The Merger of Al-Shabab and Qa`idat al-Jihad

Feb 16, 2012

On February 9, 2012, al-Qa`ida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri announced the merger of the Somali militant group al-Shabab and “Qa`idat al-Jihad,” the name he has used since at least 2005 to designate the group otherwise known as al-Qa`ida.[1] This merger is significant because it materialized only after two key people had been eliminated, namely Usama bin Ladin in May 2011 and Fadil Harun (also known as Fazul Abdullah Mohammad) in June 2011. According to media reports, Harun was shot and killed by Somali government forces when he and his companion, Musa Husayn, refused to stop at a checkpoint in Mogadishu.[2]

Harun was a seasoned al-Qa`ida operative and highly trusted by Bin Ladin.[3] His leading role in the planning and execution of the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam distinguished him in the eyes of the senior leadership. Soon thereafter, he was appointed as al-Qa`ida’s amin sirr, or “confidential secretary.” Washington’s security apparatus was keenly aware of Harun’s value to al-Qa`ida; U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was quick to remark on his death, hailing it as a “significant blow to Al Qaeda, its extremist allies and its operations in East Africa.”[4] Harun’s two-volume (1,156 pages) autobiography released in February 2009 gave an intimate look inside al-Qa`ida’s political culture, with sufficient hints to allow the reader to paint a picture of the dynamics among al-Shabab, al-Qa`ida and Ayman al-Zawahiri.[5]

This article reflects on what it took for this merger to occur. It discusses al-Shabab’s past unrequited courtship of al-Qa`ida, most notably its 2009 pledge of allegiance to Bin Ladin, as well as the significance of Fadil Harun to both al-Shabab and al-Qa`ida. The article concludes by speculating whether Harun’s death was, in fact, an accident, or whether he was double-crossed by al-Shabab’s leaders to curry favor with al-Zawahiri to obtain the acceptance that Bin Ladin had denied them.

Al-Shabab’s Courtship of Al-Qa`ida
On the morning of February 9, 2012, readers of the jihadist website al-Shumukh were teased by the headline “Glad Tidings (bushra sarra): al-Shaykh??? May God Protect Him and the Leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, May God Protect Him.” Within a few hours, the identity of this shaykh was revealed when the awaited video was released by al-Shumukh and other jihadist websites. The first seven minutes of the video featured an audio recording by the leader of al-Shabab, Mukhtar Abu al-Zubayr, addressing al-Zawahiri as “our beloved leader,” adding: “on behalf of my brethren, leaders and soldiers in Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahidin, I pledge allegiance to you [promising to adhere to] God’s Book and the Sunna of His Messenger.” During the remaining seven minutes of the video, al-Zawahiri appeared to herald the bushra to the umma, announcing that al-Shabab has joined “Qa`idat al-Jihad,”[6] one of the many signs that the “jihadist movement is growing with God’s help.”[7]

Why should this merger come about now when the same Abu al-Zubayr had made a similar pledge to Usama bin Ladin more than two years ago? It was in September 2009 when al-Shabab released an earlier video featuring an audio recording of Abu al-Zubayr, entitled “Labbaika Ya Usama” (At Your Service Usama). In it, he addressed Bin Ladin as “our shaykh and leader (amir),” adding that “we await your guidance during this advanced stage of jihad.”[8] The production of this video was somewhat misleading. The title, “Labbaika Ya Usama,” implied that al-Shabab was responding to an invitation issued by Bin Ladin. Since the video was choreographed in such a manner that it featured Abu al-Zubayr’s pledge following a statement by Bin Ladin in support of jihadists in Somalia,[9] it gave the impression that the union was complete. Yet Bin Ladin’s statements never addressed al-Shabab by name; instead, his statements carefully used generic terms, displaying support of “jihadists in Somalia.”

