Al Shabaab's Rise in the Al Qaeda Network

August 9, 2011

Al Shabaab spokesman Sheikh Ali Mohamed Rage from the video, "AMISOM and the Inevitable End," released June 17, 2011. (Source: SITE Intelligence Group)
 

Somalia’s militant Islamist group al Shabaab provides a safe haven to senior al Qaeda operatives and is establishing operational ties to al Qaeda’s most active affiliate in Yemen. The group’s rise, its ambitions beyond Somalia, and recent signs that it is garnering greater attention from al Qaeda Central leaders suggest that al Shabaab is an increasingly key player in the al Qaeda Network (AQN).

Al Shabaab controls most of southern and central Somalia. It has established local administrations in the areas under its control and operates terrorist training camps. Al Shabaab seeks to erect an Islamist government in Somalia and is conducting an insurgency against the weak, UN-backed Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). The group’s stated goals are global in scope and indicate a clear desire to participate in global jihad.[1] Al Shabaab’s anti-Western rhetoric and expressed support for newly appointed al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri underscore the group’s alignment with the AQN.[2] It has provided refuge to known al Qaeda operatives and actively recruits foreign fighters. The failure to contest and eliminate al Shabaab’s control over territory in Somalia has provided a safe haven from which it wages an insurgency and interacts with the broader AQN.

The group has established relationships with elements of the broader al Qaeda network. It has sheltered al Qaeda operatives and other militants that share its ideological goals within the territory that it controls. At least two al Qaeda in East Africa commanders found sanctuary in Somalia with al Shabaab: Fazul Abdullah Mohammed and Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan.[3] Mohammed, a mastermind behind the 1998 American embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, operated freely in Somalia until his death in the capital, Mogadishu, on June 8, 2011.[4] He used his numerous aliases and forged passports to liaise between al Qaeda-affiliated networks and travel in and out of Somalia.[5] Mohammed was also among al Qaeda’s foremost explosive experts.[6] He effectively utilized the influx of foreign fighters to conduct suicide bombings and attacks on government-controlled areas, key strategic locations, and targets abroad.[7] Ugandan officials marked Mohammed as a key suspect in al Shabaab’s twin bombing attack in Kampala, Uganda on July 11, 2010.[8] Nabhan, connected to both the 1998 American embassy bombings and the 2002 attacks on Israeli targets in Mombasa, Kenya, was killed in a direct action raid in Baraawe in southern Somalia on September 14, 2009.[9] 

Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), al Qaeda’s most active franchise based in Yemen, and al Shabaab are also cooperating. The two groups are located across the Gulf of Aden from one another and appear to be sharing resources and establishing personnel ties.[10] Two senior members of al Shabaab targeted in a June 2011 drone strike in southern Somalia had “direct ties” to Anwar al Awlaki and were planning attacks outside Somalia.[11] The recent capture of an al Shabaab operative, Ahmed Abdulkadir Warsame, has provided additional insight into al Shabaab-AQAP ties. Warsame effectively operated as a liaison between the two organizations. The Somali national, captured by American forces in the Gulf of Aden, provided material support for al Shabaab and AQAP, conspired to train in and demonstrate the use of explosives, and brokered a “weapons deal with AQAP on behalf of al Shabaab,” among numerous other charges.[12] AQAP leaders, who have been actively planning to attack the American homeland, have also encouraged al Shabaab to expand its targets beyond Somalia, according to information gleaned following Warsame’s capture. Intelligence from interrogations and retrieved digital files revealed that AQAP leader Nasser al Wahayshi has worked to build ties between the two militant organizations.[13] Al Qaeda Central’s leadership, including Osama bin Laden’s successor Ayman al Zawahiri, has pressed al Shabaab to change its name to al Qaeda in East Africa and, in January, offered to make al Shabaab a designated regional franchise.[14]

Al Shabaab may be providing training for other militant Islamist groups in Africa. Nigeria’s Islamist sect Boko Haram suggested that it has ties to al Shabaab in a June 14 handwritten statement that read, “Very soon, we will wage jihad...We want to make it known that our jihadists have arrived in Nigeria from Somalia where they received real training on warfare from our brethren who made that country ungovernable.”[15] Two days after Boko Haram released the letter, the group conducted a suicide attack at the police headquarters in the Nigerian capital of Abuja.[16] The suicide attack, which was the first of its kind in Nigeria, has raised concern that the bomber was trained by al Shabaab or al Qaeda elements. A multinational government inquiry is underway to determine if Somali and Sudanese suspects in the attack are connected with al Shabaab.[17] Evidence of al Shabaab’s involvement would further demonstrate the group’s increasing ability to export terrorism.



