December 24, 2010

Radical Change in Somalia's Future?

Rapid events out of Somalia. After a week of speculation and several days of assimilation, al-Shabab and Hizbul-Islam officials formally united at Nasrudin mosque in Mogadishu. Obviously they wasted no time promising a joint campaign against African Union (AU) troops protecting Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG).

And Sheikh Ali Mohamoud Rage, the spokesman of Al Shabaab, wasted no time upstaging the merger with Hizbul-Islam by calling on jihadists around the world to take part in Somalia’s campaign. Although Uganda and Kenya warn that al-Shabab has boosted its African recruiting, Rage’s call is far more provocative and bound to attract U.S. attention. Last Thursday, Pakistan was al-Qaeda’s greatest threat to the U.S. homeland and Europe. On Friday it was Yemen.

Somalia may be tomorrow.

So how did Rage’s headline find itself kicked off stage as well? According to preliminary reports, al-Qaeda leadership has just replaced al-Shabab leader Moktar Ali Zubeyr (Muktar Abdirahman "Godane") with Ibrahim Haji Jama, the governor of Kismayo administration. Zubeyr has supposedly refused to step down, and it’s unclear whether these reports are accurate or how al-Qaeda could remove Zubeyr.

What is clear are the forces moving towards Somalia. Another 2,200 Ugandan soldiers stand on deck, having witnessed 1,800 deploy immediately after the UN raised the AU’s force level from 8,000 to 12,000. al-Shahab has summoned fighters from across the globe, a flow adjustment surely approved by AQ leadership. And its latest decision, if true, will swing wildly between two options, neither of them peaceful.

Without getting too deep into potentially false information, sacking Zubeyr likely necessitates his termination. What makes al-Qaeda’s decision so strange is that Zubeyr, not his deputy Sheikh Mukhtar Robow (Abu Mansur), supports foreign fighters in Somalia. So removing Zubeyr over Robow to squash their feud, which has reduced al-Shabab’s efficiency, seems counterintuitive, and could generate further infighting among the ranks.

Or al-Qaeda might have decided that Zubeyr was simply too divisive and jettisoned him for someone more controllable.

Conversely, al-Shabab could reap the benefits if al-Qaeda manages to end the group’s political dispute. While not life-threatening, the feud has shortened its reach and allowed the AU to pick over its territory in Mogadishu. al-Qaeda clearly sees the schism as counterproductive, and al-Shabab will assume a more formidable foe against AU reinforcements if it can straighten out.

al-Qaeda’s move is nevertheless fascinating in its level of intervention. One of al-Shabab’s primary knocks from its own fighters is the dominating influence of foreigners. While Zubyer has declared his allegiance to Osama bin Laden, theoretically ceding authority to him, no action is so overt as regime change.

Perhaps al-Qaeda hasn’t concerned itself with al-Shabab’s health so much as taking over the group. Until now AQ leadership in Somalia has kept to security roles, leaving administrative governance to al-Shabab officials and sheiks. Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, a Kenyan wanted for the U.S. embassy bombings in Tanzania and Kenya, currently heads al-Qaeda’s branch in Somalia, with several Saudis and Pakistanis in charge of financing and training.

With the promotion of Haji Jama, known as “Al-Afghani,” al-Qaeda might be trying to usurp al-Shabab’s command structure rather than fix it.

More on these reports as information becomes available.

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