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Al-Qaeda or ISIS? Al-Shabab's loyalty dilemma

Patrol to protect Mogadishu from al-Shabab attacks. Flickr/AMISOM/Tobin Jones. Public domain.At
first glance, the differences between al-Shabab, the extremist militant group
based in Somalia, and the self-proclaimed Islamic State (popularly known as
ISIS) that currently governs parts of Syria and Iraq, may seem inconsequential.
Both groups thrive by leveraging religious sensibilities and socio-political
grievances to justify extreme atrocities in their pursuit of authoritarian power.
The April 2015 massacre of 148 Kenyan university students at the hands of
al-Shabab militants and the recent coordinated attacks throughout Paris,
murdering 130 and wounding hundreds more, are tragic examples of this affinity.
Yet the recent killings of pro-ISIS al-Shabab members demonstrate that shared
convictions and tactics are not enough to prevent jihadi militants from turning
on one another.

Over
the past few months, Islamic State recruiters have been wooing al-Shabab's
leadership to cut ties with al-Qaeda. In May 2015, Islamic State released a
short video in which members of Somali origin referred to al-Shabab fighters as
“truthful mujahideen” and urged them to join their transnational state.
However, last week al-Shabab killed Sheikh Hussein Abdi Gedi, their former
deputy governor of the Juba region, after he joined over 100 al-Shabab fighters
who defected to a pro-ISIS faction. Commenting on a number of other such
targeted killings, the head of al-Shabab in the lower Shabelle, Abu Abdalla,
said that his organisation has made "a clear decision to defend
unity" among their ranks. He warned that “If you belong to another group,
go where you belong. If you have a different flag, take it with you. It doesn't
work here, and you will be beheaded, even if you have a big beard.” Such
preemptive measures should prompt us to question the strategic considerations
for militant groups such as al-Shabab, as they navigate the increasingly
dangerous rivalry between ISIS and its predecessor, al-Qaeda.

In
the decades following the anti-Soviet resistance in Afghanistan in the 1980s,
al-Qaeda represented the primary face of the global jihadi movement. Daniel
Bynum, a senior fellow at the Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings
Institution, argues that Osama Bin Laden sought to capitalise on the network of
fighters they had built in Afghanistan to “create a vanguard of elite fighters
who could lead the global jihad project and bring together the hundreds of
small jihadist groups struggling, often feebly, against their own regimes under
a single umbrella.” By the mid-1990s the orientation of this network
shifted from local regimes to what they perceived to be their source of
sustenance: the United States and the west. Over the next decade, al-Qaeda
employed a franchising strategy, which was most attractive to smaller groups on
the brink of failure who required much needed financial assistance, a steady
stream of recruits, training and logistical support. In return, franchises
provide a potential local haven for al-Qaeda members and enable them to remain
relevant. This franchise model continues to be attractive for al-Shabab despite
the rise of ISIS.

Officially
known as Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahideen, meaning the movement of youths waging
jihad, al-Shabab began by branding itself as a local militia group whose aim
was to ‘liberate’ Somalia from the invasion of Ethiopian forces. In fact,
Al-Shabab’s initial strategy, which resonated far more with ISIS’s current
model, consisted of fighting against Somalia’s transitional federal government
and their Ethiopian counterparts, governing controlled territories with their
reductive understanding of shari’a, and broadcasting their brutal tactics to
project tangible victories and inspire recruits.

Will these intra-jihadi dynamics aid in
further degrading jihadi groups from within or spark a rivalry of who can cause
more civilian deaths?

However,
months shy of merging with al-Qaeda in 2012, al-Shabab cited a change in
strategy to explain their abrupt withdrawal from Mogadishu. They also presented
the same rationale after their withdrawal from Kismayo, a strategic port town
that served as a major source of revenue for the group. As al-Shabab continued to
either withdraw or lose key territories to joint Somali and AMISOM forces,
their strategy changed from one of controlling and governing Somali territory
to al-Qaeda’s model of sustained guerrilla attacks on both local and regional
targets. In recent years, the group has increasingly executed such guerrilla
attacks on soft targets in Somalia and Kenya, which primarily consist of
hotels, schools, and establishments frequented by both westerners and Somali
government officials. Despite being militarily degraded, these attacks have
managed to increase the international stature of al-Shabab as one of the
continent’s most powerful and ruthless jihadi organisations.

