Mogadishu — The year-long internal crisis within al-Shabaab intensified this month after the group's second-in-command sent a stinging criticism of its leadership to al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.
"If we are afraid of foreign players stealing the outcomes of jihad, today we are witnessing a reality that indicates that an internal deviation could lead to losing the profits of our effort in vain," Ibrahim al-Afghani said in an open letter released April 6th on a number of jihadist websites. He said he felt compelled to write the missive, titled "An Open Letter to Our Amir Sheikh Ayman al-Zawahiri", "on behalf of the silent majority" of al-Shabaab fighters.
Al-Afghani, whose real name is Ibrahim Haji Jama Meeaad and is also known as Abu Bakr al-Zaylai, is considered one of the founders of al-Shabaab and one of its only leaders trained in Afghan al-Qaeda camps in the 1990s. Until now, he avoided making public statements and preferred keeping a low-profile and working behind the scenes.
In the letter, al-Afghani paints a bleak picture of al-Shabaab and rebukes its leader Ahmed Abdi Godane, also known as Mukhtar Abu Zubayr. He said al-Shabaab's current situation is "getting worse and nothing is visible on the horizon", calling on al-Zawahiri to intervene in order to find solutions to the rifts affecting the militants.
"Now, this is no time to wait or an occasion to be patient," he said in his 15-page letter. "We are walking in a dark tunnel and we do not know what is hiding for us in it, except for Allah the sovereign and wise."
As a result of internal divisions, al-Afghani said, al-Shabaab has lost most of the land it once controlled as well as the trust and support of the Somali people. "We have witnessed an obvious drawback in the achievements of the muhajideen. Ten states were under the rule of the movement four years ago, which came with the possession of huge human resources and the sympathy of our Muslim people," he said.
"Now, the jihadi spirit has receded and the motives for creation and production have been destroyed," he said, adding that skilled and talented people have been increasingly marginalised from al-Shabaab's ranks.
Godane has created an atmosphere devoid of new ideas, calling anyone who questions him a traitor, al-Afghani said. "Denying the repeated oppression of [Godane] against the Muslim people or about the rights of the mujahideen is understood by some as armed disobedience against the emir of the believers and straying away from the Muslim community," he said.
"[Godane] has secret prisons where whoever enters these prisons is lost forever and those who manage to get out receive a second lease on life," al-Afghani said. "These prisons come in many forms and none of the clerics or leaders are allowed to visit or inspect them. What happens in there are horrifically shocking violations of prisoners' rights."
Speaking about the fighters who have broken off from al-Shabaab's central leadership because of their opposition to Godane, al-Afghani writes, "Not only are those who refuse oppression and humiliation targeted, they are given no space and deprived of the simplest rights in life and left in the woods with the lions to face slow death."
Letter represents al-Shabaab's 'death certificate'
Omar Dahir, security analyst and director of the Mogadishu-based Centre for Moderation and Dialogue, said al-Afghani's letter reflects his worries about the militant group's future after its internal crisis reached a "stage that could lead to the total collapse of the movement".
"The tone of despair in al-Afghani's letter to al-Qaeda's leader is the equivalent of a death certificate for al-Shabaab," Dahir told Sabahi. "In essence, this message from al-Afghani to al-Qaeda's leader reflects the deep crisis that al-Shabaab is suffering from within as well as its decline and retreat."
Abdullahi Sheikh Ahmed, a political analyst and former leader in the Islamic Courts Union from which the al-Shabaab movement was born, said that hardliners have split into factions because of what he described as diverging interests.
Last year, as al-Shabaab began to sustain back-to-back losses, a rift among the group's leadership started to emerge, dividing the leadership in two camps: one with Godane and al-Afghani, considered hardliners who favoured the idea of al-Shabaab expanding beyond the Somali borders, and the other with Sheikh Mukhtar Robow and Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, who preferred limiting the group's activities to Somalia.
Al-Afghani's plea for an intervention and public criticism of Godane underscores the gravity of the situation, as their allegiance was considered the last foundation block of al-Shabaab.
"As time passed, allegiances and interests changed until [Godane's] more radical wing -- the Followers of the Religion of Abraham -- considered to be the most solid group within al-Shabaab based on its connection with its parent organisation, al-Qaeda, and its control over sources of funding and power, disintegrated," Ahmed told Sabahi.
"Ahmed Godane's monopoly on power and imposing totalitarian rule is the reason why there has been a widening chasm between him and the other leaders within the group such as Sheikh Mukhtar Robow," he added. "It is only natural that when the political, military and financial gains erode, the upper echelons of al-Shabaab start blaming one another and it should come as no surprise that divisions will continue as each wing tries to take hold of what is left of those gains."
Letter sows discord between militants on social media:
Since the letter was released, a wave of activity has occurred on social media involving various actors in the global jihadist network.
There has been, however, a noticeable absence in the debate: al-Shabaab's official Twitter account has not yet addressed the letter, and instead has continued to proclaim unproven tactical victories against "the kuffar".
Al-Shabaab's silence on the matter was explained in a series of posts by Abu M, the Twitter handle of American-born jihadist Omar Hammami, better known as Abu Mansour al-Amriki.
"Recent actions of shabab show they are very afraid and [apprehensive] of what this letter might do to their credibility & power on the ground," Abu M tweeted on April 6th. "Al-Afghani was a key founder of shabab and the amir shura. He was wali of kismayu for a while as well."
Al-Amriki, continuing his efforts to show that he and his followers are not alone in their opposition to Godane's leadership, posted on April 8th, "the founders of shabab and myself are all united against oppression and in contact on a daily basis".
"My aim is to document shabab's destruction of itself so that the ummah can stop it or at least not repeat the same," Abu M added.
The Muslim Youth Centre (MYC), al-Shabaab's recruitment wing in Kenya, was quick to react to the letter's presence, openly admitting to the divisions within al-Shabaab's leadership.
"While da letter may ave come frm Al-Afghani da brains behind it was that toxic mujahid," MYC tweeted on April 7th, referring to al-Amriki, whose messages in recent months have exposed the growing rift within al-Shabaab.
"Al-Afghani is the second founding father of shabab. You are a girl in Kenya," Abu M told the MYC, which responded, "u run to al-Afghani to help u sow discord. Yes, am a girl in Kenya like dat makes a difference u misogynist!"
The bitter infighting on social media caused by the escalating crisis within al-Shabaab, as exemplified above, was even addressed by al-Afghani in his letter to al-Zawahiri. The ongoing problems within al-Shabaab "start and never end, and continue and escalate ... then, the world witnesses the beginning of the fierce media war inside the social media rooms, with Twitter relaying its events to everyone!"