“ISIS benefitted from a section of al-Shabab leaders who saw the establishment of a ‘Caliphate’ under Baghdadi as an opportunity to switch sides,” said David Otto, director and counterterrorism program coordinator at Global Risk International. “And in addition, as thousands of ISIS returning foreign fighters left Mosul and Raqqa towards the East, North, Central and West Africa, the ISIS faction in Somalia seems to have benefitted.”
ISIS mainly operates in Puntland and in southern Somalia but has been spreading its area of operations as well as its “type of operations” – relying less on typical improvised explosive devices and more on targeted “assassinations” using “hit squads,” the FDD analysis highlights.
“Somalia is one of the most unstable countries in the world, and governance and security are practically nonexistent. Jihadist groups thrive under these conditions,” Bill Roggio, a senior fellow at FDD and editor of FDD’s Long War Journal, told Fox News. “Like in other countries, such as Afghanistan, Yemen, Iraq, and Syria, the Islamic State has poached from discontented members of Al Qaeda's branches (Shabab in the case of Somalia) to fill its ranks. The Islamic State typically recruits from leaders and fighters who have been marginalized, are unhappy with their leadership, or disagree with Al Qaeda's more patient approach to jihad.”
The analysis points to the prospect of even more instability as ISIS “continues to encroach on Shabab territory,” igniting more internal conflict and bloodshed.
Earlier this year, the U.S announced its deadliest airstrike in Somalia in months, although it was against Al Qaeda targets rather than ISIS. It allegedly killed 52 extremists who mounted an attack on Somali soldiers, but a spokesperson for U.S Africa Command has since said the Department of Defense will no longer release details pertaining to death counts in Somalia.
The United States has significantly increased the number of airstrikes against al-Shabab in the country since Donald Trump took office two years ago in the quest to eliminate safe havens and has struck the ISIS-affiliated group too, but experts contend that more focus needs to be on the latter threat.
“US counterterrorism efforts in Somalia have largely focused on Shabab. For instance, in 2017, the US launched its first strikes against the Islamic State in Somalia and targeted the group 4 times. Shabab was targeted 31 times that year,” Roggio contended. “In 2018, there were zero strikes vs the Islamic State, and 47 against Shabab.”
But according to Otto, “the use of drone strikes targets key leaders but they are quickly replaced by more radical leaders.”
“Both factions pose a massive threat to the U.S. presence in Somalia, in the region and across the borders. Both consider the US and its Western partners as their primary enemy,” he said.
Nonetheless, Roggio concurred that the threat is far from limited to the country of origin.