Two months ago, some were calling Somalia’s al-Shabaab merger with al-Qaeda a sign of both groups’ growing resurgence. I and many others felt the merger represented the relative weakness of both groups over their history.
Some assertions made after the merger appear true. Al-Shabaab, or at least elements of the group loyal to Godane, has shifted away from a broad based insurgency and retreated to safe havens in Somalia pursuing a guerilla warfare strategy using pinpoint terrorist attacks on high profile targets (e.g. National Theater attack in Mogadishu).
Likewise, the merger may have resulted (as forecasted) in certain elements of al-Shabaab expanding external operations outside of Somalia to include potential low effect grenade attacks in Kenya (alleged Shabaab attacks). Al-Shabaab’s renewed focus on external operations mirrors the practices of other AQ affiliates in the region, specifically AQAP. Last week:
The Al Qaeda-allied group in Somalia of Al Shabab has published the first magazine in Kiswahili language which analysts say is a media war against Kenyan media and to attract youth in East Africa.
While advances in guerrilla warfare tactics and expansion of external operations may appear ominous at a distance, al-Shabaab’s internal structure appears in shambles after the merger with al-Qaeda. The merger may end up bringing the group’s end.
The Shabaab-AQ Merger: An exit strategy for Godane to AQAP?
Two weeks ago, I put forth an outlying scenario for the AQ-Shabaab merger which I’m increasingly researching. Here’s a recap of scenario #4 from deciphering the Hammami situation weeks back:
An outlier notion- alternate scenario #4: The AQ-Shabaab merger was nothing more than an exit strategy for Shabaab from Somalia. Maybe the impetus for the merger came from both Godane and Robow recognizing Shabaab’s eventual defeat under the combined squeeze of TFG, Kenyan, Ethiopian and U.S. military pressure. Godane orchestrated the merger to facilitate the safe harbor of remaining Shabaab members to Yemen once it becomes necessary.
The hypothesis (only a hypothesis at this point): Godane’s faction of Shabaab sought the AQ merger and a defined relationship with AQAP because:
- TFG, Kenyan and Ethiopian Forces were squeezing al-Shabaab.
- Fracturing from Robow and Aweys was imminent (Robow had allegedly been reaching out to the TFG and Aweys has already declared his desire to break).
- Godane needed a stream of operational resources independent of al-Shabaab. As a member of the Isaaq clan and from Somaliland, Godane’s clan affiliation and background results in him controlling no territory in South-Central Somalia and depending on other Shabaab members for operational resources.
- Godane, in the event of an al-Shabaab breakup, needed an operational safe haven. Again, not a member of a clan controlling territory, Godane saw the merger as a means for potentially retreating to Yemen with those Shabaab fighters most devoted to al-Qaeda’s ideology and least tied to clans holding strong positions in Somalia (minority, weak clan members). The necessity of a safe haven is likely seen with the rapid announcement of a merger between al-Shabaab and the Galgala Militia. The merger with the Galgala Militia, influenced by the installation of a new Godane allied leader (Kilwe), provides Godane’s hardline Shabaab faction a Golis mountain safe haven bordering Godane’s home of Somaliland and more proxiamate logistics, communication and retreat avenues to Yemen.
The evidence for this hypothesis remains scant but continues to emerge. As I mentioned in a previous post, the connections between al-Shabaab and AQAP in Yemen continue to grow:
- Last summer, the U.S. Navy interdicted Ahmed Abdulkadir Warsame in the Indian Ocean. Implication was that Shabaab was coordinating for training and explosives with AQAP.
- Immediately following the al-Shabaab/al-Qaeda merger, certain members of al-Shabaab, namely Sheikh Ali Mahamud Raage announced that his fighters “will be part of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsulat ‘AQAP’.”
- More recently, there have been reports of Somali fighters showing up in Yemen. A report from Yemen noted that, “Interior Ministry said that police troops managed to arrest six Somali terrorists who were fighting with Ansar al-Sharia, al-Qaeda offshoot, in the southern war-torn province of Abyan.“
- As mentioned above, Shabaab just released its Swahili language propaganda magazine. While its effectiveness is indeterminate, the choice of pursuing a magazine similar in form to AQAP’s Inspire may suggest a direct influence.
What should we expect?
If the AQAP-Shabaab connection were to be true, what should we expect? Remember, this is all a hypothesis and is tough to anticipate, but I would expect the following:
Assuming Kenyan, Ethiopian and TFG pressure remains constant:
- Aweys will break completely with Shabaab in the coming 2-3 months and form his own group (Hizbul Islam) and negotiate with the TFG for peace.
- Robow will be in a tough spot. Robow will want to keep control of his turf and will also negotiate through back channels with the TFG. But can anyone legitimately negotiate with Robow (and Aweys) as designated terrorists and members of Shabaab? A tough position for all parties, but the TFG has already hinted at an amnesty program for Shabaab members.
- Shabaab will see defectors in many sectors. The defectors will form their own militias or fall under other warlords as fighters.
- Godane and hardline members of Shabaab will first retreat to the Golis Mountains and join with remaining members of Kilwe’s Galgala Militia where they’ll stage terror attacks in Somalia.
- If the TFG pushes into the Golis, I’d expect increased exfiltration of Godane faction Shabaab members fleeing Somalia for Yemen.
- In Yemen, I’d look for an increased number of Shabaab fighters crossing from Puntland/Somaliland into Yemen. This will be difficult to assess as there is natural migration occurring frequently.
- I’d expect to see more AQAP or Ansar al-Sharia casualties of Somali background over the next 6 months.
- The ultimate sign will be if Godane or Ibrahim al-Afghani end up in Yemen. They’ll hold out in Somalia as long as possible but if the pressure gets too great, they’ll have to move. I think this would outright confirm this scenario.
Again, only a hypothesis at this point and only time will tell, and for the rest of this week, more on the Hammami situation and Shabaab’s decline.