Recent Kenyan intelligence reports have suggested that al-Shabaab leader, Ahmed Umar (AKA Abu Ubeiydah) may be near death after prolonged illness. Possible successors are preparing for his death and are disputing who will take his place. In 2014, Ahmed Umar became emir of al-Shabaab in Somalia after the U.S. military killed former emir Ahmed Abdi Godane in an airstrike.
In 2006, al-Shabaab captured Somalia’s capital city, Mogadishu, prompting the beginning of the United Nations (UN) peacekeeping mission in Somalia, known as the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). Facing superior military capability from AMISOM forces and Somali government forces, al-Shabaab was forced to withdraw from Mogadishu in 2011. They have since resumed using guerilla tactics against government forces, such as suicide bombings, ambushes and kidnappings.
Al-Shabaab presents a significant threat to regional security along the Horn of Africa, not just within Somalia. In 2010, al-Shabaab coordinated two bombings in Uganda that killed 74 in the group’s first attack outside of Somalia. They have also built a stronghold in Kenya, routinely attacking Kenyan security forces.
There are many reports that today’s al-Shabaab fighters participated in al-Qaeda’s jihad in Afghanistan in the 90’s, and participated in fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan in response to the U.S. invasions. In 2008, al-Shabaab began working with al-Qaeda to oppose international forces in Somalia. Al-Shabaab’s formal alliance with al-Qaida indicated the group’s desire to support a global jihad against non-Muslims, even if only to draw international support for their struggle in Somalia. Since then, al-Qaeda has routinely cooperated with al-Shabaab, supplying weapons, training, fighters, and propaganda techniques.
Al-Shabaab was weakened by several military defeats, including losing the port city of Kismayo, an important location used to import weapons, supplies, and money. The U.S. and African Union have frequently accused Eritrea, Iran, Qatar, and Yemen of supplying al-Shabaab fighters with light and heavy machine guns and grenades. Their funding also comes from international terror groups and charitable organizations, as well as from theft, racketeering, and blackmail.
Despite so many military setbacks and attacks on civilians, al-Shabaab maintains popularity throughout Somalia by providing security and performing public works tasks, such as building roads and bridges. Al-Shabaab also aligns with key clan leaders to impose a Shariah-based judicial system. The group frequently exploits the clans’ conflicts and grievances to entrench themselves within the community.
Using these tactics, al-Shabaab maintains support in all of Somalia, but their power is concentrated in the South around their de facto capital, Jilib. The group maintains a presence in small, rural towns and often regains control over them when international forces withdraw.
Demonstrating their resolve, al-Shabaab carried out a deadly truck attack, killing more than 500 people in October of 2017. Two weeks later, another 23 were killed in an attack on a hotel in Mogadishu. There were also significant attacks in February and March of 2018 that killed almost 50 people combined.
Al-Shabaab recently cut off large stretches of highway to tax residents and ambush convoys, signifying the group’s resilient strength. There are still between 7,000 and 9,000 members scattered around the southern and central regions of Somalia. Many areas under Somali government control still have a strong al-Shabaab presence to undermine Somalia’s security forces.
Throughout 2017, the U.S. increased its role in Somalia, sending dozens of advisory troops and doubling the number of airstrikes against al-Shabaab and Islamic State jihadists. The renewed intensity drove Ahmad Umar into hiding.
It has also caused fear and mistrust among al-Shabaab’s leadership group. Many al-Shabaab leaders have defected to the government to serve as intelligence assets or ambassadors to their community. Other leaders were caught or killed. Questions of loyalty to al-Shabaab and Ahmad Umar’s illness have raised questions about succession.
Umar’s prolonged illness reportedly caused a leadership and financial crisis among al-Shabaab. The cost of Umar’s medication – purchased with funds intended for the group’s operations – and the loss of key territory on the coast hinders al-Shabaab’s ability to resupply weapons and other operational supplies.
