The Letters: How Al-Qaeda Failed in Mali and Somalia

Recently, two separate letters written in Arabic by Al Qaeda leaders in Mali and Somalia have surfaced. The writings paint a grim picture of the jihadist experience in both countries. The first was found in Mali, and the second is an open letter from a Somali jihadist leader to Al Qaeda supreme leader, Dr. Ayman Al-Zawahiri.The first was discovered when reporters from the Associated Press stumbled across a collection of documents that included a letter written by Abdelmailk Droukdel, the emir of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), after that radical group was defeated in Timbuktu, Mali, by French forces. Droukdel (also known as Abu Musab Abdel Wadoud) was appointed by the late Usama Bin Laden to oversee Al Qaeda’s operations in North Africa.

The second letter is presumed to have been written by Ibrahim Haji Jama Mee’aad (Al-Afghani), who until two years ago was the deputy emir of Somalia’s Al Qaeda affiliate, Al-Shabab. The letter has appeared on several websites sympathetic to Al-Shabab and carries Al-Afghani’s nom de guerre, “Shaikh Abu Bakr Al-Zaylici.” It is an indictment of the emir of Al-Shabab, Ahmed Abdi Godane, and his brutal, secretive, “un-Islamic” and ruinous style of leadership which has had tragic repercussions on the course of jihad in Somalia.

Droukdel’s letter is a frank assessment of Al Qaeda’s brief and brutal capture of the northern part of Mali and the draconian rule that the jihadist group imposed on the people. The militants applied what they called sharia (Islamic law) by stoning adulterers, amputating the hands of thieves, whipping petty criminals, curtailing women’s activities, banning entertainment, berating and intimidating people, and destroying tombs and certain archeological sites.

In his letter, Droukdel admonished his fighters, saying that sharia was, for all practical purposes, applied too fast and in haste:  “Our previous experience showed that applying sharia this way, without taking the environment into consideration, will lead to people rejecting the religion, and engender hatred toward the mujahedeen, and will consequently lead to the failure of our experiment.” He went on to lash out at his cohorts for preventing women from going out, whipping women for not covering up, preventing children from playing, and searching people’s houses. “Your [local Al Qaeda] officials,” Droukdel commanded his followers, “need to control themselves.”

Droukdel was aware of other failed Al Qaeda experiences in Somalia and Algeria and the lessons learned from those attempts of unilaterally imposing sharia. He implored his fighters to act cautiously and gently, more like a parent guiding a child too weak to stand on its own, and to be always mindful of the need for patience. “We should be sure to win allies,” he recommended, “be flexible in dealing with the realities, and compromise on some rights to achieve greater interest.”Droukdel presciently predicted the foreign military intervention that stymied the jihadi tide in Mali in mid-2012 long before it actually occurred in January 2013. He warned his fighters that they lived on the margins of society and hence needed to form alliances with local jihadi and nationalist groups. His prescription, however, was to engage in an elaborate scheme of deception to conceal the grand design of Al Qaeda and its global jihad. Without mincing words, Droukdel asked his fighters to lower their profile. “Better for you to be silent and pretend to be a ‘domestic’ movement that has its own causes and concerns,” he stated. “There is no reason for you to show that we have an expansionary jihadi, Al Qaeda, or any other sort of project.”

A Somali leader of Al Shabab, Ibrahim Al-Afghani, in his open letter to Al Qaeda leader Al-Zawahiri, was more concerned with leadership issues in Somalia than the precise application of sharia. He wrote against the backdrop that Al Shabab had retreated and become the hunted. Al-Afghani, a man upon whose head the U.S. has placed a $5 million bounty, more or less engaged in the blame game. The logical question then is: What happened to Al Shabab which, not long ago, controlled large swaths of land in southern Somalia, including Mogadishu, the capital? For Al-Afghani, the deterioration of Al Shabab as a power to contend with was attributed to the personal conduct and dictatorial leadership of his longtime friend and colleague, Godane, the emir of Al Shabab.

