“Today’s Jihadi Landscape: What does two competing jihadi networks and other freelance jihadi groups look like?
I’ve been wondering since Bin Laden’s death what a world without “One Big al Qaeda” might look like–see this for example. Only now can we start to see the effects of a generational shift amongst jihadis representing two loosely formed larger networks surrounded by some, or maybe even many, loosely tied or unaffiliated jihadi groups with more regional rather than global orientations.
With the environment changing rapidly and no good way to depict today’s jihadi landscape, I, with input from friends, have put together the following visual estimate of what today’s fractured jihadi landscape might look like. I tried to avoid the vertical, top-down task organization chart models because I don’t believe these relationships represent command and control as much as communication and collaboration. Today’s global jihadi landscape looks more like a swarm not a corporation: it is fungible, malleable and evolving. For the purposes of the charts you see below (Figure 1 and Figure 3), I’ve created three categories, which should not be viewed as definitive or exact as I anticipate much shifting of allegiances in the coming weeks and months. I put forth a discussion here, not an answer, and I’m open to input. If a group appears left out, it’s likely because I was uncertain how to assess them. The amount of overlap represents the degree to which I estimate the groups are interlinked in their communication & efforts.”
And here is the chart I worked on with much help from J.M. Berger, Aaron Zelin and some friends.
In December, the Carnegie Endowment for Peace invited me as a panelist for their conference “The al Shabaab Threat After Westgate”. I had the great fortune of meeting and speaking with Stig Hansen and Bronwyn Bruton – both top notch Somalia experts that far outpace my skills.
For those interested in al Shabaab, I recommend Stig Hansen’s book al-Shabaab in Somaliawhich is the book to read to understand the evolution of al-Shabaab. I have a couple small things I disagree with in terms of the book’s notion of how al Qaeda integrates with al Shabaab, but overall, its a fantastic read on Shabaab. Stig displays his knowledge well in the audio recording of this session.
As for me, I discussed the terrorist threat of al Shabaab and how it integrates with al Qaeda, with special emphasis on my pal Omar Hammami, who is now taking a dirt nap courtesy of the terror group he joined and killed on behalf of – al Shabaab.
My discussion rests on a few points:
al Shabaab in 2014 – Probably as good as it gets. I would like to see al Shabaab completely defeated; removed from Somalia’s hinterlands and prevented from disrupting Somalia’s government. But I’m not naive. I don’t see any reason why al Shabaab won’t be able to stay alive for the foreseeable future. As Jeffrey Herbst explains in his book States and Power in Africa, African states have historically had limited ability to project power beyond the capital. There is no reason to believe the current Somalia government is any different. Shabaab is not what it was two years ago, but either Shabaab or some jihadi evolution of Shabaab is likely to endure for the next decade similar to how AIAI and the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) existed in the past two decades. So, after two years of fracturing and Somali government rebuilding, I don’t expect to see any significant and enduring progress in securing south central Somalia.
Shabaab exists because it can provide security allowing economic stability- While we talk about the ideology in our terrorism and counterterrorism studies, the reason Shabaab flourishes in Somalia is because they provide security and allow for some semblance of economic stability. This ecomonic-security dynamic is why the ICU came to being and what al Qaeda learned during the early 1990s.
Shabaab is Jihadi Darwinism
– While many in the West focus on ideological analysis (and I too believe it serves an important role), Shabaab more than any extremist group acts out of self-interest more than ideological convention. Shabaab will make jihadi ideology fit its own agenda. Whatever Shabaab needs the ideology to be to survive, that is what the ideology will be. Thus, jihadi darwinists.
Lastly, the discussion at the end of the session was one of the best that I have participated in. Take a listen to some great questions from the audience in this clip. And if you want to hear me get all worked up about the notion of security contractors and their responsibilities, then jump to the 20:30 mark where I discuss my perspective ” on the nuances between governments and contractors.
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.
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.
