NAIROBI, Kenya — Al Qaeda’s decision to formally extend its terrorist franchise to what once was a nationalist movement in Somalia may be only a desperate joining of hands to prop up two militant groups that are losing popular support and facing increasingly deadly military attacks, analysts said.
Somalia’s main militant group, al-Shabab, and al Qaeda have been patting each other on the back for years. Last Thursday, al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri formalized the relationship by giving “glad tidings” that al-Shabab had joined al Qaeda.
Al-Shabab, which began as a movement to oust Ethiopian troops from Somalia some six years ago, has long been using terrorist tactics such as suicide bombings and car bombings against the weak Somali government and African Union troops in Mogadishu, Somalia.
The group also has hosted al Qaeda and other foreign fighters with experience in Iraq and the Afghanistan-Pakistan region.
Al Qaeda also could seek to use several dozen U.S. citizens - mostly of Somali descent - among al-Shabab’s ranks, who U.S. officials fear could use their American passports to travel back to the United States and carry out attacks.
Abdi Rashid, a Somalia expert, said it’s not clear what benefit al Qaeda gets out of the newly announced partnership, given that al-Shabab has been losing large chunks of territory to the East African militaries fighting it in Somalia.
Only a year ago, al-Shabab held sway in most of Mogadishu and much of south-central Somalia. But the group now is losing its grip on the country.
“For me, the message they are sending is clear. It is basically an admission that their conventional military capabilities probably cannot recover, so the only way forward they have in the so-called ‘jihad’ is to merge with al Qaeda in the terror campaign,” said Mr. Rashid, a former Somalia analyst with the International Crisis Group who is setting up an independent policy forum.
Al-Shabab leaders have pledged allegiance to al Qaeda in the past, releasing a video in 2009 called “At Your Service, Osama!” The same year, the now-deceased al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden released a video in which he made encouraging comments about the Somali insurgency.
“Not only has its leaders been completely decimated by U.S. strikes in Pakistan and Afghanistan, but they have lost whatever public support they had in Africa and the Middle East,” he said. “The Arab Spring is testimony to the fact that the gravity they once had is probably over.”
Al-Shabab is being hit from three sides in Somalia.
In Mogadishu, African Union forces from Uganda and Burundi have largely pushed al-Shabab out of the capital, though they still can carry out terrorist attacks.
Kenyan forces who moved into Somalia in October are pressuring al-Shabab from the south, and Ethiopian forces are pressuring them from the west.