Al-Shabaab Versus the Islamic State in Somalia Province: Why Only Al-Qaeda’s Affiliate Remains Unrivalled
The US Seal Team raid that killed Bilal al-Sudani in January 2023 highlighted the threats of Islamic State in Somalia Province (ISSP) not only in Somalia and East Africa, but also as far as Afghanistan. Despite this, ISSP is embattled in its home territory amid pressure from the US, international and Somali forces as well as from its rival – Al-Shabaab. As Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Somalia, Al-Shabaab is still significantly more powerful than ISSP and appears likely to maintain that status well into the future.
On January 17, a US Seal Team killed Bilal al-Sudani and nine other Islamic State in Somalia Province (ISSP) fighters in Puntland, northern Somalia. Subsequently, the US military revealed al-Sudani not only operated in Somalia, but also financed and masterminded operations for the other so-called Islamic State (IS) provinces in Congo and Mozambique and even as far as Afghanistan. Al-Sudani was, for example, allegedly the mastermind of the monumental August 2021 suicide bombing that killed 13 US troops at Kabul’s international airport as US forces were withdrawing from Afghanistan. The raid on al-Sudani’s hideout, in addition to another series of US airstrikes that killed five Al-Shabaab fighters almost exactly one month later, reflects how Somalia remains a key battleground in the global jihad and for international cooperation in counter terrorism.
In the years prior to the raid on al-Sudani’s hideout, ISSP had portrayed through propaganda videos and photos its evolution from its initial pledge to IS “caliph” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in 2015, to its first victorious clashes with Al-Shabaab in 2018, to its tactical training sessions in 2023. Such videos were ostensibly intended to recruit aspirant jihadists in Somalia or elsewhere in the world by showing ISSP was not only part of IS, but also a bona fide competitor of Al-Shabaab itself. Yet, ISSP’s high-profile militants like al-Sudani, propaganda videos and occasional large-scale attacks, including some against Al-Shabaab, have not overcome the fact that Al-Shabaab is still the preeminent jihadist group in Somalia, if not Africa as a whole.
Whether one considers territorial control, sophistication of local and international terrorist attacks or overall numbers of fighters, Al-Shabaab is not necessarily the most reported jihadist group in Africa. However, 15 years since its founding in 2007, the group is a model affiliate for Al-Qaeda (AQ) and has a persistence that IS provinces in Africa – with the possible exception of Boko Haram, but certainly including ISSP – have yet to rival. This article reviews the AQ and IS networks in sub-Saharan Africa, compares Al-Shabaab and IS, and argues that Al-Shabaab will continue to outmanoeuvre ISSP while also enduring for the long term in Somalia, albeit with not necessarily as much international attention drawn to it compared to IS provinces in Nigeria, the Sahel, Congo, Mozambique or even Somalia.
Background on AQ and IS in Sub-Saharan Africa
As of 2023, IS and AQ both have networks of fighters throughout sub-Saharan Africa, with groups under the IS banner labelled as regional “provinces”, or wilayat, by IS, such as in West Africa, Sahel, Central Africa (Congo) and Mozambique, and groups under AQ’s banner labelled as “affiliates” by analysts. However, the AQ affiliates select their own distinct group names and show their affiliation to AQ not necessarily by being called “Al-Qaeda” in name but through pledges or statements of loyalty to the organisation and its leaders, such as the late Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri.
The AQ affiliates in sub-Saharan Africa are Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahideen (Al-Shabaab), or “Movement of Young Jihadists”; Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM), or “Group of Supporters of Islam and Muslims”; and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). However, AQIM has become operationally irrelevant and has reduced its propaganda production, so AQ’s affiliates in Africa are, in practice, only JNIM and Al-Shabaab. JNIM operates primarily in Mali, Burkina Faso and northern Niger with recent movements into Benin, Togo and other littoral West African states, while Al-Shabaab operates in Somalia with occasional cross-border attacks into Kenya and rarer attacks historically in Uganda and Ethiopia.
