WASHINGTON - Growing divisions within the leadership of the al-Shabab terror organization could soon push some, if not all, of the Somali-based outfit to pledge allegiance to the group known as the Islamic State.
Intelligence officials and analysts have been closely watching a developing rift between al-Shabab’s senior leaders, long loyal to al-Qaida, and younger commanders who appear enticed by the propaganda of the Islamic State militants. Now that Nigeria’s Boko Haram has formally sided with the Islamic State group, there’s a feeling that at least part of al-Shabab could be next.
“I think there’s a high chance that al-Shabab joins ISIS within the coming weeks or few months,” said the Jamestown Foundation’s Muhyadin Ahmed Roble, using one of several acronyms for the Islamic State militants. “Al-Qaida is not as influential and as powerful as it used to be and al-Shabab is trying to be the winning side.”
Roble, a Nairobi-based analyst, speaking to VOA via Skype, says the lure of an alliance with the Islamic State has also been growing as older, more veteran al-Shabab leaders have been eliminated, often with the help of suspected U.S. drones.
Drone strikes kill top leaders
Most recently, U.S. defense officials confirmed U.S. drones targeted and killed Adan Ahmed Isak, also known as Adan Garaar. U.S. officials described Garaar as a member of al-Shabab's intelligence and security wing who also helped plan the deadly 2013 attack on the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya.
A separate drone strike, in September 2014, killed al Shabab’s then-leader, Ahmed Godane.
“All these attacks, all these assassinations of the known al-Shabab leaders, have just given a chance to some junior officers who have, if you compare to the former, senior leaders, have a different thinking, a different ideology,” Roble said.
Some of the first public indications of the internal debate surfaced about a month ago, with the publication of a pamphlet encouraging al-Shabab members to support the Islamic State group. That pamphlet was followed by an audio message posted last week to YouTube by Sheikh Hassaan Hussein, a pro-al-Shabab cleric based in Kenya.
During an 11-minute-long speech, Hussein told followers he no longer sees any religious grounds for opposing the Islamic State and its self-proclaimed caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
“Any emirate that opposes it is unlawful,” he said.
Incentives to join
The extent to which the distribution of the pamphlet or the audio message may have been directed by the Islamic State militants is not clear. What appears certain, though, is that any schism within al-Shabab’s ranks would be welcomed by Islamic State leaders.
“They clearly are going to make a play for al-Shabab,” said Daveed Gartenstein-Ross at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
“Once Boko (Haram) flipped, that gave ISIL a much more powerful network in Africa,” he said, adding that Islamic State leaders clearly want to maintain the perception of momentum.
And while Gartenstein-Ross doubts al-Shabab as a whole would abandon its pledge to al-Qaida, “sometimes, defections overwhelm the group.”
More than sheer momentum could also be at stake.
“Part of this is also not necessarily related to projecting a big image, but also part of their broader strategic war with al-Qaida itself and trying to siphon off al-Qaida supporters in different areas of the region to them, to then try to take out al-Qaida completely,” according to Aaron Zelin, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute.
Switching allegiances from al-Qaida to the Islamic State group, however, would require al-Shabab to reject ties first formed back in the 1990's, when some al-Shabab members trained at al-Qaida camps in Afghanistan and Pakistan. And there are also doubts that current al-Shabab leader Ahmad Umar would ever consent to go along with a change.
It is possible the Islamic State group may try to sweeten the deal with promises of financial support, a tactic that intelligence officials and analysts suspect helped cement the pledge of loyalty, or bayat, from Boko Haram.
The Jamestown Foundation’s Roble also believes it may be impossible to underestimate the impact of foreign fighters, or lack thereof, on al-Shabab’s thinking.
“Al-Shabab had been getting a lot of fighters from the West, U.S., Europe and the Middle East, all coming to join al-Shabab. But these days, even Somalis in the West are going to ISIS,” Roble said. “They’re not going to Somalia to join al-Shabab.”