Somalia’s militant group al-Shabaab have joined ranks with al-Qaeda, the terror network’s chief Ayman al-Zawahiri announced in a video message posted on jihadist forums on Thursday.
“Today, I have glad tidings for the Muslim ummah (nation) that will please the believers and disturb the disbelievers, which is the joining of the al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen Movement in Somalia to Qaedat al-Jihad to support the jihadi unity against the Zionist-Crusader campaign and their assistants amongst the treacherous agent rulers,” said a bespectacled Zawahri in the video.
“The jihadist movement is with the grace of Allah, growing and spreading within its Muslim nation despite facing the fiercest crusade campaign in history by the West,” said Zawahiri in the video released by al-Qaeda’s media arm As-Sahab.
The video also featured al-Shabaab’s leader Ahmed Abdi Godane, also known as Mukhtar Abu Zubair. He addressed Zawahiri, saying: “We will move along with you as faithful soldiers.”
“In the name of my mujahedeen brothers, leaders and soldiers... I pledge obedience,” Zubair said.
“Lead us on the road of jihad and martyrdom, in the footsteps that our martyr Osama bin Laden had drawn for us,” he added, referring to al-Qaeda’s former leader who was killed last year in a covert U.S. raid on his hide-out in Pakistan.
“Our brothers in the al-Shabaab al-Mujahedeen, were the rock... that stood in the face of the joint American-Ethiopian-Kenyan-crusade attack on Islam and Muslims in Somalia,” said Zawahiri.
Links between al-Qaeda and al-Shabaab have in the past been mainly ideological. While counter-terrorism experts say al-Shabaab has received advice and training from some members of the transnational network, it has tended to see itself more as an ally of al-Qaeda than a direct outpost of the core organization.
Security analysts say the move could be a public relations gambit by an al-Qaeda leadership severely weakened by drone strikes in its Pakistan mountain bastions and its failure to carry out a major successful attack in the West since 2005.
“Al-Qaeda needs to project power and influence, particularly given its own operational impotence. A merger with al-Shabaab gives it the means to do so and it is a low risk, resource cheap solution for al-Qaeda’s central leadership,” Australian al-Qaeda scholar Leah Farrall told Reuters.
“It stamps Zawahiri’s authority on al-Qaeda and allows him to reinforce al-Qaeda’s preeminence at a time when it has been waning. Al-Shabaab’s acceptance under the al-Qaeda umbrella probably came with permission from Zawahiri for the group to launch external operations against the West,” he added.
A new wave of recruitment in the Somali group could also be inspired by al-Shabaab’s new association with al-Qaeda.
Al-Shabaab is fighting the Western-backed government in Somalia, a country which descended into chaos in 1991 after dictator Siad Barre was overthrown.
Zawahiri urged the al-Shabaab to treat Somalis with “leniency” and “humility” and to help them “solve their problems and fulfill their demands, especially those in need such as widows, orphans, the ill, the elderly and the poor” and to “spread justice.”
He also appealed to the Islamist group “not to forget their imprisoned brothers and sisters held in the jails of the corrupt and oppressive crusaders and to capture crusaders and Zionists wherever they can to exchange them with Muslim prisoners.”
On Jan. 24, an al-Shabaab suicide bomber blew himself at an Ethiopian army base in the central Somali town of Beledweyne.
Hardline al-Shabaab officials said 33 Ethiopians were killed in the blast in Beledweyne, a town about 30 kilometers (20 miles) from the Ethiopian border, but the claims could not be verified.