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End Game: Al-Shabab as a Model for the Islamic State’s Decline




By Clint Watts

March 31, 2015

Whether by burning a Jordanian fighter pilot alive, massacring Shiites or beheading American hostages, the self-declared Islamic State (IS) has an unprecedented knack for making enemies. IS has also inadvertently achieved what the United States never accomplished during more than a decade in Iraq: the mobilisation of a willing coalition of Arab countries to fight Jihadi extremists.

Still, in the first year of its so-called caliphate, IS’ aggressive expansion appears to have passed its zenith. Both on the Internet and on the ground, there are many indicators that the group’s decline has already begun. But IS will likely endure for quite some time, wreaking havoc throughout the Middle East and likely spawning future waves of extremism around the world.

What might the decline of IS look like? For an example, one might logically think to look to the region’s previous leading terrorist group, al-Qaida, but this would be misguided. Al-Qaida’s collapse has been drawn out because of its dispersed network structure—the group never dominated territory and never commanded a conventional army on par with IS.

Localized al-Qaida affiliates also make for a poor comparison. For example, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), with its parallel insurgent arm Ansar al-Sharia, reached a brief peak in 2012, but was dispatched relatively quickly and never equaled IS in terms of its military prowess or attractiveness to foreign recruits. Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) had created the largest geographic area governed by a jihadi group by 2013, but also serves as a poor example, as it was quickly fractured as a consequence of a French intervention in the Sahel and has not recovered since.

Instead, the best recent historical model for understanding the likely future evolution of IS may be al-Shabab, the terrorist group that once governed Somalia but which has now entered a state of gradual decline. Such a comparison would in turn be useful to formulating U.S. policy for dealing with the implications of IS’ likely fall.

How Al-Shabab’s Rise Compares With the Islamic State’s

Al-Shabab’s trajectory provides many indications of what to expect for IS, because the two groups share much in common. Al-Shabab, like IS, rose to prominence quickly, emerging in 2006 from the ashes of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), a coalition of local Shariah courts that had banded together to briefly govern large swathes of Somalia that year. Both groups benefited from the chaos created by failing central states in regions battered by more than a decade of conflict. And both regions—Somalia and the Horn of Africa for al-Shabab, Iraq and Syria for IS—are home to disenfranchised tribal communities trapped in austere environments.

Political Islamist groups backed by Wahhabi ideology and cash from the Persian Gulf monarchies began to emerge in southern Somalia in the early 1990s, securing areas long enough to allow for brief periods of trade and governance. Al-Ittihad al-Islami (AIAI) and its next incarnation, the ICU, ascended to power in security vacuums similar to those faced by IS’ precursors, al-Qaida in Iraq (AQI) and the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), during 2007 and 2008.

When these groups waned and fractured, al-Shabab took their place in southern Somalia primarily by harnessing the resentment of the disenfranchised, while rising above traditional clan loyalties with a focus on ideology as a vehicle for governance. It drew its leaders from lesser clans, intervening on their behalf in local conflicts against dominant clans. Extreme jihadi ideology in Syria and Iraq has more recently emerged in a similar context: IS is thriving in Sunni areas facing exclusion from the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government or ravaged by civil war with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s Alawite regime.

Al-Shabab and IS have each attracted significant contingents of foreign fighters. While both have been forerunners in the use of new media techniques to lure young men to the battlefield, al-Shabab in many ways pioneered the methods for online radicalization and recruitment so effectively employed by IS today. While having limited local Internet access, al-Shabab’s cell phone propagandists used Twitter to connect with global Somali diaspora support networks for radicalization, recruitment and even operational coordination. IS subsequently surpassed al-Shabab in this domain, using all available social media outlets to disseminate the most sophisticated jihadi propaganda to date and using increasingly sophisticated technical measures, such as automated Internet-surfing programs known as bots, to reach an even wider audience.

The two groups also have similar strategies for raising revenues. In Somalia, al-Shabab taxed the local population and managed to take control of entire industries, allowing the group a measure of self-sufficiency that contrasts with al-Qaida’s heavy dependence on donations. Charcoal manufacturing and trade, in particular, provided an important lifeline for the group. So did the taxation of qat, a popular drug in the Horn of Africa, despite being out of sync with Shariah dictates. On top of locally generated revenue, al-Shabab took advantage of Somalia’s tight international diaspora community and Wahhabi connections to the Gulf to solicit donations and remittances that increased with the pace of their success.

IS, like al-Shabab, has succeeded where other groups have failed in part because it, too, sustains a local resource base powered by oil revenues, extortion and taxation of local economic activities, in addition to a global fundraising network.

