Here is a quick summary of some of the interview but definitely check it out for yourself.
The beginning of the interview discusses Storm’s radicalization. While its bizarre that he went from being in a motorcycle gang to being a jihadist adherent in only months, this is a similar pattern for converts to Islam that end up attracted to al Qaeda. Western recruits travel bizarre paths into al Qaeda’s arms. My general rule for Western al Qaeda members, the whiter the al Qaeda recruit, the weirder the story – Gadahn, Lewthwaite, John Walker Lindh – its never what you expect. Looking at Morten Storm, I’d swear he was in the crowd at the Packers-Lions game on Thanksgiving.
Al Qaeda wants Western recruits so badly that they routinely seem to open themselves up to problems. I imagine in Storm they saw an ideal candidate for delivering attacks in the West. For Omar Hammami, they enjoyed his propaganda and the fact he was an American. But in both recent cases. the Westerner recruits have created a series of problems for al Qaeda. I bet Adam Gadahn is a real pain in the ass in Pakistan as well.
I learned in this interview that Storm seems to be more of an asset for infiltrating al Qaeda operations in Somalia. Storm talks about helping facilitate fighters from Europe and purchasing/providing gear, setting up a business in the Horn of Africa. In particular, Storm discusses the connections between AQAP and al Qaeda operations in Somalia. Storm mentions Warsame and American Jehad Mostafa as being connections between the two al Qaeda affiliates. Take a listen around the 30 minute mark. Storm provides some fascinating linkages that have been long sought in open source.
Lastly, I had gotten the impression from new stories that Storm had been betrayed by the CIA or had a falling out with the U.S. According to this interview, I get a very different impression. It seems his disagreements and betrayal rest more with the Danish government rather than the U.S. – but I guess that story doesn’t sell as well in mainstream press.
Hats off to Mark Stout for a great podcast. He gets Storm’s entire story out in a concise fashion. Take a listen.
This weekend brought a slew of counterterrorism news. First, Abu Anas al-Libi was caught in Libya 15 years after the U.S. Embassy bombings in Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam for which he was indicted. Second, and more interestingly, U.S. Navy Seals conducted a raid on the coastal Somali town of Barawe in an attempt to kill or capture the leader of Shabaab’s foreign fighters; a person named Abdikadir Mohamed Abdikadir, aka Ikrima. (By the way, this story finally cleared after two days of the worst national security reporting I’ve ever seen. Almost every piece of this story was initially reported incorrectly.) This latest development is the most interesting so far and suggests analysis of the Westgate Mall Attack should be widened a bit.
Immediately after the attack, I like most assumed the attack was the work of al Shabaab as they’ve been threatening attacks in Kenya for years, have sufficient motive to conduct an attack and Shabaab’s emir, Ahmad Godane is a bit of a madman having just killed off many of his internal rivals and American jihadi Omar Hammami (known hereafter as Omar). But, as more information comes to the surface, the more I’m inclined to believe that this attack may be more the work of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) or al Qaeda Central (AQC) (which are effectively one and the same now, I believe, with the official announcement of Wuhayshi as al Qaeda’s #2). Here are some things I think should be considered in this alternative hypothesis that AQAP/AQC was more responsible for the Westgate attacks.
Omar said that Godane eliminated long-time al Qaeda operatives in Somalia – According to Omar and other sources, Harun Fazul, long-time al Qaeda leader in the Horn of Africa, was sent to his death by Godane. Omar claims that Godane and Fazul often butted heads as Godane didn’t like it that Fazul was setting up an al Qaeda external operations training base in the Galgala mountains. Likewise, Fazul seemed from many accounts to block an official merger between Shabaab and al Qaeda because he thought Shabaab too reckless and prone to clan fighting. Additionally, after Fazul was killed, there were accounts that Fazul’s successors Berjawi and Sakr were both killed in drone strikes that Godane supposedly orchestrated.
I think Ikrima is probably not a Godane man – My guess is that Ikrima seems to be an old al Qaeda hand loyal to the Nabhan-Fazul-Berjawi-Sakr. If Omar was correct that there was a rift between foreign fighters and Godane, I’m inclined to think Ikrima might be doing AQAP/AQC’s work in Somalia rather than Godane’s. The Kenyan intelligence report uncovered by NPR says that Ikrima was a known al Qaeda connection back to Pakistan.