Since al-Shabab’s courtship was repeatedly ignored in Bin Ladin’s subsequent statements, when he was killed in May 2011 and jihadist websites announced that al-Zawahiri would succeed him in heading “Qa`idat al-Jihad,” the group was quick to welcome the new appointee. ‘Ali Diri, the spokesman for al-Shabab, released another misleading, but admittedly artful, statement eulogizing Bin Ladin and welcoming the appointment of al-Zawahiri as the new al-Qa`ida chief:

We welcome the outstanding choice of [Shaykh Ayman al-Zawahiri], and we shall maintain our covenant with him (sanakunu ma`ahu ‘ala al-‘ahd) as we did with his brethren before him. Our covenant is to defend our outposts/frontiers (sadd thaghrana) as Abu ‘Abdallah/Usama bin Ladin designated us when he described us as one of jihad’s legions (faylaq min fayaliq al-jihad) and one of the outposts [anchoring the world of] Islam (thaghr min thughur al-islam). We shall maintain our commitment to this covenant and protect our frontiers. [With this commitment], Islam and the mujahidin will not be weakened. We shall continue to confront the enemy as we have always done.[10]

The casual reader might be forgiven for assuming that Diri’s statement suggested that al-Shabab was part of al-Qa`ida and that he was simply transferring the covenant that the group once had with Bin Ladin to al-Zawahiri. Yet, until then, neither al-Zawahiri nor Bin Ladin formally welcomed al-Shabab into the fold or even mentioned them by name. Bin Ladin did indeed use the expressions faylaq (legion) and thaghr (outpost) in reference to Somalia, as Diri mentioned; but, as noted earlier, the contexts in which he used these expressions were in support of either “jihadists” or “people of Somalia.” One can safely assume that if Bin Ladin wanted to show support specifically for al-Shabab, he knew how to spell their name.

Clearly, al-Zawahiri was not being duped and Diri would not attempt to trick him. Diri pledged al-Shabab’s support to al-Zawahiri only after Fadil Harun was killed in June 2011. How then might Harun and Bin Ladin’s death make way for al-Shabab’s membership in Qa`idat al-Jihad?

Fadil Harun and Al-Shabab
Harun witnessed first-hand the formation of al-Shabab in 2006 and its subsequent rise on the Somali scene. His account betrayed a clear discontent with the group’s ideological worldview and political immaturity. His autobiography conveyed that he expressed his views to al-Shabab. It is likely that when his manuscript was posted on a jihadist website in February 2009, his views became known to Bin Ladin and would have caused him to be wary of lending specific support to al-Shabab.

To begin with, Harun’s manuscript made clear that there were no organizational ties between al-Qa`ida and al-Shabab. Further, at no point did Bin Ladin or any of al-Qa`ida’s senior leaders, who were said to be based in Pakistan’s Waziristan at the time, guide or influence the process of forming al-Shabab. By the time al-Shabab was formed, there were just a few al-Qa`ida members based in Somalia, so few that “one could count them on the fingers of one’s hand.”[11] They were acting on the basis of their own judgments and initiatives. Talha al-Sudani, who was most active in the formation of al-Shabab, was at that time suspended from al-Qa`ida.[12]

Except for Talha, the remaining al-Qa`ida members did not support the formation of al-Shabab. Yusuf al-Tanzani (Saleh al-Nabhan),[13] ‘Abd al-Jabbar al-Kini (Abu Wafa’), ‘Isa al-Kini and Harun believed that their actions should be faithful to the disciplined spirit of al-Qa`ida (although ‘Isa al-Kini eventually became more involved). They wanted to maintain their independence in Somalia on the basis that they were the “shaykh’s men”—meaning, their loyalty was to al-Qa`ida and they would only take orders from Bin Ladin. In addition, the al-Qa`ida operatives did not see the rationale behind the formation of al-Shabab, believing that it would undermine the Islamic Courts Union (ICU).[14]

The “shaykh’s men” had no qualms standing up to the leaders of al-Shabab. According to Harun’s account, just before becoming the first leader of al-Shabab in 2006, Isma`il Arale asked Harun to prepare a report for him about the Islamic movements in Somalia.[15] In his report, Harun indicated that: the Islamic movements “are not operating in complete secrecy yet they were not public enough, hence the Somali people did not know with whom they were dealing”; that these groups were “claiming to be al-Qa`ida and I explained to him that this public competition to be close to al-Qa`ida does not serve the interest of the Somali people”; that the groups were competing to attract muhajirun (foreign fighters) but neglected to win the support of their own people; and finally Harun warned Arale that these different groups may well raise arms against each other in the future.[16]

