Sheikh Ahmad Iman Ali, the leader of Shabaab’s branch in Kenya, from a videotape released on Jan. 6. Image from the SITE Intelligence Group.
The Muslim Youth Center, Shabaab’s affiliate in Kenya, said it has become “part of al Qaeda East Africa.” The statement was made just one day after al Qaeda and Shabaab formalized their longstanding relationship and announced their merger [see LWJ report, Shabaab formally joins al Qaeda].
The Muslim Youth Center (MYC) made the statement at their blog, MYC: Jihaad is Our Religion, in a post entitled, “Welcome to AQEA (al Qaeda East Africa).”
In the post, the MYC also praised Shabaab’s official merger with al Qaeda, saying, “It was music to our ears to listen to our dear Sheikh Ayman Al-Zawahiri (May Allah continue to preserve him for the global struggle) talk about the great union of the two organizations.”
“Such a union is long over due and MYC members are pleased to be part of this great union that seeks to defeat the crusaders in Somalia and here in Kenya,” the statement continued. “We pray Allah grants the mujahideen in Kenya to firmness and strength to set jihad alight here in Kenya.”
The MYC said that the official name of the “union” between Shabaab, the MYC, and al Qaeda is al Qaeda East Africa.
“In the coming weeks and months, as part of this new union under the banner of AQEA (al Qaeda East Africa) we (MYC and al Shabaab) expect to achieve great things in defending our precious religion by defeating the crusaders,” the MYC statement reads.
“It is not only groups like MYC that have committed and sacrificed themselves to join jihad in Somalia but now we have seen what union exists between all mujahideen around the world with the timely union with our brothers in al Qadea [sic],” the MYC said. “This union must be praised and supported for we in MYC are now part of al Qaeda East Africa.”
Shabaab has sought to expand its operations outside of Somalia, and has courted Kenyan jihadists who have served as key support elements. On Jan. 10, Shabaab named Sheikh Ahmad Iman Ali as its “Supreme Amiir,” or leader, of its Kenyan branch.
East Africa Al Qaeda (EAAQ) or Al Qaeda in East Africa (AQEA)
That the MYC would call this coalition “al Qaeda East Africa” or AQEA, for short, is not surprising. Al Qaeda has long maintained a presence in East Africa that has operated under this banner. And al Qaeda’s East African operatives have been particularly adept when it comes to operating both alongside, and within, allied jihadist organizations. At least several senior Shabaab leaders have also doubled as AQEA operatives.
A leaked May 22, 2007 Joint Task Force Guantanamo (JTF-GTMO) threat assessment of Abdul Malik Bajabu, who was arrested by Kenyan authorities in February 2007 and has been detained at Guantanamo since March 2007, describes the AQEA in detail. Once in custody, Bajabu allegedly “admitted personal involvement in the 28 November 2002 terrorist attack against the Kikambala Paradise Hotel” in Mombasa, Kenya. That operation was carried out by AQEA operatives.
JTF-GTMO analysts found that Bajabu “is a confirmed member of the East Africa al Qaeda (EAAQ) network, the Council of Islamic Courts (CIC), and the Islamic Party of Kenya (IPK)” and also “has ties to the al Ittihad al Islami (AIAI).”
“EAAQ is also referred to as Al Qaeda in East Africa (AQEA),” the JTF-GTMO memo reads. From a counterterrorism perspective, the EAAQ/AQEA is defined as a “Priority 1A target due to its assessed association with the al Qaeda network.”
The JTF-GTMO threat assessment continues: “Priority 1A targets are defined as terrorist groups, countries that sponsor terrorism, or countries that have state organizations involved in terrorism that pose a clear and immediate danger to US persons or interests.”
Bajabu worked closely with Fazul Mohammed, Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, Abu Talha al Sudani, Issa Osman Issa, and Bashir Mohamed Mahamoud — all of whom have served as senior Shabaab leaders while at the same time being members of AQEA — according to intelligence included in his JTF-GTMO file.
Members of this network were not only responsible for the 2002 terrorist attacks in Mombasa, Kenya, but also the 1998 US embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. The 1998 bombings were al Qaeda’s most devastating terrorist attack prior to Sept. 11, 2001. Fazul, Nabhan, and Sudani have all since been killed.
Deceased al Qaeda emir Osama bin Laden retained a degree of control over the EAAQ/AQEA network, according to intelligence reports cited by JTF-GTMO. One EAAQ/AQEA operative stated that one of Fazul Mohammed’s wives, Halim Fazul, “delivered a message from UBL when she traveled from Pakistan to Mogadishu in late December 2006.”
Halima said that bin Laden “was angry with the EAAQ” and “wanted them to focus on carrying out terrorist operations and not to fight with the [Islamic Courts Union] or against the Mogadishu-based warlords.” The EAAQ/AQEA network’s “primary job was to carry out terrorist attacks,” bin Laden reportedly explained.
A JTF-GTMO analyst noted that bin Laden’s “instructions indicate communication with and an undetermined level of control over [Bajabu] and his [EAAQ/AQEA] associates.”
Separately, “members of EAAQ wrote to the al Qaeda leadership informing them of Abu Talha’s failure as a leader.” The JTF-GTMO memo reads: “A reply was sent to the EAAQ members, in which [bin Laden] said that he would send a new leader.”
Other leaked JTF-GTMO memos similarly include intelligence reports showing that the EAAQ/AQEA continued to report to senior al Qaeda leaders in Pakistan. [See LWJ report, The Gitmo Files: Fazul Mohammed continued to seek bin Laden’s direction.]
Abu Talha al Sudani was killed in 2007. In a September 2008 video, Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan reached out to al Qaeda’s top leadership to broker a merger between Shabaab and bin Laden’s organization. Nabhan, who swore bayat to bin Laden and praised him in the video, was already a longstanding member of the EAAQ/AQEA network. Nabhan was killed in a US special operations raid in Somalia on Sept. 14, 2009.
A few months after Nabhan’s death, in November 2009, bin Laden named Fazul Mohammed the EAAQ chieftain. Mukhtar Abu al Zubayr (a.k.a. Ahmed Abdi Aw Mohamed or Godane), the emir of Shabaab, attended the ceremony in which Fazul was sworn in as head of the EAAQ/AQEA. Fazul was also a senior Shabaab leader at the time. Fazul was subsequently killed, in June 2011.
Now, months after Fazul’s death, the Muslim Youth Center has announced that it will fight “under the banner of AQEA (al Qaeda East Africa)” — the same name used by al Qaeda’s East Africa organization, which has long reported to al Qaeda’s most senior leaders.
Some analysts predicted that al Qaeda would be weakened and would lose the support of its affiliates after the death of Osama bin Laden, as Zawahiri is perceived to be unpopular in many jihadist circles. All of al Qaeda’s affiilates, however, including al Qaeda in Iraq, Shabaab, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, have sworn allegiance to Zawahiri. And a new branch that formed in Egypt’s Sinai, Ansar al Jihad, also swore allegiance to Zawahiri and al Qaeda.
Furthermore, there have been no reports of major disagreements within the jihadist leadership or the rank and file over Zawahiri’s succession to bin Laden’s role as emir.
Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD’s Long War Journal. Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD’s Long War Journal.