Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, currently a semi-official leader of al-Shabaab, wasn't included in the State Department's bounties
On Thursday, the State Department released a list of multi-million dollar rewards "for information leading to the location" of al-Shabaab's leadership. Timed to the march of Kenyan (and possibly Ethiopian) forces as they converge on Kismayo, the largest Somali city under the insurgency's control, the U.S. announcement hopes to strike at al-Shabaab's jugular by exploiting its depleted popularity. Bill Roggio, editor of the "Long War Journal," remarked that "large rewards haven't had an impact in bringing the top guys to justice, but these notices are important to help define the enemy and informing people about who we believe to be the top-level threats."
However the State Department's press statement makes little effort to "define the enemy," and the U.S. media reaction has yet to fill this information gap. The following notes stand a good chance of factoring into the outcome of Washington's counterterrorism strategy in Somalia.
The $7 million bounty on Ahmed Abdi aw-Mohamed, also known as Moktar Ali Zubeyr or Ahmad Abdi Godane, presents a seemingly clear scenario. As the loudest Somali advocate of global jihad, Zubeyr twice pledged his allegiance to Osama bin Laden (before and after his death) and allegedly assumed command of al-Qaeda's East African wing after a Somali policeman gunned down former chief Fazul Abdullah Mohammed. Mohammed's killing was dubbed a "significant blow" by the Obama administration; although Zubeyr filled his place, the savvy Mohammed had advised al-Shabaab to revert from holding territory (especially Mogadishu) to staging guerrilla attacks across the country.
Bin Laden reportedly rejected Zubeyr's leadership advances in favor of the trusted Mohammed, leading some analysts to suspect a set up. Nevertheless, eliminating Zubeyr would further deplete al-Qaeda's leadership in the region and potentially leave the group without a capable personality.
Assuming that any information is used to lethally target Zubeyr, either by drone or Special Forces raid, his removal still presents a number of dilemmas that the Obama administration must consider. The theory that U.S. drone strikes are raising a younger, radical generation of al-Qaeda commanders could manifest from Zubeyr's absence, increasing the chances that al-Qaeda's Somali cell goes independent. As of now, the group maintains a tenuous alliance with al-Shabaab and has only organized several attacks at Somalia's neighbors. African and Western capitals have no choice except to assume that Zubeyr is plotting against external targets, but al-Shabaab has yet to direct a single attack towards Europe or the U.S. mainland.
The larger issue at work, though, is a widening fissure between Zubeyr, who hails from Somaliland, and al-Shabaab's nationalist leadership. Reportedly thrown out of the insurgency's chair in December 2010 after al-Shabaab fighters pressured their own commanders, Zubeyr was replaced by a mutual ally of Mukhtar Robow: Kismayo administrator Ibrahim Haji Jama. Having fought in Afghanistan, Jama was deemed an acceptable compromise to both parties but reportedly quit the position in December 2011. The State Department's announcement is a sure sign that Jama wasn't killed in a June 2011 drone strike.
As for Robow, al-Shabaab's most influential nationalist figure has feuded with Zubeyr for years and doesn't consider himself to be "associate." Nor is Fuad Mohamed Khalaf, who supports Robow's leadership bid and accused Zubeyr of keeping "hidden agendas" before he was temporarily dislodged. Viewing al-Qaeda's presence as a homing beacon for the U.S., their faction believes that al-Shabaab should maintain its focus inside Somalia and keep power in the hands of clan-based nationalists. al-Shabaab's relationship with its local al-Qaeda cadre mimics the divide within Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan's (TTP), which has split between transnationalist Hakimullah Mehsud and nationalists Waliur Rehman Mehsud, Maulavi Nazir and Hafiz Gul Bahadur. Eliminating Hakimullah would ultimately strengthen the TPP's network and improve relations with the Afghan Taliban.
Killing Zubeyr could trigger the same type of local blowback by clearing al-Shabaab's leadership of a charismatic jihadist.
The removal of all commanders gambles on the reward outweighing the risk. If targeted at once, the insurgency would be extremely vulnerable to all ensuing political and military operations conducted by the Somali government, African Union (AU) and U.S. Conversely, information is more likely to trickle in and stagger U.S. actions, voiding the possibility of a decapitating strike. The international community could also find itself in need of Robow, who battled to allow humanitarian access into the southern regions as famine claimed the lives of untold Somalis. More recent rumors postulate an alliance with nationalist Hassan Dahir Aweys (not included in the State Department's list) and an eventual move against Zubeyr's faction.
One al-Shabaab member unconvincingly denied these rumors while speaking to Somalia Report. A veteran of Somalia's chaos, Aweys verbally and militarily contested Zubeyr's presence before his Hizbul Islam dissolved into al-Shabaab in July 2010. The move was originally presented as a show of force against an expanding AU contingent, but reports later surfaced alleging that Zubeyr had threatened Aweys with death. Zubeyr then added insult to injury by refusing to grant Aweys his previous religious title.Robow, Aweys, Khalaf and other al-Shabaab figures still condemn the TFG as a puppet government of the U.S. and AU, but some Somali observers believe that they could also open a path towards ceasefire.
Journalist Abdi Aynte observed in late March, "Hence the al-Qaeda banner. Godane is cognizant that he would make it almost impossible for the ‘nationalist’ faction to maintain the negotiations track. Anyone talking to Aweys and Robow after the merger would almost certainly be facing the wrath of the U.S. government, which is vehemently opposed to negotiating with al-Qaeda."
Somalia Report already suspects a deal between Aweys and the U.S.
Somalia Report already suspects a deal between Aweys and the U.S.
Eliminating leading members of the Islamic Courts Union failed to stop al-Shabaab's rise in 2009; killing the remaining core would not only empower Zubeyr - if he outlasts them - but also antagonize the clan following that Aweys and Robow possess. Instead of "defining the enemy," the State Department's announcement illuminates the uncertainty of al-Shabaab's leadership. Its Rewards program, at least publicly, has only guesstimated the network's hierarchy by streaming over a longstanding feud between Zubeyr and al-Shabaab's nationalistic personalities.
The Obama administration should pursue all options of capturing the latter before proceeding to killing, as they are likely to be more useful alive.