For those following the Shabaab attack in Nairobi, Kenya or the trials and tribulations of Omar Hammami, I strongly recommend checking out Raffaello Pantucci’s excellent new article “Bilal al-Berjawi and the Shifting Fortunes of Foreign Fighters in Somalia“. Pantucci’s article provides insightful details from multiple sources to explain both the fractures in Shabaab and the pathways to fighting in Somalia. The piece provides a coherent documentation and great sourcing. Counterterrorism analysts should take note of how Pantucci uses Shabaab propaganda and open source government documents to piece together a tight set of analysis filled with real data; it’s really well done.
And for those seeing Shabaab as resurgent, here’s is a paragraph from Pantucci’s article concisely pointing out the problems inside the group.
This article offers an in-depth look into al-Berjawi’s life, as well as some thoughts on how he may have become enmeshed within the contingent of al-Shabab that has been sidelined. Al-Berjawi’s death, the reported death of American al-Shabab fighter Omar Hammami alongside another Briton, the death of long-time al-Shabab leader Ibrahim al-Afghani, the disappearance of Mukhtar Robow, and Hassan Dahir Aweys’ decision to turn himself in to authorities all point to a change within the organization that seems to have been punctuated by the ambitious attack in Nairobi. The ultimate result is still developing, but al-Berjawi’s rise and fall provides a useful window with which to look at the role of foreigners in the conflict in Somalia.
Foreign Policy helped me post an article today which provides a brief, high level discussion of my initial impressions from al Shabaab’s four day siege at the Westgate mall. Thanks to Foreign Policy for the opportunity and help with my prose. I also did an interview with CBS Philly linked here for those interested in hearing me drone on about Somalia.
Now, in my more typical style, I do have a few notes with regards to what I’m reading in the media. There have been people trumpeting the return of al Shabaab and how this shows al Qaeda resilience. We’ve heard this before. In 2011, when Shabaab merged with al Qaeda there were vigorous warnings that Shabaab in Somalia was potentially the most dangerous al Qaeda affiliate. Yet, this merger actually became the tipping point for Shabaab’s decline. We’ve also heard similar claims in recent years about AQAP in Yemen, AQIM in the Sahel, Ansar al-Sharia in Libya, and now AQ in the Sinai and Nusra/ISIS in Syria. These affiliates are not likely to all be the most dangerous threat (there can be only one) nor on the rise at the same time. So what are we to believe? I always try to remember that counterterrorism is an industry as much as it is a discipline, without terror attacks and hype, we’d all have to start talking about Russia or climate change (boring). Back to Kenya…here are my thoughts in addition to what I posted at Foreign Policy.
The Westgate Mall attack is not surprising, it’s more surprising this didn’t happen sooner – In 2007, I had the opportunity to work with Dr. Jacob Shapiro, Vahid Brown and a team of researchers on al Qaeda’s (Mis) Adventures in the Horn of Africa looking at how al Qaeda historically operated in the region. After doing our analysis, we became increasingly more concerned about Kenya and its vulnerability as a target for terrorism. See chapters 5 for some conclusions of this report and chapter 2 and 4 for some Kenya discussion. Al Qaeda and now al Shabaab operatives have been moving through and attacking in Kenya for two decades. Al Shabaab has been attributed with 50-100 incidents in Kenya this last year alone. There have been concerns about an attack for years, its disappointing that this concern did not translate into a disruption of this attack.
Uhh, seems like media forgot Shabaab has been killing its own – As those who read this blog probably know, al Shabaab and its emir Ahmed Godane (Abu Zubeyr) have been leading a vicious campaign to kill off its own members in recent months. Godane killed off his former deputy Ibrahim al-Afghani, pushed Sheikh Aweys into the hands of the Somali government and has been fighting against Shabaab elements loyal to Sheikh Muktar Robow. Terror groups usually aren’t considered ‘strong’ or ‘resilient’ if they spend as much time killing their own people as they do their adversaries. This infighting doesn’t seem to be getting much play in the media.
Uhh, Anyone remember that Shabaab killed its most celebrated American foreign fighter, Omar Hammami, just last week – This also seems to be overlooked in the discussion of resilience. Omar Hammami was killed by Shabaab just last week; a public relations nightmare for the terror group. Godane and Shabaab may have conducted this Nairobi attack because they needed a success to reset the agenda about their infighting and killing off of foreign fighters.
