Several years ago, I was having drinks at an Irish bar with an intelligence official. (Al Qaeda is always best discussed while drinking Guinness.) He had brought with him several pages of publicly available statements made by leaders within Shabaab, a terrorist-insurgency organization that now controls large parts of Somalia. Shabaab’s leaders offered effusive praise for Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda, he explained, but some of his colleagues refused to believe that Shabaab was closely allied with al Qaeda. “Why shouldn’t we take their own statements seriously?” he asked.
Of course, while caution should always be exercised when evaluating terrorist propaganda (terrorists do lie, after all), his colleagues in the U.S. intelligence community should have taken those statements seriously. In a video released online, Shabaab has, once again, announced its loyalty to al Qaeda. And Ayman al Zawahiri, al Qaeda’s post-bin Laden emir, has formally accepted Shabaab into al Qaeda’s fold.
This is one of the most unsurprising moves in the history of al Qaeda. But the naysayers, those who have denied that Shabaab is strongly tied to al Qaeda, will now have even less of a leg to stand on. And it is not just some analysts inside the intelligence community who will have to revise their analyses. There are many in the foreign policy commentariat who will likewise have to revise their talking points. As a Council on Foreign Relations web page (which will surely be edited) notes, “most analysts believe al-Shabaab's organizational links to al-Qaeda are weak.”
They were always wrong. And the formal merger of Shabaab and al Qaeda is merely the final step in a longstanding and close working relationship.
To see the tight bonds between al Qaeda and Shabaab all one has to do is look at Shabaab’s leadership. Virtually every key Shabaab leader is either a dual-hatted al Qaeda-Shabaab personality, or has publicly expressed his loyalty to al Qaeda, or both. Some of Shabaab’s most notorious commanders served al Qaeda since the early to mid-1990s and were even involved in al Qaeda’s 1998 embassy bombings – the terrorist organization’s most successful attack prior to September 11.
Several brief examples will suffice.
Fazul Mohammed was killed in June 2011. Before his demise, Fazul was both the head of East Africa Al Qaeda (EAAQ) and a senior Shabaab commander. When Osama bin Laden named Fazul the EAAQ chieftain in 2009, Shabaab’s emir, Mukhtar Abu al Zubayr, attended the ceremony commemorating Fazul’s new leadership position. Fazul was long wanted for his role in al Qaeda’s 1998 embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania.
Mukhtar Robow is a senior Shabaab leader and spokesman. In August 2008, according to the Los Angeles Times, Robow admitted: “We are negotiating how we can unite into one [with al Qaeda]. We will take our orders from Sheik Osama bin Laden because we are his students.” Robow continued: “Al Qaeda is the mother of the holy war in Somalia. Most of our leaders were trained in Al Qaeda camps. We get our tactics and guidelines from them. Many have spent time with Osama bin Laden.”
Now, some may highlight Robow’s comment about “negotiating” with al Qaeda to “unite” forces. But notice Robow conceded that his group was already taking its “tactics and guidelines” from al Qaeda, which certainly sounds like Shabaab was already taking some orders from al Qaeda. Indeed, Shabaab commanders had already professed their loyalty to al Qaeda.
One of them is Aden Hashi Ayro, Shabaab’s co-founder and military commander, who was killed in an American airstrike in 2008. Shabaab's official biography of Ayro, released after his death, said that “he fought under the supervision of al Qaeda, and with its logistical support and expertise.” The same year Ayro was killed, another Shabaab-al Qaeda commander, Saleh ali Saleh Nabhan, swore bayat (an oath of loyalty) to Osama bin Laden. Nabhan called bin Laden, who he knew personally, “the courageous commander and my honorable leader.”
In 2010, Shabaab’s emir, Zubayr, signed a statement saying that Shabaab had “agreed to join the international jihad of al Qaeda.”
It was Zubayr who again swore allegiance to Zawahiri and al Qaeda in the most recent video.
These are just a few examples, chosen from many. You may be wondering: How could anyone deny that Shabaab was part of al Qaeda’s international terror network? Well, great emphasis has been placed on al Qaeda’s formal acceptance of Shabaab. That is, because al Qaeda did not come right out and say that Shabaab is part of its network, some analysts concluded the two were not really all that tight. This is, in a word, nonsense.
Al Qaeda, of course, does not advertise all of its business publicly. While al Qaeda is prolific in issuing propaganda statements, it is still a clandestine organization intent on keeping some secrets. There is little to no transparency, for example, concerning how al Qaeda decides to formally or publicly accept an organization such as Shabaab as an affiliate.
Moreover, in 2010, a well-informed senior U.S. intelligence official told my colleague Bill Roggio that al Qaeda's senior leadership “instructed Shabaab to maintain a low profile on al Qaeda links.”
“Al Qaeda has accepted Shabaab into the fold, and any additional statements would only serve to draw international scrutiny,” the official told Roggio. “Al Qaeda is applying lessons learned from Iraq, that an overexposure of the links between al Qaeda central leadership and its affiliates can cause some unwanted attention.”
Al Qaeda’s calculation has changed. But Zawahiri’s previous decision to avoid publicly accepting Shabaab as an al Qaeda affiliate was apparently enough to fool many in the West. Now that Zawahiri has formally announced Shabaab’s membership in al Qaeda there is absolutely no good reason to pretend the two are not in bed together. In reality, there was no good reason in the first place.
Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.