October 2018: The Islamic State (IS) may be on the back-foot in Iraq and Syria, but it retains various chapters across the globe. The Islamic State in Somalia is one of them; but beyond a general notion that it has established a presence, available analysis of IS’s capabilities, appeal, and trajectory remains scant. This report, produced by the European Institute of Peace together with The Global Strategy Network and Hiraal, sheds light on those aspects of IS across East Africa, with a prominent focus on Somalia.
The slogan of the Islamic State is remaining and expanding (baqiya wa tatamadad), and at the end of July 2018, the Islamic State in East Africa could claim to be doing both; not in any dramatic way, but sufficiently to be taken seriously by other violent extremist groups, and by government officials. From an unpromising start in 2015, the Islamic State in Somalia (ISS) had survived an onslaught by its far more powerful rival, al Shabaab, and had established a secure base in Puntland. Furthermore, towards the end of 2017 and into 2018, it had begun to show operational capacity in Mogadishu, challenging the dominance of al Shabaab in the key battleground against the Federal Government of Somalia (FGS).
However, the future trajectory of ISS remains uncertain, and much depends on when and if it becomes capable of mounting major, attention-grabbing attacks in Mogadishu or outside Somalia, and leveraging them to gain more support. Al Shabaab remains far stronger, and ISS will suffer if al Shabaab begins to see it as a greater challenge to its dominance, just as it will if the FGS and its international partners come to regard it as more than a distraction from the main insurgent threat. So far it has carved out some space and established a profile without altering the dynamic of the bigger war.
Potentially, ISS has a stronger appeal than al Shabaab. It is not mired in a static insurgency and does not suffer the lack of political credibility and religious legitimacy that dogs its rival. With a more inspiring leadership, ISS could fire up enough of the dispossessed and alienated youth of the region to cause a major problem. But for now it looks too much like a mini-al Shabaab; overly dependent on clan allegiances - a Darod alternative in the North to the Hawiye movement in the South; too locally focused, and offering little prospect of any major achievement. Its mission is obscure, and it shows little of the vitality, organisational flair and ability to horrify so typical of its parent body.
This could change if experienced fighters from elsewhere in the Islamic State ‘Caliphate’ joined its ranks and either took over or transformed its leadership. Few have made the journey so far, and there are more appealing destinations than Puntland for the survivors of the war in Iraq and Syria. But it would not take many to change perceptions of ISS and offer a rallying point for Islamic State supporters in DRC, Kenya, Mozambique and Tanzania, as well as those in Somalia, and even in Egypt, Libya, Sudan and Yemen. If ISS can establish itself as the main Islamic State group in the Horn of Africa, providing leadership to other Islamic State offshoots and establishing sustainable links to the Islamic State leadership, perhaps through Yemen, it could yet grow to become a real security challenge for as long as the Islamic State brand remains strong.
So far, the prospect is remote, and support for ISS remains limited, fluid, and disorganised; but the FGS and the international community should remain alert and take what opportunities arise to weaken its structure, disrupt its growth and undermine its propaganda so as to ensure that it does not become a major problem. Inevitably, the future of ISS will depend as much on what happens around it as on its own internal development.