[1] Cody Curran, “Global Ambitions: An Analysis of al Shabaab’s Evolving Rhetoric,” AEI’s Critical Threats Project, February 17, 2011. Available: http://www.criticalthreats.org/somalia/global-ambitions-analysis-al-shabaabs-evolving-rhetoric-february-17-2011
[2] Cody Curran, “Global Ambitions: An Analysis of al Shabaab’s Evolving Rhetoric,” AEI’s Critical Threats Project, February 17, 2011. Available: http://www.criticalthreats.org/somalia/global-ambitions-analysis-al-shabaabs-evolving-rhetoric-february-17-2011
[3] “Mastermind of 1998 U.S. Embassy Bombings Killed,” Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) News Blog, June 13, 2011. Available: http://www.fbi.gov/news/news_blog/mastermind-of-1998-u.s.-embassy-bombings-killed
“Fazul Abdullah Mohammed,” FBI Most Wanted Terrorists. Available: http://www2.fbi.gov/wanted/terrorists/termohammed.htm
[4] Abdi Sheikh, “Somalia Says Killed Top African Al Qaeda Member,” Reuters, June 11, 2011. Available: http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/06/11/us-somalia-alqaeda-idUSTRE75A10H20110611
[5] Tim Lister and Zain Verjee, “Killing of embassy bombings mastermind deprives al Qaeda of key figure,” CNN, June 13, 2011. Available: http://edition.cnn.com/2011/WORLD/africa/06/13/somalia.mastermind/
[6] Tim Lister and Zain Verjee, “Killing of embassy bombings mastermind deprives al Qaeda of key figure,” CNN, June 13, 2011. Available: http://edition.cnn.com/2011/WORLD/africa/06/13/somalia.mastermind/
[7] Tim Lister and Zain Verjee, “Killing of embassy bombings mastermind deprives al Qaeda of key figure,” CNN, June 13, 2011. Available: http://edition.cnn.com/2011/WORLD/africa/06/13/somalia.mastermind/
Sudarsan Raghavan, “Alleged plotter of 1998 embassy attacks is killed,” Washington Post, June 11, 2011. Available: http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/africa/architect-of-us-embassy-bombings-killed/2011/06/11/AG9jgbQH_story.html
[8] Dr. Knox Chitiyo, “11/7: The July 2010 Kampala Bombings,” Royal United Services Institute, July 20, 2010. Available: http://www.rusi.org/analysis/commentary/ref:C4C45B35122E02
[9] Karen DeYoung, “Special Forces Raid in Somalia Killed Terrorist with Al-Qaeda Links, U.S. Says,” Washington Post, September 15, 2009. Available: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/09/14/AR2009091403522.html\
[10] AQAP and al Shabaab may also be cooperating in joint operations. The two al Shabaab operatives with direct ties to Anwar al Awlaki targeted in a drone strike in June had been planning an operation outside of Somalia. See Greg Jaffe and Karen DeYoung, “U.S. drone targets two leaders of Somali group allied with al-Qaeda, official says,” Washington Post, June 29, 2011. Available: http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/national-security/us-drones-target-two-leaders-of-somali-group-allied-with-al-qaeda/2011/06/29/AGJFxZrH_story.html
[11] The June 24 strike targeting senior Shabaab leaders was near a large al Shabaab training camp in Qandal, approximately six miles south of Kismayo.
Greg Jaffe and Karen DeYoung, “U.S. drone targets two leaders of Somali group allied with al-Qaeda, official says,” Washington Post, June 29, 2011. Available: http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/national-security/us-drones-target-two-leaders-of-somali-group-allied-with-al-qaeda/2011/06/29/AGJFxZrH_story.html
“Somalia: ‘Foreign air raid’ targets Kismayo’s al-Shabab,” BBC, June 24, 2011. Available: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-13901400.
 “US drone attack on al Qaeda group in Somalia – report,” Reuters, June 30, 2011. Available: http://af.reuters.com/article/somaliaNews/idAFN1E75T00D20110630
For more information on Anwar al Awlaki, please see “Militant Islam’s Global Preacher: The Radicalizing Effect of Sheikh Anwar al Awlaki,” by Katherine Zimmerman, AEI’s Critical Threats Project, March 12, 2010. Available: http://www.criticalthreats.org/yemen/militant-islams-global-preacher-radicalizing-effect-sheikh-anwar-al-awlaki
[12] “United States v. Ahmed Abdulkadir Warsame,” United States District Court – Southern District of New York, July 5, 2011. Available: http://s3.documentcloud.org/documents/215061/ahmed-warsame-indictment-press-release.pdf; http://www.investigativeproject.org/documents/case_docs/1598.pdf
[13] Brian Bennett, “Al Qaeda’s Yemen branch has aided Somalia militants, U.S. says,” Los Angeles Times, July 18, 2011. Available: http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/world/la-fg-bin-laden-somalia-20110718,0,6293843.story
[14] Al Shabaab reportedly turned the offer down, likely due to divisions within the leadership over the pursuit of international attacks.
Brian Bennett, “Al Qaeda’s Yemen branch has aided Somalia militants, U.S. says,” Los Angeles Times, July 18, 2011. Available: http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/world/la-fg-bin-laden-somalia-20110718,0,6293843.story
[15] “Nigerian Islamists vow ‘fiercer’ attacks,” Associated French Press, June 16, 2011. Available: http://www.google.com/hostednews/afp/article/ALeqM5hvNBLQti-6QLphVdW7gU24qGfCVA?docId=CNG.7c89daafc598520ace67ee7e41be9139.9a1
[16] “Al-Qaeda-Linked Suicide Bomber Nigeria Police Station,” Shabelle Media Network, June 17, 2011. Available: http://www.shabelle.net/article.php?id=7681
[17] Elisha Bala-Gbogbo, “Nigeria Arrests 58 Suspects After Police Compound Explosion Vanguard Says,” Bloomberg, June 20, 2011. Available: http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2011-06-20/nigeria-arrests-58-suspects-after-police-compound-explosion-vanguard-says.html