The week of June 19th was a bloody milestone for the course of jihad in Somalia as the leaders of Al-Shabaab clashed in Barawe, a coastal city in the south. That conflict led to the killing of some of the top echelon of the terror group and the escape of others. What this violent encounter portends for the future, however, is far more serious than it appears at first glance.
In a single stroke, Ahmed Abdi Godane, the emir of Al-Shabaab who goes by the nom de guerre of “Abu Zubeir,” managed to re-align the radical group’s leadership dynamics and further consolidated his power by getting rid of his major detractors. His loyalists killed two co-founders of Al-Shabaab, including his former deputy and longtime friend, Ibrahim Al-Afghani, and chased away Hassan Dahir Aweys and Mukhtar Robow, the former spokesman for the terror group.
Aweys is now in custody in Mogadishu, as the government decides his fate. Robow, on the other hand, is believed to have fled to the Bay and Bakol region where his Rahanweyn clan is based. Al-Afghani, Aweys and Robow have complained about Godane’s authoritarian tendencies and the heavy-handed approach in dealing with foreign jihadists. On April 26th, an Al-Shabaab assassin loyal to Godane attempted to kill the American jihadist and Alabama native, Omar Hammami, after the latter had gone public in criticizing Al-Shabaab.
Godane’s latest attempt to finish off his rivals in the movement has paved the way for his sole leadership of Al-Shabaab which has historically been ruled instead through collective leadership. The clash offers a blunt assessment of what has gone wrong with the group’s leadership and how conflicts are resolved. Godane has opted for a violent method of conflict resolution which will likely lead to questions about his legitimacy as the supreme leader of jihad in Somalia.
It is, however, too early to gauge the impact this conflict may have on the young fighters of the militant group. At least currently, Godane has the support of Shaikh Hassan Hussein Adam, an influential young cleric based in Kenya and a sympathetic supporter of Al-Shabaab. A month ago, “Shaikh Hassan,” as he is popularly known, issued a fatwa (religious edict) that permitted the extermination of Godane’s rivals because they were sowing discord and dissension in the ranks of the mujahidin in Somalia.
The escape of Mukhtar Robow also poses a serious problem for Godane. Most of Al-Shabaab’s foot soldiers belong to the Rahanweyn clan. In a country where clan sometimes supersedes religious loyalty, it is not clear what Robow’s influence will be on his fellow Rahanweyn fighters. Hassan Dahir Aweys’ surrender to the Somali government is not likely to cause any ripple effects for the Al-Shabab fighters because the septuagenarian radical leader and his group, Hizbul Islam, only joined Al-Shabaab in 2009. Robow, however, has been a major leader of Al-Shabaab since its formation a decade ago and, hence, his loyalty remains unquestioned.
The recent clash is likely to dampen and perhaps even rupture Godane’s ties with Al-Qaeda central and further cements the perception in some Al-Qaeda circles that Al-Shabaab is interested in a local jihad rather than a global one. Two months ago, Ibrahim Al-Afghani wrote an open letter to Ayman Al-Zawahiri, the leader of Al-Qaeda, in which he criticized Godane for targeting foreign jihadists, imprisoning them in secret detention centers in the areas the terror group controls, and even killing them. For the last several weeks, reports that are critical of the course of jihad in Somalia have appeared on websites sympathetic to Al-Qaeda.
The American jihadist, Hammami, was most vociferous in his lashing out at Godane and publicly requested that Al-Qaeda intervene. There were even unconfirmed reports that Al-Qaeda had asked Al-Shabaab to appoint Ibrahim Al-Afghani as its emir but Godane maneuvered to block that al-Qaeda instruction. At any rate, the recent upheavals in the Somali branch and the purging of some of its leaders will not endear Godane to Al-Qaeda central. In addition, the marginalization and hunting down of foreign fighters, such as Omar Hammami, will also soil the reputation of Al-Shabaab as the main attraction for global jihad.
For the last few weeks, Al-Shabaab has increased its attacks in Mogadishu, raising the perception that the militant group is still a force that can destabilize the nascent government of President Hassan Mohamoud. To the contrary, the recent spike of violence in the capital is an indicator that the group is far weaker than it was thought to be. The group has been successful in attacking soft targets, such as the UN compound, perhaps to distract its fighters from debilitating fragmentation among its leaders. It is unlikely that this terror group will vanish from the political scene in Somalia in the near future, Godane and his followers will continue to exploit the government’s inability to exert its control outside Mogadishu.
Godane’s coup, while in essence a movement that is eating its own children, may, indeed, pave the way for the fragmentation of the militant group along clan lines. The nagging question then will be to what extent Godane, a northerner operating in the deep south of Somalia, is able to remain head of what is generally a southern jihadi phenomenon? Moreover, the influx of foreign jihadists into Somalia has, for all practical purposes, decreased and further eroded the place of that country in the annals of global jihad.
Hassan M. Abukar is a Somali writer and a political analyst.