Garissa — A letter allegedly written by American-born jihadist Omar Hammami, the al-Qaeda operative known as Abu Mansoor al-Amriki, says al-Shabaab has been increasingly ineffective in Somalia because of its mistrust of foreigners and weak allegiance to the principles of global jihad.
"The brothers from al-Qaeda in Somalia have tried for two decades and failed to change the situation in spite of their tremendous efforts," the document posted with a video on January 7th said. "This is due to the Somali nature that prevents outside interference and prohibits suggestions from others."
"Despite the propaganda from some Somalis that they are on board with global jihad, their past and present actions indicate that all they want is internal work for local purposes," it said. "In spite of the rumours that they follow the al-Qaeda ideology, they are the ones that expelled al-Qaeda from Somalia."
In the January 7th video titled "The Final Appeal", Hammami said his situation in Somalia had deteriorated significantly and asked an unnamed sheikh for help.
Foreign fighters look on
"What Hammami calls a final appeal to a sheikh, whom I believe is [al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri], is in effect the final blow to the group," said retired Kenya Defence Forces Major Bashir Hajji Abdullahi. "It will take something extraordinary to end the palpable tension within the group."
The damage has gone beyond the differences between Hammami and other leaders in the group.
The American-born jihadist has many foreign-born loyalists, and how al-Shabaab leadership deals with Hammami will be an example of what foreign jihadists in Somalia should expect in the future, Abdullahi told Sabahi.
"The message being sent by the Somali fighters to the foreign fighters is that there is only one way of approaching the war," he said.
Hammami loyalists are also emerging on social media to rally around him and criticise al-Shabaab leaders.
For example, an anonymous Twitter user who goes by "Abu M" has been supposedly speaking on behalf of Hammami in recent weeks, criticising al-Shabaab for not being in line with the jihadi agenda.
In a series of abbreviated English sentences posted on Twitter, Abu M's criticism is apparent.
"How can u fight kuf [non-believers] if shabab want to jail u 4 not agreeing," Abu M posted January 13th. A week earlier, Abu M posted: "Muhajiriin [foreign fighters] arent allowed to truly benefit somalia, nor any other land. They can't even help themselves 2 b [self-sufficient]."
In a December 18th post, Abu M challenged the al-Shabaab leadership asking, "Why are muhajirs dying, going to jail, running away, being forced out? Call me a liar and discredit urself."
Discussing the plight of foreign fighters in Somalia, Abu M on January 5th said, "Shabab actively send people to act like apostates. But well known fighters are jailed at the mere notion of [possible apostasy]." A day later, Abu M posted, "[Foreign fighters] are locked up like cattle upon mere whim."
Muslim Youth Centre weighs in
Meanwhile, the Muslim Youth Centre (MYC), a Kenya-based group associated with al-Shabaab, was compelled to join the fray because the organisation had "received numerous queries on the status of Abu Mansour al-Amriki", according to a January 12th press release.
In the statement, MYC urged jihadist fighters to refrain from encouraging disunity "over the issue of Abu Mansoor al-Amriki, but focus on recommitting themselves to jihad in East Africa under the umbrella of [al-Qaeda in East Africa]".
Aiming to deflect other fighters who "seek to emulate" Hammami, the statement went on to say "jihad will never be about the image of one individual but the collective image of the mujahideen".
Moreover, in a Twitter post the same day, MYC said Hammami needs to show regret and return to jihad. "opposin sheikh abu zubeyr [al-Shabaab leader, also known as Ahmed Abdi Godane] is akin 2 siding wit kuffar [non-believers]," MYC said.
Garissa County Commissioner Mohammed Maalim said the differences playing out in public indicate that the militants have lost focus and lack an agenda. "Al-Shabaab has been portraying itself as a united front, yet its fighters are an amalgam of people with diverse hidden interests," he said.
Some group members seek power, some are in it for money and some joined for an adventure in radicalism, he said, adding that these diverse interests started emerging because "some of the Kenyan youths who joined the group did so out of the promise of money, but when the promises were not met, they returned back home".
"I will not be surprised if Hammami reveals that the differences may have also been heightened by the management of the militants' dwindling finances," he said.
David Ochami, a Mombasa-based journalist who follows militant groups in the Middle East and the Horn of Africa for Kenya's The Standard, said the divisions within al-Shabaab would eventually lead to the formation of splinter groups.
"We saw how Hizbul Islam severed ties with al-Shabaab in September over ideological differences," he said. "The Hammami team will eventually break ties with al-Shabaab, further weakening it."
"The al-Shabaab command may view Hammami as an individual, but his stay in Somalia amassed trust among foreign fighters that will be broken with his departure or killing by al-Shabaab," he said.
Without the support of Hammami, one of the most prolific propagandists the militant group had on board, al-Shabaab is effectively on its death bed, he said. However, the offshoots could pose a bigger threat to security in the region because once foreign jihadists sever ties with Somalis, these breakaway factions could concentrate on taking their war globally, he said.
The "Final Appeal" video is the third in a series of videos in which Hammami outlines the infighting between al-Shabaab's Somali and foreign factions.
In a video released October 19th titled "An Urgent Message", Hammami called on "the leaders of jihad and virtuous scholars" to intervene and find a fundamental solution to "the bitter situation that currently engulfs the Somali [foreign fighters]".
Hammami said the "friction" between al-Shabaab's local leaders and foreign fighters was an impediment to the militant group taking their terror activities globally.
"Therefore, [I ask you in the name of] Allah [to come to the aid of] your mujahideen brothers, and to rein in the internal strife before it is too late," he said. "Do not abandon us..."
In a video released last March -- one month after al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri announced that the Somali Mujahideen al-Shabaab movement was merging with al-Qaeda -- Hammami said his life was in danger from fellow al-Shabaab members. His whereabouts have since been unknown.