An alleged al Qaeda operative has been detained in London after “crossing through the Olympic Park five times,” the Sunday Telegraph (UK) reports. The arrest comes as security has been tightened around the games in response to numerous reports that terrorists are targeting the festivities.
British authorities had prohibited the detained operative from visiting the Olympic Park because of his suspicious past, which reportedly includes a stint fighting for Shabaab, al Qaeda’s affiliate in Somalia. The man, whose full identity has not been disclosed, has been identified only as “CF” in the British press.
The Telegraph reports that he is “linked to a group of six British nationals who received terror training from al Qaeda leader Saleh Nabhan.”
Nabhan was killed in Somalia in a September 2009 raid by US special operations forces. Prior to his demise, Nabhan was wanted by the US government for his role in al Qaeda’s 1998 embassy bombings, as well as the 2002 attacks in Mombasa, Kenya. In a video recorded in July 2008, Nabhan praised Osama bin Laden as “the courageous commander and my honorable leader.” The same video shows Nabhan training Shabaab recruits.
Nabhan and Shabaab target the UK, West
A leaked State Department cable written in July 2009, just two months before Nabhan was killed, details Nabhan’s and Shabaab’s designs for attacking the West.
“Since Nabhan’s selection as senior trainer for [Shabaab’s] training in summer 2008,” the cable reads, “the flow of foreigners to Somalia has broadened to encompass fighters from south Asia, Europe, and North America, Sudan, and East Africa, particularly trainees from Kenya.” The influx of recruits was in response to Nabhan’s video praising bin Laden.
Nabhan’s camps “have come to look increasingly like those run by al Qaeda,” the cable continues. “They have been using foreign instructors, making use of similar training aids, physical training formations/activities, explosives and special tactics training undergone by al Qaeda trainees elsewhere.”
The Shabaab camps differed “markedly” from traditional Somali camps, with Nabhan’s graduates being “better disciplined,” the State Dept. noted. And the effects of Nabhan’s training regimen were quickly felt inside Somalia, as Shabaab began to direct simultaneous attacks using suicide bombers — al Qaeda’s hallmark. An American Shabaab recruit was used in one such attack in northern Somalia in October 2008.
The US government was particularly alarmed, however, by reports that Nabhan was making preparations for attacks outside of Somalia. The State Dept. reported that “although Nabhan alumni have to date confined their fighting to Somalia, there are indications that foreigners trained in his Somalia-based camps could return to their countries of origin in order to conduct attacks.”
The cable continues: “Nabhan is currently associated with efforts to attack Denmark, Nigeria, Kenya, and the UK. Danish trainees assessed to be attending one of the Nabhan-administered camps are reported to intend to return to Denmark to conduct unspecified attacks.” Nigerian operatives “traveling from Somalia to Nigeria” also planned to “carry out an unspecified project assessed to be an attack, probably at the direction of Nabhan.”
According to the State Dept.’s sources, “Nabhan himself [had] reportedly indicated an intention to conduct attacks on Kenya, as well as on the United Kingdom.”
The US government’s concerns about Shabaab’s plans outside of Somalia were well-founded. In July 2010, a Shabaab cell calling itself the Saleh Ali Nabhan Brigade conducted simultaneous suicide bombings in Kampala, Uganda. More than 70 people were killed in the attacks, which targeted soccer fans watching the World Cup final.
The “London Boys”
The July 2009 State Department cable is not the only leaked document containing intelligence on Shabaab’s intent to strike the UK. A leaked May 2007 Joint Task Force Guantanamo (JTF-GTMO) threat assessment for Abdul Malik Bajabu, a Kenyan citizen who remains in US custody, contains intelligence reporting on sleeper cells that were to be dispatched from Somalia to the West.
Bajabu is allegedly “a confirmed member of the East Africa al Qaeda (EAAQ),” the Islamic Courts Union, and the Islamic Party of Kenya. According to JTF-GTMO, Bajabu has “admitted that he participated in the planning and execution of” al Qaeda’s Nov. 28, 2002 terrorist attacks on an Israeli-owned hotel and Israeli airliner in Mombasa, Kenya.
Nabhan was also involved in the operation and fled with Bajabu from Kenya to Somalia afterwards.
In the years that followed, Nabhan and other al Qaeda leaders in East Africa continued to plot against foreign targets. In addition to Nabhan, another senior al Qaeda figure in East Africa directed the plotting: Fazul Abdullah Mohammed (a.k.a. Harun Fazul).
Fazul Mohammed was killed in a clash with Somali forces in June 2011. At the time, Fazul was both the head of al Qaeda in East Africa as well as a senior Shabaab leader. Fazul, who was wanted for his involvement in the August 1998 embassy bombings and 2002 attacks in Kenya, had long worked with Nabhan and other operatives to attack Western interests in Africa.
Fazul, according to the JTF-GTMO file, taught “a six-week advanced training course on forging documents, manufacturing passports, and conducting surveillance using covert photography.” Attending the course, in addition to Bajabu, were “eight foreigners from various countries that were to return to their home country after the training as sleeper operatives to await further orders.”
Fazul successfully arranged for recruits from the UK – several of whom were dubbed the “London Boys” – to attend his course in the fall of 2006. JTF-GTMO noted that one member of the group was Bajabu’s “close associate,” while another met Bajabu in Mogadishu.
In May 2011, the Daily Mail (UK) reported that Osama bin Laden had ordered the “London Boys” to execute a “wave of terror attacks” in the UK prior to his death. If true, then this reporting demonstrates that bin Laden directed senior Shabaab operatives and their trainees even while he was in hiding in Abbottabad, Pakistan.
It is not entirely clear how the man known as “CF” fits into this picture, but at first blush he appears to be part of it. According to British officials, he was trained by Shabaab in Somalia and has ties to other trainees as well.
And leaked US government files make it clear that at least some of Shabaab’s Western recruits were told to return to their home countries, where they intended to carry out al Qaeda’s bidding.
British officials are evidently concerned that CF may have wanted to do the same. One official told the Telegraph that CF wanted “re-engage in terrorism-related activities, either in the UK or Somalia.” Shabaab has long sought to use its Western recruits in both nations, as well as elsewhere.
Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD’s Long War Journal.