U.N.: Islamic State Flooding Somalia with Foreign Fighters from Iraq, Syria

al-Shabaab
AP Photo/Farah Abdi Warsameh

The United Nations, in a new report issued this month, cited a growing presence of the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL) in Somalia, a faction that has directly threatened to displace the al-Qaeda branch in East Africa, al-Shabaab.

Although “an influx of foreign fighters fleeing military pressure” in Iraq and Syria has fueled ISIS’s expansion in Somalia, al-Shabaab remains the most potent threat facing the African country, the U.N. determined.

Citing the issue of ISIS’s weekly Al Naba newsletter last Friday, the Long War Journal (LWJ), a component of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) think tank, reported that Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s organization in Somalia warned al-Shabaab of an “impending clash” between the two groups.

LWJ’s article came days after the United Nations Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea warned of ISIS growing presence in Somalia on November 2, noting:

Al-Shabaab’s presence in Puntland, in north-east Somalia, has expanded, exacerbating the challenges faced by authorities in the region. Concurrently, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) faction, largely confined to Bari region in north-east Puntland, has grown in numbers and is attracting an increasingly broad range of recruits … While its capacity has remained limited, an influx of foreign fighters fleeing military pressure in Iraq, the Syrian Arab Republic and elsewhere could present a significant threat to the region.

ISIS has “grown significantly in strength” from no more than a few dozen jihadis in 2016 to as many as 200 terrorists now, the U.N. revealed this month, adding:

While the threat of ISIL to the Puntland administration is not currently existential, the administration’s weak control over Bari region renders it a potential haven for foreign ISIL fighters. An influx of experienced foreign fighters would risk overwhelming Puntland’s infrequently paid and demoralized security forces.

The U.N. pointed out that ISIS retains connections to the Islamic State’s broader network, noting, “former members of the ISIL faction who defected from the group in December 2016 reported that the leaders of the group received orders, as well as financing through hawala money transfers, from Iraq and the Syrian Arab Republic.”

According to the U.N., ISIS continues to mainly target “disaffected members of Al-Shabaab in southern Somalia” for recruitment, a move that is likely to infuriate the al-Qaeda branch.

In 2015, the Long War Journal noted that al-Shabaab was combating ISIS’s expansion in Somalia by “detaining and killing would-be defectors.”

LWJ added:

Under Ahmad Umar’s leadership, Shabaab has systematically hunted down jihadists who join Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s enterprise. Indeed, Al Naba’s claims of a recent uptick ring true, as Shabaab continues to advertise its executions of alleged Islamic State members and foreign “spies” …  Shabaab’s campaign has prevented the Islamic State from establishing a larger presence in Somalia. However, it has not been able to completely incapacitate the group’s operations.

On November 9, the U.N. Monitoring Group warned of the existence of an ISIS assassination network in Somalia, noting, “Between October 2017 and August 2018, ISIL claimed responsibility, through its affiliated Amaq News Agency, for 50 assassinations, primarily of Federal Government police, intelligence, and finance officials in Mogadishu and Afgoye.”

The U.N. was only able to independently corroborate 13 of the killings, allegedly at the hands of ISIS.

Despite the growing ISIS threat, the U.N. determined, “Al-Shabaab remains the most immediate threat to the peace, security, and stability of Somalia. Despite ongoing efforts by international forces to eliminate Al-Shabaab’s leadership, in particular through the use of airstrikes, the group’s ability to carry out complex asymmetric attacks in Somalia remains undiminished.”

The U.N. acknowledged that the U.S. air campaign against Somali jihadis under U.S. President Donald Trump had made an impact on ISIS operations in the country.

“Since the commencement of United States air strikes, ISIL operations in Puntland have been at an ebb, and it appears that the group has entered a period of retrenchment and reorganization,” the U.N. monitors reported on November 9. “However, it is apparent that ISIL in Iraq and the Syrian Arab Republic continues to view Somalia as an important avenue for future expansion.”

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