Speaking on behalf of what he called “the silent majority” of Al Shabab members, Al-Afghani accused Godane of expecting blind obedience, failing to consult with other leaders of the radical group, and placing personal desires above the requisites of sharia; neglecting Islamic teachings of fairness, kindness and gentleness; issuing arbitrary decisions; sowing conflict among the leaders by lavishing his supporters with largesse, and depriving his critics of the basics of survival and starving them; mistreating foreign jihadists; marginalizing Al Shabab scholars; inciting young jihadists against scholars and leaders by issuing threats of liquidation;  preventing certain scholars from publishing, teaching, or even giving sermons; not lending a hand in the jihadi campaigns in Ethiopia and Kenya; and operating secret jails not subject to the jurisdiction of the Al Shabab leadership. These detention centers are reserved, Al-Afghani contended, for jihadists who are not formally accused of any transgression or convicted of any crime.Al-Afghani lamented the fact that Al Shabab had lost the sympathies and support of the local population because of the militant leadership’s haughtiness and draconian methods. He singled out the unjustified operations that the group regularly conducts which lead to the loss of limbs and lives. He warned that Somalia’s jihadi experience and its “fruits” were in danger of being lost just as in Algeria in the 1990s. Al-Afghani issued a plea to the Al Qaeda International leaders to intervene and take corrective action against the emir of the Somali branch. He reminded Al-Zawahiri that the Somali emir failed to heed his instructions to apply shura(consultation) to the local leaders. The Somali emir, Al-Afghani said, deliberately sabotaged the decisions of a special court specifically set up to address the conflict and discord among the Al Shabab leaders. Instead of going forward, Al-Afghani declared, Al Shabab was going backward. Furthermore, he mentioned the poor treatment of a foreign jihadist from neighboring Kenya, Sheikh Abboud Rogo, who returned to his hometown of Mombasa only to be killed there.

Part of Al-Afghani’s letter

It is not clear whether Al-Afghani has a personal vendetta against Godane. Unconfirmed reports that the Al-Shabab leaders had once decided to replace Godane with Al-Afghani have circulated. However, that decision was conveniently torpedoed by none other than Godane. Moreover, Al-Afghani’s grievances represent the views of the Al Shabab leaders who favor the globalization of jihad by the Somali branch. Over the last few years, debate has simmered among Al Shabab leaders about the best way to ensure that the group survives Somalia’s ever shifting and volatile political landscape. One group favors building alliances with local groups and perhaps making temporary political accommodations that will guarantee the group’s relevance and lift its isolation. This wing sees the gradual expulsion of foreign jihadists as an absolute must in order to take these necessary and existential steps.The second group sees Al Shabab as an integral part of an Al Qaeda that is more committed to global jihad and less to the country’s local issues and concerns. No one group ironically has been able to fully exert its will on the entire movement. Bin Laden’s instruction to Al Shabab, when the latter applied to join Al Qaeda, was one of caution. According to documents found in the terrorist’s compound in Pakistan when Bin Laden was killed by American forces, he advised the emir of Al Shabab to conceal the Somali group’s ties to Al Qaeda so as not to draw unfavorable attention from the West. Bin Laden’s successor, Al-Zawahiri, however, has taken just the opposite position and does not object to the African group’s flaunting its international affiliations. The fact that Al-Afghani is taking an active stand in advocating the cause and the plight of foreign jihadists in Somalia, a segment that has been increasingly marginalized, is an indication that he sees Somalia as a staging ground for global jihad. Al-Afghani’s views also mirror those of the American jihadist in Somalia, Omar Hammami, who has gone public by issuing videos that accuse his Al Shabab colleagues of attempting to personally liquidate him and emphasize what he terms the “local focus” instead of supporting a global jihad. Al Shabab’s Twitter response to the Alabama-born fighter was terse. It reprimanded Hammami for engaging in a “narcissistic pursuit of fame.”

These two letters are precise manifestations of the view that the jihadi experience in Mali and Somalia has been a failure because of poor and harsh policies implemented by the Al Qaeda militants that just alienated local populations. The militants have adhered to a convoluted understanding of basic Islamic teachings of moderation and natural evolution, possessing unrealistic expectations and exhibiting poor planning and leadership with but a limited vision. The fact is that Al Qaeda remains a pariah in a modern world that is well aware of its dangerous ideology and destructive operations.

Mali and Somalia share a commonality as they are certified failed states and, hence, there remains a power vacuum. They are also distressingly poor countries. Al Qaeda can conveniently find fertile ground in countries like Somalia, Mali, Yemen, and Afghanistan. It is not surprising then that Al Qaeda radicals in Mali and Somalia have shot themselves in the foot as they failed to capitalize on their brief control of many parts of these two countries. Here is the salient fact about the jihadi groups: It is a lot easier to grab power than to establish a viable government.

Hassan M. Abukar



Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s