Dangerous liaison? Evaluating relations between Al-Shabab and Al-Qaeda

The detention of Ahmed Warsame in the US has renewed the discussion about possible cooperation between the powerful Somali Islamist insurgent movement Al-Shabab and Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Christopher Anzalone assesses the links.
Christopher Anzalone
13 August 2011

The Obama administration’s July announcement of its capture and secret two-month detention and interrogation of a young Somali man, Ahmed Abdul Qaadir Warsame, has renewed discussion about the possible links between the powerful Somali Islamist insurgent movement Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahideen (Movement of the Warrior-Youth, hereafter “Al-Shabab”) and Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the Yemen-based organization that has proven itself to be the most capable of striking far outside of its base of operations. Warsame is charged in the U.S. Southern District of New York with nine counts, including providing material support to Al-Shabab and AQAP and receiving military training from the latter. U.S. authorities also allege that he was an Al-Shabab leader, though his name has not come up in this author’s research into the Somali insurgent movement. Reports, citing unnamed U.S. officials, have emerged that he was also in communication with Anwar al-Awlaki, the militant American Muslim preacher who is either affiliated with or a member of AQAP. Considering the new attention to the relationship between Al-Shabab and AQAP, it is well worth reviewing and critically evaluating their past communications.

Al-Shabab’s leaders and al-Awlaki have a long-established history of mutual praise for one another. On December 21, 2008 the American preacher, who at that time had yet to publicly affiliate himself with AQAP, wrote a laudatory post on his now defunct blog about the insurgent movement. “We are following your recent news and it fills our hearts with immense joy,” al-Awlaki wrote. “We would like to congratulate you for your victories and achievements.” He went on to cite Al-Shabab as a shining example for other militant Islamist movements, dubbing the Somali arena a “university” that “will graduate” distinguished alumni who can assist other “mujahideen” in implementing similar programs and successes in their own countries. “[Somalia] will provide its graduates with the hands-on experience that the Ummah [global Muslim community] greatly needs for its next stage.”

Al-Awlaki urged Muslims everywhere to support the insurgent movement further its victories and progression to the formation of a state. He reiterated similar praise and again cited Al-Shabab as an example to follow in his first video interview with AQAP’s Al-Malahem (Epic Battles) Media Foundation, which was released in May 2010.

In response, Al-Shabab released a statement on December 27 thanking “beloved Sheikh Anwar” for his “encouragement and words of advice.” The statement went on to label al-Awlaki as “one of the very few scholars who stand firm upon the truth and defend the honor of the Mujahideen and the Muslims by continuously uncovering the feeble plots of the enemies of Allah.” Al-Shabab and its affiliated media networks have continued to promote the American preacher as an exemplary “mujahid-scholar” and have even translated some of his media releases and writings into Somali.

Al-Shabab received a more senior endorsement from AQAP in a February 2010 audio message from the organization’s deputy leader, Sa‘id al-Shihri, a former U.S. prisoner at Guantanamo Bay. The Saudi AQAP leader addressed insurgent commanders as “the great leaders of Somalia” and prayed to God to “reward them” for their efforts on behalf of the “mujahideen” and Ummah. He also urged cooperation between Al-Shabab and AQAP: “Let us all work together, each in our own arena in our future battle with America…We are both on the shores of the Mandab Strait…so let us collaborate with each other,” referring to the relatively narrow strait that separates Yemen from northern Somalia/Somaliland/Puntland. Two years earlier, Saleh ‘Ali Saleh al-Nabhani, a Kenyan-Yemeni Al-Qaeda Central (AQC) operative in East Africa, called for foreign recruits to join Al-Shabab’s military wing, Jaysh al-Usrah (Army of Difficulty/Hardship) and made a specific call to those from Yemen and Sudan.

Rhetorical affinity, though, is not necessarily synonymous with operational cooperation. Despite growing evidence of communications between Al-Shabab and AQAP, specific evidence of their operational collaboration remains largely unknown, particularly in open source materials. Their official communications, in the form of press statements and media releases have contained little, if any, detailed information about any operational ties or cooperation. In a recent post at his blog Waq al-Waq, Yemen and AQAP expert Gregory Johnsen notes that little evidence is available about the nature of the Al-Shabab-AQAP relationship. From the Al-Shabab side, this author has also found only occasional references to AQAP in official insurgent communiqués and media materials, though what mentions there have been are consistently laudatory of the Yemen-based AQC affiliate.

Other anonymous U.S. officials have claimed that Warsame was attempting to “extend Al-Shabab’s reach” beyond Somalia, though it is unclear exactly how he was allegedly seeking to do this. The Somali insurgent movement is already known to have well-established networks throughout parts of East Africa, such as in the Eastleigh district of the Kenyan capital city Nairobi, and recruiters with access to Somali diaspora communities throughout Europe and North America. The purpose of these networks, however, has been, at least thus far, to funnel foreign and diaspora fighters to the battlefront inside Somalia.

Some analysts point to Al-Shabab operations in East Africa, such as last July’s suicide bombings in Kampala, Uganda and recent cross-border military strikes and other attacks in Kenya as evidence of the insurgent movement’s growing international ambitions. However, these operations, though some of them certainly terrorism, defined here as the targeting of non-combatants, were still intimately tied to events on-the-ground inside Somalia. The Kampala bombings, for example, were carried out to pressure the Ugandan government of President Yoweri Museveni to withdraw its thousands of soldiers from the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) military force in Mogadishu, and Al-Shabab leaders said as much in official claims of responsibility and other communiqués following the attacks. In other words, these military operations and other attacks should still be seen as an extension of the ongoing civil war inside Somalia that pits Al-Shabab against the weak and corrupt Transitional Federal Government (TFG), AMISOM, and an umbrella organization of Sufi Islamist militias that call themselves Ahlu-Sunnah Wal-Jamaacah (People of the Prophetic Tradition).

The Al-Shabab-AQAP relationship, though probable, remains largely shrouded in supposition that is based on relatively scarce detailed information. From a logistical and strategic point of view, such a relationship makes sense, particularly given the relatively close geographic proximity of the Somali movement and AQAP as well as a significant number of stated ideological intersections between the Al-Shabab and AQAP leaderships. More concrete details may emerge from the trial of Ahmed Warsame or possibly from the two militant organizations themselves, but until more concrete evidence emerges, the nature of the Al-Shabab-AQAP operational relationship will continue to remain largely obscure.

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