The recent announcement of al-Shabaab joining al-Qaeda is not really news, just an attempt to shore up an on-and-off relationship that began in 2003 when Aden Hashi Farah "Ayro" and a small group of Somali Jihadists returned from Afghanistan looking to stir up things in the Horn of Africa country.
Al-Shabaab as a recognised group became formalised during the Ethiopian invasion of Somalia in 2006. The roots of al-Shabaab also come from al-Qaeda's origins in East Africa and their quest for establishing training and hideout cells in the region. Unfortunately, Somalia's unique sense of identity, pride and moderate nature has always clashed with al-Qaeda's more radical and anti-tribal dogma.
Now, the question everyone is asking is: Does this mean anything significant in the Somalia peace process and the global war on terror? Some pundits have simply pointed out that al-Qaeda can't do much for al-Shabaab and al-Shabaab can't do much for al-Qaeda. This view is both wrong and right.
Robert Young Pelton, whose article inspired me to write this piece, gave a rather truthful comment: "the truth is that there is little love for Jihadists in Somalia these days. What al-Shabaab knows only too well is that hitching your local uprising to al-Qaeda may provide increased funding and visibility in the short term but it also gets you the direct attention of the West and their very energetic global kill or capture program."
But let us recast first on a bit of history. In 1996, when Osama bin Laden formally announced al-Qaeda as a force against Christians, Jews and "apostates", he included Somalia in his list of al Qaeda bases in the world. The other countries were Palestine, Iraq, Lebanon, Tajikistan, Burma, Kashmir, Assam, Philippines, Ogaden, Eritrea, Chechnya and Bosnia-Herzegovina. The problem is that bin Laden was not a cleric and cannot issue Fatwas. He was well respected in jihad circles but the agenda of Salafists may not have a place in Somalia.
Now, due to his up-side-down interpretation of Islam, Godane, the al-Shaabab radical leader, who announced the merger hoped he could get operational capital from the alliance.
Godane himself had been involved in failed attacks on Puntland, the semi autonomous Somali State in the north east in 2008. His failure at leadership has always been a source of in-fighting within al-Shaabab. He does not command much trust from the al-Qaeda network. Like Pelton says, he will need to plan and execute something spectacular outside the country to even get his full name spelled correctly.
On the other hand, the 1998 US embassy bombings in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, the attacks on the USS Cole in Aden in October 2000 and the Kampala attacks of July 11, 2010, make it clear to everyone that al-Qaeda in East Africa is more than rhetoric. These attacks point to the fact that the failed state of Somalia has partly been responsible for the insecurity in the East African region.
Here are some examples. Whadi al Hage left Arizona to work for bin Laden in 1992 and became his most trusted aide. Al Hage moved to Kenya in 1994 and created his own cell. In the process, he recruited Fazul Abdullah Mohammed. Fazul was a key planner of the 1998 embassy bomb plot and later the go-between for al-Shabaab and al-Qaeda. He was killed at a checkpoint in Mogadishu in mid 2011.
In late 2006 during the Ethiopian invasion, Comoran born Kenyan Fazul Mohammed sent his wife to Pakistan to contact bin Laden to get support and advice in their fight against the Ethiopians.
In October 2006, the head of al-Qaeda in East Africa, Bajabu, met with Fazul and another al-Qaeda operative, Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, at Bajabu's home. The three looked into launching repeat attacks on US and Israeli embassies as well as attacks on Kenya's anti-terrorism headquarters in Nairobi, and the Mombasa. Bin Laden's advice was for the East African cell of al-Qaeda to step up their game and therefore get bigger funding.
The relationship between al-Qaeda and al-Shabaab continued in a September 2008 video in which Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan reached out to al-Qaeda's top leadership for help and pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda. This video may have inspired many more to join al-Shabaab. Many of these volunteers were killed, and three were used as suicide bombers against Amisom in the 2009. Since then, al-Shabaab leadership has continued to work with al-Qaeda and this is why one should take the merger very seriously.
However, the arrogant and violent approach of al-Qaeda does not endear the group to Somalis. It is important to remember that the history and goals of al-Qaeda are as foreign to Somalis as they are to the entire world. This gives hope for the success of Amisom and the world should support this African initiative to restore the State of Somalia.
Lt Col Ankunda is the Amisom Force spokesman in Mogadishu