When al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri announced last week that the Somali Mujahideen al-Shabaab movement was merging with al-Qaeda, it did not come as a surprise to regional analysts.
Both groups have been experiencing a significant decline in their military capabilities and an increasing contraction of their operational reach in areas they control.
Because the Somali group declared its allegiance to al-Qaeda a long time ago, its "official merger" with al-Zawahiri's organisation will probably not cause a fundamental shift in the balance of power in Somalia or elsewhere. However, al-Shabaab might attempt some kind of bombing attack, inside or outside the country, to furnish tangible evidence that it has become an official al-Qaeda affiliate in the Horn of Africa.
In addition to al-Zawahiri announcing the merger, he also disseminated an audio recording of al-Shabaab leader Mukhtar Abu al-Zubayr swearing allegiance to al-Zawahiri.
Al-Zubayr's swearing of allegiance to al-Zawahiri occurs at a time when al-Shabaab is suffering successive setbacks. The group, which a few years ago controlled most of Somalia's southern territories except for a few districts in the capital Mogadishu that were controlled by the transitional government, is now facing a radical change in the political climate. The Somali government has established full control over Mogadishu as al-Shabaab was forced to withdraw completely from the capital last year following a massive assault by government forces and African Union peacekeeping forces.
The Somali government did not stop at tightening its control over Mogadishu. It also began deploying troops outside the capital in recent weeks following a wide-scale attack aimed at expelling the militants around the capital.
The Mogadishu setback was not the only one al-Shabaab suffered since it also has been hit by successive blows in the south and southwest of the country where Ethiopian and Kenyan troops expelled al-Shabaab from areas it controlled. The Ethiopians and Kenyans are currently in the process of shrinking the area al-Shabaab controls and handing the territories they recovered from the militants back to the Somali government or to local militias that are allied with the transitional government in Mogadishu.
Al-Shabaab's setbacks cannot be viewed simply as military defeats because the issue involves much more than military conflict. It may be that al-Shabaab's main problem is its rejection of all peace offers made by the Somali government, which came to power in 2009 after the United Nations supervised the withdrawal of Ethiopian troops from the country and a new head of the transitional government was appointed.
Just as the withdrawal of Ethiopian troops satisfied one of al-Shabaab's demands, the group should have welcomed the election of President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed in 2009 since he was the former leader of Islamists, including "jihadists", when he served as president of the Islamic Courts Union. That group controlled Mogadishu until the end of 2006 when Ethiopian forces expelled the Islamists from the capital.
However, al-Shabaab refused to recognise the new president and rejected all the peace initiatives he offered, including approval of their request that Sharia law be implemented. Instead of co-operating with Ahmed, al-Shabaab launched simultaneous attacks against his undermanned forces, which at one point seemed to control no more than a few buildings in Mogadishu, notably the presidential headquarters.
In addition to rejecting all peace efforts, al-Shabaab launched attacks that in all likelihood weakened any public support it may have had, including a series of suicide bombings that targeted government officials and killed ordinary citizens. The worst of the bombings was a December 2009 attack that killed three ministers, nine medical students and a doctor. The ministers were attending a graduation ceremony in a country where local doctors are scarce.
While al-Shabaab has been able to impose security in many areas under its control, its strict application of some of the teachings of Islam, especially those involving hadd (Muslim penal code for specific crimes), has caused citizens to complain that al-Shabaab flogs people for watching television or chewing qat, and cuts off the hands of young men who are accused of petty theft. All of these restrictions were imposed while the country is mired in chaos, job opportunities are scarce, and many citizens are relying on international aid for survival.
Al-Shabaab expelled many aid workers from relief agencies and international humanitarian groups who were working in Somalia on charges they were engaging in behaviour that does not conform to their radical interpretation of Islamic teachings. These acts deprived many Somalis of access to medical services or aid they were accustomed to in recent years.
Al-Shabaab also raised eyebrows last year when it rebuffed the UN declaration that famine was prevalent in some of Somalia's southern regions. Ali Mohamud Rage, al-Shabaab's spokesperson, told Al-Jazeera that the UN reports of famine are "politicised and false" while acknowledging the existence of a drought affecting shepherds and farmers.
After weeks of denial, al-Shabaab was quick to disseminate images of its members distributing aid to citizens in an attempt to show that relief organisations are unnecessary. Despite the UN's recent announcement that the famine in Somalia is now over, there are concerns that if last year's drought would have been allowed to continue without being addressed, it is conceivable that thousands would have died as a result. Al-Shabaab would have undoubtedly borne a large responsibility for the consequences because it objected to the delivery of aid to drought victims.
Perhaps most serious of all is the fact that al-Shabaab began to adopt tactics that confirmed it became an al-Qaeda affiliate. The group claimed responsibility for a 2011 bombing in Uganda that killed 74 people who were watching a World Cup match. The attack was the group's first direct involvement in a bombing aimed at civilians, which is typical of al-Qaeda's modus operandi, outside Somalia.
Al-Shabaab used the presence of Ugandan troops among African Union forces in Mogadishu at the time to justify its attack. Yet the group's decision to attack ordinary citizens watching a football match in another country who have no connection with events in Somalia had to raise questions about the legitimacy of such an operation that targeted civilians, not soldiers.
Al-Shabaab's merger with al-Qaeda gives al-Zawahiri a boost in status by showing him as successful in expanding al-Qaeda's network of affiliates to the Horn of Africa. But the fact remains that the merger became a reality a few years ago, and the only new wrinkle to the alliance is an "official" announcement. It is not clear yet whether merging a local Somali group with a global jihad network that extends beyond the borders of Somali territory is acceptable to all al-Shabaab leaders since some of them might prefer to keep the group's focus on local territory instead of turning their attention to fighting the West, as al-Qaeda wants them to.
However, the most serious threat that could result from the merger seems to be limited to al-Shabaab's ability to reach Western countries, given that some of its members lived with their families in Europe and the United States and carry foreign passports that enable them to travel freely. Al-Qaeda has failed to send operatives to Europe to carry out bombings in past years, which could be one of al-Zawahiri's motivations for extending al-Qaeda's network to include al-Shabaab in the Horn of Africa.