When, despite their protestations, al-Shabab was formed in 2006, Harun and al-Nabhan paid Arale a visit during which Harun made the views of the “shaykh’s men” explicit: “we [see ourselves] as guests in this state and there is an official body called the Islamic Courts [whose authority ought to be respected] and most of you [now in al-Shabab] are members of the Courts; why then resort to founding a new group?”[17]

Harun proceeded to assure Arale that he would be happy to assist in any way he could only if it served the interests of all. “As to taking orders from him [Arale] or anyone else,” Harun wrote, “this shall not happen because I am not part of the new group.”[18]

At the urging of Arale, Harun attended as an observer (muraqib) one of the early meetings the group held. Al-Nabhan chose to boycott the meeting because he was not enthusiastic about a group that, in his mind, was going to undermine the ICU. On the agenda of the meeting was the distribution of various portfolios. Harun was most surprised when it was announced that he would be entrusted with the security portfolio. Harun told Arale after the meeting that he refused to be considered as a member (‘udw) but agreed to be an assistant (muta`awin).[19] When Harun met with the Executive Committee of al-Shabab, which consisted of six men—four of whom were members of the ICU[20]—he told them that he would not help al-Shabab undermine the ICU. Instead, he believed that the two were one and the same body, and the men he was planning to train would form the backbone of the security apparatus of the ICU.[21]

Harun’s account should dispel the common view that posits that al-Qa`ida exerted influence on al-Shabab through him. Following Ethiopia’s invasion of Somalia in 2006, many, including Harun, fled Somalia to neighboring Kenya. Yet even after he returned to Somalia, it is doubtful that Harun became immediately involved with al-Shabab. Instead, the latter part of his manuscript that describes events between approximately March 2007 and January 2009 is not informed by his operational activities. Instead, it is based on media reports, which suggests that he was not involved in the events on the Somali scene. If he did collaborate with al-Shabab after January 2009, he would have done so on his own terms. Clearly, al-Shabab  could not have been pleased with his uncooperative stance.

Was Harun’s Death an Accident?
The tensions between Harun and al-Shabab raise doubts about the official story of Harun’s death in June 2011. Harun was killed within six weeks of Bin Ladin’s death. The reported story surrounding Harun’s killing is that he and Musa Husayn, his companion, accidentally drove into a checkpoint manned by forces from Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG) instead of heading into an al-Shabab-controlled area. It would be unusual for Harun to make such an amateurish error, and the U.S. military whom he successfully evaded for years was likely surprised by this reported blunder.[22]

Soon after he was killed, Somalia Report published an article by two journalists whose names were withheld for security reasons, claiming that al-Shabab leader Abu al-Zubayr was behind Harun’s death. According to the report, Harun was given instructions to head to an al-Shabab-controlled checkpoint to meet other jihadists, but Abu al-Zubayr had it dismantled, causing Harun and Husayn to drive on, unknowingly falling into a TFG checkpoint. The report further indicated that Harun had orders from al-Qa`ida to change al-Shabab’s leaders and replace them with foreign ones, which threatened Abu al-Zubayr’s position.[23] It would be out of character for Harun to threaten to oust Somali leaders; his manuscript made clear that he wanted Somalis to be at the forefront of the Somali scene. The fact that there is discussion of al-Shabab being behind Harun’s death, however, suggests that his differences with al-Shabab were known to many. These differences are echoed elsewhere. When in January 2012 the Global Islamic Media Front in collaboration with al-Kataib Media Foundation announced that al-Shabab welcomed questions posted online between February 4-14 to be addressed by ‘Ali Diri in an online interview, several of the posted questions raised Harun’s relationship with al-Shabab. Some were specific, asking whether his differences with al-Shabab were indeed behind his death, while others asked for an explanation as to why al-Shabab did not eulogize Harun.[24]

