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Al-Qaida or Islamic State? Issue Simmers Within Al-Shabab


FILE - A Somali soldier stands guard next to the site where al-Shabab militants carried out a suicide attack against a military intelligence base in Mogadishu, June 2015.

FILE - A Somali soldier stands guard next to the site where al-Shabab militants carried out a suicide attack against a military intelligence base in Mogadishu, June 2015.

Somalia's Al-Shabab militants have moved to silence members suspected of pushing the group to switch its main alliance from al-Qaida to the Islamic State extremist group.

Residents of Jamame and other sources tell VOA's Somali Service that the group has detained five of its foreign members in the town, about 60 kilometers south of Mogadishu.

The identities of the five are not yet known, though residents say heavily-armed al-Shabab security men made the arrests Tuesday night in a raid on a home. Gunfire was heard, but it's unknown if anyone was hurt.

It’s not exactly clear what caused this crackdown, but sources say some foreigners recently have voiced their support for the Islamic State.

Sources close to the militants have confirmed that al-Shabab's leaders have issued an internal memo aimed at silencing pro-IS elements, who are accused of stirring up dissent.

The memo reportedly stated the group’s policy is to continue allegiance with al-Qaida and that any attempt to create discord over this position will be dealt with according to Islamic law. The directive instructs that any speech made in public or in mosques about policies, operations and guidance first must be cleared with the group’s media office.

“Some young jihadists were for the pro-IS idea, but they have been warned and most of them have now renounced it,” one source said.

That source said al-Shabab leadership told them they will be “pleased” with the successes of IS, but said it will take a “clear line” against anyone seen advocating for a break from al-Qaida.

The Presidential Palace in Mogadishu, Somalia

The Presidential Palace in Mogadishu, Somalia

Alliance dispute is cover

“In many ways the affiliation of al-Shabab with either ISIS or al-Qaida is not terribly significant because the movement does not get that much support from either one,” said Ken Menkhaus, professor of political science at Davidson College in North Carolina. .

Menkhaus said that in the past, dissenters within al-Shabab have used the debate over affiliation as a way to give themselves cover for other grievances such as divisions over leadership strategy and even finances.

“The fact they appear to have arrested foreigners in southern Somalia suggest that might also have a Somali versus the non-Somali dimension to it that we have seen in the past with Al-Shabab," he says.

Still, the affiliation issue is clearly important to al-Shabab's leaders, who aligned the group with Al-Qaida soon after Al-Shabab was created nearly a decade ago.

The move by al-Shabab to ban pro-IS statements was reportedly prompted by an incident last month in the town of Jilib, one of the largest urban areas still remaining in the group’s hands.

A militant figure identified as “Muhajir” — a word al-Shabab uses to refer to foreigners in its ranks — gave a sermon in a mosque praising al-Shabab's jihadist achievements as he urged the group to “move beyond al-Shabab."

He reportedly said the group cannot just be stuck at one place, and said they needed to work with their “brothers” in Islamic State.

Map of Somalia

Map of Somalia

Controlled messaging

The speech put him in hot water because it was not authorized by the group’s media branch.

The speech by the “Muhajir” is reminiscent of a sermon made in March by Kenya-based pro-Al-Shabab cleric Sheikh Hassaan Hussein, also known as Abu Salman, who challenged al-Shabab to move on from having their own “little emirate.”

He gave his approval for the group to join IS and said there were no religious grounds preventing fealty to the “Iraqi Sheikh” — an apparent reference to IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

Menkhaus said this week's arrests are unlikely to end Shabab's internal debate on IS.

“I think that the movement has been riddled with internal tensions and divisions for a number of years," he said. "They are not going to go away, I think the debate over affiliation with IS is also going to remain. IS is in ascendance compared to al-Qaida, it has more appeal among some jihadis, and I think we can expect to see this go on."

This month al-Qaida released another audio message in which its current leader, Ayman Al-Zawahiri, accepts a pledge of allegiance from new al-Shabab leader Ahmed Omar Abu Ubaidah.

Ubaidah swore allegiance to al-Qaida last year, when he took over the group after the previous leader, Ahmed Abdi Godane, was killed in a U.S. drone strike.

Pointedly, Zawahiri also said Godane disapproved of Islamic State.

This appears to have cemented the decision by al-Shabab's leadership to stick with al-Qaida and to issue a memo about where their loyalty lies.

New al-Shabab aggression

Abu Ubaidah not only has silenced dissenters, but he also appears to have altered al-Shabab's military strategy. After years of suicide attacks, the group has carried out more direct combat operations against the African Union and Somali government forces.

In June and September this year, two high profile attacks against AU bases in Leego and Jannaale left dozens of peacekeepers dead and dozens more wounded.

Al-Shabab then retook a number of towns from AU and Somali government forces.

In response the AU says it is realigning its strategy, giving that as a reason for retreating from some forward operational bases. The AU also wants more military hardware, such as aircraft, to neutralize al-Shabab capability.

This week, British Prime Minister David Cameron announced he will be sending about 70 military personnel to help the AU mission in Somalia.

Meantime, the Somali government insists it’s working hard to build up the national army. Efforts to integrate regional forces into the army have begun despite setbacks that include a suicide-car bomb at a training center in Kismayo last month that killed 37 recruits.

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