Mogadishu — A number of events in recent days have exposed the escalating showdown between various splinter groups within al-Shabaab, and point to a near future mired in conflict and corrosion for the al-Qaeda-allied organisation.
On Monday evening (April 29th), American-born jihadist Omar Hammami, also known as Abu Mansour al-Amriki, seemed to have written his last tweet in a year-long drama that has pitted him and his fellow foreign fighters against al-Shabaab commander Ahmed Abdi Godane, also known as Mukhtar Abu Zubayr.
In a desperate series of tweets Monday evening, al-Amriki, using the Twitter handle @abumamerican, bid farewell to the world as al-Shabaab fighters loyal to Godane allegedly stood poised to kill him and his followers.
"May not find another chance to tweet but just remember what we said and what we stood for. God kept me alive to deliver the mssg 2 the umah," he said.
However, on Tuesday (April 30th), al-Amriki began posting a number of new messages about his evolving situation, namely providing a link to a fatwa allegedly written and supported by three top al-Shabaab commanders opposed to Godane -- Ibrahim al-Afghani (whose real name is Ibrahim Haji Jama Meeaad and is also known as Abu Bakr al-Zaylai), Sheikh Mukhtar Robow Ali (or Abu Mansur) and al-Zubayr al-Mujahid -- as well as Hizbul Islam leader Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys.
The fatwa described al-Amriki and his followers as "brothers" whose blood was not permitted to be spilt "even if [Godane] orders it".
It went on to warn against "blind obedience" to Godane, and described the attempts on al-Amriki and his followers' lives as "recklessness caused by ignorance at best, or a result of manipulating legal concepts for political ends and to advance personal goals that have nothing to do with God's law".
Latest attempt on al-Amriki's life
Last Thursday evening (April 25th), while sitting in a tea shop, several al-Shabaab agents allegedly tried to assassinate al-Amriki, but failed. Hours later, al-Amriki said he received word that al-Shabaab forces had surrounded his location.
"Abu zubayr has gone mad. he's starting a civil war," al-Amriki said.
After being silent for a couple days, al-Amriki returned to Twitter to say that he was alive and gearing up for what might be his final showdown with al-Shabaab. From his Tweets, it appears that al-Amriki and his followers are now on the run after failed discussions with Godane's fighters.
"We called 4 shariah & accepted many things 2 bring peace but they said we are an armed renegade group even if [Godane] is our leader & we dont fight," he explained.
"Its culmination of full faceted [... ] warfare against those who speak truth," al-Amriki tweeted, "Even if we die weve won".
Al-Shabaab factions hunting each other down
"The al-Amriki assassination attempt by Godane is a clear sign that the rift between the al-Shabaab leader and the foreign fighters has become a direct war," said Omar Ali Roble, former minister for disarmament and reintegration of militias in Somalia.
"They are hunting each other down, which is clear evidence that al-Shabaab was never about religion or jihad, but a group of criminals that came together to kill the Somali public under the pretence of religion," he told Sabahi.
Eliminating the opposition is nothing new to Godane, as he is known for carrying out such actions against group members or associates who oppose him, Roble said.
Most notably, Godane has been linked to the death of Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, al-Qaeda's leader in East Africa, who was killed in June 2011 when his convoy was directed by al-Shabaab fighters, allegedly under Godane's orders, to drive straight into an African Union manned security checkpoint in Mogadishu.
Al-Qaeda foreign fighters who have relationships with al-Shabaab leaders who stand in opposition to Godane, such as Robow, represent a danger to the group's top commander, Roble said. "That is why [Godane] is implementing the 'divide and rule' strategy, by getting rid of [al-Shabaab's] foreign leaders who oppose his ideas."
Open letters rock foundations of al-Shabaab
While the conflict between foreign fighters and al-Shabaab members loyal to Godane plays out, a number of open letters addressing Godane's leadership have begun corroding the organisation from within.
A scathing letter addressed to Godane from al-Zubayr al-Muhajir, who claims to be one of al-Shabaab's top foreign fighters, was posted on a number of jihadist websites on April 20th, exposing the deepening mistrust and communication breakdown between various factions within the al-Qaeda-allied organisation.
Al-Muhajir's letter came less than two weeks after the group's second-in-command, Ibrahim al-Afghani, released an open letter on April 6th addressed to al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, in which he unleashed harsh criticism of Godane.
Al-Afghani's letter was preceded by another letter written by al-Amriki, who was the first to expose al-Shabaab's internal leadership crisis, its mistrust of foreigners and weak allegiance to the causes of jihad.
Hassan Abdullahi, a political analyst who monitors the affairs of Islamist movements in Somalia, said these letters are a sign of deep divisions among the group's leadership.
"Indeed, there is a real dilemma among the group's leadership, Somalis and foreigners alike, and it has become clear that the differences are not only between Godane and Abu Mansur but also includes other leaders in the group," Abdullahi told Sabahi.
"The foreign fighters in the group now know that they are being marginalised and excluded from senior positions and are rather at the bottom of the pile in terms of leadership positions, so they are now looking for a safe exit," he said.
"After the political, military and financial decline of al-Shabaab, leaders of the group have started to exchange accusations of who is responsible for this decline," Abdullahi said. "It would not be an exaggeration to say that the group has now entered the stage of internal corrosion."
Abdikadir Ahmed Gardiyow, a retired Somali security officer, predicted even more disgruntlement within the ranks of al-Shabaab.
"The internal crisis that al-Shabaab is suffering from is very deep and is now beyond divisions and differences of opinion. It has reached the stage of outright confrontation, infighting and eliminations," Gardiyow told Sabahi.
"Over the past couple of years, al-Shabaab has tried to present itself to the outside world as a strong movement whose members are united and that they are fighting for one cause. However, the latest events of the internal and ongoing conflict among its leaders paint a different picture," he said. "The upcoming messages and complaints will be even more severe and this will negatively impact the group's efforts to recruit new foreign fighters."
Hussein Mohamed, a Mogadishu-based political analyst, predicted that these events would lead to further dissent within al-Shabaab's ranks and that a splinter group would emerge in the near future.
"If this internal crisis within al-Shabaab continues, a splinter group will soon appear. It is likely that the first such splinter group will support Abu Mansoor al-Amriki," he told Sabahi. "In the event that the wing dominated by the foreign fighters within al-Shabaab does break away, this will weaken the movement even more and might lead to its total disintegration."