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Al Qaeda’s Merger

Al Qaeda has joined forces with its Somali cousin, the insurgent-terrorist group al-Shabab.

Darren McCollester/Getty Images
Darren McCollester/Getty Images

Hundreds of Somalis gathered on the outskirts of Mogadishu on Feb. 13 to celebrate the union of al Qaeda with its Somali cousin, the insurgent-terrorist group al-Shabab. But the mainstream media hasn’t quite figured out what to make of the news, first announced last week, that the two groups had officially merged.

Many reporters were already accustomed to thinking of them as the same group. Others grasped at straws to fit the news into the "al Qaeda is losing" narrative — dominant ever since Osama bin Laden was killed last May.

They might have done better with a simple headline: "Dozens of Americans Join al Qaeda."

The disturbing truth is that al-Shabab has had more success recruiting Americans than any of al Qaeda’s other franchises. The newest official addition to the terrorist network’s family includes around 40 Americans, in addition to dozens more involved in support activities on U.S. soil, as well as those with more casual connections to the United States. That support network dwarfs the American presence in "al Qaeda Central," which was largely terminated after the 9/11 attacks.

Al-Shabab’s numbers and its extensive support network mean al Qaeda is now better positioned to carry out strikes on the U.S. homeland than at any point in the last 10 years. The majority of al-Shabab’s American recruits are ethnic Somalis — first- and second-generation immigrants with still-fresh ties to their ancestral home — but the group also enjoys significant support from radicalized Muslim converts from diverse backgrounds, who are attracted by its efforts to carve out a domain ruled by a harsh interpretation of Islamic law.

The media’s confusion about al-Shabab’s relationship with al Qaeda is not surprising. The murkiness surrounding definitions of al Qaeda and its franchises can make it difficult, even for experts, to sort out what it means to be a member of the group, how they should be distinguished from a mere ally, and how much weight these different incarnations should carry. Once the definitions are resolved, you then run smack into the data problem. Estimates of the size and composition of jihadi groups abound, usually sourced to anonymous officials of various governments, but hard numbers are fleeting.

But incomplete data is better than no data, and what we do know suggests that al-Shabab’s merger with the most infamous terrorist organization in history should be a source of concern. According to our best estimates, as of today there are now more Americans who consider themselves part of al Qaeda than ever before.

Some background: It’s a commonly held myth that the number of Americans ensnared by jihadi ideology has risen sharply since the 9/11 attacks. Although their ranks have certainly increased, most discussions of this problem overestimate how many Americans are currently involved in jihadism, dramatically underestimate the number who got involved before 9/11, and conflate all jihadi activity with al Qaeda.

Since its founding more than 23 years ago, about 25 U.S. citizens have been documented as members or full-time employees of al Qaeda Central — the organization that attacked the United States on Sept. 11, 2001 — according to court records, intelligence reports, and al Qaeda’s internal documents and propaganda videos. If one uses a broader brush, another 25 or so Americans received significant financial or logistical support from al Qaeda Central while serving as members of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad or Gamaa Islamiya.

Al Qaeda today is no longer a single entity, but a collection of franchises. Although each franchise is focused on a different local scene, they coordinate with and take direction from the remnants of al Qaeda Central. They are parts of a whole. And with the addition of al-Shabab, the whole just became significantly more American.

None of al Qaeda’s other franchises have enjoyed al-Shabab’s level of success in attracting Americans to their ranks. Al Qaeda in Iraq and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which operates in and around the Sahel region of North Africa, have few or no American members, as far as we know.

Estimates for the number of Americans in al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which is primarily active today in Yemen, vary wildly. On the low end, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee estimated about three dozen U.S. citizens with prison records have traveled to Yemen to train with AQAP. Not all these recruits would necessarily have stayed with the organization and some have been killed or arrested, but it’s probably a fair estimate that AQAP has, at minimum, 10 to 20 Americans in its ranks.

Al-Shabab was aligned with al Qaeda in meaningful ways even before the announcement of the merger, but the alliance will create new priorities, according to counterterrorism expert Leah Farrall, one of the leading authorities on al Qaeda’s inner workings and a research associate at the University of Sydney’s United States Studies Centre.

Al Qaeda "is going to push hard for Shabab to conduct external operations," Farrall tweeted after the news broke. She added later in an email that al-Shabab likely received significant financial considerations to offset any backlash that the merger might have caused. Although the Somali group has made a big show of praising bin Laden and has issued some sweeping statements about its global ambitions, it has not expanded its operations beyond its immediate neighbors.

The question now is whether any amount of money will be enough to overcome al-Shabab’s deteriorating operational position. Al-Shabab may have a superior U.S. network and a significant number of American recruits, but it has problems of its own — notably heavy military pressure on its home front from both African forces and U.S. drones.

It’s one thing to have a loaded gun; it’s another to pull the trigger and safely walk away. Al-Shabab might elevate its status in the jihadi world by hitting an American target on U.S. soil, but in doing so it would risk an even harsher crackdown on its bases in Somalia.

But then, al-Shabab has earned one more dangerous distinction: It is the only jihadi organization ever to convince Americans — at least four, so far — to serve as suicide bombers. It would not be wise to count on al Qaeda’s newest affiliate to act in its own self-interest.

J.M. Berger is co-author of ISIS: The State of Terror and is a nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution.

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