Al-Shabaab’s Foreign Fighters and Why they Matter

We are typically drawn to events involving mass casualty terror attacks, affiliatory developments such as mergers (or acquisitions), factional battles and splinter groups, media publications and statements, particularly those with important announcements or a break from the norm in terms of strategy, operational tactics, or rarely seen personalities like Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi. These observable activities constitute the output of terrorist organisations which exists very much in the public domain from where analysts, journalists and scholars source their content in aid of a better understanding the terrorism phenomenon. Nonetheless, it appears we’re no closer to understanding why terrorist organisations do what they do, questions we all ask ourselves upon witnessing their abhorrent acts of terror.

On the 12th of October 2017, Al-Shabaab instigated an attack which killed nearly 600 people, making it the deadliest terror attack on the African continent to date. I therefore turned my focus to Al-Shabaab with the obvious questions of why and (perhaps a more advanced question of) how. Considering a couple of factors contributing to the lethality of terrorist organisations such as organisational structure/age/size, ideology, weapon and target types, international over local ambitions, the socio-political environment and so forth, I came across an interesting study by the Swedish Defence Research Agency which found the deadliest African terrorist organisations to be affiliated with international terrorist organisations, namely Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. The study identified the Al-Qaeda affiliated Boko Haram to have been the deadliest terrorist organisation on the continent followed by Al-Shabaab, which later surpassed the former 8 months after the date of publication with the October 12 attack. The study therefore drew a link between affiliation and lethality, thus augmenting arguments made in prior studies (Horowitz and Potter, 2014; Piazza, 2009; Agbiboa, 2014 and Phillips, 2014). A gap exists however, in determining what makes affiliations a deadly synergy insofar as it constitutes an ideological, operational or strategic cooperation, particularly with regards to the study of an affiliation between two terrorist organisations.

My latest study, Al-Shabaab and Al-Qaeda: Exploring the Tactical Utility of Terrorist Affiliations in Africa, sought to explore the origins of the affiliation between the two terrorist organisations. The African Jihad: Bin Laden’s Quest for the Horn of Africa and Al-Shabaab in Somalia: The History and Ideology of a Militant Islamist Group were the best introductions to their affiliation, by introduction of Somali-Afghan veterans and Al-Qaeda operatives occupying senior positions within Al-Shabaab in the early years of the organisation’s establishment. My study found this unique alliance between these individuals could be traced back to the Soviet Involvement in the Ogaden War which cultivated a national grievance over the Soviet Union’s assistance of Ethiopia in the Ogaden War which led to Somalia’s costly defeat. This, coupled with Abdullah Azzam’s evangelical pursuit of recruits for the mujahideen in countries like the United States (read Inside Al-Shabaab: The Secret History of Al-Qaeda’s Most Powerful Ally) saw Somalis and Somalis in the diaspora make their way to Afghanistan to wage jihad against the Soviet Union.

Image Source: Egypt Today (2018): Abdullah Azzam, the Man Behind bin Laden’s Jihadism by Egypt Today Staff, https://www.egypttoday.com/Article/2/55342/Abdullah-Azzam-the-man-behind-bin-Laden%E2%80%99s-jihadism

Although it’s difficult to determine exactly how many Somalis traveled to Afghanistan in the 80’s and how many returned, my study identified four: Ibrahim Haji Jama Mee’aad ‘Al-Afghani’ who played a key role in structuring Al-Shabaab in its early years, Aden Hashi Ayro, one of Al-Shabaab’s founding members, Hassan Dahiir Aweys who assisted in facilitating some of Al-Qaeda’s early operations in Mogadishu, and Al-Shabaab’s former leader Ahmed Aw Abdi Godane. It further found Osama bin Laden’s deputy Abu Ubaidah al-Banshiri, headed Al-Qaeda’s East African operations which came to include the possibility of establishing Al-Qaeda’s own East African branch, the training of Somali militants against the US and Somali forces, as well as the instigation of its own attacks which later became the US embassy attacks in Dar es Salaam and Nairobi in 1998 and the attack on the Israeli-owned Paradise Hotel in Mombasa in 2002.

The study found these attacks involved a small network of 9 Al-Qaeda operatives Wadih el Hage, Essam Al-Ridi, Mohammed Atef, Mohammad Saddiq Odeh, Fadil Harun, Khattab Al-Masri, Ayman Zawahiri, Fu’ad Mohamed Khalaf Shongole and Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan. Therefore, considering the links Al-Shabaab’s Somali-Afghan veterans established with Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaeda members in Afghanistan and the links Al-Qaeda operatives established by its support of jihadi militants in Somalia, the study ultimately considered this group of individuals not only key to the establishment of an affiliation between their respective organisations but argued they may have been of considerable operational value to Al-Shabaab in light of their militant experience. In saying so, the study highlighted the role and contribution of foreign fighters within Al-Shabaab, particularly in light of the fact that they occupied senior positions within the terrorist organisation.

However, as I throw caution to the wind of my prior argument, it’s not apparent the extent to which Al-Shabaab’s foreign fighters contributed to their operational capacity to instigate mass casualty attacks despite evidence that they established the groundwork of the affiliation between Al-Shabaab and Al-Qaeda. This is due to one major reason: it’s not clear how many foreign fighters occupy the senior ranks of Al-Shabaab, particularly in light of Godane’s purge of foreign fighters challenging his direction and proposing an affiliation with the Islamic State, and has continued to occur even after his assassination. Against this backdrop and reiterations of its loyalty to Al-Qaeda, Al-Shabaab has continued to demonstrate an increasing capacity to instigate mass casualty attacks in the absence of what my study considered to be some of its most valuable members. Therefore, it isn’t clear what the internal motivations of Al-Shabaab’s unrelenting affiliation to Al-Qaeda are, or the individuals behind the terrorist organisation’s recent affiliatory choices.

To conclude, I think three points can be made: firstly, if the Afghan-Soviet War is anything to go by, the flow of Somali/s (and individuals of other nationalities, particularly from Northern Africa) to the Middle East has never ceased, as the War on Terror (WoT) following the 9/11 attacks, the Arab Spring and the Islamic State’s establishment of the caliphate has drawn fighters to jihadi theatres such as Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria to fight alongside Al-Qaeda(‘s affiliates) and the Islamic State, thus enhancing their militant capacities and making them valuable resources to their organisations upon return-if they (have) return(ed). Secondly, at least in the case of Al-Shabaab, affiliations may not merely be the result of ideological, organisational or strategic motivations, but out of a brotherhood formed in social contexts which in this case was on the battlefield and in training. Finally, how the affiliation between Al-Shabaab and Al-Qaeda emerged leaves much to be said about the role foreign fighters play in the ebb and flow of a terrorist organisation’s choices to affiliate, particularly in light of ongoing defections to the Islamic State in Somalia. However, what the affiliation between Al-Shabaab and Al-Qaeda means for the former’s operational capacity in so far as its ability to instigate highly complex and lethal attacks remains unclear but for the most part necessitates further studies on the internal workings of terrorist organisations and the individuals behind the makings of organisations with the ability to partake in acts of terror so grotesque, they leave us with questions of why or how in their wake.

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