This economic self-sufficiency allowed both groups to provide local governance and services, ranging from court systems and police to humanitarian aid and education, in areas where the government and international community were absent. Despite their harsh interpretation of Islamic law and heavy-handed violence, each filled a governance and security void resulting from many years of conflict, representing the only viable option for some local populations to carry on the routines of daily life.

Will Al-Shabab’s Decline Be as Instructive as Its Rise?

By 2010, al-Shabab had reached its height. It governed the entirety of southern Somalia through the administration of regional governorates, led by a Shura Council consisting of three dozen to four dozen leaders responsible for everything from media and finance to religion and military operations. The group’s string of successes and territorial gains led to a push in the summer of 2010 to take Mogadishu. What came to be known as the Ramadan Offensive took only partial control of the Somali capital, and the assault triggered a multinational response to quell the group’s growth. A coalition of actors slowly emerged to mount a multi-front campaign against al-Shabab. In response, the group initiated a strategic withdrawal that in retrospect signaled the start of its implosion.

In 2011, al-Shabab faced many enemies, much as IS does now. Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG), backed by the forces of the African Union Mission to Somalia (AMISOM), slowly pressed back south and west from Mogadishu. Meanwhile, Kenya launched a major offensive north into southern Somalia, challenging al-Shabab’s hold on the heartland of its support. Ethiopian forces, along with the anti-Shabab militia of Ahla Sunna Wal Jama, pushed in from the southeast. Finally, U.S. counterterrorism support to this loose coalition killed many key al-Shabab leaders with airstrikes, including the group’s emir, Ahmed Godane, in the fall of 2014.

The combined pressure of this coalition reduced al-Shabab from the dominant entity in Somalia to a fractious force pushed to the rural interior. Losses of key cities, including a final stronghold in the port of Barawe in the fall of 2014, represented the tipping point in al-Shabab’s collapse. Today, al-Shabab is a fraction of what it was at its height. Many of its hardened stalwarts are still present on social media, calling for the group to shift allegiance from its old caretakers, al-Qaida, to the newly popular IS.

Al-Shabab’s decline was slow and steady, providing a useful case study for how IS, now similarly challenged by an international coalition backed by U.S. military support, might collapse. Each passing year during its decline, al-Shabab showed signs of further fraying, both in Somalia and on the Internet. For those measuring IS’ decline, evidence of the same signs, as demonstrated by the following indicators, will be crucial: a shift from insurgency to terrorism; an acceleration of regional terrorist attacks; losses in money and personnel; a waning presence on social media; the fracturing of the group through organizational infighting; and ultimately a stream of defections.

A Comparison of Shifting Tactics

Al-Shabab’s growth was accompanied by a shift from terrorism to insurgency and conventional fighting, before sliding back to terrorism during its decline. From 2006 to 2009, al-Shabab used suicide bombings and guerrilla warfare against the TFG. By 2010, as its ranks and territory swelled, al-Shabab shifted to conventional fighting against the TFG and AMISOM in Mogadishu. After its withdrawal from the capital, it gradually shifted back to guerrilla warfare and terrorist attacks on population centers. Since the end of 2012, al-Shabab’s loss of turf has resulted in an increasing use of assassinations, suicide bombings, improvised explosive devices, grenade attacks and, on certain occasions, larger-scale terrorist attacks on the Somali government.

IS’ re-emergence following the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq demonstrated a similar pattern. Beginning in 2009, the group’s precursor, ISI, slowly ramped up its terrorist attacks through a string of car bombings. By 2011, ISI continued to use car bombings while also arranging prison breaks to free their most loyal supporters and embolden the ranks of their growing army. And when it shifted its operations to Syria in 2012, ISI—at the time still nominally under al-Qaida’s umbrella—helped launch Jabhat al-Nusra as a jihadist fighting force and moved more decisively into insurgency.

Since rebranding and breaking with al-Qaida in 2012 and 2013, IS decisively transformed itself into a conventional army, one capable of sweeping through western Iraq and eastern Syria in the summer of 2014. It likely peaked as a conventional force during the fall of 2014; since then, sustained airstrikes and failed attempts to take Dabiq and Kobani in Syria have depleted its ranks. Recently, the Iraqi Army and Iraqi Shiite militias supported by advisers from Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) began an assault on Tikrit that, after having initially stalled on the city’s outskirts, has now gathered momentum with the help of U.S. air support. An accompanying spring offensive to retake Mosul from IS seems imminent.