A leaked Kenyan intelligence report confirms that Ikrima was plotting “multiple attacks” inside Kenya, “sanctioned by al-Qaida” in Pakistan, and “involving financial and logistical support from South African operatives.” The report continues:
“By December 2011, the planners had acquired safe houses in Nairobi & Mombasa, trained the executors, received explosives from Somalia and commenced assembly of and concealment of explosives.”
According to the report, Ikrima’s small “terror cell” included two British nationals: an explosives expert named Jermaine John Grant and the infamous White Widow, Samantha Lewthwaite. (Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta had confirmed that a “British woman” may have been among the fighters in Westgate Mall.)
Most accounts put Godane in Dinsoor area, not Barawe – The raid was mistakenly reported a number of different ways and 24 hours ago most news outlets said the raid was targeting Godane. But most recent accounts about Godane have put him more central to Shabaab’s strongest holds in and around Dinsoor in Bay province. Barawe is on the coast and I’ve always assumed that the foreign fighters stayed closer to the water to maintain easy access to sea routes to Yemen (See Warsame case) and down into Kenya for attacks and egress (Fazul, Nabhan, Paradise Hotel, etc.).
Omar used to always cite Barawe as a hub for dissenters – Omar used to tweet about cleric opinions supporting his position that were coming from Barawe. Omar always gave me the sense that not only were clerics voicing opposition to Godane from Barawe but that other dissenters of Godane may be based there. This makes sense that Omar would appeal for their support, as he often did trying to get Ibrahim al-Afghani’s backing. Afghani once commanded the Kismayo area for Shabaab (just down the coast) and having fought in Afghanistan was one of the few Shabaab members that probably had his own connections with al Qaeda. Note, Afghani issued a public plea to al Qaeda for the removal of his old comrade Godane. Afghani’s plea resulted in Godane killing Afghani.
Omar’s ghost was one of the first to ask why everyone thought it was Shabaab that did the attack – After Omar’s death, someone took over his @abumamerican twitter account and was one of the only contrarians that was excited about the attack but not believing it was al Shabaab and Godane. I don’t get the feeling Omar’s ghost has any real idea what happened with Westgate based on his other comments, so I would take this with a large grain of salt.
Two of the named attackers likely have al Qaeda connections– The Kenyan government on Saturday named four individuals in connection with the attack. The leader appears to be from Sudan and the Kenyan government claimed he was trained by al Qaeda. Another may potentially be related to Nabhan, al Qaeda’s leader in Somalia up until he was killed by Navy Seals in Barawe in 2009 – sound familiar.
Abu Baara al-Sudani, Omar Nabhan, Khattab al-Kene and Umayr, names that were first broadcast by a local Kenyan television station. Matt Bryden, the former head of the U.N. Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea, said via email that al-Kene and Umayr are known members of al-Hijra, the Kenyan arm of al-Shabab.
Was this the big attack that was discussed in the al Qaeda conference call that wasn’t a conference call?– So remember just a couple months ago there was this al Qaeda conference call where supposedly Wuhayshi of AQAP said that they had a large attack ready to go and Zawahiri said “ok, get on with it.” After the revelation of this call there was a string of drone attacks in Yemen, but maybe this Westgate attack was the attack described in the conference call. Total speculation but it would kind of make sense and by all accounts this Westgate attack has been in the works for a year or more making it plausible that Wuhayshi would mention it. And whether its Ikrima or Godane, both seemingly have contact with AQAP. I don’t know anything to confirm this scenario, but I would not be surprised.
Really Five Shabaab groups at play– What’s been completely lost in the media is that Shabaab has been fighting internally for almost a year. Godane has killed off key leaders of Shabaab, foreign fighters and this has resulted in there being up to five different sub-groups of Shabaab that could be involved or not involved in the Westgate attack. So when you hear “Shabaab Attack” in the news, it could really mean many things.
Shabaab Central Commanded By Godane – This is the Shabaab commanded by Godane and still what most people would think of when they hear Shabaab in the media.
Foreign Fighters in Somalia With AQAP/AQC links -These are the foreign fighters around Barawe that have links to AQAP/AQC and may include Shabaab members left over from Ibrahim al-Afghani’s ranks.
Robow’s militias – These would be Shabaab members loyal to Muktar Robow, Godane’s main living rival in Shabaab circles and they seem to be in and around Bakool region and more north of Diinsoor and far interior from the coast.