While
ISIS seeks to build upon this stature, their recruitment will seriously put
al-Shabab’s current strategic allegiance to al-Qaeda to the test. What sets
ISIS apart from other jihadi groups is that their apocalyptic ideology renders
only their self-styled “Caliphate” as the legitimate authority to govern the
global Muslim population. In addition to traditional enemies such as “apostate”
Arab regimes and western countries, this leaves no room for territories
controlled by other jihadi groups not associated with ISIS, and clearly
positions them as adversaries vis-à-vis their al-Qaeda rivals. For ISIS’s
current leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and his supporters, a model of fighting
locally against Arab regimes, instituting limited governance, conducting
outreach, and broadcasting their brutal tactics to project fear is far more
effective in establishing a transnational state than al-Qaeda’s more muddled
approach of waiting for the long term outcomes of complex external operations.

This
stance actively challenges al-Qaeda’s authority, and essentially aims to
de-throne its current leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri. Nevertheless, ISIS cannot
accomplish this bold aspiration by forcefully conquering Muslim majority
countries, especially when they are currently suffering serious territorial
setbacks as a result of multinational coalition airstrikes. Thus, as part of its
international expansion plan, which also attempts to obscure battlefield
losses, ISIS seeks to appropriate the allegiance and territory of other
jihadist militant groups to create regional provinces. In March, Boko Haram,
the West African jihadist group which controls territory equal in size to the
state of Massachusetts, joined ISIS and rebranded itself as the “Islamic State
of West Africa”. As the only major jihadi group in Africa to resist ISIS
allegiance, al-Shabab poses a serious obstacle to ISIS’s vision of a
transnational jihadi state.

Unlike
Boko Haram and other smaller jihadi groups that have pledged allegiance to
ISIS, there are a number of factors that are influencing this resistance among
al-Shabab’s leadership. As previously mentioned, not only has al-Shabab already
employed the ISIS model with only limited success, it is unlikely that
returning to such tactics against a regionally bolstered Somali government will
produce a different result. Furthermore, while al-Shabab could certainly
leverage the current ISIS brand, the benefits of this affiliation do not
outweigh the decades-long relationship between al-Shabab and al-Qaeda central.

For
example, Osama Bin Laden funded al-Itihaad al-Islamiya, a Salafi Islamist group
responsible for attacks in Ethiopia during the 1990s, whose leaders went on to
join what later became al-Shabab. Al-Shabab’s first commander, Aden Hashi Ayro,
as well as other former leaders such as Mukhtar Robow and Ahmad Godane, had all
reportedly trained and fought alongside al-Qaeda leadership in Afghanistan.
Additionally, unlike ISIS’s fledgling province in Yemen, al-Qaeda in the
Arabian Peninsula’s (AQAP) recent resurgence has the potential to provide
al-Shabab with a powerful and resourceful local ally. AQAP has successfully exploited
the ongoing civil war to capture the coastal city of Mukallah, a military base
in the Shabwa province, several districts in the strategic port city of Aden,
and territory in a number of other provinces. Finally, ISIS’s exclusivist
interpretation of what constitutes an “Islamic” jurisdiction threatens the
longevity of these gains in Yemen.

With
AQAP’s recent success and the decades long relationship with al-Qaeda,
al-Shabab has strong reasons to remain loyal to al-Qaeda central for the
foreseeable future. For al-Shabab’s leadership, the choice is ultimately
between a trusted partner with a vast network in East Africa and a rising
jihadi state, which despite its popularity, has fractured the jihadi landscape
and offers a shallow footprint in the region. For the rest of us, the question
of whether these intra-jihadi dynamics aid in further degrading jihadi groups
from within or sparking a rivalry of who can cause more civilian deaths
requires close attention.

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