Mounting pressure on IS in Tikrit and Mosul will likely force the group to withdraw into eastern Syria, much the way al-Shabab strategically withdrew from Mogadishu in 2011. Should IS follow a similar pattern to al-Shabab, observers might expect a significant rise in terrorist attacks and guerrilla warfare in Iraq’s major cities, including Baghdad. This shift is already potentially underway, as seen in the IS bombings in the capital in October andNovember 2014.

Al-Shabab’s reversion to guerrilla warfare and terrorist attacks coincided with increasing outreach to sympathetic regional and international audiences, leading to terrorist attacks throughout the Horn of Africa. With sympathies waning in Somalia, al-Shabab increasingly found itself appealing to disenfranchised Muslim communities along Kenya’s coast and displaced Somali diaspora communities in Nairobi. The Kenyan Muslim Youth Group (MYC) and the Ansar Muslim Youth Center in Tanzania (AMYC) became effective recruiting and facilitation networks for al-Shabab to conduct grenade attacks and assaults in Kenya against security forces and civilians.

In addition, prior to the 2012 official merger with al-Qaida, al-Shabab had deepened ties to AQAP in Yemen, from which it received guidance, materials and training. After conducting its first regional terror attacks in the form of suicide bombings in the Ugandan capital, Kampala, al-Shabab further revealed itself as an al-Qaida arm capable of sophisticated terrorist attacks during the internationally televised siege of Nairobi’s Westgate Mall in September 2013.

IS is also moving beyond its original territorial base. Attacks in Tunisia, Algeria, Libya and Yemen by IS affiliates likely represent the first of many regional attacks to come. IS setbacks in Iraq and Syria should tip observers to look for a correlated spate of terrorist attacks against government, tourist and Western targets in the wider region. Terrorist attacks further abroad, perpetrated by IS’ network of returning foreign fighters, should also be expected, although the exact locations and timing will always be difficult to anticipate. But as with al-Shabab, an uptick in terrorist attacks regionally may represent IS’ decline rather than its growth.

Loss of Resources, Online Outreach and Foreign Fighters

Resource constraints further limited al-Shabab’s ability to govern, a problem likely to plague IS in the coming year. Al-Shabab’s finances took a significant downturn from 2011 through 2014, as territorial decline diminished the group’s ability to collect revenues from local populations and international measures to curb the group’s charcoal trade took effect. More important, al-Shabab’s refusal to accept Western aid helped create a massive famine, during which al-Shabab fighters stole water and food from the local population, generating deep resentment. Al-Shabab’s setbacks likely coincided with a downward trend in donations, as fewer diaspora and Gulf donors were willing to fund a dying campaign in Somalia, instead shifting resources to the unprecedented jihadi migration into Syria. Finally, al-Shabab lost its key port of Barawe in late 2014, effectively cutting the group’s supply lines from outside of Somalia.

This experience offers lessons for the crisis in Iraq and Syria. International efforts to unseat IS should include a focus on interdicting the group’s oil trade if they are to succeed. Indications of a decline in IS’ resources could include a decreasing ability to provide governance and services, predatory resource acquisition from the local population and increased reports of hardship from refugees fleeing areas under its control, all of which were seen in Somalia. Militarily, a shift from using captured conventional weaponry back to guerrilla warfare would also likely signal a decline in IS resources.

The Internet offers additional points of comparison. IS’ meteoric rise on social media mirrored the trajectory of al-Shabab’s emergence on Twitter from 2012 to 2013, as Somalis and the diaspora community took up sides for and against the group online. Al-Shabab’s taunting of its adversaries and propaganda made it among the first targets of censorship on Twitter. After the group posted threats of violence and photos of victims, Twitter repeatedly shut down al-Shabab’s handle in 2013.

Pushing al-Shabab and other terrorist groups off social media initially seemed impossible, an endless game of Whack-A-Mole in which accounts were recreated almost as soon as they were terminated. However, repeated violations of Twitter’s terms of service and ensuing account closures damaged al-Shabab’s online following, squelching its message, confusing followers and diminishing the group’s outreach.

Today, in an attempt to counter IS’ growth online, Twitter and other social media outlets have initiated the largest removal of content ever. While IS propaganda can still be found on social media, limiting the group’s access to this critical lifeline will have serious consequences, both financially and in terms of foreign fighter support. Key indicators of success in this campaign over the next few months could include a decline in new IS account openings relative to closures, a migration of IS to less popular social media platforms or even the creation of IS’ own social media platform. Each of these moves, regardless of the effectiveness in their implementation, would result in a smaller following for IS’ global message.

