When the bombs are exploding in Somalia, like one did again Friday afternoon near a police station in the heart of Mogadishu, the name of the group that is responsible seems insignificant.
A week ago Al Shabab, the Somalia-based insurgency group that has been waging war against both the country’s Transitional Federal Government and the African Union peacekeeping mission, would have claimed sole responsibility for the blast, which injured two.
But on Feb. 10 Ayman al Zawahiri, the leader of Al Qaeda, announced an official merger with the Shabab to create a new group that some are calling Al Qaeda in East Africa, or AQEA.
Does a merger between Al Qaeda franchises, or a new acronym, matter?
Not much, according to flurry of conflicting analysis that has emerged since Zawahiri’s announcement.
Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG) was among those who called the event “non-news,” arguing that the Shabab had enjoyed Al Qaeda’s support for years.
Others warn that the union has ominously expanded Al Qaeda’s reach in an unstable region. Still others say it is a show of desperation for two struggling groups.
But those who closely follow the Shabab’s inner politics are asking something else: is this an opportunity?
Toronto resident Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, who trained and fought alongside the Shabab in 2007 in a push to expel Ethiopian troops from Somalia, argues that many members of the group will oppose the merger. This will open up a chance to negotiate with the less-militant members.
“The organization is ‘deeply’ divided,” says Mohamed, who returned to Toronto once Ethiopia withdrew in 2009 and has since become a vocal critic of the Shabab. “They are divided into two fiefdoms ideologically. The West and TFG can engage people that are not bent on wanting to wage war outside of their boundaries.”
While the hierarchy and allegiances in Shabab can be fluid, there are generally two camps. One faction is led by Moktar Ali Zubeyr, better known as “Godane,” which supports Al Qaeda’s ideology of a global jihad. The other faction maintains a nationalist focus. It wants to bring Islamic law to Somalia and is opposed to intervention by foreign forces, such as the Kenyan and Ethiopian troops currently battling the Shabab in the south.
Mohamed was once close to this group’s leaders, including Sheikh Dahir Aweys and Sheikh Mukhtar Robow, and he believes they may be among those now keen to distance themselves from the new organization.
A defection by Aweys, who is listed on the UN terrorism list, would be significant, he says, because Aweys represents one of Somalia’s major clans and presumably other members of his clan may follow.
It has been assumed that Al Qaeda and the Shabab have had organizational links since 2009, which is why some dismissed the news last week as insignificant.
But Nelly Lahoud, a senior associate at West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center, argues that Zawahiri’s announcement challenges that theory.
Lahoud has spent months pouring through 1,156 pages of an autobiography written in Arabic by the late Fadil Harun, Al Qaeda’s most senior operative in East Africa until he was killed by Somali government soldiers last June as he tried to run a roadblock.
Harun, more commonly known as Fazul Abdullah Mohammed and a trusted ally of Osama bin Laden, was critical of what he viewed as the Shabab’s amateurish tactics and understanding of Islam.
Lahoud argues that based on Fazul’s writings, the merger and its timing cannot be dismissed as insignificant.
“If, as everybody has been assuming close ties between the two, then why did it take so long to have this merger?” she said. “There must have been some dynamics at play.”
Lahoud believes it took the death of both Fazul and bin Laden in order for the groups to officially join. Fazul’s skepticism of the Shabab’s capabilities would have likely made bin Laden reluctant to adopt the group officially when they made overtures back in 2009 with an audio recording titled: “At your service, Osama.”
With both Fazul and bin Laden now gone, it was possible for the Shabab’s Godane to appeal to Al Qaeda’s Zawahiri.
Negotiating with moderate members of the Shabab is not a new idea. In January, Somali President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed said the government was “willing and waiting” for negotiations. One senior Somali government official confirmed that informal talks between intermediaries have been ongoing for months.
But the issue could take on new urgency this week as world leaders gather in London for a meeting on Somalia hosted by British Prime Minister David Cameron.
Analyst Afyare Abdi Elmi and journalist Abdi Aynte argued in a Foreign Policy magazine article earlier this month even before the merger that the time is “ripe” for dialogue, saying military efforts alone cannot combat the Shabab.
“The success or failure of negotiations hinges on the extent of the international community’s support. The United States must fully endorse the initiative, much as it is has begun engaging the Taliban in Afghanistan,” they wrote.
“Short-term thinking and quick fixes have failed many times in the past. With the right strategy and major-power leadership, peace in the Horn of Africa is within reach.”