Al Qaeda’s senior leadership has advised Shabaab, its affiliate in Somalia, to downplay links between the two terror groups and suggested that future attacks be directed at US interests in East Africa.
“Al Qaeda’s top leadership has instructed Shabaab to maintain a low profile on al Qaeda links,” a senior US intelligence official who closely follows al Qaeda and Shabaab in East Africa told The Long War Journal. The official, who requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of the subject, said the information was passed between the top leadership of both groups.
“Al Qaeda has accepted Shabaab into the fold and, and any additional statements would only serve to draw international scrutiny,” the intelligence official said. “Al Qaeda is applying lessons learned from Iraq, that an overexposure of the links between al Qaeda central leadership and its affiliates can cause some unwanted attention.”
Shabaab’s double suicide attack in Uganda on July 11 was well received by al Qaeda’s top leadership, who want Shabaab to continue to hitting US interests in Africa.
“Al Qaeda is pleased with the double suicide attack in Uganda, but suggested Shabaab reserve future strikes at US interests in the region,” the official said.
The July 11 double suicide attack in Kampala, the capital of Uganda, killed 74 civilians as they watched the World Cup’s final soccer match. The mastermind of the Kampala attacks, Isah Ahmed Luyima, said he executed the bombings with the intent of maximizing US deaths.
“I targeted places where many Americans go,” Luyima said in a press conference hosted by Ugandan police on Aug. 12. “I was made to believe that Americans were responsible for the suffering of Muslims all over the world.”
The Shabaab cell that carried out the Uganda attack called itself the Saleh Ali Nabhan Brigade. Saleh Ali Slaeh Nabhan was a top al Qaeda and Shabaab leader who has been indicted by the US for his involvement in the 1998 bombings at the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Nabhan was indicted with several top al Qaeda leaders, including Osama bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri. Nabhan served as Shabaab’s top military commander before US special operations forces both downplayed any ties after security forces attacked terror training camps operated by Atom in the Galgala Mountains in late July.
Shabaab’s links to al Qaeda
Al Qaeda has praised Shabaab and its predecessor, the Islamic Courts Union, for years prior to accepting Shabaab into the fold. For years al Qaeda has helped produced propaganda for the Islamic Courts and Shabaab and has addressed the group in its own propaganda tapes. Osama bin Laden endorsed the Islamic Courts during a speech back 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. Al Qaeda leaders Ayman al Zawahiri and Abu Yahya al Libi have also directly addressed Shabaab and voiced their support for the terror group’s activities.
During the summer of 2008, Shabaab sought to formally join al Qaeda. By the end of that year, al Qaeda had indicated that it accepted Shabaab as its official affiliate in East Africa.
Shabaab’s former spokesman and top military commander, Sheikh Mukhtar Robow, admitted that many Shabaab leaders have trained with and take instruction from al Qaeda. “Most of our leaders were trained in Al Qaeda camps,” Robow told The Los Angeles Times in August 2008. “We get our tactics and guidelines from them,” he continued. “Many have spent time with Osama bin Laden.” Other Shabaab leaders have also admitted to links with al Qaeda.
“We will take our orders from Sheikh Osama bin Laden because we are his students,” Robow continued. “Al Qaeda is the mother of the holy war in Somalia.”
In September of 2008, Shabaab formally reached out to al Qaeda’s senior leadership in an effort to better integrate with the network and its strategic nodes across Africa and the Middle East. The effort came in the form of a 24-minute video that featured Nabhan.
In the tape, Nabhan declared an oath of bayat (loyalty) on behalf of Shabaab to bin Laden and al Qaeda and encouraged fighters to train in Shabaab-run camps and participate in the fight against the transitional federal government, Ethiopian forces, and African Union peacekeepers.
The response to Shabaab’s declaration came two months later, on Nov. 19, 2008, when al Qaeda operations chief Ayman al-Zawahiri acknowledged the group in a propaganda video by calling them “my brothers, the lions of Islam in Somalia.”
“[R]ejoice in victory and conquest,” Zawahiri said in an official transcript acquired by The Long War Journal, “and hold tightly to the truth for which you have given your lives, and don’t put down your weapons before the Mujahid state of Islam and Tawheed [oneness with god] has been set up in Somalia.”
Most of Shabaab’s top leaders are foreign al Qaeda operatives. Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, who also was indicted for his involvement in the 1998 attacks in Kenya and Tanzania, served as Shabaab’s top intelligence official before replacing Nabhan as Shabaab’s top military leader. Al Qaeda also appointed Fazul as its operations chief for East Africa.
Shaykh Muhammad Abu Fa’id, a Saudi citizen, serves as a top financier and a “manager” for Shabaab. Abu Musa Mombasa, a Pakistani citizen, serves as Shabaab’s chief of security and training. Mahmud Mujajir, a Sudanese citizen, is Shabaab’s chief of recruitment for suicide bombers. Abu Mansour al Amriki, a US citizen, serves as a military commander, recruiter, financier, and propagandist.
• Uganda suicide plot meant to kill more Americans, The Associated Press
• Shabaab claims credit for dual suicide attacks in Uganda, The Long War Journal
• Uganda attack carried out by Shabaab cell named after slain al Qaeda leader, The Long War Journal
• Senior al Qaeda leader killed in Somalia, The Long War Journal
• Al Qaeda names Fazul Mohammed East African commander, The Long War Journal
• Puntland forces claim victory against Shabaab in the ‘Tora Bora of East Africa’, The Long War Journal
• Excerpts from the Osama bin Laden Tape, The Long War Journal
• Zawahiri praises Shabaab’s takeover of southern Somalia, The Long War Journal
• Shabaab leader admits links to al Qaeda, The Long War Journal
• Al Qaeda leaders play significant role in Shabaab, The Long War Journal