The IS provinces are Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP); Islamic State in Sahel Province, which is better known to analysts as Islamic State in Greater Sahara (ISGS); Islamic State in Central Africa Province (ISCAP); and Islamic State in in Mozambique Province (ISMP). The latter two both used to be called ISCAP when it was founded in 2019, but ISMP subsequently separated to become its own independent province. ISWAP operates in north-eastern Nigeria and the borderlands of Niger, Chad and Cameroon along Lake Chad with rare attacks in southern and central Nigeria; ISGS operates in roughly the same areas as JNIM in the Sahel; ISCAP operates primarily in eastern Congo but has also attacked Rwanda; and ISMP operates in northern Mozambique but has conducted several cross-border attacks into Tanzania.
Comparing and Contrasting Al-Shabaab and ISSP
What is notable about Al-Shabaab and ISSP is that the former is the most powerful of AQ affiliates in Africa – and even arguably globally. For example, according to the latest estimates from the UN, Al-Shabaab is estimated to field between 7,000 to 12,000 fighters and to have a US$25 million annual war chest. In fact, rather than AQ Central supporting Al-Shabaab, now Al-Shabaab reportedly supports AQ with funding from its coffers in Somalia. Al-Shabaab now controls roughly 20 per cent of Somali territory. This, however, is not the height of the group’s territorial control, because in 2011 the group also controlled the capital, Mogadishu, and the southern part of Kismayo. Today, the group sometimes conducts asymmetric individual attacks in those cities, but controls and operates territories throughout southern and central Somalia and outside of those cities.
Al-Shabaab administration includes taxing civilians, issuing legal decrees under the group’s interpretation of shariah and, often most importantly, mediating between clans. This neutrality aids Al-Shabaab in maintaining trust in rural areas and ensuring the legitimacy of its self-styled rule. Besides these administrative roles, Al-Shabaab also engages in constant attacks, including suicide bombings, ambushes and raids of military bases, with its largest attacks being a 2017 bombing in Mogadishu that killed 500 people and another in 2022 that killed around 100 people.
Nevertheless, a renewed Somali army offensive against Al-Shabaab started in January 2023 and has led to the government regaining more territory from the group than it had recovered in all of the past five years combined. The military was aided by the fact that Al-Shabaab’s “foreign”, strict Salafi Islamic interpretation has been rejected by local villagers, who seek to maintain their Sufi practices and resent Al-Shabaab’s forced conscription of youths into the group’s ranks. In addition, Turkish- and US-trained elite forces working at the community level alongside the “regular” Somali National Army forces and local militia have pressured Al-Shabaab more than at any other time in recent years. At any rate, although the group has lost more territory in four months than it has in five years and is facing an unprecedented “clan revolt”, it would be premature to expect any major change to the status quo, given Al-Shabaab’s ability to persist for over 15 years since 2007.
ISSP, meanwhile, is fighting against not only Al-Shabaab, with all the power the latter has accumulated since 2007, but also US counter terrorism forces. Considering that ISSP started with relatively small brigades of defectors from Al-Shabaab in 2015, it is much more difficult for ISSP to withstand these adversaries than it is for Al-Shabaab. The US, for example, has targeted former pirates and intelligence and logistics officers of ISSP, while also conducting airstrikes and other special operations akin to that which killed Bilal al-Sudani. A further headwind against ISSP is the fact that IS “core” in the Middle East and Africa is no longer able to fund or resource “external provinces” like ISSP as it did during its heyday of territorial control in Iraq and Syria.
In total, ISSP is estimated to have only 200-300 members, which is around as much as Al-Shabaab can field in one attack alone. ISSP is at a major manpower disadvantage compared to Al-Shabaab. Further, according to AQ’s strategy globally, its affiliates since 2015 have sought to crack down on rival “provinces”, which has meant that Al-Shabaab is determined to eliminate ISSP. Thus, although ISSP controlled several towns in Puntland and revealed such control in several propaganda videos, ISSP has only a fraction of Al-Shabaab’s strength and, due to the struggles of IS “core”, is unlikely to recruit as successfully in the future as it has in the past.
