Al-Shabab, al-Qaida: Linkup of groups in decline?
USO&link_location=top> JASON STRAZIUSO
Last Modified: Friday, Feb. 10, 2012 - 12:50 pm
NAIROBI, Kenya -- Al-Qaida's decision to formally extend its terror
franchise to what once was a nationalist movement in Somalia may only be a
desperate joining of hands to prop up two militant groups that are both
losing popular support and facing increasingly deadly military attacks,
analysts said Friday.
Somalia's main militant group, al-Shabab, and al-Qaida have been patting
each other on the back for years. On Thursday, al-Qaida leader Ayman
al-Zawahri formalized the relationship by giving "glad tidings" that
al-Shabab had joined al-Qaida.
Al-Shabab, which began as a movement to oust Ethiopian troops from Somalia
some six years ago, has long been using terror tactics like suicide bombings
and car bombings against the weak Somali government and African Union troops
The group also has hosted al-Qaida and other foreign fighters with
experience in Iraq and the Afghanistan-Pakistan region.
Al-Qaida also could seek to utilize several dozen U.S. citizens - mostly of
Somali descent - among al-Shabab's ranks who U.S. officials fear could use
their American passports to travel back to the U.S. and carry out attacks.
The Somali government dismissed Thursday's announcement as non-news, given
the close ties between al-Shabab and al-Qaida over the years.
Abdi Rashid, a Somalia expert, said it's not clear what benefit al-Qaida
gets out of the newly announced partnership, given that al-Shabab has been
losing large chunks of territory to the East African militaries fighting it
Only a year ago, al-Shabab held sway in most of Mogadishu and much of
south-central Somalia. But the group is now losing its grip on the country.
"For me the message they are sending is clear. It is basically an admission
that their conventional militarily capabilities probably cannot recover so
the only way forward they have in the so-called jihad is to merge with
al-Qaida in the terror campaign," said Rashid, a former Somalia analyst with
the International Crisis Group who is setting up an independent policy
Al-Shabab leaders have pledged allegiance to al-Qaida in the past, releasing
a video in 2009 called "At Your Service Osama!" The same year, the late
al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden released a video in which he made
encouraging comments about the Somali insurgency.
Rashid said that al-Qaida has lost power in recent years as well.
"Not only has its leaders been completely decimated by U.S. strikes in
Pakistan and Afghanistan but they have lost whatever public support they had
in Africa and the Middle East. The Arab Spring is testimony to the fact that
the gravity they once had is probably over."
In remarks published for the first time this week, the head of Britain's
Office for Security and Counter Terrorism said the U.K. judged the threat
from al-Qaida to have dramatically waned, and overall support for Islamist
terrorist organizations to have weakened.
"Al-Qaida is no longer the organization it was. It is at its weakest state
since 9/11, and it is possible to talk of the demise of parts of al-Qaida in
a way that we could not have done if we had been having this conversation
even a year ago," Charles Farr told lawmakers in a private committee hearing
in November. A partial excerpt was released at Britain's Parliament this
"I think opinion is changing in the Muslim majority world as well,
generally, against terrorism and against terrorist organizations," he said.
Al-Shabab is being hit from three sides in Somalia. In Mogadishu, African
Union forces from Uganda and Burundi have largely pushed al-Shabab out of
the capital, though they still can carry out terror attacks. Kenyan forces
who moved into Somalia in October are pressuring al-Shabab from the south,
and Ethiopian forces are pressuring them from the west.
That pressure - along with a drop in popular support because of the harsh,
Taliban-style social rules the group imposes - are among the reasons
al-Shabab wanted the new al-Qaida brand name, said Abdi Hassan, a former
"They are worried about their future," Hassan said. "They want to be able to
join other al-Qaida forces when they are defeated in Somalia."
Al-Shabab is only the latest al-Qaida franchise to join the movement started
by bin Laden in the late 1980s. A militant group in Iraq named Tawhid wa
Jihad became al-Qaida in Iraq after an announcement similar to al-Zawahiri's
The group also has branches in North Africa - Al-Qaida in the Islamic
Maghreb - and in Yemen - Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. That last group
is based only a short boat ride from Somalia, and Hassan said that several
foreign fighters once based in Somalia have fled there following the deaths
of several al-Qaida leaders in Somalia in recent years.
Several analysts noted that the new partnership internationalizes al-Qaida's
message even more. Adjoa Anyimadu, a researcher at the Africa program at
Chatham House in London, said al-Qaida may be attracted to al-Shabab's story
line of struggle to free an Islamic country from Western influence.
Referring to al-Zawahri's issuance of "glad tidings" to al-Shabab, Somalia
Information Minister Abdulkadir Hussein Mohamed said the announcement was
also glad tidings for the Somali government.
"The Somali government is actually very pleased that the time for al-Shabab
to masquerade as an indigenous Somali-Islamic organization is gone forever,"
he said. "The whole international community knows now what we here in
Somalia knew for a long time and should join our fight against al-Qaida in
Al-Shabab's most spectacular international terror attack occurred in July
2010 while crowds watched the World Cup final on TV in Kampala, Uganda.
Bombs exploded at two locations, killing 76 people.
Since Kenya's military moved into Somalia in October, al-Shabab has
threatened to attack the Kenyan capital of Nairobi, and Anyimadu said that
the al-Qaida merger could raise the risk of an attack.
"They have shown the capacity and the skill and I think the Kampala attack
was clearly - if you want to call it this - a rite of passage," Abdi said.
"While I'm not discounting the possibility of some kind of attack to show
'We are worthy' of being part of the fold, I don't think one can make that
Magnus Ranstorp of the Swedish National Defence College said the two terror
groups joined together because they need one another. He said it was
possible al-Shabab would change its focus to meet al-Qaida's broader agenda.
"This is a way for al-Zawahiri to maintain his relevance," he said. "It's
obvious that they (al-Qaida) are putting more efforts into North Africa,
with AQIM, but also in the belt of instability and insecurity - Yemen and
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Received on Sat Feb 11 2012 - 07:04:42 EST