columnBy Boniface Bosire
Nairobi — A document released February 18th by an unknown author claiming links to al-Shabaab is further evidence that the ongoing saga surrounding American-born militant Omar Hammami is a serious -- if not existential -- threat to al-Shabaab's leadership.
The 17-page document, titled "Turning away from the truth won't make it disappear: Demystifying the Abu Mansur saga", is a comprehensive attempt to discredit and marginalise supporters of Hammami, also known as Abu Mansour al-Amriki, by attacking his personality, motives and commitment to jihad.
"Time and money is being dedicated to limit the damage already done by the exposed rift [within al-Shabaab]," said Samson Omusula, a Nairobi-based security consultant, adding that the militant group is sparing no effort in reaching a widespread audience.
"[The document] is an attempt [by al-Shabaab] to portray itself to the group's concerned financiers and sympathisers that it is united," he told Sabahi.
Little is known about the document's alleged author, Abu Hamza al-Muhajir, other than what is offered in the text.
The document, written in colloquial English and produced with attractive graphics, pull quotes and an easy-to-manage digital format, portrays the author as a Westerner in an attempt to convince readers that he and other foreign fighters are not on board with al-Amriki's discontent with al-Shabaab's leadership.
Evidence, however, points to the strong possibility that al-Muhajir is in fact a Somali member of al-Shabaab.
The manner and tone in which the document describes al-Amriki -- a "young, benevolent white man" who travelled to Africa to "enable that backward society to establish an Islamic state of governance" by "imposing his will upon ... the savages" -- evokes local sentiments and perceptions of the colonialism of years past.
In fact, Omusula said the author or authors could be the same individuals operating al-Shabaab's Twitter account. "The same individuals may pose as different fighters who are in support of Abu al-Zubayr to create the perception that he enjoys wide support," he said, referring to Mukhtar Abu al-Zubayr, the al-Shabaab leader also known as Ahmed Godane.
"They realise that the same voice against Hammami has not convinced foreign fighters, thus they are creating different faces and voices to show non-existent support," Omusula said. "I would not be surprised [to find] another follow-up document soon by the same author hiding under a different name in an attempt to show diversity."
Al-Amriki saga penetrates inner ranks of al-Shabaab
A growing body of evidence indicates that the al-Amriki saga has penetrated the rank and file of al-Shabaab, and that the militant group's leadership is growing more desperate to stop the fears and doubts from spreading.
In this latest attempt to discredit al-Amriki, the document starts off with a story about a "senior Arab muhajir" giving a sermon to a large group of mujahideen and local residents at a mosque in Barawe in Somalia's Lower Shabelle region.
Since the "issue of Abu Mansour [was] still being talked about in the mujahideen circles", the senior-level militant focused his sermon on the relationship between the ansar (local fighters) and the muhajireen (foreign fighters) -- the very issue that has plagued al-Shabaab for months.
After accusing al-Amriki and his followers of being "ahlul kalaam [people of idle talk]" rather than the jihadist ideal "ahlul qital [people of battle]", the militant went to great lengths to make it seem that no divisions exist between the local Somali leaders and the foreign fighters.
"By Allah, I have given my bay'ah [pledge of allegiance] to Sheikh Abu Zubayr in person and now from this pulpit I wish to publicly reaffirm my bay'ah to him and declare, not on my own, but on behalf of the muhajireen, that we're still firm on our bay'ah and haven't discarded it," the senior Arab muhajir allegedly told the audience.
Nairobi-based security consultant and retired army Major Wilberforce Onchiri told Sabahi that al-Shabaab is desperate to have all fighters swear loyalty to al-Zubayr in the face of increasing defections and worries.
"Al-Shabaab is concerned by the growing rebellion and mistrust," Onchiri said. "It will not be a surprise that al-Zubayr himself has authorised the release of the documents to allay the growing fears in the minds of foreign fighters inside and outside Somalia."
