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.
The Somali government dismissed last Thursday’s announcement as non-news, given the close ties between al-Shabab and al Qaeda over the years.
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.
Mr. Rashid said that al Qaeda has lost power in recent years as well.
“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.
That pressure - along with a drop in popular support because of the harsh, Taliban-style social rules the group imposes - are among the reasons al-Shabab wanted the new al Qaeda brand name, said Abdi Hassan, a former al-Shabab fighter.
“They are worried about their future,” Mr. Hassan said. “They want to be able to join other al Qaeda forces when they are defeated in Somalia.”
Al-Shabab is only the latest al Qaeda franchise to join the movement started by bin Laden in the late 1980s.
A militant group in Iraq named Tawhid wa Jihad became al Qaeda in Iraq after an announcement similar to al-Zawahri’s last Thursday.
The terrorist group also has branches in North Africa: al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and, in Yemen, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
That latter group is based only a short boat ride from Somalia, and Mr. Hassan, the former al-Shabab fighter, said that several foreign militants once based in Somalia have fled there after the deaths of several al Qaeda leaders in Somalia in recent years.
Several analysts noted that the new partnership internationalizes al Qaeda’s message even more.
Adjoa Anyimadu, a researcher at the Africa program at Chatham House, a London-based policy institute on international affairs, said al Qaeda may be attracted to al-Shabab’s storyline of struggle to free an Islamic country from Western influence.
Referring to al-Zawahri’s issuance of “glad tidings” to al-Shabab, Somalia Information Minister Abdulkadir Hussein Mohamed said the announcement was also glad tidings for the Somali government.
“The Somali government is actually very pleased that the time for al-Shabab to masquerade as an indigenous Somali-Islamic organization is gone forever,” Mr. Mohamed said.
“The whole international community knows now what we here in Somalia knew for a long time and should join our fight against al Qaeda in Somalia unreservedly.”
Al-Shabab’s most spectacular international terrorist attack occurred in July 2010 while crowds watched the World Cup final on TV in Kampala, Uganda. Bombs exploded at two locations, killing 76 people.
Since Kenya’s military moved into Somalia in October, al-Shabab has threatened to attack the Kenyan capital of Nairobi, and Mr. Anyimadu said that the al Qaeda merger could raise the risk of an attack.
“They have shown the capacity and the skill, and I think the Kampala attack was clearly - if you want to call it this - a rite of passage,” Mr. Rashid said.
“While I’m not discounting the possibility of some kind of attack to show ‘We are worthy’ of being part of the fold, I don’t think one can make that link immediately.”
Magnus Ranstorp of the Swedish National Defense College said the two terrorist groups joined because they need one another. He said it is possible al-Shabab would change its focus to meet al Qaeda’s broader agenda.
“This is a way for al-Zawahri to maintain his relevance,” he said. “It’s obvious that they [al Qaeda] are putting more efforts into North Africa, with AQIM, but also in the belt of instability and insecurity - Yemen and Somalia.”
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