Will Al-Qa`ida and Al-Shabab Formally Merge?
July 1, 2011
In September 2009, al-Shabab, the Somalia-based jihadist group, released a video in which it made a public declaration of allegiance to al-Qa`ida leader Usama bin Ladin. The declaration was in support of al-Shabab’s campaign to align itself with al-Qa`ida’s global agenda and to be included under its banner. Despite this and subsequent statements, however, al-Shabab did not secure an invitation to become an al-Qa`ida franchise. Instead, al-Qa`ida’s senior leadership maintained its position of general support for the conflict in Somalia and provided al-Shabab with behind the scenes assistance. With Bin Ladin dead, however, al-Qa`ida’s new leadership may decide it wants al-Shabab after all, and that the benefits of a merger at a time when al-Qa`ida needs to project power and influence outweigh any lingering concerns about al-Shabab’s suitability. Yet how likely is such a merger?
For the past few years, al-Qa`ida has been cautious in its acquisition of new franchises and avoided taking on organizations that were not the leading group in the territory where they operated. Around the time it made its September 2009 declaration, al-Shabab was not the unchallenged, leading group in Somalia. It was embroiled in conflict with Hisbul Islamiyya—another jihadist organization whose leadership had links to al-Qa`ida. Acquiring al-Shabab while it was involved in conflict with Hisbul Islamiyya, and supporting one jihadist group in conflict with another, would have undermined al-Qa`ida’s narrative on unity, integration and growth, and invited criticism from within the militant milieu. Thus, despite al-Shabab’s reemphasis of its allegiance in early 2010, no invitation to join al-Qa`ida was forthcoming.
Since then, however, al-Shabab and Hisbul Islamiyya have unified, finalizing their lengthy “negotiations” with a December 2010 agreement and statement outlining their shared goals. The prolonged period of “negotiation” was primarily over the scope and purpose of the jihad in Somalia. Hisbul Islamiyya had a more limited geographical focus, and a different manhaj (program) than al-Shabab. These differences were in relation to not only the scope and methods of jihad in Somalia, but also the future Islamic state they envisioned for the country and the region more generally. Their unification statement showed the triumph, at least on paper, of al-Shabab and its more global agenda for jihad. This is visible in the goals outlined in the statement, which included a commitment to work for the restoration of Islamic sanctities, freeing of Muslim prisoners, and the unification of the umma. This language was in line with al-Qa`ida’s own manhaj and position. Yet despite al-Shabab’s efforts, still no merger has taken place.
This article examines the likelihood of a merger between al-Qa`ida and al-Shabab and analyzes the factors that may lead to or hinder such a merger taking place.
New Leadership, New Position on Al-Shabab?
Al-Qa`ida’s reticence to pursue mergers with groups whose actions could bring harm to its “brand” and make it vulnerable to criticism from within the militant milieu may be one reason for the absence to date of a merger between the two groups. Al-Shabab’s use of assassinations, cemetery desecrations and campaigns of intimidation, which have alienated it from the public, may be viewed with concern by al-Qa`ida—particularly given backlashes it has previously faced from franchisees’ use of violent tactics against civilian populations. Another factor may be reluctance on the part of al-Qa`ida to take on a group where, although public statements of ideological affinity are made, the reality on the ground may be such that a parochial focus dominates its agenda and actions.
Perhaps in recognition of the dominance of this focus, al-Qa`ida’s interest in Somalia during the last few years of Bin Ladin’s leadership appeared largely limited to its value as a location for supporting external operations. Al-Qa`ida’s new leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, appears to have a stronger focus on acquiring territory and expanding areas under mujahidin control. This focus was evident in 2005 when al-Zawahiri placed emphasis on the importance of securing territory and establishing emirates in correspondence between him and the then leader of al-Qa`ida in Iraq. Al-Shabab’s nominal control over territory may thus make it a more attractive candidate for a merger.
Al-Zawahiri and others in al-Qa`ida’s senior leadership might also take a more positive view of al-Shabab because its unification statement with Hisbul Islamiyya specifically emphasized a desire to establish an emirate in Somalia. Once an emirate is established, the narrative can be presented that it is obligatory to help defend it from threat via providing support and wherever possible immigrating to assist. Thus, even if the establishment of an emirate does not necessarily attract more internal on-the-ground support or change little in the way the jihad against the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) is conducted, it could have particular potency for those outside Somalia radicalized to a militant Salafist worldview. In this way, declaring the establishment of an emirate can help garner additional material, financial and ideological support.
