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Mubarak's Musings is a Somalia Report weekly column published every Wednesday. Follow Mubarak on Twitter, at @somalianalyst.
Last week, one of al-Shabaab's leaders, Ahmed Ali Godane (Abu Zubayr), and al-Qaeda leader, Ayman Al-Zawahiri, jointly released an audio and video message respectively in a video produced by Al-Qaeda’s media production house, As-Sahab, announcing that the Shabaab had joined al-Qaeda (for both videos and a partial translation, see here).
Abu Zubayr, always the careful one, did not post an image of his face, laying his voice over a picture depicting the Shabaab flag and a banner declaring "1433 AH" (1433 years after the prophet Mohamed fled to Medina) as the “year of unity.” This is the second consecutive declared “year of unity,” 2011 being the year when the weakened Hizbul Islam joined the Shabaab.
Interestingly, the venue and the banner look like the same as the last “year of unity” in December 2010. It is almost as if they just substituted "1433" for "1432."
The Shabaab are trying to portray their merger into al-Qaeda as part of their goal of seeking wider Islamic unity, having completed the unification of the internal armed Islamist groups within Somalia. It is a manifestation of their ideology, which considers all groups they judge to be true Mujahideen as their brothers in arms, united in the aim of liberating all current and former Muslim lands from their mostly “apostate” regimes. The Shabaab ideology is so similar to al-Qaeda that if al-Qaeda did not exist, the Shabaab would create it. Shabaab itself, after all, was founded by al-Qaeda-influenced individuals.
This merger was bound to happen sooner or later for three main reasons:
First, the Shabaab seem to have first submitted their initial application to join al-Qaeda in September 2009, when they released the video titled “Here I am at Your Service O' Usama”. Apparently, Osama bin Laden was not swayed by the production, keeping notes that went along the lines of “Can the Somali Shebab be trusted?”, according to The Telegraph. The answer, according to Al-Zawahiri, was a clear "Yes."
Second, the Shabaab have nothing to lose by officially joining al-Qaeda. They are listed as a terrorist organization by many countries and international organizations; their enemies are armed by the international community (which in turn made the internationalist faction stronger); drones and American spy planes form part of their skyline, giving them a sense of being under siege; many of their foreign and local leaders have been killed in missile or commando raids by the Americans. There is only upside for the Shabaab; although the move changes little on the ground, the optics of an official merger may rally the reportedly flagging support from foreign fighters assisting the movement inside and outside Somalia.
Third, as stated above, the Shabaab outlook on the world is similar to al-Qaeda’s. Their only difference was that the Shabaab had a policy of not attacking foreign lands save if Somalia had been attacked from those lands. They had no policy of attacking a non-Muslim country because the said country had sent troops to yet another Muslim country, like al-Qaeda does. With the merger into al-Qaeda, and Abu Zubayr’s pledge of “obedience” to the orders of al-Qaeda central, this policy will most likely be scrapped. Unless al-Qaeda central lets the Shabaab control their own foreign policy, which will become clear from the comments that Sheikh Mukhtar Robow and other moderate Shabaab leaders make in mosques or rallies in the coming weeks.
Not all within the Shabaab have internationalist ambitions, especially members from the disbanded Hizbul Islam (HI). Some within the former HI may not be happy with the merger with al-Qaeda, but it is very unlikely that we shall see a mass defection from the Shabaab to the TFG. I expect some of the former HI Shabaab members who were already worried about the drones to leave the Shabaab for civilian life. At the height of their power in early 2010, HI cadres could have joined the TFG from a position of strength securing themselves important positions in government, as did the opportunistic southern warlord Indha Adde. Now, civilian life is the only honourable way out for them.
The Shabaab have been organizing demonstrations in support of their al-Qaeda merger. On Tuesday, a pro-Shabaab site reported that thousands of people had turned out to support the Shabaab-al-Qaeda merger in Middle Shabelle region. The site further claimed that more demonstrations would be held in the other Shabaab-held regions in the coming days. Maybe then we will see more Shabaab commanders and regional governors commenting on the merger. Don’t expect any of them to make public condemnation of the merger, even if some of them are unhappy with it.
Perhaps to prove that 1433 AH is indeed a year of unity, the same pro-Shabaab site reported on Tuesday that a collection of neo-Salafist factions opposed to Shabaab have formed a united front. Al-Islah’s “New Blood” faction (those who armed themselves and fought during the period of the Islamic Courts Unions’ reign over Somalia, contrary to the political path that the Old Guard Al-Islah chose), I’tisam (basically, the successor organization to the "original" Somali Islamist group, Al-Ittihad Al-Islamiya, are now mostly peaceful), and “Aal Sheikh," also known as Madkhalis (no Jihad without the orders of the Muslim Rulers, is their argument) have united and given their top positions to former ministers in the administrations of Prime Ministers Farmajo and Omar Abdirashid.
These groups had broken with the insurgency in 2009 when Sheikh Sharif Ahmed was elected president of the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and the groups' Islamic scholars declared him to be the Emir of Muslims in Somalia, to be obeyed and followed. I’tisam went further and even entered into a peace deal with Ethiopia, disarming its armed wing in the country, the Western Somalia Liberation Front (WSLF). The Shabaab now despise members of these groups, especially the I’tisam, and have been accused of killing some of their members— charges the Shabaab deny.
These rumors of a merger may not pan out, but I would not be surprised if they turned out to be true. Then 1433 AH will sure be the year of unity. And not the kind of unity that is good for Somalia, may God save her. The Shabaab will not gain much from joining al-Qaeda, maybe more notoriety—but that will not change the situation on the ground, which is not looking good for them. But who knows what surprises they may have for us in the coming months.
Perhaps they’ll merge with the TFG in 1434 AH and declare that year another “year of unity”? We can only hope.