A vessel navigates in the Gulf of Aden, the body of water connecting Yemen and Somalia (USMC photo, by Cpl. Patrick M. Johnson)

July 02, 2011

Terror Partnership: AQAP and Shabaab

The terrorist threat to America from the Gulf of Aden is metastasizing as the most dangerous al Qaeda affiliate, Yemen-based al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), appears to be partnering with Somalia-based militant Islamist group al Shabaab in attacking the West.

On June 23, an American drone strike targeted two senior al Shabaab leaders in Qandal, outside the al Shabaab-controlled southern port city of Kismayo.[1]  Somalia’s defense minister said on July 1 that U.S. military forces retrieved the two men; it is unclear whether they were killed in the strike.[2] The identities of the militants have not been released, but a senior American military official said that they had “direct ties” to Anwar al Awlaki, the Yemeni-American radical cleric who has been operational within AQAP.[3]  The official added, “They were planning operations outside of Somalia.”[4]  The reported links between Awlaki—whose primary focus has been on attacking the American homeland—and the al Shabaab leaders targeted in the strike suggest that AQAP and al Shabaab have established operational ties.  Such an alliance would enable the two groups to leverage their joint resources, including AQAP’s bomb-making expertise and al Shabaab’s recruitment and hosting of militants from the West, to conduct spectacular attacks in the West.

Both AQAP and al Shabaab have demonstrated the ability to plan and launch terrorist attacks outside their safe havens. AQAP has launched two significant operations against the United States—the 2009 Christmas Day attack and the October 2010 parcel plot.  AQAP continues to target America and has benefited from Yemen’s recent unrest and state fragmentation.[5]  Al Qaeda-linked al Shabaab is waging an insurgency in Somalia against the United Nations-backed Transitional Federal Government and African Union troops in a bid to expand its operating space. It currently controls large regions in the country and operates in the capital, Mogadishu.  The organization has demonstrated the desire and the ability to export terror beyond Somalia’s borders. It has in the past threatened the United States and embraced al Qaeda’s global ideology.[6]  The group executed its first attack outside of Somalia in July 2010 when it bombed a restaurant and rugby club in Kampala, Uganda, killing 76 people.[7]  Al Shabaab may also have been involved in the June 2011 suicide bombing in Abuja, Nigeria.[8]  It continues to explore targets outside Somalia.[9]

An AQAP-Shabaab partnership based on the proximity of their safe haven networks and a shared global militant Islamist ideology constitutes an increasingly complex and dangerous threat.  The recent drone strike in Somalia may fortunately have disrupted any AQAP-Shabaab operational planning to attack the American homeland, albeit temporarily; the tasks of dismantling and defeating AQAP in Yemen and al Shabaab in Somalia merit a heightened sense of urgency.          

[2] Malkhadir M. Muhumed, “Somalia: US took bodies of militants after strike,” AFP, July 1, 2011, http://www.google.com/hostednews/ap/article/ALeqM5hr7AL5OsrUoZzUUa_nejREqdzf0g?docId=7d0061897c5a4e57a952fed20a526801.
[3] Greg Jaffe and Karen DeYoung, “U.S. drone targets two leaders of Somali group allied with al-Qaeda, official says,” The Washington Post, June 29, 2011, 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.
[4] Ibid.
[5] See Katherine Zimmerman’s monitoring and analysis of the situation in Yemen at www.criticalthreats.org.
[6] Chris Harnisch, “The Terror Threat From Somalia: The Internationalization of Al Shabaab,” AEI Critical Threats Project, February 12, 2010, http://www.criticalthreats.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/CTP_Terror_Threat_From_Somalia_Shabaab_Internationalization-1.pdf; Cody Curran, “Global Ambitions: al Shabaab’s Evolving Rhetoric,” AEI Critical Threats Project, February 17, 2011, http://www.criticalthreats.org/somalia/global-ambitions-analysis-al-shabaabs-evolving-rhetoric-february-17-2011.
[7] Chris Harnisch, “Al Shabaab’s First International Strike: Analysis of the July 11 Uganda Bombings,” AEI Critical Threats Project, July 14, 2011, http://www.criticalthreats.org/somalia/al-shabaabs-first-international-strike-analysis-july-11-uganda-bombings-july-14-2010-4559.
[8] Katherine Zimmerman, “From Somalia to Nigeria: Jihad,” The Weekly Standard, June 18, 2011, http://www.weeklystandard.com/blogs/somalia-nigeria-jihad_574838.html.
[9] See, for instance, the remarks of former CIA Director and current Defense Secretary Leon Panetta before the Senate Armed Service Committee on June 9, 2011.
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