By Raby Ould Idoumou
Somali citizens marched through downtown Mogadishu on Wednesday (February 15th) to denounce the recent merger between al-Shabab and al-Qaeda.
President Sharif Sheikh Ahmed told the crowd, “This country is for Somalis and not for foreign fighters like al-Qaeda – we do not tolerate their violence any longer.”
“We have suffered enough and do not want more violence: al-Qaeda should stop meddling with Somalia’s affairs and leave our country,” protestor Suleiman Mumin told AFP.
“Al-Qaeda and al-Shabab have said, ‘no to life’ in Somalia, so everyone is ready to fight against them now,” Mumin said.
The unprecedented protest march through the capital city followed a video announcement by al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri that Somalia’s Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahideen had officially joined the global al-Qaeda terror network.
The February 9th video featured al-Shabab leader Ahmed Abdi Godane (aka Abu Zubair) pledging an oath of loyalty to al-Zawahiri, who then confirmed the merger.
Security circles in Sahel countries have closely monitored the situation in Somalia since the news broke. According to journalist and terror analyst Zeyn Elabdin, Sahel countries see Somalia’s al-Shabab as a part of the “triangle of terrorism” that includes Nigeria’s Boko Haram and the Sahel-Saharan region’s al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
While Sahel countries are working together to combat the three groups, the Somali organisation in particular could breathe new life into an al-Qaeda weakened by the death of Osama bin Laden and isolated in Pakistan.
The al-Shabab/al-Qaeda merger also provided publicity for the embattled terror organisations. Media reports and public opinion temporarily shifted from democratic revolutions in the Arab world to the disturbing new terror alliance.
The terror alliance may have been designed to boost the morale of al-Qaeda and al-Shabab as they face increased defections and depleted funds.
Extremist movements are also plagued by internal divisions. In a time of effective change through peaceful protest, policies that rely on murder and abduction are a hard sell to recruits.
While al-Shabab declared loyalty to al-Zawahiri soon after Bin Laden’s death, the video declaration of last week was more serious, Journal Tahalil editor-in-chief Selmou Ould Moustapha told Magharebia. It is one thing to pledge support to a leader, he said, and another to actually “belong” to the terror organisation.
According to Sahel security analyst Hamady Ould Dah, the “declaration means that al-Qaeda is sending a clear message, which is its strong desire to further infiltrate into Africa”.
“Algeria has disrupted relations between Boko Haram and AQIM,” Ould Dah said. “If such counter-terrorism co-ordination hadn’t taken place, we would have seen all three groups — Boko Haram, al-Shabab al-Mujahideen and AQIM — join the parent al-Qaeda at the same.”
The analyst emphasised that “disrupting relations between these groups is of paramount importance in the future”.
But al-Shabab’s own actions may prove its undoing. The Somali people’s aversion to the group clearly increased when its pledge of allegiance to al-Qaeda coincided with new killings of civilians.
The most recent violence occurred February 8th near the Presidential Palace in Mogadishu. The city’s mayor, Mohammed Ahmed Nour, said that “15 innocent civilians were killed and 20 others were wounded in the heinous suicide attack carried out by desperate and violent criminals”.
“Those cowards are attacking innocent people drinking tea,” the mayor added.
In an attempt to demonstrate their alleged power after the merger announcement, al-Shabab organised a rally on February 13th.
“Shops closed their doors after Shabab fighters issued orders from loudspeakers on pickups for people to go the event,” eyewitness Mohammed Safi told AFP. Some 600 people were coerced into appearing.
Before the al-Qaeda allegiance declaration, Somalia had begun negotiations with small groups to encourage them to lay down arms. After the announcement of the terror collaboration, however, Somali President Sharif Sheikh Ahmed cited it as “proof that al-Shabab al-Mujahideen is not prepared to negotiate and insists on proceeding with its own approach”.
“The movement has crossed the line of no return and has clearly showed that there is no hope about opening any type of dialogue or understanding with it,” the president said.
Sheikh Ahmed said that al-Shabab al-Mujahideen’s “accession into the global al-Qaeda network sends a clear message to the international community that this destructive movement understands only the language of force, and therefore, has to be crushed”.
Somalia and its “friends in the free world” would not allow terrorists “to colonise the country under the cover of religion”, the president said.
Hussain Arali Adan, Vice-Chairman of the Security and Defence Affairs Committee in the interim Somali parliament, warned that al-Shabab’s official accession into the global jihadist organisation could boost the morale of fighters and encourage them to launch more attacks.
Jerry John Rawlings, the former leader of the Republic of Ghana and now the African Union envoy to Somalia, recently noted security improvements in Mogadishu.
During his January 25th visit, Rawlings expressed happiness at seeing the city on the way to becoming a safe place for people to live and work.
The Kenyan army also announced February 11th that as a result of a four-month military offensive against the Somali terror group, al-Shabab had lost an estimated 75% of its income. Colonel Kors Auguna, the Kenyan army’s information chief, said several al-Shabab leaders were killed in southern Somalia and that the organisation had lost a number of cities.
Al-Shabab’s new alliance with al-Qaeda justifies support for the Somali government’s counter-terrorism capabilities. The development must be taken seriously by political and security circles around the world.
“The name al-Shabab is over – now we are facing al-Qaeda inside Somalia,” Somali President Sharif Sheikh Ahmed told the crowd that marched in Mogadishu on February 15th. “We ask the international community to help us fight al-Qaeda,” the president said.
“No one will accept that the chaos in our country goes on forever,” Somali security official Mohamed Abdulkadir told AFP at this week’s Mogadishu rally. “But that is what Al-Qaeda wants.”
Raby Ould Idoumou is a Nouakchott-based writer and terrorism analyst. He also serves as a communications director for the Mauritanian Human Rights Association (AMDH).