Muslim Youth Center – The Kenyan support element to Shabaab and maybe hosting the White Widow, but I’m getting the sense this is all overblown.
al-Hijra – Shabaab’s arm in Kenya that I would assume at a minimum played a support role in the attack and apparently Ikrima was a member of this group.
So after all this discussion, I’m sure I still left something out but I think we should be cosndiering several scenarios with the Westgate attack.
Scenario: Shabaab did the Westgate attack on their own.- This was the most logical explanation at the time. Shabaab has the capacity to pull this off and they have executed many attacks like this in Mogadishu. Maybe Godane used this as a diversion from the fact he has been killing off his rivals and foreign fighters. But with more details, I’m starting to think this is less likely.
Scenario: Shabaab Dissenters working with AQ foreign fighters and planners conduct the attack to upstage Godane and Shabaab– Still operating and having their own connections to al Qaeda, wanting to prove themselves to AQAP/AQC and embarass Godane, the Shabaab dissenters combine with the al Qaeda external operations guys to pull off the Westgate attack. Wow, this would be interesting.
Scenario: Shabaab under Godane and the foreign fighters are all in on it and use al-Hijra/MYC for local Kenyan support – I think this one is also highly likely. While the infighting has been problematic, maybe the AQ cell in Barawe has been in constant synchronization with Godane and there is no rift between the two elements. THis would support the non-stop Shabaab tweeting during the attacks and would not be as confusing for al-Hijra and MYC in Kenya as they’ve probably watched the Somalia infighting with some confusion about who they should support.
Anyways, lots to talk about in the Horn of Africa and I look forward to anyone’s thought on the latest developments.
Who is making these tweets? Who knows? I’ve discussed here that Omar might actually be a zombie, but the account says that Omar did actually die. Whomever it is, they are clearly fans of Omar and haters of Godane and al Shabaab. Here are some of the interesting tweets I’ve seen so far.
al Shabaab is still in close contact with AQAP – The account states AQAP is still in close contact with Godane and Shabaab. So was there an al Qaeda connection to this Westgate Mall attack? I think Shabaab could probably execute this attack on their own. But, why would this account and the person behind it know if AQAP and Shabaab were still collaborating? Remember, Omar alluded to the links between AQAP and Shabaab a long while ago.
How do we know al Shabaab was behind the attacks? – This account suggests that there is no proof of al Shabaab being behind the attacks. Essentially saying that Shabaab may be taking credit for something that someone else did. But, they don’t offer any opposing theories and the account states it was not Shabaab dissenters that pulled off the attack. Hmmm, the Muslim Youth Center (MYC) twitter account has been strangely silent since the attack. Was this a Shabaab affiliate operation? No way to know who is really responsible at this point I guess, but an interesting take by the Omar account.
The account has one thing in common with the Tea Party; they don’t like taxes – The account picks up where Omar left off in discussion of taxes and how Shabaab uses qat to fund its operations. I guess they think this argument has resonance with the locals.
The account also has something in common with the Occupy Movement; they are the 99% – The second strange argument is the alluding to Godane being a high-minded elite that doesn’t share with the people. I guess this is also a “rally the locals” approach against Godane.
The last straw: Shabaab took away the Hammami family phone charger – OK, if you didn’t think it was already bad enough that Shabaab led by Godane has killed Somalis in southern Somalia, likely attacked the Westgate mall and has killed Omar Hammami, they have done what all of us know is the last unspeakable thing – Taken the phone charger from Omar’s family. This is something us in the West can totally relate to and get behind. Screw taxes and the 99%, a phone charger, for Shabaab dissenters it turns out, is quite important; especially when you try to rally support via social media.
Yesterday, I had the opportunity to talk with @rejectionking on @theLoopcast about the recent Shabaab attacks on the Westgate mall and what the implications are for Kenya and Somalia. This led to a more lengthy discussion on counterterrorism policy/strategy in the Horn which I sort of hijacked and took into a broader discussion – one many people may not care for. BLUF: I don’t think we can nor should try to solve all the world’s problems just to stop a few terrorists.
