A little over a year ago, Andrew Lebovich and I published a short article detailing the plight of Omar Hammami amongst al Shabaab’s Game of Thrones in Somalia. In this March 2012 piece Lebovich and I made several hypotheses:
- Hammami’s plea reflected serious divisions inside Shabaab with Ahmed Godane (Abu Zubeyr) on one side and Mukhtar Robow on the other, likely supported by Sheikh Hassan Aweys.
- AQAP was an important conduit to Shabaab.
- Shabaab’s leader Godane killed off old Al Qaeda members, namely Fazul, in his attempts to consolidate power in Somalia and become the single conduit with al Qaeda.
- Zawahiri overreached officially aligning with Shabaab and entangled al Qaeda with an ally plagued with internal dissension.
Thanks to the revelations published by Omar Hammami, these hypotheses all seem to have some merit, although some evidence is suspect or unconfirmed.
Beginning last May, Omar Hammami began a public campaign to keep himself alive in Somalia. Unable to leave Somalia and suppressed by Godane, Omar’s long-winded initial English biography revealed his belief that Godane’s Shabaab leaders were killing off dissenters in the ranks and in particular foreign fighters supporting Shabaab.
However, Omar’s initial biography left out some key details and only when he resurfaced via his Twitter account (@abumamerican) did we learn from his Arabic biography how Godane adeptly played the game of Somalia’s “Game of Thrones” securing his leadership position by killing off foreign fighters and excluding Robow from key meetings such as the oath of allegiance to al Qaeda. In January’s Arabic supplement, Omar dropped all the dirty details of the rift between local fighters and foreign fighters and the pseudo-imprisonment of he and his band of banished foreign fighters. Omar hit the Twittersphere again in January to both bash Godane’s Shabaab and sustain his public presence making it more difficult for Godane to rub out Hammami – a messy situation for a Shabaab in decline and an al Qaeda that has overreached.
Shabaab initially tried to ignore Hammami’s chatter. When Omar continued the public bashing, Shabaab took to discrediting him via a glossy product. This only emboldened Omar and finally opened the flood gates for Shabaab haters and Shabaab supporters to go full force into battle on Twitter ending and subverting the censorship imposed on al Qaeda forums when Omar defected a year ago. Two months ago, Omar appeared alone and isolated in his fight against Shabaab’s stalwart supporters. However, Shabaab dissenters have grown publicly in recent weeks and Omar appears to be fully engaged in a four-language Twitter battle against Shabaab (English, Swahili, Arabic, Somali).
Here’s my quick recap of recent proceedings. This is a quick and dirty breakdown, not all encompassing.
Team Omar’s Position:
- Omar claims to be living with the Rahanweyn clan and living somewhere in Bay & Bakool provinces.
- Omar and his allies on Twitter chief complaints with Godane and Shabaab are:
- Godane has taken Shabaab off the path of true jihad and created divisions between the local Shabaab (Ansar) and the foreign fighters (mujahidin).
- Permitting of qat usage and sale are against the tenets of Sharia; Shabaab apparently does this for the purpose of taxation and revenue generation.
- Godane forces taxation on people that should be exempt.
- Godane mismanages Shabaab politically, militarily and economically and is responsible for the group’s retreat.
- Godane doesn’t take the input of other key Somali jihadi leaders like Robow and Aweys into account when he governs.
- Godane imprisons those that challenge his decisions (often times foreign fighters) and those with money that potentially could challenge Godane’s authority.
- Godane has a henchmen, maybe named Dahir, who does Godane’s dirty work acting as the internal policeman snuffing out dissent.
- Omar uses the reasons cited on Twitter to justify pausing his violent jihad. Omar cites Koranic and historical justifications for quitting jihad when its not pursued justly. Team Omar claims that Robow and Aweys would share this view – although this may not be evident publicly.
- Omar has gained support from others on Twitter, enough that he is taking questions for debate on a second tier jihadi forum aljihad.com. Two months ago this would seem inconceivable, but in some weird way, Omar’s banter has rallied some that share his feelings.
- In conclusion, Omar insists that there will soon be a revolution underway internally and that the right leadership will come back to take control of the situation in Somalia and return Shabaab to prominence – or something like this. This seems to be more bravado and wishful thinking than concrete plan but we’ll see.
On the Team Godane/al Shabaab side, they continue to attack Omar and his disciples. Their chief lines of attack and allies are:
- Omar is a narcissist that cannot stay in line because of his own glory seeking.
- Omar exaggerates his battle prowess, importance in Shabaab, skills as a military tactician and took credit for a rap he did not write (the last one Omar admits to) – see this post here for summary.
- Omar and anyone that uses Twitter is a CIA or MI-6 spy and should be imprisoned or killed.
- Shabaab’s key allies on Twitter seem to be fellow members of Godane’s Isaaq clan, the Muslim Youth Center (MYC) in Kenya and a handful of ethnic Somali foreign fighters from abroad.
- When Shabaab can’t get traction attacking Omar on his points about jihad, they go after his Americanism and family – yeah that’s right, they go with “Yo Mama” jokes, a key tactic of hardcore terrorists – I guess.
Omar has been boasting about an impending revolution in Somalia where the Mujahidin take back control of jihad from Godane’s influence. And today, Omar posted this:
Does this tweet represent more bolstering and bragging or an actual coup in Shabaab’s ranks? One of the reasons Omar’s support as grown is that Shabaab under Godane has been in retreat. If Shabaab were ascending rather than descending, Omar would likely be alone in his complaints.
I’ve also wondered some other things:
- Did al Qaeda, either Central or in Yemen, intervene to quell this divide? After a year of disaster in their relationship with Shabaab, maybe some key AQ folks stepped in to mend this public dispute.
- Has Robow re-established his own communications channel back into al Qaeda? A communication sufficient to gain their support for overtaking Godane?
- Is Hammami really just the public spokesman for a Robow coup in Shabaab? This is a “Game of Thrones” after all. Maybe Hammami is just the public mouthpiece eroding Godane’s credibility in return for protection provided by the Rahanweyn clan?
Stay tuned for the next season in Shabaab’s “Game of Thrones”.