While al-Shabab and Hisbul Islamiyya presumably authored their unity statement intending to pursue the establishment of an emirate regardless of any future merger, al-Qa`ida’s tendency to be predatory may see it push for al-Shabab to become a franchise if an emirate is established to exercise influence over it. Such a move may not engender local support. In the past, however, an absence of broad local support has not stopped militant groups from making such declarations.
Additionally, al-Zawahiri and others may ascribe to the view shared by some figures in al-Qa`ida (and the militant milieu more generally) that a presence in Somalia would hold great strategic value for their global jihad. Somalia has long been seen as a useful rear base of support for jihadist activity in not only Africa, but also the Arabian Peninsula. It has also been viewed as a useful location from where training can be conducted and external operations planned. While al-Qa`ida may push forward for these reasons, a key question is whether al-Shabab would willingly cede to its authority.
Will Al-Shabab Commit?
There is a lack of information of the composition of al-Shabab’s senior leadership and in particular knowledge of their position on merger and precedence. Al-Shabab clearly preferences a doctrine of unity, but in what form it envisages this, and whether or not it would cede authority to al-Qa`ida based solely on seniority, remains unclear. This is because there is little visibility of al-Shabab’s manhaj—if in fact its manhaj has developed beyond mere sloganeering to the point where it addresses issues of merger and unification.
It is clear, however, that in the aftermath of Bin Ladin’s death, al-Shabab has shown no signs of moving away from its public support for al-Qa`ida. It has recognized al-Zawahiri as al-Qa`ida’s new amir and reiterated its oath of allegiance. Although words of allegiance are significant, the reality of how such an oath might translate into a closer relationship, including the possibility of a merger, is more complex. Christopher Anzalone, a doctoral candidate at McGill University who has produced some excellent and incisive work on al-Shabab, makes the important point that while al-Shabab may be “using a transnational-type message akin to al Qaeda central,” they “can get the benefits…that they want from this type of militant transnational Islamism, while still maintaining their organizational independence.” The murkiness of al-Shabab’s command structure and manhaj means that it is difficult to discern whether its efforts to align ideologically are a way of tapping into support networks while remaining independent. It is also difficult to know exactly how al-Shabab would approach a merger or how much authority it would willingly cede, particularly since al-Qa`ida’s recent leadership losses include Fazul Abdullah Mohammad (also known as Fadil Harun), its senior envoy in Somalia who could have played a crucial role in assisting negotiations between the two groups.
Al-Shabab may also be less than committed to a merger in spite of public statements to the contrary. As Anzalone notes, “there is a strong element of rhetorical strategy in al-Shabaab leaders’ referencing of OBL and other AQ ideologues. It allows them to potentially expand an already limited recruiting base by tapping into broader themes related to ‘the Ummah,’ [but] there is a difference between this ideological affinity and necessarily wanting to merge with al Qaeda central officially.”
In Anzalone’s view, al-Shabab may seek to become a franchise if it became further weakened and its leadership “believed that a formal merger would help them stave off final defeat.” These are all valid points worthy of analytical consideration.
Conversely, al-Shabab’s most recent statement pledging allegiance to al-Qa`ida’s new amir made particular reference to the organization’s guiding role. In this respect, the loss of Fazul Mohammad as a trusted envoy and source of guidance could result in al-Shabab intensifying efforts to seek a closer relationship between the two groups. Additionally, al-Shabab’s leaders might follow guidance outlining that regardless of the strength of their own position, a newer group should merge with the older, more senior group. Here, too, it is difficult to determine whether al-Shabab adheres to such manhaj guidelines and prescriptions. Yet even if al-Shabab were to pursue a merger with al-Qa`ida as the older, more senior group, the sticking point of ceding authority would likely remain, despite its public welcoming of al-Qa`ida’s guiding hand.
Although franchises have operational autonomy in terms of local planning, this takes place under broadly agreed upon parameters because in a franchise situation, a group conducts operations under the al-Qa`ida name. Since al-Shabab retains a strong local and regional focus, it may seek to retain the option to pursue attacks related to these objectives how it sees fit. It is unclear how al-Qa`ida’s new leadership would view such a move and the loss of Fazul Mohammad may have removed an influential figure who could help negotiate these issues in al-Qa`ida’s favor. Two key questions therefore emerge. How receptive would al-Shabab be to ceding authority in exchange for operating as a franchise under al-Qa`ida’s banner, particularly with a new leadership in place? How might al-Qa`ida feel about an al-Shabab franchise less inclined to take its direction?
