ISIS fast growing in numbers in Somalia is further compounding threat levels in the horn of Africa nation. Experts have warned of ISIS growing and successfully establishing presence in Somalia. The group seem to be benefitting from the fighters fleeing its collapsing stronghold in Iraq and Syria.
ISIS which primarily began operations in northern Somalia continue to grow and maintain active cells in areas firstly perceived as Al-Shabaab’s strongholds. The jihadist group’s growth in about three years since splitting away from Al-Shabaab is not only threatening counterterrorism operations in Somalia but its also threatening the Al-Qaeda branch survivability to sustain its insurgency in Somalia while losing its fighters to ISIS faction.
ISIS Influence in Somalia
For more than a decade Al-Shabaab has been the sole jihadist group in Somalia and has sought the establish Islamic Shariah rule in the country. In October 2015, a small faction of Al-Shabaab split away from the parent group to form the Islamic State, Somalia faction.
Led by Abdulqadir Mumin, a former Al-Shabaab regional commander, the pro-ISIS faction in Somalia began operating in mountainous Bari region of Puntland. Barely three years down, the Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s faction now has extended foothold in El-Adde, El-Wak, Buale, Gododwe, Jiliib, Salagle, Saakow, Afgoye and Mogadishu.
The small pro-ISIS cells that have been reported in Al-Shabaab’s southern Somalia stronghold are tasked with conducting sporadic attacks and to recruit more members. ISIS is known to employ heinous, crude methods including crucifixions and beheadings; styles that Al-Shabaab is trying to copy in an effort to remain famous.
ISIS faction in Somalia is getting more traction than Al-Shabaab. The appeal more ideologically and subsequently attracting both local and foreign fighters. Recently, U.S. Department of Justice announced that it arrested three U.S citizens originally from Kenya but living in Michigan for trying to embark on journey to join ISIS in Somalia. This signals of increasing pro-ISIS influence in Somalia. The jihadist group that started with about 20 fighters now is believed to have between 200-300 fighters.
Significance of Somalia to ISIS
The pro-ISIS faction stated objective and strategy is ‘Baqiya wa tamaddad’ which means to ‘remain and expand’. The strategy of the expand across all the regions of Somalia of which its succeeding. The employs small unit strategic to carryout attacks even lone wolf style to conduct assassinations. The Al-Qaeda linked Al-Shabaab has also copied this tactic of employing small group of between 5-10 fighters in most of its recent attacks.
ISIS find organized local groups and seed them with training and resources to increase their effectiveness. This strategy has succeeded ins expanding into Libya, Egypt, Nigeria, Tunisia, the same is being replicated in Somalia.
After challenging Al-Qaeda presence in Yemen by creating a wilayat (province) towards the end of 2014, ISIS seeks to undermine Al-Qaeda further by establishing Islamic State in Somalia (short: ISS) or Abnaa ul-Calipha and calling on Al-Shabaab fighters to join it ranks.
ISIS intends to use Somalia as safe haven for its fighters. As Somalia is situated close to Yemen, a worn torn country, ISIS establishment of its branches in both countries may provide safe have and safe passage for its fighters travelling to and from Africa. ISIS in Somalia may further exploit piracy and benefit the group economically and strategically.
ISIS Recruitment Tactic in Somalia
ISIS is adept at using social media to recruit and inspire attacks. In the past few months, the group has been using Islamic State’s weekly newsletter ‘Al Naba’ to air its dissatisfaction of Al-Shabaab targeting its fighters.
The group has released videos eulogizing a number of its killed fighters by Al-Shabaab. The tactics are aimed creating sympathy and leap followers from Al-Shabaab. ISIS strategies are working as the group continue to receive new members from Al-Shabaab.
The Islamic State’s loyalists say Al-Shabaab is being threatened by ISS proactiveness citing the period it has been in existence and thus it fears for new defections which resulted in the creation of Wilayat al Somal” [the Somalia Province].
Al-Shabaab Response against Arch-rival; ISIS Faction
Al-Shabaab is not responding well to its arch-rival, the ISIS faction. Al-Shabaab’s intelligence wing (amniyaat) continues to hunt down pro-ISIS fighters and killing them.
Since ISS-faction split from Al-Shabaab the latter has been intensifying crackdown on the defectors with an aim of instilling fear to its fighters not to defect to the rival faction
Under Ahmad Umar’s leadership, Al-Shabaab has steadily hunted down jihadists who join Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s faction with a purpose.
Islamic State Somalia similarly warns Al-Shabaab that it’ll destroy the Al-Qaeda affiliate and already has marked its top commanders for assassination.
ISS expanding and maintaining small-loyal cells across the regions in Somalia further is threatening to outshine Al-Shabaab’s future of jihad in Somalia.
Lead Security Expert at Strategic Intelligence (SI) warns that in coming years, Al-Shabaab won’t be a threat as compared to the Islamic State faction in Somalia. The expert cites the ability of ISS to plan and perpetuate terror as ‘lone wolves’ unlike Al-Shabaab who only conduct attacks as a cell. It is not easy to track a lone wolf (fighter) activated through a cell phone as compared to a group of fighters.
It remains to be seen how the Islamic State in Somalia will respond to Al-Shabaab’s continuous crackdown. The Baghdadi loyalists do not operate a full-scale insurgency unlike Al-Shabaab’s fighters, but they do retain a terrorist capability.