Young American aficionados of al Shabaab and al Qaeda (Europeans too): Listen up! You probably thought that if you joined Shabaab/al Qaeda you might eventually get thrown in jail. That’s a good bet. However, you probably also thought when you got thrown in jail it would be a U.S. jail or even worse a foreign jail of a U.S. counterterrorism partner. But, you would be wrong. The two most likely results of joining al Shabaab are:
Shabaab will eventually betray you and kill you.
Shabaab will throw you in Shabaab jail…(Even worse than being in a U.S. or foreign partner prison.)
Shabaab thought Omar Hammami was being a showboat narcissist refuting them on Twitter and YouTube. But, it increasingly seems like Omar is not the only foreign fighter to be disavowed and imprisoned by Shabaab. Omar’s talk of a rift between local Shabaab members and the foreign fighter (“Muj”) seems more and more genuine each day. And, Omar is not the only foreign fighter or even American being imprisoned by Shabaab. Today, Omar revealed that the other American foreign fighter imprisoned by Shabaab may be Said Fidhin – an American from Seattle, Washington who was an essential conduit for the recruitment of Americans to Shabaab and from the Isaaq clan. Here’s a note on Fidhin from the Star Tribune:
Those who worked on the receiving end of the pipeline in Somalia, according to witnesses, are: Abshir’s uncle, Said Fidhin, a former resident of the Seattle area known as “Samatar” or “Adair,” and a taxi driver in Somalia known as “Uncle Barre.”
Also note above that Shabaab now says that, “anyone who writes on twitter is a spy.” Too funny, Shabaab, once heralded for being groundbreaking in their use of new media, now just as scared as Western governments about leaks and trying to do information control. Shabaab claims to be boasting a pure form of Islam right? What is there to hide Shabaab – your tweets make it seem like everything is wonderful?
First, a tweet from Omar. I’m not sure how Omar’s mission in Somalia relates to Martin Luther King. Last time I checked, Martin Luther King was about non-violence and Omar and the Somalia jihad is very much about violence. I believe MLK had a dream and Omar is having a nightmare.
But, then came this tweet.
Now we are talking. Omar seems to think the splits and fractures he is experiencing with al Shabaab are occurring with al Qaeda as well. Omar, we’d all love to know more so please expand. I realize you don’t want to put yourself in jeopardy, but I think you’ve already shot one of your feet, so no need to hold back.
Things were quiet for most of the day and then @azelin sent out the links to a new Hammami video showing a tired and gaunt Hammami (See below). This video link at his YouTube channel was accompanied with two documents in Arabic (Here’s #1 and #2). Previously, Omar had posted his biography, in english, which was ignored by the e-jihadi crowd. This time he wrote two Arabic documents, which detail his trials and tribulations in Somalia. I’m assuming he chose Arabic to make sure word got out in the jihadi crowd. While I don’t read Arabic, I’ve gone through the Google translate and talked to a knowledgeable scholar, Dr. Will McCants, about what I think are key passages.
Omar names “names” and illustrates in great detail conflict between different factions in al Shabaab, conflict between al Qaeda and al Shabaab, and even disagreements between different al Qaeda elements in Somalia. Great stuff all around and for those that believe al Qaeda is unified and operates in lock step based on the rules of an all powerful ideology – you need to stop what you are doing and read Omar’s notes.
Again, I’m not an Arabic speaker, but I’ll do some quick paraphrasing here of what I interpreted (could be some mistakes) and the implications. For Arabic speakers out there, if you do an english translation of these documents, please post and send me the link and I’ll do a post on them here.
Connections between al Shabaab and al Qaeda in Yemen – In one section, Omar describes how members of al Qaeda in Yemen (AQAP) showed up in Somalia and were the communication conduit with al Qaeda Central in Afghanistan/Pakistan. The AQAP members were trying to coordinate the official merger of al Shabaab with al Qaeda. At the time, Ahmed Godane (Abu Zubayr) was against the merger as he thought the conditions in Somalia were not right yet. It seems at the point of the AQAP visit, Shabaab thought local public support for an Islamic state was sufficient but that the local populace would reject an alliance with al Qaeda. However, the foreign fighters present, in principle, did agree to be affiliated with al Qaeda. (My question: Did Godane balk at unity with al Qaeda at this point because he did not have firm control of al Shabaab and wanted to shore up loose ends before a formal merger?)
