Will al-Shabaab join ISIS?

Opinion

Will al-Shabaab join ISIS?

Emily Mellgard

22 Oct 2015

Rumours are circulating that al-Shabaab is to join ISIS, but such a move faces formidable obstacles, writes Emily Mellgard.

Rumours are circulating on social media that al-Shabaab plans to abandon its international sponsor al-Qaeda for the dominant force in the jihadi movement,  ISIS. There are claims that an al-Shabaab elder, Abd al-Qadir Mumin, who joined the group in 2013, pledged allegiance to ISIS on 22 October 2015. This is not the first time speculation spiked about an impending change of allegiance. ISIS has carried out an aggressive recruitment campaign to woo al-Shabaab into its ranks since the self-proclaimed 'caliph' Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced his 'caliphate' in June 2014.

When Ahmed Godane, al-Shabaab's former 'emir,' was killed by a US airstrike in September 2014, ISIS appealed to his successor, Ahmed Diriye, to swear allegiance to ISIS. Diriye rebuffed the overtures, reaffirming his bayah (oath of allegiance) to al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. Since then, speculation rises every few months that al-Shabaab will join ISIS. In December 2014, ISIS published a dedicated propaganda pamphlet calling on al-Shabaab to pledge allegiance to ISIS. It ends with the question "When will we hear 'Wilayat Somalia had pledged Allegiance to the caliphate?'"

On 15 October 2015, Boko Haram, the jihadi insurgency operating in Nigeria and the Lake Chad Basin, which joined ISIS in March 2015, released a video message encouraging its fellow sub-Saharan African jihadi group to join ISIS. This too appears to have left al-Shabaab's leadership unmoved. ISIS' Egypt affiliate, 'Sinai Province' (previously known as Ansar Beit al-Maqdis) released a video message this year making a similar call for al-Shabaab to join the 'caliphate.' Al-Shabaab is thus far the only sub-Saharan African jihadi group to be singled out by ISIS' affiliates and called on to join them, supporting the suggestion of some analysts, including Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens, that ISIS is "desperate to announce a province... in East Africa."

There are several factors that complicate and influence al-Shabaab's desire and ability to swear allegiance to ISIS. These include internal divisions between domestic and international al-Shabaab fighters, divisions between old guard and younger al-Shabaab fighters, and al-Shabaab's longstanding relationship with al-Qaeda.

Internal divisions and a long-standing relationship with al-Qaeda have prevented the group from joining ISIS.

One historic check on al-Shabaab's growth and strength is the influence of clan ties, which pull fighters of different clans in opposing directions. Al-Shabaab's claims to Islamic legitimacy have gone farther than almost any other identity marker in Somalia to create a unified identity, but clans still influence leadership, priorities, and loyalties within al-Shabaab. None of al-Shabaab's leaders or elders have able to quell inter-clan influences and fighting. Zawahiri was never able to mediate clan influences either. These internal divisions make it unlikely al-Shabaab could make a unified change of allegiance to ISIS.

Since ISIS declared a caliphate there have been indications that factions within al-Shabaab want to declare loyalty to al-Baghdadi. Periodic reports indicate al-Shabaab members have been arrested or executed for supporting ISIS, but the media outlets that can get hold of insider al-Shabaab information are often connected to al-Shabaab defectors, giving them motivation to emphasise these divisions.

Many of the fighters agitating for al-Shabaab to join ISIS are younger members, and a significant proportion are foreign fighters (which make up approximately 25 per cent of total al-Shabaab numbers). These fighters have already demonstrated their commitment to international jihad by travelling to Somalia, convincing them to join a group that claims authority over the global 'ummah' seems a logical step. Among old guard al-Shabaab fighters, the argument is harder.

ISIS will find it harder to secure al-Shabaab's allegiance than Boko Haram's.

Though al-Shabaab officially joined the al-Qaeda franchise in 2012, the two groups have a much older and deeper relationship. Osama bin Laden was reluctant to formalise the groups' relationship, worried it would draw undue attention to Somalia from the West, cautious about the internal clan dynamics that kept al-Shabaab divided, and disapproving of the group's emphasis on civilian casualties. That said, many of the oldest and most senior al-Shabaab leaders trained with al-Qaeda and have direct ties to the group, as well as the shared ideology of international jihad. The official merger of the two groups is  the enduring legacy of Godane. Breaking that is proving difficult for ISIS.

Al-Shabaab also benefits from its proximity to al-Qaeda's Arabian Peninsula franchise, AQAP, currently most active in Yemen. There are indications the two groups could increase their engagement. Since it lost control of most of its territory in 2011 and 2012, al-Shabaab has shifted tactics back to guerilla-style attacks, partly in line with AQAP's own strategies.

In some ways securing bayah from Boko Haram in Nigeria was easier than drawing al-Shabaab away from al-Qaeda would be. Before joining ISIS, Boko Haram was an officially independent insurgency. Joining most prominent global jihadi group was a publicity coup for Boko Haram leader Abubakr Shekau. For Diriye to make a similar move would mean turning his back on decades of engagement between Somali and Afghani jihadis and upsetting the loyalties of al-Shabaab leadership. Enticing al-Shabaab from al-Qaeda will likely be a similar struggle for ISIS as its efforts to persuade Taliban fighters to turn away from Mullah Mansour. It is possible that factions within al-Shabaab may switch allegiance from al-Qaeda to ISIS. However internal clan and generational factionalism, and the group's longstanding relationship with al-Qaeda might make a united oath of allegiance more difficult to secure.

 

Sign up to receive the Roundup

Sign up to the Centre on Religion & Geopolitics' Roundup to receive weekly updates with the latest commentary, analysis and news on the role of religion in conflict zones. Sign up here.