Assessment: Practical vs Propaganda Effect
Beyond the fact that Al-Shabaab is stronger than ISSP on a one-to-one level, Al-Shabaab also plays a much more significant role in the AQ network than ISSP does for IS. Al-Shabaab is one of only two major AQ affiliates in sub-Saharan Africa, while ISSP is one of five active IS provinces in Africa – and the weakest of those provinces. Therefore, Al-Shabaab is more important for AQ than ISSP is for IS.
Given that ISSP has little chance of overcoming Al-Shabaab or increasing its strength much more significantly than it has at present, the most important function for IS now is for ISSP to simply not become non-existent as has occurred with IS’ provinces in Libya and Algeria, the latter of which has seen its remaining operatives come under the command of ISWAP. Strategically, therefore, what would be best for IS is for ISSP to remain present – and possibly still in control – of several nominal remote towns so that IS can propagandise that it has an effective province in Somalia when, in fact, ISSP is largely “token”. As ISSP has little chance of defeating Al-Shabaab or avoiding US airstrikes, especially if it seeks to expands its control and influence, the group may be best off consolidating in the small areas where it is now in control, rather than exacerbating threats it faces from the US and Al-Shabaab. ISSP’s upside is accordingly limited.
In contrast to ISSP, Al-Shabaab has the potential to realise its ultimate goal of ruling all, or at least much, of Somalia. Although at present the combined power of the Somali army, African Union Transition Mission in Somalia and US forces, has restricted Al-Shabaab mostly to rural hinterlands in central and southern Somalia, Al-Shabaab remains relatively consolidated in those areas. It accordingly retains the hope that eventually the international forces will fatigue and not only reduce their own presence in Somalia, but also cut back their support of the Somali army. In that case, Al-Shabaab could potentially retake Mogadishu and Kismayo and again become the de facto ruler of much of Somalia.
A key difference between Al-Shabaab and ISSP is, therefore, that Al-Shabaab’s goals are practical and, if developments work in its favour, also possible. ISSP, in contrast, is mostly a propaganda front for the broader IS network, whereas only the other IS provinces in sub-Saharan Africa in the Sahel, Nigeria, Congo and Mozambique actually have realistic aspirations to hold significant territory and govern in those areas. Further, as ISSP is but one of five IS sub-Saharan provinces in sub-Saharan Africa, while Al-Shabaab is just one of two AQ affiliates in the region, the latter is more important to AQ than the former is to IS. This is why AQ Central has historically been more likely to support and sustain Al-Shabaab – although now Al-Shabaab may even be supporting the embattled AQ Central – than the “core” of IS has supported ISSP with its limited resources and multiple struggling provinces.
Somalia has suffered from widespread instability and conflict since the civil war began in 1991. More than 30 years later, the Somali government and army maintain the writ over key cities like Mogadishu and Kismayo, but in the hinterlands, Al-Shabaab remains a potent threat. While ISSP still attracts significant attention when it conducts an attack or releases a propaganda video because it is associated with the notorious “IS” brand – and often receives more attention than Al-Shabaab when the latter does the same – the persistent threat to Somalia will be Al-Shabaab. Further, Al-Shabaab will also persistently remain a key AQ affiliate, since AQ’s presence on the continent depends almost entirely on JNIM and Al-Shabaab. In sum, if the conflict in Somalia has lasted more than 30 years already, it is an unfortunate but also a seeming reality, that Al-Shabaab – but not necessarily ISSP – may very well still be active even 30 years from now.
About the Author
Jacob Zenn is an Adjunct Associate Professor on African Armed at the Georgetown University Security Studies Program (SSP), and Editor and Fellow on African and Eurasian Affairs for The Jamestown Foundation in Washington D.C. He wrote the book, Unmasking Boko Haram: Exploring Global Jihad in Nigeria, which was published in April 2020 by Lynne Rienner in association with the Handa Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence, University of St Andrews.
Thumbnail photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash
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