Desire to conduct external operations in Kenya – Throughout the second document, Hammami consistently discusses the desire by many within al Shabaab and particularly al Qaeda elements to begin conducting foreign operations and a deliberate campaign in Kenya. However, it appears certain leaders within Shabaab, particularly Godane I think, wanted to keep a lid on the foreign fighters and keep them focused on internal fighting in Somalia. (My question: Does the recent uptick in al Shabaab activity in Kenya represent a loss of control by Godane over Shabaab? I would assume with Shabaab’s losses and Godane likely fleeing north to Galgala, his control on those wanting to operate in Kenya is limited.)
Fazul’s return to Somalia, his conflict with Godane and resulting death – Omar describes in one section that legendary al Qaeda operative Harun Fazul returned with trainers to Somalia with the intent of establishing an external operations capability to project al Qaeda attacks from Somalia. Fazul told one of the commanders of foreign fighters, going by the name of A’sar Yusr, that he wanted to establish a training camp in the mountains of Puntland (probably Galgala). From what I understand, A’sar Yusr let Fazul’s plans slip to Godane (Abu Zubayr). Godane apparently didn’t like Fazul’s plan because 1) Godane, being from Hargeisa, didn’t want Fazul playing on his turf in Puntland (probably Galgala) and 2) Godane believed Fazul to be aligned with Mukhtar Robow (Abu Mansur) – Godane’s Southern Somalia rival for control of al Shabaab. As I understand it, this led Godane to plot Fazul’s demise setting Fazul up to approach a checkpoint in Mogadishu that was awaiting his arrival and prepared to kill him. (My note: This passage confirms Nelly Lahoud’s theory that Fazul was betrayed. This section also describes al Qaeda’s intent to conduct external operations from Somalia and matches the reporting of Michelle Shepard where she details how Fazul had plans for attacking London when he was killed.)
Conflicts between local Somali clan fighters (Ansar) and foreign fighters (Muhajir)– Hammami describes how many of the trainers that came with Fazul left Somalia. When they departed, many foreign fighters to Somalia left the country with the trainers to join al Qaeda’s ranks outside of Somalia. Hammami says the foreign fighters were frustrated because the fighting in Somalia was not a real jihad. Omar suggests foreign fighters were treated poorly in a variety of ways. As mentioned in his biography, he notes that there were constant tensions about how foreign fighters desired to be separated into their own cadres similar to how its done with Taliban/al Qaeda in Pakistan. There are also some comparisons to how foreign fighters are used in Iraq but I didn’t understand all of this. (My note: Omar, this is an exact replay of al Qaeda’s experience in Somalia from 1992-1994. The clans didn’t like being bossed around by outsiders and they always wanted to focus on local battles over global issues.)
Hammami overstepped with Godane and got punished – In one passage, Hammami describes his rift with Godane and how this has likely put him in his current predicament. Hammami had pledged at some point to stay out of Shabaab politics. Godane, at some point, wants to know why the foreign fighters are leaving Somalia. Hammami volunteers to explain the circumstances under which foreign fighters are frustrated over the local focus of clan fighters. Hammami suggests that a way to alleviate this frustration is for Godane to step aside and let Mukhtar Robow (Abu Mansur) take a bigger leadership role in Shabaab as he is well respected by the local Shabaab fighters and also has good rapport with the foreign fighters. Godane sees this as a challenge to his leadership and believes Hammami is partaking in politics again (breaking his promise to abstain) and joining the side of his rival Robow. This overstep later leads to Godane having angst with Hammami. (My notes: Omar needs a class in how to win friends and influence people. Sounds like he directly questioned Godane’s leadership and it wasn’t received well.)
Disastrous merger between al Shabaab and al Qaeda – My interpretation is that Godane calls a meeting for all of al Shabaab’s shura. Once everyone arrives, Godane announces that al Shabaab is going to officially join al Qaeda. Those in attendance, I believe, were caught a little off guard but were amenable. Then, Godane’s deputy (Guessing this might be Ibrahim al-Afghani) compels everyone to swear bayat (oath of allegiance) to al Qaeda and Godane. Those at the meeting think they have been fooled because there is no immediate formal recognition of this merger by al Qaeda Central and Ayman al-Zawahiri. Those that swore allegiance have a bad taste in their mouth about how this meeting went down as they have been told before they were going to be officially part of al Qaeda only to find out later that this was not true. Instead they would usually find out that a Somali leader had used the claim only as a political ploy to consolidate power. Also, Robow (Abu Mansur) is not at the meeting, which makes people nervous, and it is weeks (if I remember correctly) before Zawahiri formally and publicly recognizes the merger. (My note: It appears that Godane is a total Machiavelli in Somalia. Over many months, he systematically kills or pushes out those al Qaeda operatives in the country with connection to al Qaeda global, particularly after Bin Laden’s death. Once all connections to al Qaeda Central are removed, he uses his remaining connection to al Qaeda to push the merger forward and secure loyalty of other Shabaab leaders and establish sole communication and control with al Qaeda, which I imagine included resources. Total Game of Thrones going on with Godane, he sounds like a real dick! An additional note for all those that believe an oath to al Qaeda’s is a rigid everlasting and binding agreement that cements loyalty of al Qaeda members forever, please read this section. This totally undermines such a notion.)
