Inside Story

Al-Qaeda and al-Shabab: Double the trouble?

We ask what the formal merger of the two groups means for the conflict in Somalia.

Somalia’s armed Islamist movement al-Shabab has joined ranks with al-Qaeda, the latter’s chief Ayman al-Zawahiri has announced in a video message posted on online forums.

“Al-Shabab lost most of the domestic revenue sources they used to rely on and now there are military and political pressures coming from different sides and as a result they might need some support.”

– Afyare Elmi, the author of Understanding the Somali conflagration: Identity, political Islam and peacebuilding

“I will break the good news to our Islamic nation, which will … annoy the crusaders, and it is that the Shabab movement in Somalia has joined al-Qaeda,” al-Zawahiri said in the video published on Thursday. 

Al-Shabab has been battling Somalia’s transitional government since 2006. Last August, the group lost control of the Somali capital, Mogadishu. 

But despite their withdrawal, al-Shabab has carried out a series of deadly attacks in the capital.

The most recent of these saw 15 people killed on Wednesday in a bomb blast outside a popular cafe.

The attacks indicate that the group is resorting to tactics that more closely resemble those of a terrorist organisation. Yet, leadership and strategy remains unclear within this notoriously unpredictable group.

“Now it is formal, so the international community must now tackle al-Qaeda in Somalia. It is no longer a simple regional problem. It is a problem for the world.”

– Paddy Ankunda, the spokesperson for the African Union mission in Somalia

So, what does this merger mean for the conflict in Somalia? How big a threat does al-Shabab’s formal alliance with al-Qaeda pose? And how can African Union forces and the Somali government deal with the new tactics being employed by al-Shabab as it attacks soft targets in the country’s capital? Is the Somali street bracing itself for a new round of bloodshed and just how severe might it be?

Joining Inside Story to discuss this are: Paddy Ankunda, a spokesperson for the African Union peacekeeping mission in Somalia (AMISOM); Afyare Elmi, a lecturer in international politics at Qatar University and the author of Understanding the Somalia conflagration: Identity, political Islam and peacebuilding; and Rohan Gunaratna, the head of the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research and the author of Inside al-Qaeda.

“This alliance is much more than al-Qaeda simply working together with al-Shabab. This means that the supporters, sympathisers will continue to provide assistance not only to al-Qaeda but also to al-Shabab because of this formal merger. As a result, it is very important for the international security organisations to look at al-Shabab more closely.”

Rohan Gunaratna, the author of Inside al-Qaeda 

Who are the al-Shabab?

Al-Shabab, which means ‘the youth’ in Arabic, is an armed group that grew out of other Islamist militias that have been battling Somalia’s transitional government since 2006. It currently controls much of southern Somalia – with an estimated 9,000 fighters. It wants to impose a strict version of sharia. It is already considered a terrorist movement by the US. Al-Shabab leaders have claimed affiliation with al-Qaeda since 2007.

In 2009, the group released a video pledging allegiance to al-Qaeda. Osama bin Laden praised the group. In February 2010, the group admitted for the first time to having links to al-Qaeda. In July 2010, al-Shabab showed its ability to strike beyond Somalia – killing dozens of Ugandans in the Ugandan capital Kampala. Ugandan troops provide the bulk of the 9,000-strong African Union peacekeeping force in Somalia.

In 2011, the Pentagon approved $45m in arms shipments to African troops fighting against al-Shabab in Somalia. In October 2011, Kenyan troops crossed into southern Somalia to hit back over a series of kidnappings it blamed on the group. In November, 2011, leaders of Kenya, Uganda and Somalia formed a regional front against al-Shabab vowing to defeat the group.