February 23, 2012
In what he described as “good news” that would “annoy the Crusaders,” al-Qaeda leader Shaykh Ayman al-Zawahiri announced the incorporation of Somalia’s al-Shabaab militants as an official new chapter of al-Qaeda on February 9.  Al-Shabaab leader Shaykh Ahmad Abdi Godane “Abu Zubayr” appeared in the 15-minute videotape to pledge his movement’s obedience to al-Zawahiri and promised to follow “the road of jihad and martyrdom, in the footsteps that our martyr Osama bin Laden has drawn for us.”
The merger may be the first step in an al-Qaeda effort to ensure the survival of the movement by expanding into the larger Islamic world through the creation of official al-Qaeda affiliates without the so far apparent and unstated requirement for an Arab leadership.
Al-Shabaab Rally Celebrates Merger with al-Qaeda in Wilayet, Lower Shabelle
Faced with increasing military opposition and severe blows to its revenue streams, al-Shabaab faces the options of gradual annihilation in the field or scaling back operations to a more asymmetric model based on a diminished interest in holding territory and a greater use of terrorist tactics in an expanded zone of operations that would certainly include Somalia’s neighbors and possibly reach to the foreign supporters of Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM).
The announcement was remarkably ill-timed, coming only days ahead of an international conference in London in which many Western countries were already expected to announce some increase in their levels of military and economic support for the TFG and AMISOM. The al-Qaeda merger will almost inevitably result in greater levels of support than donor nations may have originally intended. The timing of the announcement seems inexplicable, unless al-Qaeda has started to believe its own propaganda efforts and actually believes such an announcement will send the TFG’s international supporters reeling in fear and dismay. The timing of the merger is also unlikely to meet with universal approval from Shabaab commanders and will exacerbate existing fissures within the movement’s leadership. TFG minister of information Abdikadir Husayn Muhammad suggested the unification could be a good thing for Somalia: “When Ayman al-Zawahiri described the merger between al-Shabaab and al-Qaeda as ‘good news,’ it is also ‘good news’ for us, and the time when al-Shabaab terror group used to disguise itself as a Somali Islamic organization has come to an end” (Jowhar.com, February 10).
The February 23 conference, hosted by the UK government, has been convenedto address political instability and piracy in Somalia. There have been claims in Somalia, particularly from al-Shabaab, that the conference will discuss the “re-colonization” of Somalia, but TFG officials have urged Somalis to wait for the outcome of the meeting (Shabelle Media Network, February 11). According to al-Shabaab spokesman Shaykh Ali Mohamud Raage: “It’s the imperious nature of the Brits that sees them meddling in Islamic affairs in the hope of reviving a hopeless dream of a British Empire” (AFP, February 14). In a recent speech in Mogadishu, TFG president Shaykh Sharif Shaykh Ahmad insisted al-Qaeda were the colonialists and everyone in Somalia was required to do their part in “liberating” Somalia from their grasp (Shabelle Media Network, February 13). There is also speculation in Somalia that the African Union peacekeeping mission may be taken over by the UN following the London conference, possibly even in a mission led by Turkey (Dayniile Online, February 10).
Al-Shabaab ordered businesses and schools in areas under its control to close for a one-day celebration of their merger with al-Qaeda (Radio Simba [Mogadishu], February 13; Shabelle Media Network, February 13). At one such rally in Afgoye, Shaykh Ali Mohamud Raage promised “mujahideen fighters worldwide” that “the unification is a sign of the return of the Islamic caliphate worldwide” (AFP, February 13).
The existing cooperation between al-Qaeda and al-Shabaab over the last few years has yielded little for either group: al-Qaeda does not possess the weapons, funds or military assets to tip the conflict in al-Shabaab’s favor, while Somalia’s crumbling infrastructure, prevailing xenophobia and isolation provides a poor safe haven for terrorists operating in the global arena. Non-Somali jihadists generally find Somalia an unattractive theatre and unification is unlikely to change this. The merger will also endanger al-Shabaab’s diaspora fund-raisers, recruiters and volunteers who have had some success so far in meeting terrorism-related charges with claims they were inspired solely by nationalism and not the Salafist-inspired global jihad. U.S. drones operating out of Djibouti can be expected to increase surveillance missions and targeted attacks of al-Shabaab leaders within Somalia.
Kenya is scheduled to increase its Somali commitment from the existing 2,000 men deployed in southern Somalia to 4,700 men under AMISOM command in the Middle and Lower Juba regions of Somalia, though Kenyan authorities maintain the KDF must complete Operation Linda Nchi before Kenyan troops can join AMISOM (East African [Nairobi], February 14). Uganda and Burundi are also preparing to increase their deployment to a total of 12,000 troops from the current level of 9,500.
KDF spokesman Colonel Cyrus Oguna noted international anti-terrorist protocols can now be applied against al-Shabaab and claimed that al-Shabaab’s revenue stream has been “totally disrupted” since the Kenyan incursion into southern Somalia: “In our own assessment, 75% of revenue collection of al-Shabaab has been disrupted” (KTN Television [Nairobi], February 11; AFP, February 11).
Somalia may now be faced by more al-Shabaab terrorist attacks such as the Mogadishu suicide bombing on February 8 that killed 16 civilians and severely wounded 30 more (al-Andalus Radio [Afgoye] , February 8; Africa Review [Nairobi], February 8). Somali MP and former information minister Tahir Muhammad Gili speculated that the merger would result in al-Shabaab changing its tactics to “carry out more bombings and transfer battles outside Somalia, particularly to Somalia’s neighboring countries, since those countries have troops inside Somalia at the moment. (al-Jazeera, February 12).
1. “Glad Tidings: Announcement of Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen Officially Joining al-Qaeda,” As-Sahab Global Media Front, shamikh1.info, February 9.
This article first appeared in the Jamestown Foundation’s February 23, 2012 issue of Terrorism Monitor.