Reigniting the Rivalry: The Islamic State in Somalia vs. al-Shabaab.

Author:Weiss, Caleb

Since becoming the dominant jihadi actor in Somalia in 2007, al-Shabaab has effectively maintained its supremacy over jihadi violence across the Horn of Africa. However, beginning in 2015, al-Shabaab, the avowed al-Qaida branch in East Africa, has attempted to stave off an aspirational challenger in the form of the Islamic State in Somalia (ISS). Beginning as a disparate clump of pro-Islamic State cells, (1) ISS eventually coalesced into an organized group in October 2015, led by former al-Shabaab commander Abdulqadir Mumin, (a) in Somalia's northern Puntland region. Despite a tumultuous start, ISS eventually grabbed international headlines when it seized the port city of Qandala a year later. (2) Since then, ISS activity has increased not only in Puntland, but across Somalia as a whole. As this article will outline, ISS, despite its small stature with a few hundred members, (3) has been able to grow and expand its operations in southern Somalia, specifically Mogadishu, and form operational cells in central Somalia.

This expansion has not gone unnoticed by al-Shabaab, as the group has been keen to maintain its monopoly on jihadi violence in the country. The rivalry between al-Shabaab and ISS began as a war of words before devolving into a cavalcade of arrests, executions, assassinations, and clashes between the groups in 2015 at the height of the infighting. (4) These clashes were not openly publicized to jihadis outside Somalia by the groups, with both sides officially keeping tight-lipped about the conflict. But as ISS continues to grow more active inside Somalia, the competition between al-Shabaab and ISS has again reached a boiling point with both sides openly declaring war on each other for the first time in late 2018. (5)

This article draws on metrics based on ISS attack data (b) and independent reporting. It also examines the propaganda released by both ISS and al-Shabaab to examine the evolving rivalry between the groups. This article first provides a brief timeline and synopsis of the infighting between the jihadi groups before 2018. It then examines how the Islamic State has expanded its operations inside Somalia and the group's emergent links to international terrorism, before examining how the ISS' growing assertiveness set the stage for a renewal of conflict with al-Shabaab in late 2018. The final section of the article assesses the sustainability of the Islamic State expansion inside Somalia.

The Rivalry Before 2018

To better understand the renewed fighting between ISS and al-Shabaab, it is important to first look at the history of the rivalry between the two. Starting in 2015, propaganda released by the Islamic State began to focus on encouraging members of al-Shabaab to defect and join its cause. In a piece published in this publication in November 2017, (6) this author and researcher Jason Warner identified the earliest known call to al-Shabaab to join the Islamic State's so-called caliphate as occurring in February 2015, when Islamic State propagandist Hamil al-Bushra penned an article for the Global Front to Support the Islamic State media. (7 c)

Following the first article, more pieces were released through various outlets' (1) before the Islamic State's media office for its Iraqi "province" of al-Furat released the first video addressed to Somalia in May 2015. (8) Over the course of four days in October 2015, six videos were then released from Syria, (9) Iraq, (10) Yemen, (11) and the Sinai (12) attempting to persuade al-Shabaab to join its cause. Two weeks later, a video was then released from Nigeria, (13) while in January 2016, another was released from Libya. (14)

While al-Shabaab as a whole did not succumb to the Islamic State's calculated pressure, the jihadi group was able to attract several prominent commanders and disgruntled foot-soldiers within al-Shabaab. As researcher Christopher Anzalone succinctly noted, "Though the Islamic State's ideology, or aspects of it, are attractive to some members of al-Shabaab, the emergence of such a competitor [in the Islamic State]... provides those disgruntled members [of al-Shabaab] a way to challenge the status quo" of al-Shabaab's operational culture. (15)

This was not lost on al-Shabaab's leadership, however, as it began to quickly release internal memos and addresses about the situation via its local radio stations. This includes statements reaffirming its loyalty to al-Qa'ida, (16) as well as calling for the death of anyone who "promoted disunity." (17) A speech by al-Shabaab's spokesman Ali Mahmud Rage was also broadcast via al-Shabaab's Radio al Andalus around this time, which carried the simple point that those who supported the Islamic State will be "burnt in hell." (18)

While the propaganda war was occurring, al-Shabaab's internal security service, the Amniyat, was busy arresting, skirmishing with, and sometimes executing known or suspected Islamic State-loyal members in southern Somalia. Dozens of al-Shabaab members were killed or arrested by the Amniyat during this period. (19 e) Additionally, as Abdulqadir Mumin's group in Puntland solidified, at least one known clash occurred between it and al-Shabaab's forces in December 2015. (20)

Following the height of violence in 2015, the tensions between the two groups largely died down with only sporadic incidents occurring in 2016 and 2017. For instance, in November 2016, the Amniyat arrested more pro-Islamic State members in southern Somalia. (21) In March 2017, five Kenyan foreign fighters within al-Shabaab were executed for having switched their allegiances. (22) A month later, two more prominent al-Shabaab commanders were also killed for siding with the Islamic State. (23) The relative calm between the two sides would then last until late 2018 when clashes again flared up. However, the renewed tensions did not occur in a vacuum.

In the aforementioned November 2017 article in this publication by the author and Jason Warner, it was assessed that despite the efforts up until that point by ISS, al-Shabaab maintained its dominance over the jihadi landscape in Somalia and did not face a significant challenge from ISS. (24) While al-Shabaab has since maintained its dominant position, increased ISS activity in the country has caused al-Shabaab to change its calculus to a more aggressive stance against the rival jihadi organization.

Causes of ISS Expansion


Starting in 2018, the Islamic State in Somalia appears to have greatly increased its operational tempo. According to a database kept by this author for the Foundation of Defense of Democracies' Long War Journal, ISS claimed 66 total operations during 2018. (25) While this number is relatively low compared to other theaters in which the Islamic State operates, this was more than the number of claims made by the group in Somalia in 2016 and 2017 combined. To caveat, not all ISS claims can be independently verified, and the Islamic State only rarely produces photographic evidence for its attacks in Somalia. However, independent reporting has also confirmed the expansion in operational tempo of ISS in 2018. (26)

In August 2018, Somali news outlet Garowe Online reported that ISS began collecting taxes on several businesses in Bosaso, utilizing methods of extortion to procure funds. (27) While ISS had already been collecting taxes from locals, this had previously been confined to the rural areas of the Puntland region. (28) Garowe cited Puntland security officials as saying that ISS is able to make $72,000 a month from these taxes. But this was not the first time that ISS' extortion tactics have been reported in Puntland, as an ISS defector told local intelligence officials this was occurring in the Puntland countryside in 2017. (29) The fact that ISS has been able to run extortion rackets in Bosaso, the commercial hub of Puntland, shows that the jihadi group has become confident enough to operate in urban areas and not just rural ones.

Clan Support

Moreover, clan support has also been beneficial to ISS' operations...

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