Foreign fighters within Al-Shabaab in Somalia are increasingly becoming frustrated with the organization’s treatment of foreigners within its ranks. Persecutions of foreign fighters within the organization have started creating major wrangles within the militant group indicating signs of imminent disintegration.
A now reformed former Al-Shabaab foreign fighter who came back into the country in 2018 laments of discrimination against foreign fighters within the group. The returnee indicates that Al-Shabaab’s explosives unit (Istish’ad) and foot soldiers component (Jabha) mostly use foreign fighters on the frontlines. The aim is to test their loyalty and to regulate their influence within the group.
“They use Kenyans and other foreign fighters as pawns – for suicide missions, as foot soldiers on the frontlines, or they are assassinated for suspicion of spying for the enemy”, the now rehabilitated former fighter who spoke on condition of anonymity complains.
“Majority of us, as foreign fighters, wanted to pursue global jihad agenda in line with our affiliation with Al-Qaeda and believe that all Muslims across the world are brothers. But some influential Al-Shabaab leaders, who ride on clan power and who have long-term political ambitions, would not allow that. They wanted us to focus on Somalia alone”.
The returnee confides that it is after witnessing the mistreatment of foreigners and learning that the Al-Shabaab war was largely clan-based and political that he chose to defect and surrender back to Kenya. The former fighter has also disclosed that other foreign fighters are either considering fleeing to other Jihad theatres, pledging allegiance to the Islamic State, or fleeing to the Lakta Belt.
Meanwhile, recent deaths of influential Al-Shabaab commanders from Kenya has also generated concerns among its local and Somalia members. Sources within security circles say that there is disquiet amongst Kenyans in Al-Shabaab following the death of a top Kenyan Al-Shabaab operative Ahmed Iman Ali alias Abu Zinira.
Iman was reportedly among other Kenyan and Somalia Al-Shabaab operatives who were killed following an airstrike on an Al-Shabaab camp in Buale, Somalia, in late March 2019. Before his reported death, Iman was the senior most Kenyan Al-Shabaab commander attached to the media and propaganda wing of the organization.
Iman’s death, according to security circles, has lowered the morale of Kenyan foreign fighters within Al-Shabaab and reduced local recruitment and facilitation. Some Kenyan foreign fighters are reaching out to their local family members and associates inquiring on the possibility of a return to Kenya. A few who have already returned are either undergoing rehabilitation or are under the radar of counter-terrorism agencies.
In late 2017, Iman reportedly fell out of favor with Al-Shabaab leadership after claims emerged in the media linking him with plans to either surrender to the Kenyan government or form his own splinter group in Boni forest, Lamu County. Some security sources believe that Iman’s death may have been as a result of being sold out by Al-Shabab leadership which was increasingly perceiving his global jihad ambitions as a threat to the largely nationalistic Al-Shabaab agenda.
The mistrust between Somali militants and foreign fighters within Al-Shabaab is not new. In June 2011, a Comoros-born al-Qaeda operative Mohamed Harun Fazul is believed to have been sold out and killed after falling out with the Al-Shabaab leadership. Then in 2013, Al-Shabaab gunmen are believed to have killed one of its most vocal foreign fighter Abu Mansuor Al-Amriki, an American from Alabama, after he openly castigated Al-Shabaab leadership style.
Other Kenyan security reports indicate that some factions of foreign fighters, majority of them Kenyans, have already left Jilib and Buale heading towards the Lakta Belt. The group is reportedly seeking to break away from Al-Shabaab core and form an independent outfit that is more globalist in its jihad agenda. The group is reported to be planning to operate independently within the Lakta Belt in honor of Ahmad Iman’s initial plan.