The reader of Harun’s manuscript would not be surprised to learn that al-Shabab might have engineered his “accidental” death. For if Harun continued to make his dissatisfaction with al-Shabab public and persisted in displaying his concern over their political immaturity, it would not be surprising that they should grow impatient with him. They may have put up with him because they realized that eliminating him would undoubtedly upset Bin Ladin; after Bin Ladin was killed, however, they had (at least) two reasons to remove him from the scene. The first is obvious: it would be easier to have him killed than to exile him. The second is somewhat speculative but potentially revealing: Harun was unquestionably a “Bin Ladin man,” and although he acknowledged the close ties that developed between al-Zawahiri and Bin Ladin, Harun never warmed to al-Zawahiri or genuinely respected his worldview. His two-volume autobiography does not paint al-Zawahiri in a flattering light. Harun was also keen to stress that as far as the “original al-Qa`ida” was concerned, it was Sayf al-`Adl, not al-Zawahiri, who was second-in-command after Bin Ladin.[25] Reading between the lines, even if Bin Ladin succeeded in bringing al-Zawahiri into the fold, Harun’s tone invites the reader to muse on a lingering tension between the worldview of Bin Ladin and that of al-Zawahiri. What is more, Harun had plans to write a third volume.

It is possible that al-Shabab reasoned that eliminating Harun would be a welcome gift to al-Zawahiri, hoping that in return al-Zawahiri would grant the group membership in his Qa`idat al-Jihad. If this skeptical view is plausible, then al-Shabab’s reasoning with respect to al-Zawahiri is not unfounded. Whereas Bin Ladin granted al-Qa`ida in Iraq membership in al-Qa`ida and lived to regret it, al-Zawahiri was uncritical of his assessment of the groups he admitted to Qa`idat al-Jihad—probably without the blessing of Bin Ladin or even against his wishes. For example, it was al-Zawahiri who announced in September 2006 that a large segment from Egypt’s Islamic Group and Algeria’s Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) officially joined Qa`idat al-Jihad. He claimed that Bin Ladin “entrusted me” (kallafani) to make the announcement with respect to the GSPC.[26] The skeptic might observe that if Bin Ladin wanted to welcome the group into al-Qa`ida, he could have done it himself when he released a statement two months earlier. The same logic would hold true with respect to al-Shabab. Bin Ladin chose not to bestow upon them membership in the club. Al-Zawahiri, on the other hand, did.

Did it take the killing of Harun to convince al-Zawahiri that al-Shabab is worthy of his Qa`idat al-Jihad? Since he has welcomed other groups in the fold in the past, he may have welcomed al-Shabab anyway. It is safe to assume, however, that al-Zawahiri clearly would not have welcomed a third volume of Harun’s autobiography.

Nelly Lahoud is Associate Professor at the Combating Terrorism Center in the Department of Social Sciences at the U.S. Military Academy, West Point.

[1] For details regarding the nuance between “al-Qa`ida” and “Qa`idat al-Jihad,” see footnote #6.

[2] Jeffrey Gettleman, “Somalis Kill Mastermind of 2 U.S. Embassy Bombings,” New York Times, June 11, 2011.

[3] Harun also oversaw the travel arrangements of Usama bin Ladin’s wives, spent time reciting the Qur’an with Bin Ladin’s sons, and even shaved the al-Qa`ida chief’s head.

[4] Gettleman.

[5] Fadil Harun, “al-Harb ‘ala al-Islam: Qissat Fadil Harun,” volume 1-2, February 2009. In March/April 2012, the author will release a report that examines al-Qa`ida through the lens of Harun, which will be published by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point.

