NAIROBI — Two thousand miles from Syria, the Islamic State is trying to expand its territory by establishing a branch in what its fighters call the “little emirate”: the war-torn country of Somalia.
Winning ground there won’t be easy. Al-Shabab, a Somali group linked to al-Qaeda, has a long-standing presence in the country at Africa’s eastern edge and has threatened those who join the Islamic State with death. But that hasn’t stopped a trickle of fighters — likely a few dozen — from switching sides, raising concerns among U.S. officials, who have invested hundreds of millions of dollars of aid in a new Somali government and a regional military campaign against Islamist extremists.
Somalia holds potentially huge rewards for the extremist group: It is a marginally governed nation with the continent’s longest coastline and borders three U.S. allies — Ethiopia, Djibouti and Kenya.
“Looking at Somalia, ISIL is trying to insert itself and then may threaten to move into Kenya,” Rose Gottemoeller, the State Department’s undersecretary for arms control and international security, said at a roundtable in Johannesburg this month. ISIL is an acronym for the Islamic State.
The Islamic State has already expanded its footprint well beyond Syria and Iraq, with militants in Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen, Nigeria and other countries pledging allegiance to the extremists and their “caliphate.” While the Islamic State’s presence in Somalia appears to be small, its bid for followers there shows its ambitions.
A months-long Islamic State recruiting campaign in Somalia has already paid some dividends. In October, an influential Muslim cleric, Abdiqadir Mumin, announced that he had joined the group and was bringing at least 20 of his followers with him. Over the past two months, a U.S. citizen and a person with U.S. permanent resident status were apprehended in Somalia after apparently leaving al-Shabab for the Islamic State. So far, the group has not sent fighters or resources into Somalia. But the Islamic State’s image appears to have grown among militants.
“Right now, it’s the best propaganda machine going,” said Matt Bryden, a Somalia expert and director of Sahan Research, a Nairobi-based think tank.
With al-Qaeda’s help, al-Shabab appeared to expand its ambitions. In 2013, a group of its gunmen attacked an upscale mall in Nairobi, killing 63 people. In April of this year, al-Shabab sent fighters to Garissa University in northeast Kenya, where they killed 148 people. But even as al-Shabab conducted spectacular attacks, it lost much of the territory it once administered in Somalia as African Union forces pushed back its fighters and a U.S. drone campaign targeted its top figures, killing two consecutive al-Shabab leaders in 2008 and 2014.
The United States and other Western nations have provided hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to an embattled Somali government that took power in 2012 and has tried to rebuild public institutions.
Several armed groups in North Africa and South Asia have declared allegiance to the Islamic State since it announced the creation of a caliphate in parts of Iraq and Syria in 2014. But their connections with the central Islamic State organization vary.
In Nigeria, for example, Boko Haram has received negligible assistance from the Islamic State since it pledged allegiance to the group in March, intelligence experts say.
In Afghanistan, the Islamic State has emerged as an alternative for fighters disaffected with the Taliban. They initially appeared to have few contacts with the caliphate in the Mideast, experts say. But this month, Gen. John Campbell, the U.S. and NATO military commander in Afghanistan, said Islamic State fighters from Iraq and Syria were arriving in Nangahar province, where the Afghan branch of the group is most active.
Earlier this year, the Islamic State set its sights on Somalia. It released a series of videos that aimed to win recruits, particularly from within al-Shabab. The videos feature heavily armed men who appear to be of Somali ethnicity. One of the videos is titled “From the Land of Ash-Sham to the Mujahideen of Somalia.” (Sham is an old name for the Levant.) The video features a bearded young man who appears to be Somali listing the successes of the Islamic State.
“Establishing a caliphate in Somalia will not only benefit you, but it will benefit the Muslims in Somalia and in East Africa,” he says in English.
A U.S. intelligence official said that fighters attracted to the Islamic State “probably look to the group as an inspiration to fight for a cause that goes beyond local issues, and we believe that’s the case in Somalia.” The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly on the issue.
So far, Mumin is the most significant of the Islamic State’s recruits in Somalia. A cleric with an international following, he was seen as one of al-Shabab’s most significant religious figures and a leader in his native Puntland province, which is considered to be outside of al-Shabab’s heartland.
“He had more heft than other sheiks with al-Shabab in terms of being a properly trained imam,” said Cedric Barnes, the Horn of Africa project director at the International Crisis Group.
A radical Kenyan cleric named Hussein Hassan, once aligned with al-Shabab, has also recorded an audio message suggesting that al-Shabab join the Islamic State.
But much about the presence of the Islamic State in Somalia is unknown. Several Somali media outlets have reported that a man known only as Duliadueyne, who helped orchestrate the Garissa University attack and has strong ties to northeastern Kenya, switched sides to the Islamic State in the fall. Experts say that would be significant, but it has not been confirmed.
“It would give ISIS entry to Kenya without lifting a finger,” Bryden said.
Underscoring the risk, Kenya’s police chief told the Associated Press on Thursday that about 200 al-Shabab fighers had joined the Islamic State and that the group was operating near Kenya’s border.
There are still broader questions about what an Islamic State group in Somalia would even mean. Would former al-Shabab fighters change their tactics or ambitions after joining, or would the new group merely be a means of waging war on rival clans or jihadist groups? It is very likely, experts say, that whatever form the Islamic State takes in Somalia, it will have far more local ambitions than its Syrian counterpart.
“They don’t really have enough of a presence or much to offer local Somalis,” said Alexander Hitchens, a researcher at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalization in London.
“A lot depends on whether ISIS is able to reward these defections. It has encouraged them, but this is where we need to wait and see,” Bryden said.
Even before the Islamic State recruitment campaign began this year, there had been fractures within al-Shabab. In particular, the group’s foreign recruits, especially those from Kenya and the United States, have been viewed as likely spies. In addition, tensions between clans have diminished al-Shabab’s support in much of the country, making the group’s members even more vulnerable to the Islamic State’s recruitment drive.
Al-Shabab’s leadership has warned its members that joining the Islamic State would represent “Bid’ah,” or misguidance, which would be punished by death. Senior al-Qaeda members are also infuriated by the Islamic State effort in Somalia. Speaking in an audio message in September about the push to recruit al-Shabab members, Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda’s leader, said the Islamic State’s caliphate wasn’t built based on the “prophetic method.”
Then he offered his condolences over the death of al-Shabab’s most recent leader, Ahmed Abdi Godane, who was killed by a U.S. airstrike about a year earlier — a somewhat desperate show of solidarity with a partner now tempted by rival entreaties.