What the al Shabab-al Qaeda merger means for Australia

The aftermath of a car bombing in Mogadishu in February, blamed on Al-Shabab. EPA/Elyas Ahmed

Al Qaeda’s recent acquisition of the Somali militant group al Shabab as its newest franchise has been dismissed in some circles as a propaganda ploy, and a play for relevance by two groups on the decline.

The Waziristan-based central al Qaeda organisation has been operationally impotent since July 2005, when it last carried out a successful mass-impact strike in the West, targeting London’s underground with coordinated suicide attacks.

Since first campaigning for al Qaeda membership in 2009, al Shabab has seen its military power diminish, despite merging with another Somali militant group, Hizbul Islam, in 2010.

These circumstances have caused some analysts to see the merger as stemming from both groups’ weaknesses, but such assessments overlook the resources al Shabab still maintains, its post-merger pledge to put them under the authority of al Qaeda, and the pressure and authority al Qaeda will bring to bear for al Shabab’s resources to be used in attacks against the West.

Joining al Qaeda

When a group signs on to become an al Qaeda franchise, it is required to uphold the organisation’s global agenda alongside its own locally-focused objectives. This includes, where possible, and upon request, seeking to undertake attacks against the West.

Al Shabab is likely to be under more pressure than other al Qaeda subsidiaries to attack because it already has its own independent support networks operating in many Western countries, including Australia.

Al Shabab has also attracted the largest number of Western passport holders of any al Qaeda grouping. It is, therefore, the most ideally positioned to pursue attacks against the West.

The Australian angle

Australians rank among those who have joined al Shabab, trained with them, supported them and most significantly, sought to carry out an attack within Australia under the group’s name. In the Australian context then, the merger of these two groups does not show a weakening, but rather intensifies the threat. And Australia, along with other countries home to an al Shabab support base, faces an increased likelihood of being targeted.

One reason Australia may be vulnerable to an attack on its soil is the activist nature of some al Shabab supporters operating within the country. They have distinguished themselves from al Shabab networks in other western countries by being operationally active, instead of focusing on facilitation and support activities.

In 2009, a small group of men sought al Shabab’s permission to carry out a suicide attack under its name in Australia. At least one travelled to Somalia to receive training and secure endorsement for the attacks but al Shabab’s senior religious figures reportedly declined to grant approval.

Their reticence stemmed from a concern that such attacks would cause harm to other Muslims and damage al Shabab’s support networks. In a rare case of going against a militant group’s senior religious figures, the Australia-based cell decided to pursue the plot regardless, although it is not clear if they still intended to claim their attack in al Shabab’s name as the plot was interdicted by authorities in an investigation code named Operation Neath.

Sacrificing a support network

What this incident ultimately shows was at that time al Shabab saw the broader support network in Australia as too important to sacrifice and was thus unwilling to jeopardise it by endorsing a terrorist attack within the country.

These same fears were presumably held by the faction within al Shabab that opposed a merger with al Qaeda. With the merger now complete, it is apparent al Shabab’s calculus has changed, and its leadership is willing to accept the consequences of a greater counter terrorism campaign brought to bear against the group as a result of its merger with al Qaeda and expansion of its agenda.

Clearly, the fears of those who rejected attacks in Australia (and presumably the West more broadly) were overcome, or overruled. This is significant because al Shabab’s willingness to sacrifice support networks in the face of an intensified counter terrorism campaign also means it might be willing – on al Qaeda’s urging – to sacrifice networks in pursuit of an attack against the West.

Australian success against al Shabab

Al Shabab was proscribed in Australia before its merger with al Qaeda, and its support network has already been subject to significant counter terrorism pressure over the past five or so years. However, an intensified counter terrorism campaign will do little to militate against intent — as the 2009 plot, where the perpetrators believed they were under surveillance, demonstrates.

Counter terrorism pressure is also unlikely to stem the desire of radicalised people to travel to Somalia to obtain training and participate in the jihad. Particularly given al Shabab’s increasingly sophisticated propaganda and active recruitment networks.

Wissam Mahmoud Fattal is led from the dock during the Holsworthy Army barracks case. AAP/Julian Smith

To date, Australia’s counter terrorism apparatus has been successful in preventing attacks within the country. However, an often overlooked consequence of counter terrorism pressure, and particularly disruption activities, is their potential role in contributing to further radicalisation.

For example, one key counter terrorism strategy employed by Australia is to disrupt its citizens from travelling overseas to join the jihad or obtain training. This is done by a variety of means including revoking of passports, thus preventing travel. But a consequence of frustrated ambitions to travel to a site of jihad, either through counter terrorism disruption activities or other unrelated factors, has been the focus turning inward, towards undertaking an attack in Australia.

Indeed, frustrated ambitions played a role in the desire of at least one of those subsequently investigated and jailed as part of Operation Neath to conduct an attack in Australia.

Danger remains

Should this strategy be utilised as a means of disrupting the travel of al Shabab supporters to join the jihad, it is a very real possibility they too could turn their focus inward. What makes this particularly significant is that the constraints that previously held al Shabab back from sanctioning an attack, are in all likelihood removed.

Those seeking to join the jihad may no longer identify themselves with al Shabab, but rather al Qaeda. Even if al Shabab were to rebuff al Qaeda’s urges, the lessons of Operation Neath show that refusing permission for an attack has not always stopped those planning.

Now that al Shabab is officially an al Qaeda franchise those frustrated in their ambition to join the jihad may deem that direct permission from al Shabab is not required to carry out an attack here.