Map of Shabaab-controlled regions in southern and central Somalia. The red ovals indicate major cities and towns taken over by Shabaab according to open source reports. The yellow boxes are regions known to be under the general influence and control based on generalized open source reports.
Just one and a half years after Ethiopian forces ejected the Islamic Courts Union from power in the failed state of Somalia, the country is poised for a takeover by a radical al Qaeda regional group. Shabaab, an al Qaeda-linked terror group, has taken control of most of southern Somalia and portions of the central region, according to press reports from the troubled nation.
Late last week, Shabaab fighters overran the strategic southern port city of Kismayo, Somalia’s second largest city. The capture of Kismayo capped a yearlong campaign by Shabaab to retake territory lost to the Ethiopians in late 2006 and early 2007.
Shabaab, the radical Islamist youth movement formed from the leadership and fighters of the ousted Islamic Courts, has teamed up with the powerful Hawiye clan to attack Ethiopian and Somali security forces. These attacks soon spread north, south, and west of Mogadishu.
By late 2007, Shabaab was reported to be in control of the Hiran province, north of Mogadishu. At the time, a Somali security official stated that 80 percent of the country was outside of government control. Ambushes and improvised explosive device and mortar strikes are a daily occurrence in Mogadishu and the surrounding regions, and attacks against Ethiopian convoys began to increase in frequency and intensity.
During the spring of 2008, much of Bakool and Bay provinces, with exception of Baidoa, the provincial capital of Bay and the seat of parliament, fell to Shabaab. The major cities and towns in these provinces fell under Shabaab control after Somali and Ethiopian forces abandoned the region.
Shabaab then set its sights on Somalia’s south. The area along the Kenyan border has long been a Shabaab safe haven. The US military launched an airstrike at an al Qaeda safe house and training camp run by Hassan Turki in the town of Dobley in southern Somalia, just four miles from the Kenyan border.
The Kenyan border regions have been used to train Shabaab and al Qaeda fighters and to launch attacks into the Shabelle and Jubba provinces. Much of Lower Shabelle and Upper and Lower Jubba are under control of Shabaab.
Shabaab’s campaign in western Somalia has endangered the Ethiopian Army’s long supply lines to Baidoa and Mogadishu. Tens of thousands of Ethiopian forces, along with several thousand African Union peacekeepers from Uganda and Burundi, are deployed in Mogadishu in an effort to quell the insurgency.
A look at some of the leaders of the Islamic Courts, Shabaab, and al Qaeda in East Africa. Click to view.
Shabaab’s longtime links to al Qaeda
Shabaab spokesman Sheikh Mukhtar Robow admitted the group is closely aligned to al Qaeda, and seeks to merge with the terror group. “We are negotiating how we can unite into one,” Robow said, according to The Los Angeles Times. “We will take our orders from Sheik Osama bin Laden because we are his students. Al Qaeda is the mother of the holy war in Somalia.”
But the senior leaders of Shabaab have had long links to al Qaeda, and Shabaab and its predecessor have been al Qaeda affiliates in all but name. Hassan Dahir Aweys, Aden Hashi Ayro, and Hassan Turki have trained in al Qaeda camps during the 1990s. Robow admitted this in his interview with The Los Angeles Times. “Most of our leaders were trained in Al Qaeda camps. We get our tactics and guidelines from them,” Robow said. “Many have spent time with Osama bin Laden.”
Turki, Sheikh Yusuf Indha’adde, and Sheikh Mukhtar Robow have appeared on al Qaeda propaganda tapes training and fighting with foreign fighters. Both Turki and Indha’adde admitted to foreign al Qaeda involvement in Somalia in the summer of 2006.
Al Qaeda has helped produced propaganda for the Islamic Courts and Shabaab and has even praised the group in its own propaganda tapes. Osama bin Laden endorsed the Islamic Courts during a speech in 2006. “We will continue, God willing, to fight you and your allies everywhere, in Iraq and Afghanistan and in Somalia and Sudan until we waste all your money and kill your men and you will return to your country in defeat as we defeated you before in Somalia,” bin Laden said.
In November 2001, Aweys, the former leader of the Islamic Courts, was identified by the US Department of State as a Specially Designated Global Terrorists. Aweys participated in the infamous “Black Hawk Down” incident in Mogadishu in 1993.
Ayro, was the leader of Shabaab before he was killed in a US airstrike on May 1, 2008. Turki continues to serve as a military commander and senior trainer for the terror group. Robow is the spokesman for Shabaab as well as a military commander. Indha’adde served as the defense minister for the Islamic Courts prior to its fall in 2007.
Another direct connection is Shabaab and the Islamic Courts sheltering of three senior al Qaeda operatives behind the 1998 attack on the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, and Abu Taha al Sudani have sought shelter with both Shabaab and the Islamic Courts.
Fazul served as the intelligence chief for the Islamic Courts’ and is believed to hold the same portfolio for Shabaab. Sudani is al Qaeda’s leader in northern and eastern Africa. The US has targeted Fazul, Sudani, and Nabhan in multiple strikes in late 2007 and 2008.
For background on the Islamic Courts and their time in power, see The Rise & Fall of Somalia’s Islamic Courts: An Online History.
For more information on the deteriorating security situation, see the Today In entries for Somalia from The Long War Journal.