In Andrew Lebovich and I’s HSPI article “Hammami’s Plight Amongst al-Shabaab & al-Qaeda’s Game of Throne,” we posed some hypotheses related to recent infighting amongst al-Shabaab factions and their al-Qaeda alliances. My belief is that Hammami’s scrambling is not solely the result of a minor squabble, but instead an externality of a broad strategy by Mukhtar Abdirahman Godane to secure power within al-Shabaab by eliminating older al-Qaeda elements in Somalia and substituting key al-Shabaab leaders with loyal supporters.
The first hypothesis put forth in the paper addresses potential broader implications of Godane’s internal bullying, assuming the reports of his power play prove true.
The first possibility is that al-Shabaab’s infighting represents a broader power struggle in al-Qaeda. Assuming the reports of Godane killing off Fazul and other al-Qaeda foreign fighters are true, this likely means Zawahiri actively or passively has permitted the removal of potential competitors to his authority in al-Qaeda. If true, what does this suggest about potentially larger rifts between al-Qaeda’s original members (Sayf al-Adel for example) and Zawahiri’s inner circle?
Evidence for this hypothesis is and will likely be hard to come by. But, I still think it’s worth investigating. Assuming that Godane and his underlings (potentially al-Afghani) helped facilitate Fazul’s death and have eliminated other AQ foreign fighters in Somalia, what is Ayman al-Zawahiri and al-Qaeda’s influence in these actions? One of my suspected reasons for the AQ-Shabaab merger was for AQ Central to gain access to precious Western foreign fighters with access to Western targets. I’ve been examining several scenarios related to this Zawahiri hypothesis and I’ d enjoy any thoughts from al-Qaeda or Somalia experts on any of the below scenarios related to this hypothesis.
Scenario #1 – Zawahiri directly authorized the killing of Fazul and older AQ loyalists to Bin Laden based in Somalia
With Bin Laden dead, Zawahiri sees the opportunity to 1) achieve a unification with al-Shabaab previously blocked by UBL and his “Old Guard” and 2) remove internal opposition to his supremacy from old stalwarts like Fazul (see Nelly Lahoud theory).
Zawahiri then communicates to Godane, after UBL’s death, that the path to an AQ merger arises from the elimination of Fazul, Bilal al-Barjawi, and Barjawi’s deputy – those of old AQ ranks aligned with UBL against a formal merger. Godane agrees and adds in other al-Shabaab rivals to the hit list – rivals which command other AQ foreign fighters like Hammami.
Probability of this Scenario: 1 in 4. Unlikely, Zawahiri knows better than to give a direct order when it’s easier to imply or turn a blind eye. Likewise, some have said that Zawahiri is above this sort of infighting and would never turn on a fellow al-Qaeda member. I completely disagree with this notion. While I don’t think Zawahiri gave a direct executive order to kill Fazul, I also don’t think he is above such violence – we shouldn’t forget he is a terrorist after all and an ego maniac as well.
Scenario #2 – Godane makes a pitch to Zawahiri for alignment with AQ, Zawahiri agrees and turns a blind eye to the implications
With Bin Laden dead, Godane sees an opportunity to push for a merger with AQ. Godane pitches the merger to Zawahiri, noting that he may have to “make some personnel changes to shape the merger.” Zawahiri agrees in principle knowing that this implies the removal of opposition like Fazul. Zawahiri’s hands are technically clean and Godane has freedom to pursue the merger as needed.
Probability of this Scenario: 1 in 2. Likely.The outcome meets the needs of both leaders. However, under this scenario, I’d believe that Zawahiri thought Godane had Team Shabaab in line and under his direction; not expecting the mafia style rubbing out of AQ foreign fighters not aligned with Godane’s alliances.
Scenario #3 – Zawahiri agrees to a merger and is completely unaware of Godane’s shoring up of rivals
Under this scenario, Zawahiri, desperately needing some good news and a surge in AQ interest to offset the past year’s events, blindly accepts the merger offer from Godane not realizing that Godane would use the alliance as a means to increase his local power in Shabaab and kill off AQ operatives not in line with his ambitions. Zawahiri falls for this infighting trap having not been around AQ during its first foray into Somalia in the 1990’s – lessons Bin Laden knew and reflected on in his decision to not pursue a formal alliance with al-Shabaab or AIAI. Zawahiri’s security posture prevents him from knowing of Godane’s potential involvement in killing of veteran AQ members.
Probability of this Scenario: 1 in 16. Slim, unlikely. Zawahiri remains constrained in terms of communications. But, he’s not deaf. The coordination between the merger announcements by Godane and then shortly after by Zawahiri suggest that communication channels remain open. I strongly doubt that Zawahiri could coordinate his announcement and yet not be able to hear through his intermediaries that Godane may have been involved in killing off three AQ operatives in Somalia. Zawahiri must have known of the Fazul conspiracies and they clearly did not stop him from accepting a formal merger with Godane and al-Shabaab. I do think he was/is likely blind to the internal clan killings which may be resulting in AQ foreign fighters meeting their demise.
Scenario #4 – An alternative scenario I haven’t thought of
Does anyone have any thoughts on what it might be?
Probability of this Scenario: 3 in 16. (Did I just blow your mind with that fraction?) Unlikely but definitely possible. I always assume there is something I’m missing.
I look forward to any other perspectives on this.
Any way you slice it, Zawahiri has the blood of AQ operatives and AQ foreign fighters on his hands. He’s either directing their deaths, complicit in them, or completely unaware. I’m not sure which is worse from his perspective. Maybe Zawahiri does know, and made his decision right after Bin Laden’s death.
UPDATE AS OF 1400EST, 21 MARCH 2012
See interesting perspective from the comments section here from firefroggy92, asserting that it is Robow killing off AQ members and not Godane. This seems to counter to the reporting from Somalia, that Godane has been leading the elimination of old AQ members. But highly possible…anyone have an opinion?
Fazul, Bilaal, and Sakr were all killed at the behest of Muktar Rubow whose southern tribes have been screwed over by Goddane’s Isaaq. Rubbow has been killing off the foreign fighters becuase he wants HSM to focus on the local needs of the people and not the fanciful crusades of AQ. firefroggy92