Shabaab claims several al-Qaeda leaders present during infamous ‘Black Hawk Down’ incident

In a newly released video – touted as a documentary by Shabaab – the Somali jihadi group claimed that as many as 10 al-Qaeda leaders and figures were present during the infamous ‘Black Hawk Down’ battle in Mogadishu in 1993. 

Many of the figures cited as present during the battle would go on to help found Shabaab, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and even lead al-Qaeda itself. The men were mentioned as Shabaab recounts and details the infamous battle, in which Shabaab also places within the same context as the current war between Israel and Hamas. 

In the so-called documentary, a senior Shabaab official, Mahad Karate, who acts as a senior official within the group and one of its deputy emirs, states that individuals such as Abu Muhammad al-Masri, Abdulaziz al-Muqrin, Abu al-Hassan al-Sa’idi, and Yusuf al-Ayeri were all present in Mogadishu at the time. 

Al-Masri, who was assassinated in Tehran in 2020, would later become instrumental in al-Qaeda’s 1998 embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. Abdulaziz al-Muqrin and Yusuf al-Ayeri would both later co-found the networks that would become al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). 

And al-Sa’idi, who later became a senior al-Qaeda official in Afghanistan, conducted a suicide bombing against US troops there. 

In total, however, Karate states that al-Qaeda’s official presence among the Somali militants in the early 1990s totaled 10 individuals. The Shabaab leader states that the al-Qaeda men were there to help train and advise the Somali militias and even took part in battles against US and United Nations troops themselves. 

Not mentioned by Karate, but others, such as Abu Talha al-Sudani, Fazul Muhammad, Saleh Nabhan, Abu Ziyad al-Iraqi, and Sayf al-Adl, have all been cited elsewhere as also being present during the battle. 

Aaron Zelin, in his book Your Sons Are at Your Service: Tunisia’s Missionaries of Jihad, also identified Zakariyya al-Tunisi, as another al-Qaeda figure present at the time. In total, these are likely all the men referenced by Karate.

Abu Talha al-Sudani, Saleh Nabhan, and Fazul Muhammad (also known as Fadil Harun) were also part of the 1998 embassy bombings and both later helped co-found Shabaab. Shabaab currently has an entire brigade named after Nabhan that carries out many of its external operations.

Abu Ziyad al-Iraqi would later go on to work directly under Mohammad Atef, the former military emir of al-Qaeda. Al-Tunisi was later killed alongside Atef in Afghanistan.

And Sayf al-Adl – perhaps the most well known official mentioned in this list – is now believed to be leading al-Qaeda itself. 

This is not the first time that Shabaab, nor even al-Qaeda in general, has made these claims. Indeed, highlighting and celebrating this presence is a common refrain for the organization in promoting its long history in East Africa. 

For example, both AQAP and al-Qaeda’s former networks in Saudi Arabia previously eulogized Yusuf al-Ayeri and Abdulaziz al-Muqrin and mentioned their stint in Somalia as part of the elegy. 

Al-Sa’idi himself detailed his time in Somalia in a video previously released by as-Sahab, al-Qaeda’s main central media organization, which was also used in Shabaab’s recent video. 

Abu Ziyad’s role in the battle was previously described in an official eulogy for the leader, which was produced by al-Qaeda. Shabaab itself has also previously mentioned Sayf al-Adl’s, Abu Talha al-Sudani, and Fazul Muhammad’s role in the battle and in training Shabaab’s predecessor group, al-Ittihad al-Islamiyya.

And while not necessarily al-Qaeda figures at the time, former Shabaab leaders featured in the video, including Omar Dheere and Hassan al-Turki, were also both trained by al-Qaeda inside Afghanistan in the 1990s. Dheere was killed during a Shabaab operation in Ethiopia in 2007; while al-Turki died in 2015

Though only officially becoming a public branch of al-Qaeda in 2012 – despite years of hiding the relationship as ordered by Bin Laden – Shabaab’s recounting of al-Qaeda’s role in the ‘Black Hawk Down’ incident, however small, is meant to again highlight and celebrate its long pedigree of al-Qaeda ties. 

Caleb Weiss is an editor of FDD's Long War Journal and a senior analyst at the Bridgeway Foundation, where he focuses on the spread of the Islamic State in Central Africa.

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