MAX Analysis Somalia: Factionalism within al-Shabaab unlikely to result in dissolution, as uptick in attacks underscores group’s sustained capabilities July 14, 2014

Current Situation

With the commencement of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan on June 29,  a string of daily attacks attributed to the Islamist militant group, al-Shabaab, has been recorded throughout Mogadishu. Most notably, al-Shabaab claimed responsibility for the July 8 attack against Mogadishu’s Presidential Palace, commonly known as Villa Somalia, as militants managed to infiltrate the complex. Meanwhile, mounting reports have been released during the month of June indicating defections of al-Shabaab members, along with unconfirmed reports that a faction within the group is cooperating with Western and Somali Federal Government (FG) intelligence bodies.

  • On June 29, al-Shabaab issued a threat to escalate their operations throughout Mogadishu during Ramadan. Subsequently, an estimated 42 assassinations of individuals associated with the government have been recorded in the capital city.
  • Reports from June 8 indicate that Mohamed Saed Atom, a known warlord and principal supplier for al-Shabaab in Puntland, defected from the group and surrendered in Mogadishu to the Somali FG, which has welcomed his renunciation of violence. Atom stated that his decamping was prompted by the group’s leader, Ahmed Abdi Godane’s, excessive use of violence towards civilians and the manipulation of the Quran’s law to justify the group’s strategy.

  • Meanwhile in Kenya, a Rwandan national surrendered to state authorities in Mandera, claiming to be a member of al-Shabaab, responsible for over 50 militants who launched attacks against the African Union Mission In Somalia (AMISOM) forces in Mogadishu over the past four years.
  • According to reports released on June 7, Godane ordered the detention of the group’s chief of intelligence following suspected cooperation with Western intelligence agencies and the FG. Reports indicate that additional al-Shabaab senior members have been arrested as well, due to their “declaration of independence” from the group.
  • Clashes reportedly erupted on May 8 in Sako District, in Middle Juba Region, between two factions within al-Shabaab, led by Ahmed Hussein Tantawi and Mukhtar Abu Mansur, resulting in the deaths of two militants. There are unconfirmed reports that Tantawi was also arrested following Godane’s order in the beginning of June.

In June 2013, reports of an internal conflict between two factions within al-Shabaab emerged, allegedly following al-Shabaab’s formal statement of affiliation with al-Qaeda. Following the increased association with al-Qaeda, fractures and clear divisions within al-Shabaab’s leadership were revealed: one camp viewed the group’s path with an emphasis on an international campaign, in line with other al-Qaeda affiliates’ goal of global jihad; while the other held a more localized Islamist agenda in the establishment of an Islamic state in Somalia. Godane, who led the international faction, was able to consolidate his power after ordering the execution of detractors and ousting two prominent group leaders, Hassan Dahir Aweys and Mukhtar Robow, who supported the localized Somali agenda.

Assessments: Al-Shabaab unlikely to be significantly weakened by recent defections, betrayals given longstanding factionalism within group and global jihadi support network

  1. Given reports of defections and duplicity amid increased internal discontent, we assess that there is increased indication recently of a reemergence of the internal divides within al-Shabaab. While the grounds and motives for the rift remain unclear, we assess that some al-Shabaab members are potentially taking a more moderate stance regarding the group’s strategy and methods, and thus defying Godane’s perceived aggressive and expansionist scheme. Should such a rift between the factions continue to grow, we assess that additional intra-group clashes are likely, resulting in further casualties within al-Shabaab. Moreover, we assess that the defections of senior al-Shabaab members may motivate additional militants to desert, subsequently exacerbating the wave of factionalism.
  2. That said, a review of al-Shabaab’s history suggests that the group has never truly been united. Al-Shabaab stemmed from mergers and divisions between and within other Islamist organizations from the Islamic Courts Union (ICU). The ICU disbanded in late 2006  into several different groups, ranging from radical to moderate factions, with a portion of the latter camp choosing to participate in the government. Some of the new organizations joined together to establish Hizbul Islam, which in turn collapsed under pressure and merged with al-Shabaab. In light of this, we assess that despite ongoing factionalism within al-Shabaab, this phenomenon may not necessarily weaken the group in the long term. This assessment is further underlined by al-Shabaab’s present-day standing as an entrenched militant group, in spite of the recorded factionalism in 2013.
  3. Al-Shabaab has persistently carried out offensives throughout the central and southern regions of Somalia, and particularly in Mogadishu over the past two weeks in spite of the ongoing joint security operation between AMISOM and the Somali National Army (SNA). This displayed strength highlights that the insurgent group, under the leadership of Godane, currently retains it operational capabilities to launch complex, as well as low-level, attacks even in the midst of high profile defections and betrayals within the group.
  4. Given that Godane chose to affiliate al-Shabaab with al-Qaeda and its sub-organizations, we assess that the group may have been able to sustain its operational capabilities with the assistance of other allied international and regional Islamist militant groups under the umbrella of al-Qaeda. Past reports have suggested that al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and al-Shabaab are close allies, particularly sharing intelligence and combat tactics. Therefore, we assess that this reported international jihadi support, especially vital in the form of military training, recruitment and financial aid, likely has significantly facilitated Godane’s consolidation of his leadership.
  5. In light of this broader international jihadi support network, we assess that the current internal split is unlikely to lead to a significant weakening or dissolution of Godane’s dominant faction the militant group. Rather, we assess that Godane is likely to continue to exercise harsh measures against suspected renegades in order to prevent further instances of duplicity or defections from his main faction. Should Godane succeed once again to decimate and weaken dissident factions, some of which are supposedly relatively more moderate, we assess that there is a probability that al-Shabaab may demonstrate its persistent viability by resurging with more violent and high profile attacks.

Assessments: To counterbalance near term potential setbacks from leaked information, al-Shabaab’s leadership likely to alter domestic operations while increasing regional activities

  1. That being said, top al-Shabaab leaders have allegedly cooperated with Western and Somali intelligence, as other senior members have surrendered themselves to government authorities. This may pose a significant threat to al-Shabaab’s top echelon, as there remains a high probability that defectors could share crucial information about the group’s intelligence and operational capabilities with state officials in exchange for amnesty. Such information is likely to give the Somali government a strategic advantage in fighting al-Shabaab as the group’s previously concealed secrets and modus operandi may be exposed to the security establishment.
  2. However, unconfirmed reports indicate that the alleged defector Mohamed Saed Atom was removed from his position as head of the Galgala militia in Puntland by Godane in 2012, and has since been an ally of the group, rather than a prominent leader. As such, Atom may not be able to provide as significant information to the Somali FG as previously envisioned to assist its efforts in combating al-Shabaab. Thus, while Atom’s surrender has been portrayed by the Somali FG as a grave loss for the militant group, we assess that the value of the former’s capitulation may have been overestimated, and his prominence as a whistleblower thus may not be as effective as claimed by authorities.  
  3. Nonetheless, should a scenario transpire in which crucial intelligence will be delivered, we assess that al-Shabaab may decide to desert some of its traditional strongholds and migrate to other areas in the central and southern regions. It also remains possible that the group will alter its usual modus operandi, which typically include the use of vehicle borne improvised explosive devices (VBIED), mortar shells and direct military confrontation with security forces, all in order to diminish any strategic advantage the Somali FG may hold.
  4. Moreover, as the group alters its activities within Somalia so as to preserve its domestic strength, there is potential that Godane’s leadership may attempt to increase activities and attacks by al-Shabaab sleep cells and sympathizers throughout East Africa. This assessment is supported by increased activities by reported al-Shabaab affiliates over the last few months in Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda.