Bin Laden told Shabaab to hide al Qaeda ties

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.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal.

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  • mike merlo says:

    the issue of being able to pressure ‘merchants’ on the Arabian peninsula is spooky. I wonder if it’s been possible to determine just who those ‘merchants’ are.

  • Neonmeat says:

    It seems that Bin Laden was aware of what a corrosive and evil organisation he had created in Al Qaeda. He seems to be telling Shabaab do not officially join AQ because then NGOs and Humanitarian Organisations will abandon the country that is in desparate need of aid. That Business men and similar will not be willing to invest in construction projects etc because AQ is in the country. Apparently he himself was aware of the fact that his organisation seen to be operating openly in Somalia would actually damage conditions for the average man and woman.
    Similarly to Chechnya it seems the fight has changed from one of Independence (under Islam) to being just another battlefront of the Global Jihadi movement.

  • jhenry1728 says:

    So interesting that the body wasn’t even fish food before the merger was announced. This really indicates that UBL was out of the loop and Shabaab was (is) likely in communication with Zawahiri.
    The focus on the NGOs and development/ investment groups immediately remind me of UBL’s work in Sudan in the early ’90s. He was able to bring in those groups with the support of AQ’s front organizations and start building a local support structure; a state within a state. Looks like he wanted to go back to that point. Gunaratna’s Inside al Qaeda discusses this pretty well.

  • Bill Roggio says:

    jhenry1728, I disagree with that assessment; OBL’s directive was indeed followed by Shabaab/AQ. It was 7 months after OBL was killed before the official merger was announced. I have no doubt OBL and Zawahiri, and others within the AQ org had disagreements on issues like this. Zawahiri became emir, and he’s putting his own stamp on the organization.

  • f16poor says:

    There are so many Somalians living in our heartland of Minnesota – my question is: WHY do we allow any Islamic Somalians immigrate to our country??
    It is almost like inviting wolves into your home and then you are wondering why your babies are dead?

  • gary siebel says:

    Shows how empty that Shabababoo “joining” really is; the timing of it indicated it was really just to bolster morale, plus, it allows for the shifting of Shabababoo leaders and troops to other battle zones more likely to yield success, and thereby allow Arabs to appear to legitimately escape the pincers awaiting in Somalia.

  • Neo says:

    Maintaining a low profile may have long term risks for al Qaeda. There is at least some debate within the conservative Islamist about the effectiveness and appropriateness of al Qaeda’s tactics. The higher the profile in multiple countries the easier it is for al Qaeda to say that they are maintaining their relevance and making some headway. A lower profile eventually risks a degree of marginalization.


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