ISIS has waged a months' long courtship to woo the al-Qaeda affiliate al-Shabaab, with limited success. This week, a leader of the group stated any al-Shabaab fighter who joined ISIS would have their throat slit. Such warnings demonstrate the divisions in the group, raising the spectre that, if al-Shabaab's leadership does not turn its back on al-Qaeda to join ISIS, the group may nevertheless draw away some number of al-Shabaab fighters to establish its own presence in the region. Several individuals and small isolated groups in Somalia have pledged allegiance to ISIS over the past few weeks, but as yet ISIS' foothold in the country remains largely non-operational.
ISIS' foothold in Somalia remains non-operational.
This escalated on 18 November with the release of the twelfth issue of ISIS' English-language propaganda magazine Dabiq. This issue included an interview with a Somali jihadi who advocated for al-Shabaab members to pledge allegiance to ISIS' leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The jihadi, identified as Abu Muharib, claims that true Somali Muslims must join ISIS, and that al-Qaeda has lost its legitimacy. Muharib points to several factors to 'prove' al-Qaeda is not a legitimate jihadi organisation, including al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri's pledge of allegiance to Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader who it emerged this year has been dead since 2013.
Al-Shabaab's loyalty to Zawahiri in turn connects the group to Omar. Muharib claimed that al-Shabaab's chain of command from its leader Ahmed Diriye to Zawahiri to a dead man, challenging al-Shabaab fighters to consider whether their leaders truly follow Zawahiri or simply advance their personal agendas. Muharib claims that when al-Shabaab controlled large areas of Somali territory, its leadership failed to fully implement Sharia – allowing the continued sale and consumption of the qat leaf (a mild narcotic used widely in the region) for example – and must therefore be abandoned as un-Islamic.
Despite the small number of pledges to ISIS in Somalia, Muharib was at pains to portray Somalia as an ISIS 'province' in waiting. The implication fits with a common approach of ISIS: that any 'true' Muslim in al-Shabaab will be willing to pledge allegiance. ISIS has concentrated its charm offensive on the lower levels of al-Shabaab, encouraging fighters to abandon the leadership, which it portrays as greedy, misguided, and stuck in its ways.
"Anyone disloyal to al-Shabaab will have their throats slit."
The al-Shabaab leadership has responded to this ISIS courtship and any signs of the group's influence increasing among al-Shabaab fighters with predictable brutality. Previously when al-Shabaab leaders faced internal divisions and rivalries, they responded by killing, intimidating or forcing out any members considered a threat. Diriye has reportedly responded the same way to the perceptions of an ISIS infiltration. Reports began emerging at the end of the summer that the Amniyat, al-Shabaab's intelligence and security wing, had been deployed to identify and eliminate all members sympathetic or loyal to ISIS within the group. Some of the tactics reportedly used by the Amniyat are recalled in the Dabiq interview, but there are also reports indicating members are being arrested and jailed, and others are executed. A recent tweet by Terror Monitor claims that five pro-ISIS al-Shabaab militants were executed in the Lower Juba region. Al-Shabaab has issued several audio messages warning against fighters defecting to ISIS, claiming that anyone disloyal to al-Shabaab will have their throats slit.
The messages also emphasise that disunity in Somalia's jihad is unacceptable. A senior al-Shabaab official, Abu Abdalla, stated in one message that "anybody who wants to join another Islamic group must leave the country to meet them where they are." Al-Shabaab built much of its grassroots support and acquiescence on presenting itself as the only legitimate jihadi group and response to international intervention in the country. A rival would not only divide jihadi Somali loyalties but also undermine al-Shabaab's message of unity and legitimacy.
ISIS however, appears determined to acquire an East Africa province. There are several potential reasons, including Somalia's location. Somalia is strategically located between the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden. Its proximity to Yemen and the Arabian Peninsula to the east and Kenya, Ethiopia, and East Africa to the west make it an important prize. The allure of adding such territory to ISIS' 'caliphate' must be strong. Somalia also boasts an ancient Islamic culture and traditions. However, ISIS may be equally interested in al-Shabaab for the same reason al-Shabaab is insistent on keeping ISIS out of Somalia; its independent existence undermines ISIS' claims to universal Islamic religious legitimacy.