Imagery of a Shabaab fighter from the terror groups’ website.
This week, four high-level US government officials testified at Senate hearings about the growing threat of terrorism emanating from Somalia. Two officials, Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair and the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Lieutenant General Michael Maples, testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday, March 10. Their testimony included references to the deteriorating security situation in Somalia and the surrounding region, as well as the rise of al Qaeda and its allies in East Africa.
The next day, two other officials – Andrew Liepman, the deputy director of intelligence at the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), and Philip Mudd, associate executive assistant director of the FBI’s National Security Branch – testified before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. Liepman and Mudd discussed the recruitment of Somali immigrants living in the US and their ties to international terrorism.
In his written testimony, DNI Blair explained the US Intelligence Community’s assessment of East Africa and Somalia thusly:
“We judge the terrorist threat to US interests in East Africa, primarily from al Qaeda and al Qaeda-affiliated Islamic extremists in Somalia and Kenya, will increase in the next year as al Qaeda’s East Africa network continues to plot operations against US, Western, and local targets and the influence of the Somalia-based terrorist group al Shabaab grows. Given the high-profile US role in the region and its perceived direction – in the minds of al Qaeda and local extremists – of foreign intervention in Somalia, we assess US counterterrorism efforts will be challenged not only by the al Qaeda operatives in the Horn, but also by Somali extremists and increasing numbers of foreign fighters supporting al Shabaab’s efforts.”
Blair noted that Somalia “has not had a stable, central government for 17 years,” leaving a security vacuum filled with extremism, humanitarian crises and rampant piracy. Nor is the 2008 UN-backed agreement between the Somali Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and extremist opposition leaders likely to quell the situation, Blair surmised. In 2006, Ethiopian troops moved into Somalia in an attempt to shore up the transitional government and beat back a growing jihadist insurgency. But those forces have since receded.
The withdrawal of Ethiopian troops may have “removed a key rallying point” for Shabaab, Blair noted, but “resurgent Islamic extremists are expanding their operations throughout the country.” The militants “have shifted their focus toward attacking a modest African Union peacekeeping force charged with protecting the TFG.”
As has been widely recognized, piracy has become a major issue in the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean. Blair noted that the “number of successful pirate attacks has increased almost fourfold since 2007 after the pirates received several multimillion-dollar ransom payments in early 2008.” Indeed, Kenya’s foreign minister, Moses Wetangula, has claimed that pirates collected more than $150 million in ransoms during the first 11 months of 2008. The ransom demands can easily reach into the tens of millions of dollars for individual ships.
Lieutenant General Maples elaborated further on Blair’s and the Intelligence Community’s concerns. Shabaab and al Qaeda have long been allied and there are indications that the two will formally merge. Maples explained:
“Recent propaganda from both al Qaeda and the Somalia-based terrorist group al Shabaab highlighting their shared ideology suggests a formal merger announcement is forthcoming. Al Shabaab has conducted near-daily attacks against regional government and security forces in Somalia, including suicide VBIED [Vehicle Born Improvised Explosive Devices] attacks in Puntland and Somaliland. Cooperation among al Qaeda inspired extremists throughout the region strengthens al Qaeda’s foothold in Africa.”
Maples’ testimony confirms Nick Grace’s reporting for The Long War Journal last September. Grace reported that Shabaab’s establishment of an Islamic Emirate in Somalia was “imminent” and the group had “formally reached out to al Qaeda with a request for full integration into the terror network.”
On Wednesday, Liepman and Mudd testified before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. They spoke about the efforts by Shabaab and al Qaeda to recruit Somali immigrants living in the US.
In October 2008, Minneapolis-resident Shirwa Ahmed executed a suicide bombing in Somalia. According to Mudd, the FBI believes that Ahmed’s attack was the “first instance of a US citizen participating in a suicide attack anywhere.”
Mudd spoke of a terrorist recruiting network on US soil, saying there is an “active and deliberate attempt to recruit individuals – all of whom are young men, some only in their late teens – to travel to Somalia to fight or train on behalf of Shabaab.” Mr. Liepman noted that US authorities do not believe the radicalization of Somalis living in the US is “community-wide,” and most of the up to 200,000 Somali immigrants remain unaffected by these recruiting efforts. Nonetheless, “the exact number of Somali-American men who traveled to Somalia” to support Shabaab or other extremist organizations is “unclear.” Mudd said the number of recruits is in the “tens.”
There is no evidence that these recruits have been tasked with striking targets inside the US, Mudd said. However, the FBI remains concerned that some of the recruits “may engage in terrorist activity upon their return to the United States.”
The longstanding alliance between al Qaeda and Shabaab adds to this concern, as does al Qaeda’s increasing interest in Somalia. Mudd said that Shabaab “has links to the al Qaeda in East Africa network,” including “individuals responsible for the 1998 embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania.” Moreover, Shabaab “maintains ties to al Qaeda leaders in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).”
In February, top al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri trumpeted Shabaab’s gains in Somalia as “a step on the path of victory of Islam.” Mudd noted that al Qaeda’s propaganda suggests al Qaeda’s leaders “see Somalia as a potential recruiting, training, or staging ground for anti-US or Western operations in the region, or even more disturbing, around the globe.”
Liepman said that ethnic Somali recruits would “prefer to join a group that is focused on Somali-centric issues rather than signing up for the global Jihad.” However, this likely understates the importance of jihadi ideology and al Qaeda’s strategy for incorporating Somalia into its global jihad. After all, Shirwa Ahmed did not go to Somalia just to fight on behalf of Somali groups; he executed a suicide bombing – a common jihadist tactic that certainly requires ideological commitment. In fact, press reports have indicated that Ahmed may have been part of recruiting network run by al-Itihadd al-Islamiya, a known al Qaeda affiliate.
Al Qaeda has repeatedly added to its terror network by folding local conflicts into its international jihad. That is what is happening in Somalia, where al Qaeda has had a presence since at least the early 1990s. Indeed, al Qaeda has even claimed involvement in the notorious 1993 Battle of Mogadishu, during which an American Black Hawk helicopter was shot down. Osama bin Laden has claimed that his minions trained and funded the tribal forces that shot down the helicopter.
According to US officials, al Qaeda’s tentacles are growing stronger in Somalia by the day. And the Somali terrorist recruiting network extends into the heartland of America.
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