The al-Qaeda-linked Islamist al-Shabab group has been waging a war in Somalia for nearly a decade. Its depredations have spilled over into neighboring countries, propelling Kenya and Uganda to send ground troops to contain the threat and uproot al-Shabab from inside. The battalion is now known as the African Union Mission of Somalia, or AMISOM. After years of relentless pursuit, it has started crushing the Islamist group from region to region, pushing al-Shabab militants into the bush.
But al-Shabab’s latest outrages — a truck bomb at the Turkish Embassy in Mogadishu, the assault of a UN compound, the storming of government buildings and the escalating assassinations of government officials, district commissioners and other politicians — illustrate that, after years in retreat, al-Shabab is re-emerging and conducting a more lethal and asymmetrical guerrilla form of warfare.
This is where al-Shabab's gravest threat lies.
Over the last two years, the group has suffered severe setbacks and lost some of its major strongholds, including the embattled port of Kismayo and most of its southern swaths. Most of its top leaders were killed, and many of its foot soldiers defected to the government side.
But yet, if you look at the latest evolution of al-Shabab — from the recent internal splinter to the bloody coup by hard-line leaders — there is a clear pattern of a reformed al-Shabab, one committed to come back and rebrand the organization’s moribund character.
That is to say, an updated al-Shabab — sort of a version 2.0 — is reappearing with upgraded leadership.
In a recent audio message, Ahmed Godane, al-Shabab’s operational brain, made it clear that he is determined to reverse the organization’s plummeting operations. That includes, as he put it, plans to install a whole new generation who can interact with fast-moving jihadist warfare.
Unlike al-Shabab 1.0, the upgraded al-Shabab is likely to have new recruiters — mostly youths, under 30, who have exposure to the West and are fluent in foreign languages, to appeal to coming generations. This seems evident in new footage released by al-Shabab featuring three young Somali-Americans who died while waging war. The video “The Path to Paradise: From the Twin Cities to the Land of Migration” is part of al-Qaeda-approved propaganda messages to appeal to the next generation.
Godane’s hour-long audio message was the first since his recent coup d’etat that involved the execution of senior al-Shabab leaders — including Ibrahim Afghani and also, reportedly, the US-born Omar Hammaami. The message demonstrated Godane’s role in consolidating and providing new leadership to al-Shabab.
Though much of his message was devoted to the martyrs, he also touched upon global issues, including America’s expending war on terror and Kenya’s invasion of Somalia. But more oddly, he mentioned the Al Jazeera Center for Studies and the Rand Corp. as leading global publishers of anti-jihadist propaganda.
Prior to Godane’s coup, al-Shabab had a relatively centralized leadership, with decisions often made in top-down hierarchical fashion. But following the coup, al-Shabab is on new trajectory being written and dictated by Godane, who seems to believe that the coup was a structural change offering a new beginning for the organization and, more crucially, reassuring global jihadists that no divisions exist within al-Shabab.
With Godane in absolute power, al-Shabab’s support base across the country is drastically declining overall, but succeeding in appealing once again to its core constituencies, especially where it has strong clan sympathies. A case in point is the Bay and Bakool region, where al-Shabab has regained control of some key districts and continues to recruit in greater numbers.
It is believed that the diffuse and complex organization has a highly centralized authority but loosely decentralized operations. Many believe its focus has narrowed down to the near enemy — the Somali government, AMISOM, Turkey and their affiliates — instead of the far enemy such as Kenya, Uganda and the West. The attack on the Turkish Embassy may be a subtle manifestation of al-Shabab’s desperation to go after the enemy within, rather than without.
In this way, al-Shabab is dialing up its domestic attacks, and dialing down its external ones.
Even though Godane would like to see al-Shabab thrive on its own terms, he will continue to heavily relay on al-Qaeda's ideological guidelines and financial assistance; al-Shabab is said to be in severe financial straits.
Unfortunately, the government in Mogadishu, backed by the United States, is institutionally weak and has very limited capability to contain the threat of al-Shabab. Its own security apparatus is being penetrated — literally every day — and the government is grappling for its own survival.
That leads to the conclusion that al-Shabab is a more dangerous enemy to Somali’s nascent stability than ever before.
Abdihakim Ainte is a Somali researcher and analyst. On Twitter: @Abdikhakim