Al-Qa`ida has a new leadership that finds itself with the strategic imperative of needing to stamp its authority on the organization and to find a way to reinforce al-Qa`ida’s power and preeminence. These changed circumstances might drive new thinking in relation to the cost benefit calculations of merging al-Shabab with al-Qa`ida, even with Fazul Mohammad’s death. A new franchise in Somalia offers one potential solution to al-Qa`ida’s current inaction, and brings with it several appreciable benefits. A merger would reinforce its relevance and unity of purpose. It would also provide a resource cheap means for al-Qa`ida to demonstrate its ongoing importance—perhaps more quickly and possibly even more effectively in some target audiences than undertaking a terrorist spectacular. Although much remains unknown about the state of the relationship between al-Shabab and al-Qa`ida, in light of the changed circumstances of both groups, this relationship is one that bears closer scrutiny.
Leah Farrall is the founder of the blog All Things Counter Terrorism. She was formerly a senior counterterrorism intelligence analyst with the Australian Federal Police.
 The title of the video was “At your service, Osama,” and was released on September 20, 2009.
 For details on al-Qa`ida’s approach to franchise acquisition, see Leah Farrall, “How al Qaeda Works,” Foreign Affairs, March/April 2011.
 The links were formed in the early 1990s when al-Qa`ida was providing Somali groups with training for jihad, including some persons who would rise to leadership positions in Hisbul Islamiyya. For useful information on the nature of these links, see documents covering al-Qa`ida’s Somalia sojourn in the Combating Terrorism Center’s Harmony database. For a useful summary of the conflict between al-Shabab and Hisbul Islamiyya that took place in October 2009, see Alex Thurston, “Al Shabab, Hizbul Islam, and a War Within Somalia’s Civil War,” Sahel Blog, October 5, 2009.
 Sarah Childress, “Somalia’s Al Shabab to Ally with Al Qaeda,” Wall Street Journal, February 2, 2010.
 Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahideen and Hizbul Islami, “The Year of Unity,” al-Kataib Foundation for Media Production, December 2010.
 This future state as envisaged by some militant groups in Somalia is broader than the country’s borders and encompasses Somali ethnic regions, in what some term “Greater Somalia.”
 This observation is drawn from a review of detainee commentary and information contained in the Wikileaks Guantanamo detainee document collection.
 This correspondence, a July 2005 letter to Abu Mus`ab al-Zarqawi, is available at www.globalsecurity.org/security/library/report/2005/zawahiri-zarqawi-letter_9jul2005.htm.
 “The Year of Unity.”
 This narrative ties into arguments used by militant Salafists on the requirement to undertake hijra to help in the building and defense of an Islamic state.
 For an explanation of al-Qa`ida’s predatory history, which while led by Bin Ladin is also codified as an organizational policy of sorts, see Farrall.
 See Greste’s account of the view of Hassan Had on al-Shabab taking over in Peter Greste, “Somalia: Inside the Land of Bandits” The Telegraph, July 20, 2011.
 This is evident in documentation from al-Qa`ida’s early foray into Somalia, available via the Combating Terrorism Center’s harmony collection. It can also be seen in a review of detainee accounts in the Wikipedia collection of documents relating to Guantanamo detainees as well as in the work of ideologues such as Abu Saad al-Amili.
 For the presentation of the theme of unity and call for a year of unity, see “The Year of Unity.” Additionally, Abu Mansoor al-Amriki alleged that al-Shabab follows al-Qa`ida’s manhaj, although his claim was remarkably short on confirming details.
 This statement was first made by radio and has since been disseminated by al-Shabab’s media house. For a summary, see “Al-Shabab Al-Mujahideen Pledge Allegiance to Al-Zawahiri,” Middle East Media Research Institute, June 20, 2011, available at www.thememriblog.org/blog_personal/en/38601.htm.
 Personal interview, Christopher Anzalone, June 3, 2011.
 Fazul Mohammad died on June 8, 2011 in a gunfight with Somali forces at a TFG checkpoint in Mogadishu. While other substantial links between the groups exist, Fazul Mohammad’s had historical depth and continuity of personal connections, important to these types of negotiations. Some reporting has emerged claiming that Fazul Mohammad was betrayed by al-Shabab elements unhappy with his role in the organization, however the veracity of this information remains in doubt. See, for example, www.bar-kulan.com/2011/06/15/aswj-says-al-shabaab-behind-fazul%E2%80%99s-death/.
 See “Al-Shabab Al-Mujahideen Pledge Allegiance to Al-Zawahiri.”
 For an explanation of this in relation to al-Qa`ida’s franchise acquisition, see Farrall.