Shabaab isn’t dead, and it will never entirely go away – As described by Dr. Jeffrey Herbst in his book States and Power in Africa, African governments can rarely extend their authority beyond the capital. The Somalia Federal Government is no exception. Shabaab will retain their southern Somalia safe haven for some time which enables them to conduct attacks like the one we see in Nairobi. Even if this area is cleared, Shabaab will just morph into another group with similar objectives and ideology, much in the way Shabaab came from AIAI and the Islamic Courts Union.
Godane is crazy, and maybe this attack is just about appealing to al Qaeda to get back into their good graces – As @AllthinngsHLS pointed out last night, Godane may just want to get back on al Qaeda’s radar. This is something I failed to bring up in my interview and should be noted. It also sits well with the hypothesis from last year that the Shabaab-AQ merger was nothing more than an exit strategy for Shabaab’s emir Godane who comes from the Isaaq clan and lacks significant clan support to endure in Somalia. As Omar Hammami and Shabaab’s defectors noted, Godane likes violence, so maybe this is just about killing.
If notorious foreign fighters are the attackers, does this mean a resilient Shabaab or taking one last gamble? – Some claims of unknown reliability have said the attackers were Westerners and one may in fact be a woman, the infamous “White Widow” Samantha Lewthwaite. If Shabaab used these foreign fighters, it could mean they were really focused on drawing international attention, or it could mean, that’s all they have left. Either way they may have preferred these foreign fighter for their ability to cross into Kenya with less scrutiny. If the “White Widow” was such an attractive recruitment tool, why would Shabaab use her for an attack? Maybe she is a die hard and wanted martyrdom, who knows, we’ll probably not know the logic anytime soon.
To say Shabaab is resurgent or dying is premature since the attack isn’t complete and there is much we don’t know. But here are the questions I’ll be looking at over the coming days, weeks and months to make this assessment.
How quickly will al Shabaab follow up with another attack in Kenya? Through its Twitter feed, al Shabaab claimed that this was the first of many attacks to come in Kenya. However, in July 2010, Shabaab executed a suicide bombing in Kampala, Uganda. Some saw this as the start of Shabaab’s external operations in the Horn of Africa, but up to now there has been no strategic campaign for the region. If Shabaab quickly executes follow up attacks in Kenya in the coming days and weeks, this would suggest resurgence on Shabaab’s part. However, if Shabaab fails to generate another attack over the next six months, the Westgate attack may represent a last desperate attempt by a group to generate popular support, resources and personnel.
Can Kenya control its reaction to the Westgate attacks? As seen by the 2007-2008 Presidential election violence, Kenya is prone to uncontrollable violence between ethnic groups, clans and tribes. Al Shabaab certainly intended for the Westgate attack to provoke Kenyans to overreact and commit large-scale violence against Muslims both in Kenya and in Somalia. If Kenya falls into this trap, they could hand al Shabaab the victory they desperately seek.
How will Kenyan Muslims react to the Westgate mall attack? Kenyan Muslims have for years felt repressed by the Kenyan central government and the beginning of the “War on Terror” only exasperated this tension. However, the 1998 Embassy bombing and the 2002 Paradise Hotel bombing killed or harmed Kenyan Muslims more than it did other Kenyans and Westerners. In the Westgate attack, the attackers went to great lengths to target non-Muslims. Analysts should watch closely in the coming days to see the reaction of Kenyan Muslims from Mombasa up the Kenyan coast to Somalia. If Kenyan Muslims reject the Westgate violence, then Shabaab will fall short in rallying Kenyan Muslims against the government. If on the other hand, Kenyan Muslims appear indifferent or even condone Westgate violence, this could suggest deeper popular support for Shabaab throughout Kenya.
