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NAIROBI, Oct 22 2013 (IPS) - For years the Islamist extremist group Al-Shabaab was seen as the most cohesive, united and powerful force in the failed state of Somalia. But it is now disintegrating like a house of cards because of internal divisions and power struggles within its leadership, according to Abdiwahab Sheikh Abdisamad, a history and political science professor at Kenya’s Kenyatta University.
“They [the militants] are transforming into warring mini-groups, hunting each other due to their deteriorating ideological differences, and of course [the group is] on the brink of civil war within itself,” Abdisamad told IPS in Nairobi.
Al-Shabaab claimed responsibility for September’s four-day terror siege on Kenya’s Westgate Shopping Mall that resulted in the death of more than 70 people, and for the Oct. 13 bombing in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Abba, which killed two Somali nationals who were believed to be suspects.
But the militant group, which formally linked with Al-Qaeda in 2012, has been in a leadership and strategy dispute that has divided it into two factions – global jihadists and local nationalists.
Abdisamad sees the militants’ internal divisions as a golden opportunity for the Somali government to bring less extremist and nationalist-minded elements on board.
“Initially, Al-Shabaab came together by default, not by design,” he said, adding that if the Somali government did not capitalise on the rift and reach out to the nationalist faction, the global jihadists would win and become stronger.
“And then, the future of Somalia will be uncertain, the stability of the region will be in question and no doubt the stability of the whole world will be in question too,” Abdisamad said.
He explained that the moment that turned the group’s internal war into an open and public battle was when Al-Shabaab’s two co-founders and top leaders, Ibrahim Haji and Moalim Burhan, were killed by members of the group in June.
Jama, who was better known by his moniker “Al-Afghani” due to his Al-Qaeda training in Afghanistan, had a five million dollar U.S. bounty on his head.
But Al-Shabaab spokesman Sheikh Abdiaziz Abu Musab denied a split within the group and had said that Jama and Burhan were intentionally killed in a shoot-out when they rejected an arrest warrant from a Sharia court.
Two foreign jihadists, the American-born Omar Hammami known as Abu Mansoor Al-Amriki, who was on the FBI’s most wanted list with a five million dollar reward for his capture, and Osama al-Britani, a British citizen of Pakistani descent, were also killed by Al-Shabaab last month.
Al-Amriki was perhaps the most well-known Al-Shabaab propagandist because of his English jihadi rap videos. In 2012 he was the first member of the group to reveal its split through a short online video clip in which he said his life was in danger.
He was on the run and survived several assassination attempts by the Amniyat unit, an intelligence division of Al-Shabaab led by Ahmed Abdi Godane, who is also known as Sheikh Mukhtar Abu Zubeyr, and is the group’s supreme leader. Al-Amriki was eventually killed in September.
Abdisamad explained that Godane is a supporter of global jihad who believes that Somalia belongs to all Muslims across the world. “[Godane’s] global jihadist faction has an agenda beyond Somalia and wants to spread Islam from China to Chile, from Cape Town to Canada,” Abdisamad said.
Another member of the group who was aligned to the nationalist-minded faction to which Jama belonged, Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, escaped from Al-Shabaab’s largest remaining base in Barawe, which is located some 180 km south of Mogadishu.
He surrendered to the Somali government following the murder of Jama and Burhan. According to Abdisamad, Aweys and his faction are considered to be less extremist as their intention is to establish an Islamic state within Somalia borders and not bother neighbouring countries.
“The religious nationalism faction is against globalising the conflict in Somalia, indiscriminate assassinations and the killing of clerics, scholars and everyone who seem to have not favoured the militants. For years they campaigned to replace Godane, which they failed [to do],” Abdisamad said.
The group’s internal division is believed to have contributed to their loss of strategic towns in southern and central Somalia, including part of the capital, Mogadishu.
The Bakara market in the capital city was their main source of funding as the group used to generate millions of dollars from there through taxation and by extortions from telecommunication companies and the business community at large. Al-Shabaab was ousted from Mogadishu in 2011 by Somali forces and African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) troops.
Exactly a year later, the group lost its last remaining and greatest revenue source – the stronghold of Kismayo, a port city in southern Somalia.
According to a United Nations report, Al-Shabaab used to generate between 35 to 50 million dollars annually from the southern seaports of Kismayo and Marko. Both ports are now under the control of Somali forces and AMISOM troops.
“Such a loss of economic sources and internal divisions have led hundreds of Al-Shabaab fighters to defect to the government,” Somali journalist, Mohamed Abdi, told IPS. The group, he said, failed to keep paying their fighters regularly “as they used to do” before the financial constraints emerged.
Abdi said that the financial constraints and the open rift within the group’s leadership have largely demolished the morale, loyalty and capability of the group’s foot soldiers. It has lead to hundreds of them deserting to the government or fleeing the organisation and going into hiding in Somalia or in neighbouring countries.
But Abdisamad Moalim Mohamud, Somalia’s former minister for the interior and national security and a current member of parliament, told IPS that the group remains a threat not only to Somalia, but also to regional and global security.
“They have lost more of their foot soldiers and can’t counter Somali and AMISOM forces directly any more. But they are more capable of conducting effective guerrilla-style warfare such as suicide attacks and storming places like Westgate Mall in Nairobi and the U.N. compound in Mogadishu,” Mohamud said by phone from Mogadishu.
He said that regional intelligence sharing and developing joint monitoring platforms and common anti-terror strategies within regional governments could be used to prevent such a threat. But he disagreed that their internal division had something to do with nationalism.
“Their rift has a lot to do with the leadership change of Al-Qaeda than local politics and it is more about pursuing hegemony over the command and control of the group,” Mohamud said.
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