Al-Qaeda’s inwards turn?


Israel has pledged support to Kenya in its battle against al-Shabaab, the militant Islamist group in Somalia.

Kenya invaded southern Somalia three weeks ago, with approximately 1600 troops seeking to root out al-Shabaab fighters and the Kenyan air force launching bombing raids on their bases. Now Israeli has reached agreement with Kenya to increase their support, although details as to what exactly this constitutes remain vague.

The response from al-Shabaab spokesman Mohammed Ali Rage was somewhat instructive, in that he highlighted the internal focus that a faction of the group possesses. Rage responded to the presence of external actors in Somali affairs by saying:

We want to tell the Muslim world…It is their responsibility to support their Muslim brothers in Somalia because the Kenyan Christians are seeking support from the Jews in Israel.

Regulation Islamist ranting against Jews and Christians aside, a truly global jihadist outfit would encourage Muslims to launch retaliation attacks wherever was possible – the US, Israel, Kashmir, Afghanistan Chechnya and so on. Yet Rage is clearly focussed on the need for continued support in Somalia.

This is significant. Al-Shabaab is a wildly factionalised organisation, and the issue that gets to the heart of this factionalisation is whether they should align themselves with al-Qaeda’s global jihad. Al-Qaeda leaders have found shelter in Somalia, and links between the groups do exist. Furthermore, bin Laden desperately courted Shabaab in the years before his death, asking them to change their name to al-Qaeda in East Africa. Significantly, however, al-Shabaab leaders rejected this, fearing it would split the group further.

If I was to speculate as to how al-Qaeda was to develop over the next decade, I would say that the current weaknesses and divisions within the organisation mean it will – like Shabaab – look inwards. Franchises in Iraq and Afghanistan are focussed on domestic attacks. The franchise in Yemen and the al-Qaeda core in Pakistan certainly have a desire to hit the West, but are primarily focussed on the day to day business of terrorist attacks against the countries in which they live (which is significantly easier than attacking Western targets).

This should still be of great concern to the West. We need to support our allies in these regions, to disrupt training camps, to prevent the flow of young Muslims leaving the West to train and fight in such regions, and prevent al-Qaeda from strengthening to the extent that they have the capacity to attack the West with impunity – which they certainly would do, if their capacity matched aspiration.

However, while the strategy in the war on terror will be fought in a different way, judging by the ability of the West to improvise and improve over the previous decade, we should feel confident about fighting it.


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