Will the Westgate Mall attackers turn out to be of Somali, Kenyan, Western foreign fighters or a mix of all three? If the attackers turn out to be Kenyan Muslims or Somalis that have resided in Kenya for some time, this would be a troublesome sign for Kenya. It may mean the attack was planned, prepared and executed locally – a troubling sign for Kenya. However, if the attack were executed strictly by foreign fighters, it may suggest that Shabaab used its Western passport holders to gain access to softer targets – also a troubling sign for the West who’ve been concerned for years about Western foreign fighters to Shabaab returning back home.
Will the Global Somali Diaspora be inspired or appalled? – I assume a motive for the attack was for Shabaab to regenerate their support in resources and manpower from the Somali Diaspora. Will this work?
This interview from VOA-Somalia, done very well by Harun who asks very good questions, is fascinating to listen to – at times you can still hear a bit of Southern U.S. accent in Omar’s speech and he still uses some American jargon calling Godane (Abu Zubeyr) a “Control Freak”.
And Omar reinforces the idea that he was a terrorist Army-of-One and still committed to the end to his views of Islam and jihadi doctrine despite being shunned by both al Shabaab and al Qaeda. Committed to the end, but yet, I’m not entirely sure to what. Omar says at the end of the interview, he’s not coming back “unless its in a bodybag”.
Omar says that Robow is hiding in the forest as well, and that he does not have contact with Robow directly. Omar notes that there were five of them hiding together in the forest. Reports noted that Omar was killed along with a Osama al-Britani, a Somali and that Khatab al-Masri was captured. So who was #5? And did he quit or was he captured?
Shabaab had been closing in on Omar for a while, had captured his wives – Last week’s reports noted that Omar’s wives had been detained by Shabaab and that a guard protecting Omar’s wives had been killed. This seemingly brought Omar back out into the media.
Omar was executed alongside two others according to these tweets from HOA. Omar al-Britani, whom I believe might be the man to the left of Omar in the picture below from January 11, 2013, and a Somali, whom I wonder might be the guy in the mask to the far right and Omar’s Somali language coach on Twitter and YouTube, were both allegedly killed along with Omar. The BBC reports that Omar’s Egyptian friend, whom I wonder may be the man on the right of the below picture and Omar’s Arabic coach, was captured by al Shabaab.
Another of their allies, Khadap al-Masari, from Egypt, surrendered, the fighter said.
The alleged location of the shootout also makes sense. (UPDATE: as of 1000 am EST, 12 September 2013) Harun Maruf of VOA-Somalia, and I would guess the person that got the interview with Omar last week, says the incident happened near RamaAddey(Caday). This would be relatively close, I think, to where Shabaab tried to assassinate Omar a few months back. I’ll add that map from this past spring below Harun’s tweet. A new update from Harun Maruf. So I’ve included his new tweet and an updated map with my estimate of where the shootout took place. For me, that he was in Gedo calls into question how much support he had from Robow after all.
Omar was one of the last one’s standing, Shabaab could consolidate on him – In previous months, Shabaab has eliminated many of its opponents killing off al-Afghani and pushing Aweys into capture. With each dissenter eliminated, Shabaab has more force at its disposal to chase Omar. Now I wonder, where is Robow? He would be the last major dissenter that could stand in Godane’s way.
What will al Qaeda say? – Omar Hammami’s plight amongst Shabaab’s oppression of foreign fighters has been ignored by al Qaeda. They’ve turned a blind eye to the disasterous merger with Shabaab and Somalia and instead smartly focusing on opportunities in Syria and Egypt. My guess is al Qaeda doesn’t much care about Omar or his death. Where a year or two ago, al Qaeda desperately needed Western foreign fighters, today, the Syrian jihad provides an ample pipeline of manpower to try and tap into. So Omar’s pleas and his plight, well they have probably soured recruitment pipelines from the West into Somalia, but not really achieved much else.
In conclusion, Omar did ultimately die at the hands of al Shabaab which he basically predicted with his public discussion. I imagine today is a tough day for his family and I feel for them. Omar plunged into Somalia looking for a pure ideology and committed violence in pursuit of this vision. Only in the end, Omar found out that in Somalia as in other campaigns, jihad is really just about violence, and nothing else.