16 February 2012
by Leah Farrall
Last week's announcement of Somali militant group al-Shabab's merger with al-Qa'ida brings the number of organisations now operating as subsidiaries under al-Qa'ida's strategic direction to four.
A decade ago, al-Qa'ida had no subsidiaries, and no alternative means of projecting power. Its subsequent expansion seriously undermines Western officialdom's narrative that the terrorist group is in terminal decline, as well as claims that its franchise acquisition represents an attempt to stay relevant.
While mergers do offer al-Qa'ida a low-risk, resource-cheap means of expanding its brand power, what they ultimately show is not so much an attempt to stay relevant but rather that it has consistently remained relevant.
Al-Shabab's entry into the fold, after a lengthy and often public campaign for membership, demonstrates al-Qa'ida's continuing appeal, even after the death of its founder, Osama bin Laden.
It also brings into question the reliability of assessments that judge its power solely on the basis of central leadership losses, constricted operating space in Pakistan and operational impotence.
All of these factors have, to varying degrees, been present since it fled Afghanistan in late 2001. Yet groups continue to seek out al-Qa'ida membership or affiliation and carry out attacks on its behalf — despite greater counter-terrorism pressure brought to bear against them, and often limited material benefit.
When a group signs up to join al-Qa'ida it agrees to not only follow its direction but also, where possible and on al-Qa'ida's guidance, undertake external operations against the West. Thus, mergers provide al-Qa'ida with a means of ensuring that attacks against the West or other selected targets are carried out under its brand name and in furtherance of its strategic objectives, particularly during periods of operational impotence.
Accordingly, al-Qa'ida is likely to place heavy pressure on al-Shabab to carry out external operations on its behalf.
Such attacks would probably rely heavily on recruits holding Western passports. Alongside the 40 or so Americans estimated to have joined al-Shabab there have been a number of Australian, Canadian, British, Danish, and Swedish citizens. Al-Shabab has the highest concentration of Western passport-holders of any al-Qa'ida grouping and well-established facilitation networks.
While some recruits may support only al-Shabab's local agenda and baulk at the notion of attacking Western targets, others will embrace it.
Likewise, even if al-Shabab were to split over giving priority to al-Qa'ida's goals over its own local agenda, it is probable that a splinter faction would emerge and continue to support its global agenda.
In some respects this has already occurred. A cell uncovered in Melbourne in 2009 agitated and planned for attacks even when al-Shabab refused to provide a fatwa supporting them in doing so, fearing that attacks of this type would result in a loss of financial support.
The merger between the two organisations is likely to remove this constraint. Al-Qa'ida has probably offered up alternative funding channels in the Gulf to compensate for the loss of income al-Shabab may experience as a result of its merger, and any future attacks it undertakes in the West.
And while the merger places al-Shabab firmly in the crosshairs of an intensified counter-terrorism campaign, both groups are probably hoping to spur greater foreign interference in Somalia, which would further galvanise and potentially internationalise an already popular jihadi front.