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Is al-Shabab disintegrating?

Over the past couple of years, the al-Qaeda-affiliated group al-Shabab has tried to present itself to the outside world as a strong cohesive movement whose members are united for one cause.

However, the latest events of the internal and ongoing conflict among its leaders have shown otherwise. On June 26 the world woke to the news that the leader of the group, Ahmed Abdi Godane, ordered the execution of his four top commanders including two of the co-founders al-Alfghani and Burhan.

Other top leaders fled for their dear lives and sixteen others were put under arrest in Barowe, one of al-Shabab’s remaining strongholds, 250km south of Mogadishu. Godane, the emir of al-Shabab, also known as Mukhtar Abu Zubayr, accused his longtime colleagues of insubordination and standing against the unity of the movement.

Abdulaziz Abu Musab, al-Shabab spokesman, told the media that these leaders disobeyed the orders and tried to divide the group by issuing statements contrary to the Shabab position endangering the cohesion of the movement.

“There came out some of Mujahedeen individuals and leaders who stood up to disintegrate the Mujahedeen, who are against the unity of the Mujahedeen. They were noticed and told that the unity of the Muslims is Allah’s order,” Musab said.

He added: “We have informed their widows of their deaths, as they must now wear the clothes of mourning.”

The senior leaders of the group including those killed, accused their leader (Godane) of a brutal and un-Islamic style of leadership

“Godane has grown tyrannical and close-minded and strayed from the true path of jihad,” al-Afghani is quoted as having said before he was executed.

Al-Afghani has been a fierce critic of Godane’s leadership and was looked at as a suitable replacement for the top job in the group according to one analyst who has been following the trends in al-Shabab. The killing of top leaders exposes the grave wrangles that have plagued al-Shabab for a while though this has always been denied by the group’s official spokesmen.

The Alabama-born Omar Hamami, commonly referred to as Al Amriki or “the American”, was the first person to expose the divisions within the group.

He accused its leaders of mistrust of foreigners and weak allegiance to the cause of jihad.

Before parting ways with the group late last year, he accused the group’s leader of recklessness caused by ignorance and manipulating legal concepts for political ends  to advance personal goals that have nothing to do with God’s law, of mistreating foreign jihadists and attempting to assassinate him.

In one of his sarcastic tweets he said: “Abu Zubayr [Godane] has gone mad. He is starting a civil war, in his own group.”

According to media reports, the wrangle in the top leadership of the al-Shabab reached irreconcilable level when in April 2013, a letter criticizing Godane for his leadership style was circulated on extremist websites reportedly authoured by Al-Afghani to al-Qaeda leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri.

In the letter, Al-Afghani claimed to be speaking on behalf of what he called “the silent majority” of members, decried the deterioration of al-Shabab as a power to contend with in the war in Somalia. He attributed this state of affairs to the personal conduct and dictatorial leadership of Godane.

In the letter, Al-Afghani also lamented that al-Shabab had lost ground, as well as the sympathies and support of the local population because of the militant leadership’s arrogance and draconian methods.


A number of events in recent days have exposed the escalating showdown in the top ranks of al-Shabab, and points to a future mired in conflict. Former BBC Somali service editor, Yusuf Garaad, believes al-Shabab is at its weakest ever.

“I believe al-Shabab is weakened by the division within its ranks…”, he said.

After the political, military and financial decline of al-Shabab, leaders of the group started to exchange accusations, trading reasons about who was responsible for the decline. Talking to a Somali news website Sabahi, Hassan Abdullahi, a political analyst who monitors the affairs of Islamist movements in Somalia, said the letters by Al-Afghani and the current power showdown are a sign of deep divisions among the group’s leadership.

“Indeed, there is a real dilemma among the group’s leadership, it has become clear that the differences are not only between Godane and Abu Mansur (Al -Afghani) as it has been always portrayed but also include other top leaders in the group  both al-Shabab Somalis and foreigners alike,” Abdullahi noted.

Now the disgruntlement in the top leadership of  al-Shabaab has gone very deep. It is not just a disagreement over strategy or mere differences of opinion but a grave stage of outright altercation, power struggle and eliminations.

These have reached a point the analysts see as irreconcilable. According to Abdullahi, it would not be an exaggeration to say that the group has now entered the stage of internal corrosion.

Godane, aged 36, claimed to have ordered and perpetuated the July 11, 2010 bombings in Kampala that killed 74 people. He is one of the most radical supporters of global jihad. Godane is one of the most wanted terrorists in the world with a $7 million reward for his arrest.

In 2011, he issued a jihadist video titled, At your service, Osama. In it, he urged all Somalis to follow the al-Qaeda leader, and vowed that “the wars will not end until Sharia is implemented in all continents in the world.”

Educated in Pakistan and reportedly trained in Afghanistan, Godane has sought to crush or eliminate any challengers to his leadership and ordered his Amniyat (intelligence team) to  hunt and kill whoever is against his leadership regardless of whether he is al- Shabab or not.

According to analysts, the killings of top commanders may be a signal of Godane’s decisive and radical move to sweep away opposition to his leadership. It might also trigger a push to a more extreme engagement in the struggle for jihad and the struggle to topple the Somali government.

Garaad thinks that Godane’s move to eliminate his challengers cannot be sustained in the long term.

“Godane may enjoy a free hand for his operations in the near future but he will not be able to survive and operate in southern Somalia without [the support of] big names from local clans. My assumptions are based on the open source and my knowledge of clans and the support armed groups need from local populations,” Garaad said.

Al-Shabab’s former spiritual leader Mukhtar Robow Ali aka Abu Mansuur together with Sheik Hassan Dihir Aweys were forced to flee from the group. Robow is reportedly now in the Bakol region where his Rahanweyn clan is based and Awey is now under government detention after he was captured trying to flee.

According to the South African-based Institute for Security Studies (ISS), the rumblings in the group might not make it stronger but could make it difficult to ensure total peace in Somalia. Hussein Mohamed, a Mogadishu-based political analyst, predicted that these events would lead to further dissent within al-Shabab’s ranks and that a splinter group would emerge in the near future.

However, the confidential UN report, by the UN Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea, contends that al-Shabab remains the principal threat to peace and security in Somali even though its operational capabilities have been dented.

“The military strength of al-Shabab, despite the losses, remains arguably intact, in terms of operational readiness, chain of command, discipline, and communication capabilities,” it noted.

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