Omar asserts that Godane killed off al Qaeda members and foreign fighters such as abu Talha, Fazul, Sudani and detained other foreign fighters – After the al Qaeda merger, Godane gave Hammami a figurehead position on a Shura but ultimately Hammami pushed back on the strategic direction of Shabaab landing him in his current predicament. Essentially, Godane used his linkage with al Qaeda to take firm control over foreign fighters in Somalia, focus all efforts on local power plays and suppress dissent. (My note: Bin Laden would not go with a Shabaab merger because he knew better and he had his aides in Somalia – Fazul. Zawahiri fell for the alliance with Godane, and in doing so is now aligned with a leader, Godane, and an affiliate, Shabaab, that killed off core members of al Qaeda. While I don’t think Zawahiri called for the killing of old al Qaeda vets like Fazul, he is negligent for not doing better intel in preparation for the merger.)
There are many other things in these documents and I just haven’t had time to go through it.
Other small things I picked up on:
Omar used his own money at some point to hire his own security and car to protect himself against Godane- Shabaab. (My note: this is when I would have broken with the group probably, like when they are trying to kill me.)
Omar explains how Shabaab deliberately discussed shifting back to Phase 1 guerilla warfare once Ethiopia and Kenya had fully invaded.
I’ll stop for now. And Omar, thanks for the information and feel free to send more. It appears you have resigned yourself to Shabaab and what appears to be a confrontation that will likely lead to your death. You don’t have to go that way. You’ve been betrayed by the group you joined. You could always turn yourself in and encourage those that might be considering a similar path to rethink their choice to join a terrorist group.
Th Kenyan newspaper The Daily Nation published an excellent, first-hand report of al Shabaab’s recruitment process entitled, “How al Shabaab Captures Hearts Of Somali Youth.” The article traces the path of a Somali refugee, Ahmed, who now resides in Kenya’s Eastleigh slum.
Two weeks ago, I discussed the combination of benefits offered by al Qaeda and affiliated groups (like al Shabaab) to entice new recruits. I noted that:
The Daily Nation article describing Ahmed’s recruitment exemplifies this recruiting phenomenon where it was a cell phone more than an ideology that initially enticed young recruits in Somalia.
Ahmed was barely 12 years old when he first joined Al-Shabaab. He was a schoolboy in Mogadishu, and when the three-month long holidays approached in 2007, he was nudged by friends to join the insurgents.
“When you join, they give you a mobile phone and every month you are given $30,” he said. “This is what pushes a lot of young people to join.”
Why does this matter? Analysts predominately focus on expensive DC-centric programs to counter al Qaeda’s/al Shabaab’s ideology, eliminate Internet videos and answer evil tweets. While this may be appropriate for a small handful of Somali Diaspora recruits in the West, the majority of al Shabaab recruits are child soldiers more likely to be pulled from Shabaab’s grasp through the TFG handing out cell phones with $40 of credit every month ($10 more than al Shabaab).
Al Shabaab follows an indoctrination program typical of most all fighting forces (al Qaeda, Taliban, the U.S. military!) that recruit young men: entice them with monetary inducements and social pressure and then solidify their long-run commitment through ideological indoctrination. Ahmed notes the religious training and attempts to “counter the narrative”:
Preachers delivered sermons for hours about destiny and “the sweetness of the holy war.” They distributed leaflets on Islam and tried “to make the children understand and appreciate suicide bombing.”
In one of these sessions, Ahmed, as a trusted foot soldier now, asked one of the scholars: “Give us a solid proof from the teachings of the Prophet (Muhammad) or the activities of his companions that actually allow suicide bombings.”
