Somali Islamist group al Shabaab renamed itself the Somali Islamic Emirate, Somali media reported Dec. 5. The renaming took place at the end of a five-day conference held in the south-central Somali town of Baidoa in the Bay and Bakool regions. Attendees reportedly included Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys and Mukhtar Robow (also known as Abu Mansur), a key leader of the group's nationalist factions. A Stratfor source stated that Ahmad Abdi Godane (also known as Abu Zubayr), the leader of the transnationalist jihadist faction of group, was absent and already has criticized the conference.
The new name is insignificant, but the conference is not. First, it shows that the leaders of the group formerly known as al Shabaab not only have survived previous airstrikes against them but that they function with impunity in south-central Somalia. Second, Godane's absence from the conference indicates that there has been no reconciliation between his internationalist faction and the nationalists.
Al Shabaab has been under pressure from two seemingly separate but most likely coordinated, internationally supported offensives conducted by Kenya and Ethiopia. Somali Islamists in the Jubaland region of southern Somalia are facing ground battles as well as airstrikes in their southern area of operations by the Kenyans. African Union peacekeepers, hoping to consolidate their gains in Mogadishu, also have conducted operations against al Shabaab in the Somali capital. Lastly, al Shabaab has seen the Somali militia known as Ahlu Sunnah Waljamaah (ASWJ), an Ethiopian proxy, hold security cooperation discussions in Mogadishu with Somali government officials as well as liaise with Ethiopian military officers who have carried out cross-border operations in central Somalia over recent weeks.
In this context, the location and duration of the conference are telling. Baidoa is the hub for Robow and his supporters from the Rahanweyn clan, who have traditionally supplied the majority of al Shabaab's nationalist forces. It is significant that Aweys and Robow could hold a conference in a single location — especially in a city as significant for the group as Baidoa — for five days without being attacked by hostile forces. This is even more impressive considering allegations that Ethiopian forces are increasing their presence in the city. What this means is either that Aweys and Robow command sufficient strength in Baidoa to feel safe enough to hold such a conference or that their enemies do not currently desire to attack them.
The transnationalist wing led by Godane is in a weak position, having been the main target of foreign forces thus far. If Godane were situated in any location — not just the relatively hostile city of Baidoa — for five consecutive days, it would surely trigger an airstrike against him and his followers, though such immobility would be out of character for Godane; he reportedly adheres to tight operational security, believed to never spend more than a couple of days in the same location as well as varying the size and type of convoys he travels in.
The nationalist factions are likely already worried about a potential impending assault from Mogadishu by African Union peacekeepers and a push from Ethiopia by Ethiopian forces or their Somali proxies, the next logical step if counterinsurgency efforts against the Somali transnationalists in the Jubaland region are successful. Therefore, Godane's absence may be a sign that they do not believe the forces he could contribute would be worth the additional risk he would bring attracting an airstrike on the conference.
As part of their effort to prepare for the possible offensive, Somali nationalist Islamists have now regrouped in the area of south-central Somalia from the Banadir and Lower Shabelle regions on the outskirts of Mogadishu, which Aweys calls home, to the Bay and Bakool regions. By uniting under the banner of the Somali Islamic Emirate, the nationalists hope to attract new recruits from Robow's youth base in Bay and Bakool as well as from Aweys' old-guard militant group al-Itihaad al-Islamiya to avoid sharing the fate the internationalist wing seems to have suffered.