Brutality within and without: al-Shabaab’s fight to retain status
24 Sep 2013|

A soldier of the Kenyan Contingent serving with the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) gestures towards the black flag of the Al Qaeda-affiliated extremist group Al Shabaab painted on the wall of Kismayo Airport.Of late, there’s been a positive narrative from the international community surrounding the growing security in Somalia, which had for over 20 years been considered largely a failed state. The European Union, with the UK playing a leading role, agreed in 2013 to bring financial assistance for peace and development to the country, with the aim of reversing years of failure by the international community. Only last week the EU announced a €1.8 billion package to assist the Somalian government’s efforts to establish order. And at a conference in May this year, the UK government, along with other donors, pledged some £84 million in aid to Somalia, with UK Prime Minister David Cameron announcing that huge progress was being made in curbing piracy and tackling an Islamist insurgency in Somalia. So with so much ‘progress’ being made, it’s hard to understand how al-Shabaab, the al-Qaeda aligned Islamist group based in Somalia, carried out such a destructive attack in the Westage shopping centre in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, on the weekend, with 62 known deaths and over 170 injured.

It appeared that the claims of progress were being backed up by the gains that African Union forces (AMISOM) have been making over the past few years. They first wrestled back control of the capital city Mogadishu in 2011, and then in 2013 the southern port of Kismayo, a pivotal strategic position for al-Shabaab from which they transported shiploads of illegal charcoal, and distributed arms and other goods to parts of the Somalia and beyond. Indeed, the organisation was forced to retreat to the rural areas of Somalia’s south and are largely fighting a guerrilla campaign, and the signs are there that at last Somalia may be able to make some real progress.

The Kenyan attack has its roots in a fierce leadership battle fought over the past six months within al-Shabaab, which may well help us understand why it’s striking away from Somali borders, and might be an attempt to show strength during a time when the organisation is suffering from dwindling support inside Somalia.

This leadership battle has been ruthlessly won by Ahmed Abdi Godane, who in June this year assassinated four of al-Shabaab’s top commanders, including two of the organisation’s co-founders. One of those was Ibrahim al-Afghani, who was closely allied with Osama bin Laden and had fought in Afghanistan. This action led to the long-term spiritual leader Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys surrendering to Somali forces out of fear for his own safety within the organisation. Aweys was largely against fighting an international jihad, and was more concerned with battling Somali government forces to create an Islamic State of Somalia, whereas Godane is more aligned with the international cause of al-Qaeda and was largely seen as responsible for creating the linkages with the AQ core confirmed in 2012.

Godane’s takeover didn’t stop there. Earlier this month he killed two other senior figures within the organisation, both of whom were foreign nationals; Alabama-born US citizen Omar Hammami, known as ‘the American’ or ‘the jihadist rapper’, and a UK national, Usama al-Britani, were both shot dead in a dawn raid in their hideout by Godane’s men. Al-Shabaab is not centralised or monolithic in its agenda or goals. Its rank and file members come from disparate clans, and the group is susceptible to clan politics, internal divisions, and shifting alliances. Most of its members are predominantly interested in the nationalistic battle to take over Somalia, yet Godane’s rise to dominance will bring the hard-line global jihadist agenda to the fore and this appears to be evidenced by the attacks in Kenya.

Godane is suspected to be behind the bombing of a bar in the Ugandan capital Kampala during the 2010 World Cup Final, where 76 people were killed, to demonstrate anger at Ugandan troops who were operating in Somalia, thereby illustrating his willingness to take the fight into a regional context and to punish those who dare to stand up to his organisation. Since the June takeover, al-Shabaab have stepped up their bombing campaign, with a suicide attack on a UN compound in Mogadishu in June which killed 15, and a September attack on a Mogadishu restaurant where foreign nationals were known to eat left another 15 dead.

Kenya has suffered from terrorist attacks from AQ related groups and al-Shabaab before, most notably the 1998 US Embassy bombing in Nairobi and a string of smaller attacks closer to the border with Somalia. However, this attack has clearly been motivated by the presence of 4,000 Kenyan troops in AMISOM, who’ve been driving al-Shabaab away from the major cities. Targeting foreign nationals is a powerful method of gaining the world’s media attention and demonstrating that al-Shabaab remain a potent force.

But there’s an element of this tragic story which is hard to square away with the thesis that Godane is behind this attack. It has been reported, although unconfirmed, that a number of foreign fighters from the US, UK, Finland, Canada and Kenya were involved. This wouldn’t align with Godane’s mistrust of foreign fighters which led Ibrahim al-Afghani to write an open letter to Ayman al-Zawahiri, criticising Godane for targeting foreign jihadists, imprisoning them in secret detention centres and even killing them. However, the highly combustible combination of a brutal leader who’s highly motivated and in charge of an organisation which is being backed into a corner means that past patterns of behaviour can change. Godane might well be prepared to employ new tactics to demonstrate that the organisation isn’t in decline.

Tobias Feakin is a senior analyst at ASPI. Image courtesy of Flickr user Albany Associates.