor of the Kismayo administration. The Somalia Monitoring Group, in a March 2010 report, said Afghani is one of the group’s top leaders. Afghani was listed after Zubayr, Shabaab’s emir. Afghani received his nom de guerre because he fought in Afghanistan for years. A leaked Joint Task Force Guantanamo (JTF-GTMO) threat assessment dated Aug. 6, 2007 describes Afghani as “an al-Ittihad al-Islami (AIAI) military commander known for his religious knowledge as well as loyalty and support for al Qaeda and the Taliban and for his continuing links to Afghanistan.” The file continues: “[Afghani] was one of the first founders of al Qaeda affiliated AIAI cells and one of the instigators of terrorist attacks in Somaliland.”
Ahmed Abdulkadir Warsame was indicted by the US Department of Justice in 2011 “on charges of providing material support to al Shabaab and al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).” The DOJ alleges that Warsame “received explosives and other military-type training from AQAP,” “worked to broker a weapons deal with AQAP on behalf of al Shabaab,” and provided explosives training. Multiple press reports have pointed to collusion between Shabaab and AQAP. For instance, the Washington Post reported in late June 2011 that two Shabaab leaders targeted in a US missile strike had “direct ties” to deceased AQAP cleric Anwar al Awlaki.
Abu Mansour al Amriki is a US citizen whose real name is Omar Hammami. He converted to Islam and traveled to Somalia in 2006. Once in Somalia, he quickly rose through the ranks, and now serves as a military commander, recruiter, financier, and propagandist. Amriki appears in several Shabaab propaganda tapes. The US has added Amriki to its list of specially designated global terrorists for his ties to both al Qaeda and Shabaab.
Bilal al Berjawi was a British citizen “of Lebanese origin” who was known as Abu Hafsa. Berjawi was second-in-command to slain al Qaeda leader Fazul Mohammed and fought in Somali for years before he was killed in a US Predator airstrike in southern Somalia in January 2012.
Shaykh Muhammad Abu Fa’id is a Saudi citizen who serves as a top financier and a “manager” for Shabaab. He is also known as Sheikh Fua’d Mohamed Khalaf.
Abu Sulayman Al Banadiri is a Somali of Yemeni descent. He serves as a top adviser to Zubayr, and trained in an al Qaeda camp in Afghanistan.
Abu Musa Mombasa is a Pakistani citizen who serves as Shabaab’s chief of security and training.
Mahmud Mujajir is a Sudanese citizen who serves as Shabaab’s chief of recruitment for suicide bombers.
Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD’s Long War Journal. Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD’s Long War Journal.