| Ayman al-Zawahiri today announced that al-Shabaab, the Islamist group in Somalia has officially become an al-Qaeda (AQ) affiliate. If true, this is a hugely significant development.
While a variety of senior al-Shaaab figures have pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda in the past, the group was not an official al-Qaeda franchise. In January 2011, the al-Qaeda core - including Osama bin Laden - offered to promote al-Shabaab into an official franchise named al-Qaeda in East Africa. However, al-Shabaab leaders rejected the offer, fearing it could irrevocably divide the group and make it a higher profile target for the West. Despite this, negotiations continued, with bin Laden still attempting to strengthen ties between AQ and al-Shabaab, with the heads of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula acting as conduits.
Negotiations between AQ core and potential franchises can be protracted as there are certain criteria such aspirant cells must meet. They must be operationally capable of violence and there must be consensus on their enemies (for example, a focus on the global jihad, not just the local). The first condition was fulfilled some time ago. It now appears as if al-Shabaab has agreed to the second.
With its large Somali population, this has ramifications for the security situation in the UK. In September 2010, Jonathan Evans, head of MI5, said that 'significant' numbers of Brits were training with al-Shabaab, and voiced his concern that 'it is only a matter of time before we see terrorism on our streets inspired by those who are today fighting alongside al-Shabaab.' With the official alignment of Shabaab and al-Qaeda now taking place, such fighters may now have the theological blessing to carry out attacks on British soil.
However, Al-Shabaab is a highly factionalised group, and there is - and will likely continue to be - much dispute over whether it should be aligning itself to al-Qaeda's global jihad, as opposed to local efforts restricted solely to Somalia.
HJS Research Fellow Robin Simcox said:
"Such were the informal links that already existed between the two groups, al-Shabaab becoming an official al-Qaeda affiliate may have seemed inevitable. However, the formalising of the partnership is still significant, as it shows al-Shabaab's acceptance of the need to pursue a global jihad. In the coming weeks and months, security services should be on even higher alert over the prospect of an al-Shabaab trained terrorist attempting an attack in the West."
Related material on HJS website:
Al-Shabaab's Mogadishu Retreat
The Long Arms of al- Qaeda
For all media inquiries contact Michael Weiss by email or phone +44 (0)20 7340 4520 (office) or +44 (0)77 666 41670 (mobile).
MIM: Also see "Somali Militants Celebrate Joining Al Qaeda"