Al Qaeda graciously resolved an issue of long debate within the counterterrorism community by finally announcing the merger of al Shabaab in their ranks. Some have advocated that Shabaab has always been part of al Qaeda. Many others have repeatedly claimed that Shabaab was being unfairly linked to al Qaeda. Well, it is now settled – some twenty years after al Qaeda’s first forays into southern Somalia to work with “the Youth” (al Shabaab) – the two groups have formally merged under al Qaeda’s umbrella.
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.
- Increases Overall Membership: As noted by J.M. Berger, the alliance does bring more people formally into the AQ fold making the organization larger in size. And if theories hold true, the increase in scale should increase the pace of AQ affiliated attacks (although not necessarily the severity – see the link).
- 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?
Bin Laden seemed reluctant to officially have Shabaab join AQ’s ranks. I’m guessing this arises from AQ getting their butts kicked during the early 1990’s when they dispatched Special Forces style training teams to the tribes of southern Somalia. Local Somali clans burned AQ by taking AQ resources while always focusing on local political squabbles over AQ’s Western objectives. Likewise, Bin Laden showed a strong preference for Arabs over Africans having paid them at different levels when AQ was based in Sudan and generally believing they were incompetent.
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?
Sheikh Ali Mahamud Rage, Shabaab’s spokesman, stated in one report that Shabaab would be part of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) rather than AQ Central based in Pakistan. Fascinating! This could mean several things (or nothing):
- Confirms associations/connections between the Shabaab and AQAP: I engaged in strong debates this past summer over this connection. In addition to the Warsame detention, this statement by Rage might also suggest that AQAP is the key conduit between Shabaab and AQ.
- 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.
- Differing AQ connections amongst Shabaab clan leaders: I doubt this one but I do wonder if there may be fracturing in Shabaab’s ranks and Rage’s statement may illustrate that different Shabaab leaders have different connections with AQ members. Michelle Shepard mentioned these fractures last night in her article and I agree with her (have always agreed with this premise). Holding consensus inside Shabaab, especially under military pressure, will be hard and Shepard suggest that Sheikh Hassan Aweys may not be keen on the alliance. Aweys has always been the smoothest Somali operator since his days with AIAI, but I do find it remarkable that he might balk at an AQ alliance when he likely has the longest historical connections with AQ dating back to at least 1992. Maybe only Aweys, Bin Laden’s ghost and Fazul’s ghost remember how AQ-Somali clan alliances can go wrong for both parties. See Harmony documents here for the proof.