By William Tucker
Yesterday saw heavy fighting in the Somali capital of Mogadishu with over twenty killed and thirty wounded. In the midst of the heavy fighting, rumors of a split in al-Shabaab have surfaced as well as reports of increased activities by foreign militaries off the Somali coast. At the moment neither report can be confirmed, but some of it does make sense. The rumored split in al-Shabaab falls along the lines of the nationalist versus the international jihadists. While both have long established links to al-Qaeda they have diverging goals. For instance, prior to the suicide bombings claimed by al-Shabaab in Uganda the African Union troops and al-Shabaab were at a standstill thus increasing the prospect of the militant group going international to break the stalemate. As the suicide attacks were not sustained they failed in the goal of forcing AU troops out of Somalia.
The Uganda attacks had the opposite effect the attackers were looking for – Uganda rededicated itself to the Somali theater and international attention was once again focused on the fight in the horn of Africa. Al-Shabaab and its predecessors were all nationalists focused on implementing a government based upon Islamic law that would fill the void in Mogadishu. The dynamics of al-Shabaab changed significantly once the group openly declared its loyalty to Osama bin Laden and began hosting a large influx of foreign fighters from Iraq and beyond. This is why the rumored split among al-Shabaab leadership makes sense because the makeup of the group has changed so drastically. Whether or not the reports are true doesn’t really matter as a struggle between the two factions is inevitable.
The reports of foreign military operations off the coast of southern Somalia are very interesting. Because of the threat of piracy to international shipping in the region NATO and several other nations have an established naval presence off the coast of Somalia. These reports however differ from counter-piracy operations in that military helicopters have been seen in the south of Somalia. Most Somali pirates operate in the north well away from the jihadist fight in the south. Over the past few years US operations against known wanted militants in Somalia have been a combination of targeted airstrikes and special operations. The region where the reports originated is a known stronghold of al-Shabaab and the location of past US attacks giving the reports some credence, but they do not indicate that a US operation is about to take place. It is possible that these aircraft are engaging in surveillance activity in preparation for a strike, but at this point that is just conjecture. That being said, it is possible that an outside power is looking to exploit a rift in the movement, or at least cause one.