According to Kenya’s TUKO news, a series of meetings among the 8 member Shura council to pick Umar’s replacement have been characterized by animosity and ended with no permanent resolution. The most likely successor, Hussein Ali Fiidow, has leadership experience and is a member of the Hawiye clan, which makes up the majority of al-Shabaab’s council and fighters. He is currently a financial administrator and formerly led a regional relations division in Mogadishu. Kenyan intelligence reports he is attempting a coup to take over from Umar, though the reports are several months old.
In January of 2018, Fiidow met with elders from some of his region’s largest clans to prevent them from breaking their support for al-Shabaab. Maintaining support of their elders is critical to al-Shabaab’s ability to recruit and garner money and weapons to continue their operations against the Somali government, so Fiidow’s meeting is indicative of his leadership ability and public relations experience.
The internal leadership crisis within al-Shabaab presents a dilemma for AMISOM and U.S. forces. There is a risk that potential successors begin ramping up attacks to distinguish themselves from their rivals and prove their leadership. The attacks would also serve as a reminder of the strength of al-Shabaab. On the other hand, the internal division may be an opportunity for international forces to gain ground in al-Shabaab strongholds in south-central Somalia and eastern Kenya.
Primarily, the U.S. seeks to prevent Somalia from functioning as a refuge for terror groups. The strength of al-Shabaab and weakness of Somalia’s government are obstacles to this goal. Complicating matters is the presence of Islamic State, which recruits disaffected al-Shabaab members into its ranks.
The presence of Islamic State potentially splits al-Shabaab further apart. There is a limited possibility of cooperation between al-Shabaab and Islamic State. Both al-Shabaab and Islamic State share the goal of building an Islamic caliphate, though they operate on different timelines.
Ultimately, the Somalian government must rid itself of corruption and improve efficiency to defeat al-Shabaab. The government is far from reaching that point, although participating AMISOM countries are preparing a full withdrawal by 2020 because they each face domestic unrest or funding issues.
The mission to defeat al-Shabaab is guaranteed to fail without the support of AMISOM countries. U.S. airstrikes will not have enough of an impact and Somali government forces are incapable of providing security for the country. Historically, when AMISOM countries have withdrawn, al-Shabaab quickly moves in to reclaim those territories. A permanent withdrawal would have the same effect.
The possible succession of Fiidow or a rival deputy to the emir of al-Shabaab could be a good opportunity to deliver an enduring blow to the terror group, as long as international forces don’t repeat their mistake from 2014. After the death of Godane in 2014, al-Shabaab came back strong, recapturing formerly lost territory because of security gaps between AMISOM troops and Somali government forces, who thought they had permanently secured some of these territories.
Attacks in 2017 prove that al-Shabaab has mostly regained its strength, so internal division over new leadership and financial issues cannot be expected to break the group apart and weaken them.
Although it was reported that al-Shabaab pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, recent propaganda efforts emphasize ties with al-Qaeda by praising al-Qaeda’s leadership, expressing support for al-Qaeda’s goal, and honoring al-Qaeda’s “martyrs.” Another propaganda video trumpets al-Shabaab’s position in the al-Qaeda network.
In 2016, two al-Shabaab commanders left to join the Islamic State, but al-Shabaab leadership has reaffirmed support for al-Qaeda based on their historical ties. Al-Shabaab has also employed its internal intelligence group, Amniyat, to seek pro-Islamic State fighters and arrest or execute them.
For the time being, al-Shabaab is the preeminent terror group operating out of the region. Neither the presence of the Islamic State nor a new emir will change that. Younger al-Shabaab fighters may be swayed by the Islamic State’s recruiting efforts though, so Islamic State will certainly factor into the conflict.
Much is at stake in Somalia. Located on the horn of Africa, securing Somalia is key to securing a critical shipping chokepoint in the Red Sea. Al-Shabaab also presents security concerns to Somalia’s neighbors, Kenya and Ethiopia. For the U.S., Somalia is yet another battleground in the War on Terror, where it seeks a lasting defeat of global terror threats presented by al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.