On Dec. 25, the Islamic State released yet another video promoting attacks in the West. The production is unremarkable in that regard, but it is noteworthy another reason: It featured the group’s so-called “province” in Somalia.
While the Islamic State has long promoted its upstart presence in East Africa, the latest video appears to elevate its fighters to an official provincial arm of the self-declared caliphate. Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s organization maintains “provinces” in a number of countries, but many of them control little territory. This is true in Somalia as well.
The video, titled “Hunt Them Down, O Monotheists,” opens with scenes of Christmas and New Year’s celebrations throughout the West. The Islamic State incites followers to lash out at those celebrating the holidays, with crosshairs superimposed on the heads of Pope Francis and other priests. Clips of past attacks in the West are interlaced between scenes. High-profile targets in New York, London and elsewhere are also shown.
Three fighters speak into the camera, issuing threats to Western states and calling for Muslims, especially those in East Africa, to join the Islamic State’s cause.
One of the fighters speaks in accented English, telling would-be supporters that killing an infidel is their “ticket out of hell.” Two other fighters claim to be from Ethiopia.
The main Islamic State faction operating in Somalia is led by Abdulqadir Mumin, a former Shabaab official who appeared in many of its propaganda videos before defecting to the Islamic State in Oct. 2015. In Aug. 2016, the US State Department added Mumin to its list of global terrorists. Indeed, the new video appears to have been filmed in Mumin’s area of operations.
Shabaab, an official arm of al Qaeda, has opposed the Islamic State’s expansion onto its turf. When Mumin first defected to Baghdadi’s cause, only a small cadre of Shabaab fighters joined him. According to Reuters, there were approximately 300 Shabaab members based in the Galgala hills of Puntland at the time, but only 20 defectors are said to have gone with Mumin.
The Islamic State faction may have had around 200 to 300 members before a Puntland military campaign drove them back from the town of Qandala in late 2016, according to Voice of America. A recent defector reportedly told Puntland authorities that there are only around 70 people remaining in the group.
The faction is largely based in the Golis and Bari mountains of northern Somalia. It is known to run at least one training camp in that area. The facility is named after Bashir Abu Numan, a Shabaab commander who defected to the Islamic State but was killed by Shabaab’s Amniyat (internal security force).
Mumin’s group has carried out several operations in Bosaso, the capital of Somalia’s Bari region. The attacks include its first claimed suicide bombing in May and an assault on a hotel. Late last year, Mumin’s faction captured the port town of Qandala. It held the town for two months before Puntland security forces and clan militias finally drove it from the town.
Smaller Islamic State-loyal cells are also present in central and southern Somalia. For example, they have claimed attacks in Mogadishu and Afgooye. However, it is unclear what their organizational relationship is, if any, to the larger Mumin-led faction in Puntland. In addition, many claims made outside of Puntland are often not confirmed by local reporting.
It is not clear how many fighters the Islamic State currently has in East Africa. The group is likely eager to promote its Somali branch as it loses ground elsewhere. But its threats to holiday celebrations in the West are taken seriously by counterterrorism officials. In Dec. 2016, an Islamic State loyalist drove a truck into a Christmas market in Berlin, killing one dozen people. Weeks later, another jihadist massacred dozens of people celebrating New Year’s at a nightclub in Istanbul, Turkey.