The Islamic State continues to shock a war-weary world with barbaric policies rooted in 7th-century ideology. Yet, at the same time, it is embracing modernity with startling speed, judging from its sophisticated use of social media as both a recruiting tool and a way of terrorizing its victims from afar.
In fact, its ongoing social-media campaign has proven nearly as destructive as its bloody invasions of Iraq, Syria and Turkey and has sent trembling governments scrambling for ways to protect their citizens and prevent the disaffected among them from joining the murderous ranks.
But what of those governments with a third consideration: preventing homegrown terrorist groups from heeding the siren call? While the I.S. welcomes individuals willing to share its dream of an Islamic caliphate, it accepts smaller extremist organizations into the fold with even more eagerness.
Imagine a country in the midst of a 6-year-old civil war being waged simultaneously by a number of armed rebel groups — some of which are also at war with each other — when it suddenly realizes that the I.S. is licking its chops just outside the border.
Welcome to Somalia, whose elected officials find themselves in that untenable position as the terrorist group Al-Shabaab ponders switching affiliations.
Al-Shabaab pledged allegiance to Al Qaeda in 2012. Per CNN, Al-Shabaab’s leader at the time, Mukhtar Abu al-Zubair, promised Al Qaeda’s Ayman al-Zawahir that his followers would “march with you as loyal soldiers . . . so lead us to the path of jihad and martyrdom that was drawn by our imam, the martyr Osama.”
The next year, Al-Shabaab gunmen seized a shopping mall in neighboring Kenya, killing dozens of people and injuring scores more, all as a way of reintroducing the group to anyone who had forgotten that it had carried out a campaign of terror throughout the region since 2006, when conflict between Ethiopia and Somalia gave rise to various armed factions.
Even as it engaged its main rival, Ahlu-Sunna wal-Jama (ASWJ), in frequent skirmishes, Al-Shabaab was in danger of losing ground until it merged with Al Qaeda. The attack on the Westlake Mall signaled that Al Qaeda had found an effective proxy through which to continue its pursuit of worldwide jihad.
An American drone killed Al-Zubair in 2014, leaving Al-Shabaab rudderless and uncertain of its future, but the fact is that the group was already fighting a losing battle with attrition. Heavy losses, dwindling funds and increasing disaffection had driven some members into the waiting arms of similar terrorist groups, while others had decided to cut their losses and join government forces.
The loss of Al-Zubair had led some within Al-Shabaab to question the wisdom of remaining tied to Al Qaeda, which demanded loyalty but provided scant material support.
Just about that time, the I.S. was making headline after headline, each more gruesome than the last, by posting videos online depicting the beheading of foreign hostages and the massacre of fellow Muslims who opposed its rule.
When it summarily overwhelmed the armies of both Iraq and Syria, the I.S. and its commander, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, had suddenly replaced Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, who had gained even more adherents after his death in 2011, as public enemy No. 1.
If the rest of the world took notice, those whose beliefs lined up with I.S. dogma certainly did, as well. And they were thrilled to hear that the new kids on the block were, much like Al Qaeda, looking for allies outside the territories they controlled.
In April of this year, Al-Shabaab stormed a Kenyan university, killing 147 civilians in a massacre second in body count only to the 213 slain in the 1998 bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi.
And in May, in a slickly produced video meant to show off new vehicles, firepower aplenty and Somali militants who had defected to the I.S., group leaders formally extended an invitation to Al-Shabaab to dump Al Qaeda and join them.
What a Guardian article describes as an “ideological split” over whose banner to follow has prompted Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud to take the bold step of offering these extremists, who have caused his people unimaginable pain for nearly a decade, some heartfelt advice – to not join the I.S.
He essentially warned them that such a move was tantamount not to jumping from the frying pan into the fire but, rather, from the frying pan straight into the sun.
Of course, Mohamud would prefer that Al-Shabaab give up its marauding ways and surrender. But assuming that the group is not looking to lay down its arms anytime soon, he hopes to keep its remaining members from easing the way for the I.S. to establish a base in the region and, in so doing, avoid the horrors that have been Nigeria’s lot since its own homegrown extremist group, Boko Haram, aligned itself with the I.S. earlier this year.
As The Guardian reported, Mohamud said the very fact that members are divided reveals a group that “has lost its way” and needs a guide toward a less torturous tomorrow.
“Do not think that your choice is limited to one of two puppet masters, Al Qaeda or Daesh (Islamic State),” he said. “There is another option, the right and holy option: the path to peace.”
Of course, Mohamud doesn’t realistically expect jihadists to abandon their bloodletting just because he appeals to their better angels. But if that appeal can deny the I.S. entry into his country for one day longer, that just might be what passes for a minor victory in a war threatening to escalate over an ever-shifting landscape.