The answer, he says, was not forthcoming. Later, he was called aside and was told “that Islam’s biggest scholars had approved of suicide bombings, and that as an ignorant young man, I should keep quiet about it and not defile the mind of the youngsters.
This process of moving young recruits from pecuniary reasons for joining to ideological reasons for staying in the group mirrors the method used by al Qaeda in Southern Somalia between 1992-1994. As discussed in the report al Qaeda’s (Mis) Adventures in the Horn of Africa and the Harmony documents that informed them, AQ operatives noted:
“the youth started their action in kees mayo city (Kismayo) in southern Somalia by getting engaged in its battle and the tribes men escaped before Aideed. There was 800 brothers in their camps and the escapees asked the youth to protect the city from Aideed provided that they would give up the airport, the harbor and the public utilities in the city for the youth. The youth agreed despite the fact that they smelled the deception…. Nevertheless, their youth learned at last that their elders thoughts is far from theirs. We conclude the following: – The Sheikhs of the group were not Jihadi . the youth were influenced by hearing about the Afghani Jihad. The youth of the young men along with insufficiency of their experience and rashness toward the matters without deliberation hindered their effectiveness.” AFGP-2002-800621
Some will use Ahmed’s anecdote above to support their preferential focus on countering al Shabaab’s narrative (from DC) as the key element for undermining al Shabaab’s recruitment. But one must immediately wonder how developing a feel good CVE website and firing out inspiring tweets will ever influence young boys in Shabaab’s training camps – how would they ever even hear these counter-narratives.
The more important intangible (non-pecuniary) benefit offered by al Shabaab to new recruits comes not from its ideology but its offer of opportunity for those young men amongst Somalia’s less fortunate clans. The article notes:
Secondly, as incongruous as it may seem, Al-Shabaab is credited for eliminating the boundaries created by the clan systems in Somalia.
Hundreds of young men belonging to the Somali Bantu and minority clans have freely joined the militant group.
In the end, the largest reason recruits defect from al Shabaab comes from al Shabaab’s harsh tactics. As noted by Ahmed in this article and a year ago by another defector, Mohamed Ibrahim Suley, al Shabaab’s extreme violence turns off both their own operatives and their local popular support. If a counter-narratives campaign against al Shabaab is deemed necessary, the focus should be on exposing Shabaab’s violent ways more than undermining its religious ideology.
Overall, I believe the greatest counter to al Shabaab’s growth will come from eliminating their base of resources (money and equipment) – resources they use to secure the initial recruitment of vulnerable young men.
The bigger question is “why now?”. Those persistently focused on al Qaeda will see this as a sign of the group’s resurgence. Overall, I think the merger represents the confluence of several forces leading the groups to formalize their relationship.
Pros and Cons: Four ways to look at mergers
We must all hope that the al Qaeda- al Shabaab merger is as disastrous as the Time Warner-AOL merger in the business world. The AQ-Shabaab merger might have happened at any number of points over the past 20 years but it did not occur. I believe this has to do with the relative position of each group and what they thought they would gain or lose from a merger.
In the chart on the left, I tried to lay out the situations for each group relative to a merger. Each group is either in a position where they are relatively stronger or weaker in their current position as an extremist group. Based on the relative status of each group, they can stand to gain or lose different things by merging. In the top left quadrant, both groups, AQ and Shabaab, are relatively strong with respect to their history. Smoothly merging might likely amplify their operations such that their combined output is greater than the sum of their parts. More likely though, a Time Warner-AOL situation arises where increased bureaucracy and infighting hurts both groups. In the upper right quadrant, we see where AQ is in a weaker relative position and subsumes a growing upstart affiliate into its ranks. By doing this, AQ appears reinvigorated and the upstart gains prestige but could also lose local support.
In the lower left hand quadrant, we find the situation as presented to Bin Laden during most of his experience in Somalia. A weaker Shabaab desires to join a stronger AQ to gain prestige and resources. However, the benefit to AQ of added manpower is offset by the loss of incorporating an affiliate with limited competency that dilutes the brand. (Example: Starbucks (Stronger) puts a shop inside another store like Target. Coffee operations run worse and dilutes the brand.) I believe this is the common scenario before Bin Laden’s death and prevented the two groups from merging. Finally, the lower right corner represents today. Both groups are in relatively weaker positions to their historical highs and by combining they have little to lose. Shabaab has already lost local popular support and AQ needs more troops and attention. The lower right quadrant represents today’s situation and why a merger finally happened.
