Al-Shabaab’s recent merger with al-Qaeda (AQ) throws up a variety of questions, though is seems the most pertinent one to me is whether it actually benefits the Somali group.
An intelligence bulletin issued by the FBI and Department of Homeland Security on Tuesday stated that the merger could increase the appeal of the group to those already sympathetic to AQ propaganda. However it also states that the merger could ‘diminish support’ for al-Shabaab within the American Somali community, as it will ‘likely perceive increasing influence from an outside terrorist organization in Somalia as an impediment to stability’ and drain support from those that ‘indicated that they supported al-Shabaab primarily for nationalistic reasons’.
One Somalia expert has told me that it is possible that this move will badly backfire – potentially alienating all of the nationalist and clan-based elements in one fell swoop. This applies not just in Somalia but also to those sympathetic within the western diaspora. If cash flows dry up from the west, it would take a huge financial injection from AQ to make up this short fall – money which they likely do not have.
Either way, now is the time for western governments to coordinate their attempts to help create grassroots political alternatives to both the wildly corrupt TFG and al-Shabaab – something a British official tells me is up for discussion at the London Somalia conference at the end of the month. These alternatives would be Islamist and probably based along currently clan loyalties – not ideal, but definitely better than the current total vacuum. Successfully doing so could decimate Shabaab membership and allow the US and its allies in the region to focus on eliminating the remaining global jihadist leadership. This will of course not be anything like as easy as it sounds – divisions within Shabaab are but a microcosm of wider divisions within Somalia itself – but it is crucial to pay equal attention to both the political and security situation.