[6] The name “Qa`idat al-Jihad” may reflect internal tension among al-Qa`ida’s senior leaders. According to Lawrence Wright, “The Man Behind Bin Ladin,” New Yorker, September 16, 2002, this name designates the merger between al-Zawahiri’s group and that of Bin Ladin. Yet not all the senior leaders use it. To the author’s knowledge, Usama bin Ladin did not use it, using the familiar “al-Qa`ida” or “tanzim al-Qa`ida” instead. Reuven Paz wrote an article on the early usage of this name: Reuven Paz, “Qa’idat al-Jihad – A New Name on the Road to Palestine,” Global Report, July 5, 2002. Even al-Zawahiri did not always use it. The earliest statements found by the author using the name “Qa`idat al-Jihad” are those that were released in 2005. See, for example, Ayman al-Zawahiri, “Haqa’iq al-Sira` bayna al-Islam wa-al-Kufr,” Minbar al-Tawhid wa-al-Jihad, accessed January 27, 2012; “Hiwar ma’ al-Sheikh Ayman al-Zawahiri bi-Munasabat Murur Arba` Sanawat ‘ala Ghazawat New York wa-Washington,” Minbar al-Tawhid wa-al-Jihad, accessed January 27, 2012. If the author’s observation is correct, it may suggest that some differences between al-Zawahiri and Bin Ladin occurred that led al-Zawahiri to start using this name.

[7] “Bushra Sarra,” Shabakat Shumukh al-Islam, accessed February 9, 2012. The author is grateful for the assistance received from colleague Muhammad al-`Ubaydi who monitors jihadist websites for the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point.

[8] This video was posted on the Shabakat al-Ansar al-Mujahidin forum.

[9] Usama bin Ladin, “al-Nizal al-Nizal ya Abtal al-Sumal,” September 2009.

[10] “Ali Diri, Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahidin,” Shabakat al-Jihad al-‘Alami, accessed January 18, 2012. Note that the author’s translation of the Arabic is based on a translation (presumably from Somali, but the document does not specify).

[11] Harun, vol. 2, p. 48.

[12] Ibid., p. 21. Harun claimed that Talha was killed in an ambush by U.S.-Kenyan-Ethiopian Special Operations forces the first week of 2007.

[13] He was killed in September 2009 by U.S. Special Forces. See Jeffrey Gettleman and Eric Schmitt, “U.S. Kills Top Qaeda Militant in Southern Somalia,” New York Times, September 14, 2009.

[14] For more on the dynamics that led to the formation of al-Shabab, see this author’s forthcoming report.

[15] According to Harun, Adam `Ayro was involved in al-Shabab, but was not the group’s founding amir. Harun asserted that Isma`il Arale was the first amir of the group. See Harun, vol. 2, p. 425.

[16] Ibid., pp. 59-60.

[17] Ibid., p. 60.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid., p. 69.

[20] Ibid. They were: Mukhtar, Hasan Afghawi, al-Mu’allim, Ahmed Madobe, al-Mu’allim ‘Abdallah and Ahmed Khalif (Harun implied that Khalif was from the foreign ministry).

[21] Ibid., pp. 69-70.

[22] In his manuscript, Harun gave the impression that he quickly identified people who were working for U.S., Kenyan or Israeli intelligence (e.g., vol. 1, pp. 543-48). One example that illustrates his operative skills is the way he managed to escape from Kenyan authorities just before the Mombasa bombing of the Paradise Hotel (and an attempt to down an Israeli airplane with a shoulder-fired missile) in 2002. Harun was part of the cell that planned this bombing. For details, see Harun, vol. 1, pp. 508-509.

[23] “Al-Shabaab Leader Arranged Fazul’s Death,” Somalia Report, June 16, 2011.

[24] Shabakat Shumukh al-Islam, January 4, 2012.

[25] Harun, vol. 2, p. 500. The “original al-Qa`ida” (al-Qa`ida al-Umm) is a description Harun used to distinguish al-Qa`ida from other jihadist groups, including those who insert “al-Qa`ida” in their names. The author’s forthcoming report devotes a chapter on the difference between the “original al-Qa`ida” and its imitators.

[26] Ayman al-Zawahiri, “Qadaya Sakhina,” September 2006. This was the second interview al-Sahab conducted with al-Zawahiri, coinciding with the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.