Why merge now? An al Qaeda perspective
Media Exposure: AQ struggles to maintain the same level of media coverage it once enjoyed. Bin Laden’s death, the Arab Spring, and a host of other problems have plagued AQ in recent months and this announcement gets them back into the media discussion – even though it really only formalizes associations known for decades.
Access to Western Foreign Fighters: Shabaab in recent years, more than any other AQ affiliate, has generated foreign fighters from the West. Shabaab’s foreign fighters include American, Canadian and European passport holders. While Shabaab may not be that threatening to the West itself, it’s Western foreign fighters can cleanly gain access back into Western countries. These recruits represent a valuable resource to AQ Central who can provide these recruits the training and resources to pull off a prized attack on the West in the West.
Opportunity to reinforce the foreign occupier argument: With the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq complete and the Afghanistan deployment drawing down, only a few conflicts provide Zawahiri an opportunity to sustain the foreign invader argument. Somalia has Ethiopia, Kenya and the African Union intervening to fuel this AQ narrative.
Why merge now? An al Shabaab perspective
Increased access to resources: As has always been the case for extremist groups in southern Somalia, resources drive everything. Shabaab struggles to maintain sufficient resources to counter the multitude of military forces working against them. Likewise, their local alliances always prove to be fickle and local defectors will continue to mount thus precipitating a need to look outside the country for help.
Already losing local popular support: From the Shabaab perspective, clan motivations and alliances have always been about local politics first and global agendas second. Smart local Somali clans have defected as Shabaab’s harsh tactics alienated the population. Additionally, Shabaab brought the push of foreign military interventions to local communities. With local popular support already lost, Shabaab has nothing to lose by joining AQ’s global agenda.
In addition to these reasons for and against, I do still have a few questions:
Why was Bin Laden such a “Bear” and Zawahiri such a “Bull” on Shabaab and Somalia?
Zawahiri, on the other hand, has always been more supportive of Somalia causes having been the main vocal support for jihad in the country after the 2006 Ethiopian incursion. Additionally, Bin Laden and AQ’s experience with Somalia occurred prior to Zawahiri joining the team so I imagine the pain of AQ’s early 90’s struggles affects Zawahiri far less than it did Bin Laden.
Is the alliance really between Shabaab and AQAP or Shabaab and AQ Central?
Potential shift in AQ global leadership: AQAP could be taking on more roles of centralization for AQ globally – maybe becoming the new AQ Central. I’m not convinced of this but connecting/aligning with AQAP might suggest a gradual shift in global leadership for Shabaab.
Was this Shabab? If so, I think this would indicate they are hurting for resources or believe they need to aggressively demonstrate their capability with an attack on Westerners.
Was this a criminal gang? If so, is this reflective of increased counter-piracy efforts limiting other illicit options for criminal gangs? Or is this a side effect of the famine increasing insecurity and lawlessness south of Somalia’s border into coastal Kenya?
Was this a criminal gang that captured a Western tourist knowing that Shabab would pay for one? I have no idea if this is the case, but this is also not good as it would indicate that Shabab has more resources than everyone in the area- thus significant influence financially to spread their militant ideology. This also reminds me of a debate months ago I had with Alex Thurston of Sahelblog.
I just read a post by Ibn Siqilli on Harakat al-Shabab & Somali Clans. This is clearly one of the best posts I’ve ever read on Somalia. Ibn Siqilli breaks down group (clan) dynamics, leader competition, the challenge of collaborative jihad, ideological differences, and divergence over national-local objectives versus transnational-jihadi objectives. He also does some good evaluation of information sources; a rare act in most writing I read.
Ibn Siqilli’s post reminded me of a HOA project I co-edited with Dr. Jacob Shapiro. Dr. Shapiro and I co-wrote a section on clan rivalry based on AQ’s early 90’s experience in Somalia. I went back and reviewed the theoretical section, which was skewed by my periodic obsession with labor economics approaches to terror group recruitment. (many have had to suffer through my labor econ chatter, it’s painful!) Here are some sections from this report I thought mirrored Ibn Siqilli’s discussion today: