Al-Shabaab's loyalty split between Al-Qaeda and ISIS

Jihadist hardliners waving the ISIS flag. PHOTO | FILE 

Somalia's Al-Shabaab jihadists could be split over who to pledge allegiance to: Al-Qaeda or the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Reports from Middle Juba region in Southern Somalia indicate that an intensive battle raged on Wednesday between the opposing factions within Al-Shabaab.

The fight took place at a place called Gambare, near Sakow town, about 480 km south of Mogadishu.

Area residents say the pro-Al Qaeda group attacked fellow militants sympathetic to ISIS.

The fighting was said to have beeen so intense that the combatants did not even answer the call for prayers by a mosque’s muezzin.

At least 9 militants are believed to have died while 8 others sustained wounds.

Sources indicate that the dead included prominent militia leader named Sheikh Bashir, a veteran Islamist leader who was once a member of Al-Ittihad al-Islami, which struggled for the formation of Islamic rule in Somalia in the 1990s.

“It seems that the warring sides disappeared into the bushes without a trace,” a resident who did not wish to be named for security reasons told the media.

Recent events have illustrated that Al-Shabaab is plagued with internal rifts, which have since escalated to who between Al-Qaeda and ISIS is supreme.

At the same time, some officials within the ranks have started to abandon the jihadist movement altogether. Others are voicing their preferences to shift loyalty away from Al-Qaeda, the long-term ally of the group.

Their alternative is to declare allegiance to ISIS, also known as the Islamic State in the Levant (ISIL).

The first to do so was a group of militants in Puntland, a semi-autonomous authority in north-eastern Somalia, led by one Sheikh Abdulkadir Mumin.

Sheikh Mumin and more than 50 militants holed up at Galgala mountain range appeared in an Internet information outlet in October, announcing their shift of loyalty.

The group’s exact position on the matter was however not very clear, an indication of their apparent desire to avoid a clash with those who remain loyal to Al-Qaeda.

Sheikh Mumin’s defection to Da’esh (as ISIS is known in the Arabic world) was seen as significant because he had been a prominent member in Al-Shabaab’s Muwa’edeen (preaching) unit.

The unit has been responsible for the brainwashing of the youth by injecting them with heavy doses of indoctrination, heightening their sentiments to the point of daring to carry out suicide missions.

Jihadist hardliners

Well-sourced reports suggest, however, that hardline Al-Shabaab jihadists like Ahmed Dirie aka Abu Ubayda, who presumably is Al-Shabaab’s Emir (supreme leader), and militia leader Mahad Karatay, remain strongly loyal to Al-Qaeda.

In a tacit acknowledgement of fissures within, Sheikh Ali Mohamoud Raghe alias Sheikh Ali Dhere, the Al-Shabaab spokesman, said last week that his group was not going to allow any disunity. “Those accused of dividing the Muslims will be blocked,” he warned.

"Al-Shabaab is the only legitimate Islamic authority in Somalia and in the East Africa region,” he reiterated while shying away from mentioning ISIS.

In the context of this internal conflict, it is emerging that some militant leaders with significant influence are campaigning for Al-Shabaab to unify with ISIS.

For one, observers are certain that Al-Qaeda’s resources to support its allies around the world have been declining. In any case the deal with Al-Qaeda, which has remained secret, seems more ideological than practical.

Way back in June 2013, Sheikh Abdulaziz Abu Mus’ab, the Al-Shabaab spokesman for military operations, acknowledged that his movement was putting down some kind of uprising from individuals aspiring for changes.

He admitted that some top officials had been killed as orders for conformity were executed under the direction of the late Al-Shabaab leader Ahmed Abdi Godane.

Hitherto, militia leader Abu Mus’ab had stated that some Al-Shabaab officials died while fighting in Barawe town, 200 km south of Mogadishu.

Though Abu Mus’ab did not give a list, the dead are believed to have included Ibrahim Haji Jama alias Al-Afghani and Abdihamid Hashi Olhaye alias Moalim Burhan. The fallout forced Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, another hardliner, to sneak out of Barawe by boat and surrender to the federal government side.

To many people, the conflict within Al-Shabaab was adjudged deep-rooted enough to force Sheikh Aweys to flee to the government side, the same authority he fought against and vowed to annihilate.

Others who have died in the course of the internal 'cleansing' include Omar Shafik Hammami alias Al-Amriki, an international jihadist who had been living in the United States.

Amisom's mission

Up to now, nobody knows for sure the whereabouts of Sheikh Mukhtar Robow Abu Mansoor, once seen as the number two in the Islamist movement's ranks. It is presumed he is in hiding protected by followers.

Rumours have lately been spreading like bush fire that up to 100 Al-Shabaab fighters and operatives have been detained on suspicion of defecting to ISIS.

The notion of joining ISIS among the Al-Shabaab militants and even among the militia leaders has been bubbling ever since the West Africa-based Boko Haram vowed allegiance to ISIS.

There is a belief that ISIS has a more determined Islamist programme than Al-Qaeda, as well as more resources.

Recently, Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamoud urged members of Al-Shabaab to stop contemplating on the choice between Al-Qaeda and ISIS.

“We are fully aware of the obvious difference within Al-Shabaab members on whether to join Da’esh (ISIS) or remain loyal to Al-Qaeda,” said the president.

“I call both organisations 'the destroyers'," he added.

“They kill Muslims who do not embrace their doctrines and innocent people from other religions,” President Mohamoud said.

Five days after the head of state gave the statement, Al-Shabaab fighters on a suicide mission stormed Sahafi International Hotel in Mogadishu, killing among others a top military officer, a member of parliament and a well-known hotelier.

Hit-and-run attacks and suicide missions are some of the tactics meant to show that the zealous jihadist movement is very much alive, despite strong military knocks from the peacekeepers serving with the African Union Mission in Somalia (Amisom) and the Somali National Army.

Amisom's mission is unlikely to be detracted by the squabble over whether the Somali jihadists will remain loyal to Al-Qaeda or seek a new marriage with ISIS.

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