An American jihadist who fought in the ranks of Shabaab, al Qaeda’s official branch in East Africa, has reportedly surrendered to African Union forces in Somalia.
Al Jazeera has identified the man as Abdul Malik Jones, a “middle-aged American citizen” who fled Shabaab after he pledged bay’ah (allegiance) to the Islamic State.
The commissioner of Somalia’s Baraawe district, Hussein Barre Muhammad, told reporters that the American first turned himself in to local forces before being transferred to AMISOM’s custody. “We have captured a bearded white man and he told us that he escaped Shabaab and wanted to surrender to the Somali government after interrogation,” Muhammad said during a briefing yesterday. Muhammad’s comments were first reported by Goobjoog News, a radio station based in Mogadishu.
As The Long War Journal previously reported, Shabaab’s leadership remains loyal to al Qaeda, and is cracking down on any defectors who attempt to join Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s “caliphate.” The Amniyat, Shabaab’s internal security arm, has been targeting potential turncoats for months. The Amniyat is tasked with protecting Shabaab’s emir, Abu Ubaydah Ahmad Umar, and quashing any challenges to his authority from within the organization.
According to US intelligence officials, Shabaab has detained and killed a number of jihadists after they attempted to join the “caliphate.”
On Dec. 5, the Sudan Tribune named one of them as Mohammed Makkawi Ibrahim, who led the assassination ring responsible for killing John Michael Granville, a diplomat for the US Agency for International Development (USAID), and his driver in Khartoum, Sudan on Jan. 1, 2008. Ibrahim and his co-conspirators were imprisoned in Sudan, but escaped. Ibrahim made his way to Shabaab in Somalia.
The US State Department added Ibrahim to its Rewards for Justice program in Jan. 2013, offering $5 million for information leading to his capture. Foggy Bottom described Ibrahim as “the leader of the attack that killed Granville” and said he was tied “to the Sudan-based terrorist organization al Qaeda in the Land of the Two Niles, which conspired to attack other US, Western, and Sudanese targets.”
Ibrahim was once associated with al Qaeda’s network; however, he recently decided to swear his fealty to Baghdadi. This triggered Shabaab’s wrath. The Sudan Tribune cited a post on social media from an “anonymous friend of Ibrahim.” Ibrahim’s friend criticized Shabaab, writing that “when the light of the caliphate emerged and the movement’s leadership refused to submit to the truth and reform its march, he [Ibrahim] showed his desire to join the Islamic State.” And that led to Ibrahim’s demise.
On Dec. 7, Islamic State supporters tweeted a video showing three men in Somalia swearing allegiance to Baghdadi. According to text displayed in the video, one of the three was killed by a Shabaab assassin after he swore bay’ah to Baghdadi.
The Islamic State has made a big push to win over Shabaab’s rank and file. The group has released more than one dozen videos encouraging defectors to come forward and join the “caliphate.” In October, a mid-level Shabaab leader in the Puntland region named Abdiqadir Mumin pledged allegiance to Baghdadi. Approximately 20 to 25 of Mumin’s fighters joined him, but the majority of Shabaab’s members in Mumin’s area did not.
The Islamic State has grown throughout Africa since Baghdadi announced the creation of several new “provinces” around the world last year. In Nov. 2014, the Sinai-based Ansar Bayt al Maqdis (ABM) pledged its allegiance to Baghdadi. ABM was quickly rebranded as the Islamic State’s Sinai “province.” In late October, the group blew up a Russian airliner, killing all 224 passengers and crew members on board.
Earlier this year, Boko Haram in Nigeria announced its fealty to Baghdadi, becoming the “Islamic State in West Africa.” And Baghdadi loyalists were dispatched to North Africa, where they established a significant presence in Libya and Tunisa. The Islamic State’s “province” in Libya currently controls much of the city of Sirte.
However, Shabaab’s leadership has consistently opposed any attempt to form an Islamic State wilayah (or province) in East Africa.
On Nov. 3, Shabaab spokesman Sheikh Ali Mahmud Rage (also known as Sheikh Ali Dheere) released a 50 minute speech in which he warned against “disunity” in the jihadists’ ranks. Rage clearly had the Islamic State in mind.
“Allah directed us to fight the jihad under one banner in order to defeat the enemy,” Rage said, according to a translation obtained by The Long War Journal. “Do not be divided and fall apart.” Rage argued that it is “important” for the jihadists “to fight together and be under the same banner” and “to be careful of anything that may bring division.” Allah “prohibited us from having divisions and falling apart,” Rage said.
Rage’s speech was broadcast on Radio Andalus, one of Shabaab’s propaganda arms. Rage warned Shabaab’s members, saying that those who seek to divide the jihadists’ ranks will be condemned to hell.
“Unity is mandatory,” Rage said, “and division is a big sin.” Those who encourage disunity will receive “Allah’s punishment” and “be burnt in hell.” Only an “infidel” sows division, according to Rage, and this will give the “enemy” the ability to “defeat the Muslims and take the land.” The enemy “will massacre the people and will bring evil to the Muslims.”
Despite Rage’s admonition, and Shabaab’s violent purge, a cadre of jihadists in Somalia has been wooed by Baghdadi’s “caliphate.” It remains to be seen if their numbers will grow. Additional defectors will have to survive Shabaab’s assassins if they are going to establish a “province” on behalf of the Islamic State.
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