On 1 September 2014, the United States conducted airstrikes on two villages in the lower Shabelle district of Somalia, Hawaay and Dhay Tubako. Their mission was to kill al-Shabaab's top leadership, decapitating the already pressured organisation. This was part of a two-phase operation, consisting of "Operation Eagle" and the ongoing "Operation Indian Ocean".
The raid on 1 September killed al-Shabaab's commander Ahmed Abdi Godane. The ensuing leadership vacuum and transition has the potential to create fragmentation within the organisation, especially since al-Shabaab will now have to re-organise its leadership while on the run from advancing African Union forces. Events far away from Somalia – the division within the global Sunni Islamist jihadi movement – also affected al-Shabaab. In Iraq, the evolution and dramatic expansion of ISIS is creating waves as far away as Somalia. The international media has put a particular spotlight on ISIS' recruitment of foreign fighters. At least seventy of these are Somali according to the International Center for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR) at Kings College London – these ISIS recruits might otherwise have gone to al-Shabaab. In one sense, ISIS presents itself as the "new kids on the block" new and cool, seen as progressive compared with the old al-Qaeda central.
In this current landscape, al-Shabaab faces three major challenges at once: two practical, one ideological, the last probably less important. First is the killing of their leader, second their territorial losses, and third the ideological debate and rivalry within the global jihadi scene. These challenges are based on variables beyond al-Shabaab's control: Godane is dead and the African Union Mission in Somalia's (AMISOM) 23,000 men, aided by Somali militias, are better trained and equipped than al-Shabaab, and they are backed up with air-support from Kenya. Al-Shabaab's estimated remaining 4,000 fighters simply cannot overcome those odds employing conventional open warfare in central Somalia. Simultaneously while adapting to new realities on the ground, al-Shabaab must relate to the rivalries between al-Qaeda and ISIS. To survive, the organisation will need to adapt. Some adaptations are already being made.
Al-Shabaab must relate to the rivalry between al-Qaeda and ISIS.
Godane seems to have prepared the organisation for his own death, less than five days after his death, al-Shabaab announced the new leader Ahmed "Diriye" (also known as Ahmed Umar–Abu Ubaidah). Former members that still are in contact with al-Shabaab point to the existence of a political testament written by Godane before his death, which designated Diriye as the next commander. Diriye is not from one of the dominant clans in al-Shabaab's support base in central Somalia, rather he hails from the Diir clan. This means he has clan ties with Godane, who was of the Isaaq clan, often considered a sub-clan of the Diir. Diriye is also directly related to Godane through his mother. Considering the prominence of clan affiliation and influence, it is actually surprising that Diriye was able to establish control over al-Shabaab with seemingly relative ease. Diriye's leadership was apparently initially contested by veteran al-Shabaab commander Mahad "Karate" of the Ayr, a sub-clan of Habr Gedir, which is within the Hawiye clan family. In one sense, this internal leadership challenge highlights the issues created by the first and the third challenges to al-Shabaab.
Rumours also positioned Karate within a sub-group that actively worked to draw al-Shabaab away from al-Qaeda and toward ISIS. Such rumours are difficult to verify, but come from sources close to the al-Shabaab leadership. It was also suggested that Abdulkadir Mohamed Abdulkadir, who is better known as Ikrima Al Mujahiir, is in favour of aligning with ISIS. Some observers in Mogadishu argue that the leadership challenge and emerging support for ISIS among some al-Shabaab commanders is an attempt by central Somali al-Shabaab clan leaders to reassert control over northern leaders. They are using ISIS' increased reputation in an attempt to influence organisational dynamics, mixing clan politics and Islamist ideology together.
Importantly, the ideological cleavage has not yet created clashes and it might be overstated by commentators. It is possible that it will be handled as Boko Haram seem to have handled the ISIS-al Qaeda split – by stating positive aspects of both sides. The fact that al-Shabaab is a formal al-Qaeda affiliate would probably not make moderate positive claims about ISIS impossible (de facto al-Qaeda control of al-Shabaab has always been very weak). Indeed, some posters have been put up in al-Shabaab controlled territory that have been positive about ISIS. The future of the discussion is yet to be seen.
Al-Shabaab has faced territorial defeats as well. On 5 October 2014, Baraawe, the last large port city under al-Shabaab control in lower Shabelle, fell to advancing AMISOM forces. However, al-Shabaab forces did not significantly contest AMISOM's advance on the city, instead largely withdrawing before them. The operation was not wholly without clashes however: al-Shabaab, rather than directly facing AMISOM forces, executed hit and run attacks and actively attempted to disturb supply lines to AMISOM's front lines by erecting checkpoints. Checkpoints are common in Somalia; Al-Shabaab uses checkpoints as a tactic to collect "taxes" from people in territories under their control, the Somali military and local clan militias do the same.
Without a capable Somali government, al-Shabaab will survive.
Today al-Shabaab still holds territory, but the strategies currently being employed by the organisation – mostly guerilla style operations – as well as the current power of the African Union forces, indicates that these territories will soon fall. But this does not mean that al-Shabaab lacks advantages. Indeed in 2007 and 2008, the organisation was in a similar situation, facing the superior forces of the Ethiopian army. In the end, the Ethiopian Army withdrew for a period of time and al-Shabaab expanded drastically, for the first time controlling large swathes of territory. The parallels to the current situation are likely important to al-Shabaab morale. The question is whether AMISOM will stay in Somalia until local governance structures can handle the fight against al-Shabaab themselves. Indeed, without capable and efficient Somali government, al-Shabaab will again survive international intervention, likely as a guerilla organisation. The state of the Somali army has improved, but is still not yet adequate to effectively provide effective security across the whole country. Although al-Shabaab has suffered defeats, it will remain a potent force for at least the next few years.