The Islamic State (IS) is in the process of installing a “little emirate” in the East African nation of Somalia, where the rule of law is virtually non-existent and the government holds very little sway.
Islamic State jihadis are fighting over turf with Al-Shabaab, the Al Qaeda-linked militant Islamist group that has long been the predominant caliphatist outfit in east Africa. Al Shabaab has even publicly threatened Islamic State converts with immediate execution, according to the Washington Post, which estimates that a few dozen people have pledged to IS despite the threats.
But another report surfacing Thursday claims 200 Al Shabaab fighters have abandoned their group for the Islamic State. Kenya’s police chief told the AP that the IS franchise is already operating on the Kenya-Somalia border and has carried out several attacks in recent weeks.
Even with the United States dedicating its own troops (and hundreds of millions of dollars) to helping train Somalia’s military against Islamist insurgencies, they have made little progress to combat the threats posed by the Islamic militants, largely because the government’s reach into society is severely limited.
Moreover, the government has often capitulated to the demands of Al Shabaab, which is known to target non-Muslims in its terror operations. This week, the government banned Christmas celebrations, worrying that publicly respecting the Christian holiday would lead to an Al Shabaab attack.
Islamic State continues to grow slowly in Somalia, with Muslim clerics becoming inspired by their successes in the Middle East and North Africa.
“Right now, [Islamic State is] the best propaganda machine going,” Matt Bryden, a Somalia expert at Sahan Research, told the Washington Post. “It would give [Islamic State] entry to Kenya without lifting a finger,” he warned.
An unnamed U.S. intelligence official said that Somalis who are attracted by IS “probably look to the group as an inspiration to fight for a cause that goes beyond local issues, and we believe that’s the case in Somalia.”
Earlier in 2015, Islamic State started to feature Somalia in its propaganda materials. One video, titled, “From the Land of Ash-Sham to the Mujahideen of Somalia,” features a man who ethnically appears to be Somali.
The man says in English, “Establishing a caliphate in Somalia will not only benefit you, but it will benefit the Muslims in Somalia and East Africa.”
Separately, a United Nations official commented this week that Somalia is slowly transitioning from a failed state to a fragile country where officials are sometimes choosing diplomacy over conflict.
“The country in the past two-three years has come together quite significantly. It is both politically stable and developed as well,” said Nicholas Kay, the UN Secretary General’s representative in Somalia. There still is much work to be done, he admitted, citing the rise of IS and the Al Shabaab insurgency.