Islamic State warns Shabaab of impending battle in Somalia

The most recent issue of the Islamic State’s weekly Al Naba newsletter directly threatens Shabaab, al Qaeda’s branch in East Africa. Al Naba’s authors warn Shabaab of an impending clash, saying the al Qaeda arm has restarted its campaign to rout Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s organization from Somalia.

“As we record these crimes, we do not do so as a complaint or out of weakness, but to teach people,” the article reads, “especially our people in Somalia, what the al Qaeda branch in Somalia has done, because the response from the Islamic State is coming.”

The Islamic State’s loyalists say that Shabaab is being “proactive,” as it fears new defections “like those of three years ago, which resulted in the creation of Wilayat al Somal” [the Somalia Province].

As FDD’s Long War Journal assessed in 2015, Shabaab quickly moved to quash the Islamic State’s expansion, detaining and killing would-be defectors. Al Qaeda’s overall emir, Ayman al Zawahiri, claims that he discussed the so-called caliphate’s designs with Shabaab’s deceased leader, Ahmed Abdi Godane. After Godane was killed in a US drone strike in Sept. 2014, Shabaab named Shaykh Abu Ubaydah Ahmad Umar as its leader. Zawahiri endorsed Ahmad Umar’s succession. Shabaab and Ahmad Umar remain openly loyal to Zawahiri and al Qaeda to this day.

Under Ahmad Umar’s leadership, Shabaab has systematically hunted down jihadists who join Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s enterprise.

Indeed, Al Naba’s claims of a recent uptick ring true, as Shabaab continues to advertise its executions of alleged Islamic State members and foreign “spies.” [See FDD’s Long War Journal report, Shabaab executes alleged spies in southern Somalia.]

Shabaab’s campaign has prevented the Islamic State from establishing a larger presence in Somalia. However, it has not been able to completely incapacitate the group’s operations. According to data compiled by FDD’s Long War Journal, the Islamic State in Somalia (ISS) has claimed 96 operations inside Somalia since Apr. 2016.

There is also evidence that ISS retains connections to the Islamic State’s broader network. For instance, on Sept. 7, the US government designated Waleed Ahmed Zein, a 27-year-old Kenyan national, as a terrorist. Before Zein was arrested by Kenyan authorities in July, he was operating an illicit, global financial network. According to the US Treasury Department, Zein’s “financial facilitation network” spanned “Europe, the Middle East, the Americas and Eastern Africa.” Zein’s funds were distributed to Islamic State “fighters in Syria, Libya, and Central Africa.”

Al Naba on Shabaab vs. Islamic State

The Islamic State’s latest Al Naba newsletter quickly summarizes the history of the infighting between the two groups. “Since the emergence of the Caliphate, the Crusaders, the Apostates, the Infidels, and the hypocrites have tried to turn off… [the] light of all the wilayats [provinces] of the Islamic State, starting from Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Khurasan, Libya, and Somalia was no exception from this,” Al Naba’s editors write.

Al Naba’s authors continue, saying that “once a series of pledges from Somalian mujahideen to the Caliph [Al Baghdadi] was announced, the factions and organizations tried to destroy its imagery. So a branch from Al Qaeda in Somalia hurried to shed their blood and those monotheists were assassinated.”

The article lists some of the Shabaab defectors who became early ISS leaders. These jihadists include: Bashir Abu Numan, Hussein Abdi Gedi, Muhammad Makkawi, and Abdul Wadud. Abu Numan was one of the first Shabaab commanders to defect to the Islamic State, but he was killed by Shabaab’s internal security force, the Amniyat, in late 2015. According to VOA News, Abdi Gedi was also executed by Shabaab in Nov. 2015, after he and several of his men were captured by Shabaab’s henchmen.

One month later, Makkawi, a former member of al Qaeda in Sudan, was reportedly targeted by the Amniyat. Abdul Wadud was an ISS commander in southern Somalia according to the Mogadishu-based Hiraal Institute, though it is unknown when he was killed. Shabaab’s anti-ISS campaign also reportedly forced an American jihadist, Abdul Malik Jones, to flee the group’s wrath.

Al Naba relays a series of recent events in which several of the Islamic State members were killed or arrested by Shabaab, including a Swahili-speaking foreign fighter of the group. The article goes into detail of how Shabaab treats members of the Islamic State in its prisons, saying that many are tortured or killed before even reaching the prison. Al Naba also lists several members or relatives of ISS members who were recently assassinated by Shabaab.

Abdulqadir Mumin’s Islamic State faction

The main Islamic State faction operating in Somalia is led by Abdulqadir Mumin, a former Shabaab official who appeared in many of its propaganda videos before defecting to the Islamic State in Oct. 2015. In Aug. 2016, the US State Department added Mumin to its list of global terrorists. The US has also targeted Mumin’s men in airstrikesstarting last November.

Smaller Islamic State-loyal cells are also present in central and southern Somalia.

It remains to be seen how the Islamic State in Somalia will respond to Shabaab’s crackdown. The Baghdadi loyalists do not operate a full-scale insurgency like Shabaab’s men, but they do retain a terrorist capability. And it is possible that a new push to win recruits for the Islamic State’s cause forced Shabaab to intensify its crackdown on defectors once again.

Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at Foundation for Defense of Democracy and the Senior Editor for The Long War Journal. Caleb Weiss is an intern at Foundation for Defense of Democracy and a contributor to The Long War Journal.

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