Besides resource constraints and online resistance, internal divisions are a third problem for jihadist groups. Al-Shabab’s decision to join forces with al-Qaida in February 2012, for instance, brought an almost immediate surge of internal infighting, directly leading to the group’s decline. Almost immediately after Godane orchestrated the al-Qaida merger, Sheikh Hasan Dahir Aweys, a veteran Somali jihadist, began to break ranks with al-Shabab. By late 2012, the group’s second-leading figure, Mukhtar Robow, split from al-Shabab along with his troops, leading to open battle with Godane’s loyalists.

This clan fracturing then catalyzed a damaging split between local Somali troops and foreign fighters. Omar Hammami, an American fighter for al-Shabab known for his outreach to Westerners on YouTube, broke with the group in 2012, initiating a nearly two-year campaign by the group to kill him—a task it accomplished in September 2013. But before his death, Hammami documented al-Shabab’s unraveling, detailing the tensionsbetween local Somalis and foreign fighters as well as between rival factions within al-Shabab.

Moreover, throughout 2013 and into 2014, Godane employed his heavy-handed intelligence service, the Amniyat, to snuff out dissention in the ranks—imprisoning some al-Shabab members, killing others and initiating cell phone or Twitter outages to quell any internal dissent. Since the merger with al-Qaida, al-Shabab defections have increased exponentially, and foreign fighters once tempted to travel to Somalia have shifted course to join the jihad in Syria.

IS, whose Iraqi-dominated leadership has drawn in tens of thousands of foreign fighters, appears ripe for a similar split. In the group’s early stages, foreign fighters enjoyed the camaraderie and spoils of war brought by successive victories and expansion. The international coalition’s air campaign has ended this expansion, and the day-to-day routine of governing territory does not exercise the same appeal for foreign cadres as conquering it did. As IS resources and territory contract in the coming months, the rate of defections among IS’ foreign fighters will likely be the most important indicator of the group’s decline. Reports of defections and the killing of dissenters are already surfacing. Should IS leaders call for silence by their members on social media, it might further indicate dissension in the ranks.


The decline of IS appears inevitable, and the process will likely differ from al-Shabab’s in one key respect: time. Al-Shabab never reached the size nor achieved the success that IS has, yet a sizeable military coalition is still fighting in the Horn of Africa more than four years after the group’s zenith. IS remains far larger both online and on the ground, suggesting that it may endure, with its decline dragging on far longer than al-Shabab’s.

So even under the best-case scenario, the defeat of IS will take years. But lessons learned from al-Shabab’s decline can still be applied. Militarily, defeating IS will require sustained coordination and cooperation among all members of the coalition. Washington’s recent surprise at the Iraqi army’s decision, with support from the IRGC, to retake Tikrit suggests disjointed efforts that do not bode well for IS being repelled anytime soon.

Meanwhile, al-Shabab’s organizational decline was accelerated by incentivizing cadres, fighters and allied clans to defect. Thus far, the international coalition has offered few enticements to the disenfranchised Sunni communities that tacitly permitted the rise of IS to disavow the group. While IS defections appear to be on the rise, nothing suggests that Sunni areas, if liberated from IS, will see any reason to join in a political process that is necessary for longer-term security. Buy-in from these Sunni communities is a must for preventing jihadists from re-emerging in these areas.

Moreover, while members of the international coalition have implemented a range of different approaches regarding their nationals who have joined IS, many have adopted policies of no return for these recruits. Depriving foreign fighters an off-ramp for defection may leave them no choice but to remain in IS, extending the group’s longevity.

Finally, the international campaign against al-Shabab has always been guided by the goal of securing Somalia and rebuilding its government. Indeed, al-Shabab as a governance-provider has now been replaced by a fledging but resilient national political process in Mogadishu. The coalition to counter IS appears to have no such vision for ending the Syrian civil war and restoring governance, nor does there appear to be an equivalent plan to restore governance that is locally viewed as legitimate in Sunni areas of Iraq. This lack of a comprehensive approach will only further sustain IS by fueling its narrative of a broader regional sectarian war between Sunnis and Shiites.

Nevertheless, by the time the self-proclaimed caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi falls, IS’ legions of foreign fighters will have likely fled Iraq and Syria in search of the next North African, Middle Eastern or South Asian jihad. So even as Western policymakers watch for indicators of IS’ decline, they should also watch for the emergence and growth of newer jihadist groups. IS is only the latest foe in the long battle against jihadi extremism. As it fades, another organization will likely be poised to take its place.

Clint Watts serves as a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia and at the Center for Cyber and Homeland Security. He previously served as a U.S. Army officer, an FBI special agent and as the executive officer of the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point.