Onchiri added that despite al-Shabaab's attempts to portray normality within its ranks, the crisis between the local and foreign fighters is real.
Moreover, the author admits the rationale for releasing this document is an attempt to stop the divisions and fears persisting within the al-Qaeda-linked group.
Al-Mujahir says the reason he did this was to "demystify the Abu Mansur saga to all the supporters of the mujahideen in order to assuage their fears and clarify their doubts".
"Without the emergence of any further information on the evolving saga," he continued, "Abu Mansur's narrative would, undoubtedly, seem plausible enough to find some shelter in the hearts of many well-wishers and jihad enthusiasts around the globe."
David Ochami, a Mombasa-based journalist who follows militant groups' activities in the Middle East and Horn of Africa, said the document is an indication that al-Shabaab fighters are paying a lot of attention to the al-Amriki issue, and not the goals outlined by their leaders.
"After dismissing the issue and hoping it would be fade out, al-Shabaab is now compelled to issue statements because of the rising status of Hammami," he told Sabahi, adding that the issue appears to have diverted the attention of the group's mission of spreading terror.
"It is undisputed that a splinter group is in the offing and al-Shabaab would not be issuing these statements if it did not feel their leadership is threatened," he said.
The latest in a series of attempts to discredit al-Amriki
The messages within the 17-page document are nothing new. For months, al-Shabaab and its affiliates have been attempting to marginalise al-Amriki and his followers.
On December 17th, in a rare extended press release, al-Shabaab disowned al-Amriki and his followers in the face of rising questions from the rank and file.
In the statement al-Shabaab declared that "Abu Mansour al-Amriki does not, in any way, shape or form, represent the views of the muhajireen in Somalia ... The opinions expressed by Abu Mansour, the alleged frictions and the video releases are merely the results of personal grievances that stem purely from a narcissistic pursuit of fame and are far removed from the reality on the ground."
The militant group's statement came after two high-profile videos featuring al-Amriki were released on the internet.
In a video released in March, he says his life is in danger from fellow al-Shabaab members "due to some differences that occurred between us regarding matters of sharia and matters of strategy". In an October video, he pleads for global jihadist leaders to intervene in "the bitter situation that currently engulfs" al-Shabaab and the movement's foreign fighters.
A few weeks later, al-Amriki allegedly released another video and several supporting documents, this time pleading for an unknown sheikh, believed to be al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, to intervene and save the foreign fighters from al-Shabaab.
"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," one of the documents said. "In spite of the rumours that they follow the al-Qaeda ideology, they are the ones that expelled al-Qaeda from Somalia."
Furthermore, the Muslim Youth Centre (MYC), an al-Shabaab-linked group in Kenya, was compelled to join the fray because the organisation had "received numerous queries on the status of Abu Mansour al-Amriki", according to its January 12th press release.
Aiming to deflect other fighters who "seek to emulate" al-Amriki, the statement said "jihad will never be about the image of one individual but the collective image of the mujahideen".
MYC tweets show growing tensions
In recent weeks, messages emanating from MYC's Twitter account expose the extent to which the rift between jihadists in the region has grown.
On February 20th, the MYC appears to realise just how damaging the public al-Amriki saga has become. "We feel dat keepin our internal probs internal is da best way. why do we wan da kuffar 2 laugh @ us?"
Three days later, the tone of MYC's tweets begins to get more aggressive.
"In da end if anyone is NT happy with Al Shabaab & AQ thea is r options: "go work 4 kuffar" or "SHUT UP"!!!!!" the group posted on February 23rd, following a stream of tweets from a number of allegedly discontented jihadists in the region, most notably Abu M (@abumamerican), the Twitter account widely accepted as that of al-Amriki.
The same day, MYC speaks of al-Shabaab leader al-Zubayr. "Sum feel vry passionate abt abu zubyr while others have NO respect 4 him....," in an obvious reference to al-Amriki and the other foreign fighters at odds with al-Shabaab's leadership.