By: Anthony Kimery
March 21, 2012
With reliable human intelligence having become even more sparse from within the Yemen-based Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) following the drone strike in Sept. that killed its chief recruiter and operations mastermind, Anwar Al Awlaki, a debate has waged among Western counterterror authorities over the internal command structure of AQAP and Al Shabaab, another Al Qaeda-linked terror group that is based in Somalia with which Al Awlaki had forged good relations - including using it as a pool from which to recruit hand-picked operatives.
According to a new report from the Homeland Security Policy Institute (HSPI), though, counterterrorism analysts who'd speculated that American Al Shabaab commander, Omar Hammami – also known as Abu Mansur Al Amriki - was the clear successor to Al Awlaki “were off the mark."
"Recent machinations should serve as reminders to analysts and commentators alike that jihadist groups - like other militant organizations - are rarely unified, and are often subject to a number of internal and external pressures,” said a statement from HSPI about its new report, Hammami's Plight Amidst Al Shabaab and Al Qaeda's Game of Thrones, written by Clint Watts, a senior fellow at HSPI currently working at the Navanti Group, and Andrew Lebovich, a senior analyst at Navanti Group.
"Hammami on Friday sat alone in front of a flag commonly associated with Al Qaeda and said that the organization for which he'd fought for much of the last five years, Al Shabaab, might be trying to kill him. The video, the first public message from Hammami since last October, caught many counterterrorism analysts off guard,” HSPI said, noting that “the release is an unprecedented public admission of fear and weakness from a jihadist figure. But it has brought to the fore a game of thrones occurring in Somalia as rival Al Shabaab factions compete for power and eliminate their rivals, even as the organization has more tightly joined itself to Al Qaeda's global jihad. Hammami's video confirms not only a power struggle within Al Shabaab, but may also point to a larger battle for leadership supremacy in a post-Bin Laden Al Qaeda.”
This comes as AQAP has strengthened in the wake of Al Awlaki's death, and indications that someone inside Al Shabaab has forged closer ties to Al Qaeda Central's central leaders.
“While Hammami has long been a stalwart public voice in praise of Al Qaeda and its late leader, Osama Bin Laden, he may have found himself on the wrong side of an internal conflict that already may have cost the lives of Al Qaeda operatives and Al Qaeda-linked foreign fighters in Somalia,” the report says.
Continuing, the new HSPI report says “it is admittedly difficult and dangerous to make sweeping statements about complicated group dynamics based on rumor, innuendo, and isolated pieces of evidence, but if the reports of factional disputes and the killing of foreign fighters prove true, it would make sense for Hammami to be targeted by the group’s emergent leadership. While some reports suggest that Hammami is allied with [Al Shabaab leader Ahmed Abdi] Godane, his time in Somalia indicates a longer and more durable connection with Godane’s rivals, notably Mukhtar Robow.”
The report’s authors point out that “in June 2011, Somali government forces reportedly killed a longtime Al Qaeda operational commander named Abdul Fazul Mohamed (also known as Harun Fazul), at a roadblock in Mogadishu,” and that the “account of his killing did not sit well with people who knew Fazul’s history as a crafty and skilled operational commander. Recently, scholar Nelly Lahoud postulated that Fazul, who was close to Osama Bin Laden and vocally opposed to a merger between Al Qaeda and Al Shabaab, may have instead been killed as part of a plot by … Godane to draw himself closer to Al Qaeda’s new leader, Ayman Al Zawahiri.”
The HSPI report states that "Hammami’s Al Qaeda links do not seem to have extended past the group’s 'old guard' leadership in Somalia, indicating that Hammami has not been able to make contact with ascendant factions within the group – though to be fair, we cannot know if he has tried. However, we can
clearly see that Hammami has fallen victim to factionalism of one sort, whether in Al Qaeda, Al Shabaab, or both. That he finds himself in such a vulnerable position is illustrative of the complexities and dangers inherent in such groups, especially Al Shabaab, who currently face military opposition from Kenya, Ethiopia, and US drones."
The report concluded that "Hammami’s plea suggests several emerging questions related to Al Shabaab’s operations and new opportunities for undermining the group’s influence. Many new hypotheses regarding Al Qaeda’s relationship with Al Shabaab should be explored."
Counterterror and intelligence authorities discussed the future of AQAP in the wake of Al Awlaki’s killing for the Jan. Homeland Security Today report, After Awlaki. Authorities had also speculated on the future of Al Qaeda Central for the June, 2011 Homeland Security Today cover report, Al Qaeda After Bin Laden.