Al Shabab and Hizbul Islam officially united in December after Sheik Hassan Dahir Aweys’s forces took a pounding from Shabab around Kismayo. Aweys loss of Kismayo brought Hizbul Islam under Shabab’s submission. This latest defeat follows the defection of the Ras Kambooni Brigade from Hizbul Islam to Shabab in February 2010. Shabab appears to have consolidated power over the southern and central insurgent groups calling for expanded AQ operations in East Africa.
Already, analysts predict doomsday scenarios in which AQ establishes a new safe haven for conducting attacks in HOA and globally. I’m skeptical this will occur for several reasons.
1. History suggests more competition than unity.
Somali clans and warlords unite and break up all the time. The Harmony documents describe the shifting sands of clan loyalty. In the 90′s, clan defection and collaborative bargaining through clan leader councils frustrated AQ’s efforts to shift Somali focus to the far enemy.
2. Allies taken by force are the first to defect.
Aweys may be the world’s greatest clan chess player. Aweys cavorted with AQ in the early 90’s, maintained control of his clan for almost twenty years, and led the Islamic Courts Union. Aweys may submit to Shabab for now, but allies born from force usually defect or undermine the conqueror in time. Aweys won’t like being “Number 2” for long. He’s a smooth warlord.
3. Calls for expanded jihad in Somalia haven’t materialized.
Bin Laden and Zawahiri have called for Somali jihad for the past four years. Foreign fighters descending on Somalia exist but represent only a small trickle of support compared to the foreign fighter flow into Iraq and AF/PAK. Most answering the jihadi call to Somalia gravitate from the Somali Diaspora suggesting the attraction is more ethnic than ideological.
4. Counters to Shabab aggression can operate without restraint.
Should Shabab continue to expand attacks outside Somalia, I expect HOA countries will stand up to Shabab. What if Shabab overthrew the TFG? Shabab aggression might prompt another Ethiopian excursion. I also expect Western CT actions will expand to match Shabab’s growth. Thus far, U.S. CT efforts in HOA have achieved relative success against AQ operatives floating in Somalia.
5. Resources prove powerful in Somalia.
Why would Shabab seek an alliance with AQ? Branding brings prestige, and prestige brings resources. Somali clan resources remain tight under the best circumstances. Aligning with AQ may bring increased resources from donors. More likely, “calls for jihad in East Africa” and becoming “AQ’s East Africa” branch represent Shabab’s direct appeals for resource support from AQ Central. Shabab leaders may not realize that AQ Central doesn’t have sufficient resources for its own operation much less an East African effort. AQ knows this game and remembers Somali clans 90’s graft: “Sure AQ, we’ll attack your far enemy, but we’ll need $50 thousand up front for ‘business expenses’ and some support fighting our local Sufi rivals first.”
Why might this time be different?
The only indication I see of something different is Shabab’s recent attacks in Uganda and Kenya which demonstrate their expanded reach and commitment to think bigger. Whether these attacks represent a shift in support towards AQ objectives or expansion of regional irregular warfare against the AU and other Christian-led neighbors, I am unsure. But, I’m cautious to dismiss recent Shabab action as simply more of the same. Only time will tell. For now, I hope the West stays its current course and strategically thinks through the Somali chess game.