Shabaab, al Qaeda’s branch in East Africa, has executed several alleged spies this week. The young men were supposedly working for the American, British and Somali intelligence services. Shabaab’s claims have not been independently verified and some of the details it has offered are dubious.
The executions were first reported by Shahada News, a Shabaab website, as well as on social media channels associated with the jihadist organization.
The group claims that one of those executed, a 22-year-old named Abdul Aziz Abdul Salam Sheikh Hassan, admitted that he worked as a spy for the US and planted a “tracking” phone or device in one of the jihadists’ bags.
A second alleged spy reportedly helped guide American forces in Somalia, and two others supposedly helped the US as well.
The US has launched more than two dozen airstrikes against Shabaab this year. So the group has an incentive to identify anyone who is assisting the air campaign.
However, some of Shabaab’s claims are sensationalistic, casting doubt on the veracity of its account.
For instance, one of those executed supposedly helped the Islamic State on behalf of British intelligence. Shabaab says Awali Ahmed Mohammed, a 32-year-old who lived in the UK, “was accused of working as a spy for British intelligence (MI6), and providing them with information about the Mujahideen.” Awali purportedly admitted to Shabaab’s sharia court that the British asked him to report on “the brothers in Britain who are sending support to the Mujahideen in Somalia.” That part is believable, though it hasn’t been confirmed.
But Shabaab also claims that MI6 “ordered” Awali “to join the state organization in Somalia,” meaning the Islamic State’s upstart presence, and provide it with money.
If true, this would mean that British intelligence conspired to provide funds to the Islamic State’s Somali arm, which has been designated as a terrorist organization.
Shabaab may have an incentive to portray the Islamic State as part of a foreign conspiracy. The so-called caliphate’s men are led by Abdulqadir Mumin, a former Shabaab commander in the Puntland region. Mumin defected to the Islamic State in 2015, proclaiming his allegiance to Abu Bakr al Baghdadi. The US designated Mumin as a terrorist in Aug. 2016.
Tying its jihadist rivals to the British could help Shabaab undermine the Islamic State’s messaging in the region.
Shabaab has opposed the Islamic State’s expansion on its turf, and remains the dominant jihadist organization in the country. Shabaab and its emir, Abu Ubaydah Ahmad Umar, remain openly loyal to al Qaeda and Ayman al Zawahiri. [See FDD’s Long War Journal reports, Shabaab’s leadership fights Islamic State’s attempted expansion in East Africa and Analysis: Shabaab advertises its al Qaeda allegiance.]
Other al Qaeda branches have been hunting spies as well. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which has worked with Shabaab, has been trying to uncover turncoats within its ranks for years.
In early September, AQAP released a lengthy video alleging that several men had helped the Saudis and the Americans hunt down a number of senior and mid-level leaders. Some of AQAP’s claims are contradicted by published reports. Still, AQAP has repeatedly warned that its enemies have a deep spy network embedded within its ranks.
After killing the five men earlier this week, Shabaab says it conducted additional executions. Like AQAP, Shabaab thinks it has a spy problem .
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