American jihadi defects as Al Qaeda-Islamic State rivalry deepens in Africa

The American member of Al Shabab, Abdilmalik Jones, reportedly told Somali forces that he had switched his allegiance to the Islamic State and feared for his life.

AP/Farah Abdi Warsameh
FILE - In this Thursday, Feb. 17, 2011 file photo, hundreds of newly trained al-Shabab fighters perform military exercises in the Lafofe area some 18 km south of Mogadishu, in Somalia. The defections of two American Islamic extremist fighters in Somalia highlight tensions within the insurgent group al-Shabab over whether it should remain affiliated to al-Qaida or switch allegiance to the Islamic State group, according to an al-Shabab commander Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2015. (,

An American Al Shabab militant surrendered to Somali security forces Monday after pledging allegiance to the Islamic State, highlighting infighting within Al Shabab over whether to remain loyal to Al Qaeda or switch its allegiance to the rival jihadist group.

The man, Abdilmalik Jones, told Somali forces that he chose to defect because his decision to align himself with the Islamic State (IS) is punishable by death, Al Jazeera reports. Mr. Jones, originally from San Diego, was picked up in the southern port of Barawe before being airlifted to Mogadishu.  

The rivalry between the world’s two most powerful jihadist groups reached new heights in November with terror attacks in Paris and Mali’s capital of Bamako, with both groups competing for recruits, legitimacy, and dominance. When Al Qaeda broke with IS in 2014, The New York Times reported that the division would “probably spark competition for resources and fighters” and create “a civil war within a civil war.”

But in recent months, Al Qaeda’s dominance has been eclipsed by the casualty-heavy violence and marketing prowess of IS, increasing the competitive edge between them. It was known before the November Paris attacks, for example, that IS wanted to respond to Al Qaeda's attack on the Charlie Hebdo magazine offices in January.

That same fight for dominance has now moved into Africa, where groups with local grievances in the north, west, and east once turned to Al Qaeda-inspired militancy, tactics, and ideology. In return, Al Qaeda broadened its outreach to groups in Africa – none more visible and loyal than Al Shabab.

Since joining Al Qaeda in 2012, Al Shabab increased its presence in Somalia and carried out multiple terror attacks in neighboring Kenya. It now appears that IS, also known as ISIS, is making inroads within Al Shabab after months of unsuccessful attempts to turn the Somali Islamists, Foreign Affairs reported.

ISIS, for its part, has for months been desperate to announce a province, or wilayat, in East Africa, as it has long been fertile ground for global jihad. As part of this effort, ISIS members have been pressuring al Shabab to help them achieve this goal. Earlier this year, for example, its media wing released a propaganda video showing Somali men, apparently ISIS members, encouraging Somalis to join them.

[In September], al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri also weighed in, declaring in his latest propaganda message, which was broadly critical of ISIS, that al Shabab had shunned the group’s advances. The information, he claimed, came from his correspondence with Ahmed Abdi Godane, who was head of al Shabab, in which Godane informed Zawahiri that he disapproved of ISIS’ methodology.

"Some mujahideen fighters are now preferring to fall into the enemy's hands instead of meeting death in the hands of brothers," Abu Mohammed, an Al Shabab military commander told the Associated Press, adding that the friction over IS "is messing everything up" in Somalia.

Al Qaeda already has a strong foothold in North Africa. Boko Haram, the Nigerian Islamist group, which for a long time remained autonomous despite once having been dubbed Al Qaeda in West Africa by former President Goodluck Jonathan – pledged its allegiance to IS in March. It later changed its name to Islamic State’s West African Province, though it still goes by the name Boko Haram in the media.

An IS entry into Al Shabab would signify a shift because the Somali group has had a solid relationship with the Yemen-based Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Many Al Shabab fighters trained in Yemen, learning to fight and build bombs a stone’s throw away from Somalia.  

“Historical trade and smuggling routes that run between Yemen and Somalia tie the countries closely together and have likely served to aid the movement of individuals and material between the two countries,” Katherine Zimmerman, a Gulf of Aden analyst at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, told GlobalPost. 

Jones’ defection could be evidence of growing fissures, even though there have always been divisions about the direction of the group. Sources within Somalia's security apparatus estimate that about 100 fighters would likely defect to IS, among the estimated 1,400-strong insurgent group, says CNN. Most will be young and foreign fighters, Foreign Affairs reports:

It isn’t hard to understand the appeal: al Shabab’s insurgency in Somalia is faltering against both African Union and Somali forces, whereas ISIS has made incredible gains in Syria. For now, much of the agitation to join ISIS appears to be coming from the foreign fighters within the group. This may be because their ideological commitment to global jihad, which brought them to Somalia in the first place, has led them to conclude that Syria is now the most important battlefield for the future of Islam. According to recent reports, al Shabab leaders have already detained five foreign fighters under suspicion of working to shift the group’s allegiances to ISIS. Judging from the fate of other fighters who have defied his leadership, their prospects are grim.

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