Three hundred people nearly died in the skies of Michigan on Christmas Day, 2009 when a Nigerian terrorist attempted to blow up a plane destined for Detroit. The terrorist was an operative of an al Qaeda franchise based in Yemen called al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The group operated known training camps in Yemen and had indicated a desire to strike American targets, but when the attack occurred, it still took the nation by surprise. Today, across the Gulf of Aden from Yemen, another terrorist threat on a par with that of AQAP is growing in Somalia.
A militant Islamist group with ties to al Qaeda called al Shabaab controls much of southern and central Somalia, where it operates terror and insurgency training camps. Al Shabaab is composed of both Somali and international militants, including dozens from the United States and Europe. The group has threatened to attack the United States, and it has previously shown the ability to carry out its threats. The danger posed by al Shabaab to American and international security is real and imminent. There will be no excuse for being surprised when this group tries to attack the U.S.
Al Shabaab, whose name literally means “the youth,” began operating as an independent entity in early 2007. It initially sought to drive Ethiopian troops out of Somalia and establish an Islamic state there. The Ethiopians had entered Somalia in December 2006 to establish the authority of the UN-mandated Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and destroy a coalition of shari’a courts that controlled much of the country called the Islamic Courts Union (ICU). Upon the Ethiopian invasion, the ICU disintegrated and most of its elements fled, but its military wing, al Shabaab, stayed to fight the Ethiopians. Al Shabaab used techniques characteristic of a terror group when targeting its enemies, including roadside bombs, suicide bombings, grenade attacks, and assassinations. Al Shabaab’s primary objectives at the time of the Ethiopian invasion appeared to be geographically limited to Somalia, and perhaps the Horn of Africa. The group’s rhetoric and behavior, however, have shifted over the past two years reflecting an eagerness to strike internationally.
Al Shabaab currently controls much of southern and central Somalia, including large portions of the capital, Mogadishu. It has evolved into a group resembling a hybrid of the Afghan Taliban and al Qaeda. It provides government services to its constituents, enforces a strict interpretation of shari’a law, and maintains its grip on power by using violence and intimidation. The group also conducts terror operations, including suicide bombings, against its perceived enemies and views itself as part of the global jihad movement. It has established an effective recruiting strategy to attract militants from throughout Africa, the Middle East and South Asia, as well as the United States and Europe. At least twenty Americans and one hundred Brits have travelled to Somalia to fight for al Shabaab. The authority of the internationally recognized and U.S.-backed TFG has been relegated to a few city blocks, government installations, and strategic locations, such as the airport and seaport, in Mogadishu. Al Shabaab thus has the geographic space to train fighters, plan operations, and shelter its al Qaeda allies—which have included top al Qaeda in East Africa operatives responsible for the 1998 attacks on the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
The United States appears to be high on al Shabaab’s list of international targets. The group began issuing threats against the United States in 2008, and it now professes an ideology resembling al Qaeda’s. It has pledged allegiance to bin Laden and views itself as fighting the global jihad led by al Qaeda. Intelligence reports indicate that the group may have intended to conduct attacks on the U.S. homeland around the time of the 2009 Presidential Inauguration, and there are now reports suggesting that it may attempt to strike U.S. targets in South Africa at the time of the 2010 World Cup. Al Shabaab’s threats are real, and the group appears to have the capacity to carry out such threats.
Al Shabaab operates training camps throughout the areas it controls. It has the funds, weapons, technical expertise, and human resources needed to conduct operations. It raises money by taxing international aid organizations, collecting zakat from citizens, receiving remittances from abroad, and receiving financial support from Eritrea. Al Shabaab has displayed both large and small arms in its videos, and it has proven its ability to succeed in battle against both conventional and irregular enemies. The group has also proven that it has the means to carryout sophisticated, mass casualty terror attacks. In 2009 alone, al Shabaab conducted at least five suicide operations. Al Shabaab benefits from the technical assistance, including bomb-making skills, of veterans of the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.
Al Shabaab also contains one of the most valuable assets needed to achieve the feat of an international strike: foreign fighters. Al Shabaab militants from the United States and Europe possess, or should be easily able to acquire, the documents necessary to travel throughout much of the world. Striking American interests on the African continent would be likely much less challenging for the group. Many African countries have porous borders and are plagued by ineffective and corrupt intelligence and law enforcement agencies. Further, numerous East African countries, including Uganda, South Africa, and Kenya, have large Somali populations that could potentially provide shelter to al Shabaab terrorists. The group also has access to at least one expert document-forger, Fazul Abdullah, the current leader of al Qaeda in East Africa, which should facilitate the movement of non-western al Shabaab operatives, at least within the African continent.
Perhaps most alarming for Americans and their policymakers should be the fact that al Shabaab has demonstrated the ability to follow through on its threats. The group’s twin suicide bombings on September 17, 2009, at the African Union force’s headquarters in Mogadishu took place only days after the group vowed to avenge the assassination of Saleh Ali Nabhan, the former al Qaeda in East Africa leader, by U.S. Special Forces. Similarly, al Shabaab allegedly attacked a college graduation ceremony, killing numerous graduates and the country’s Minister of Education, in December 2009—just three months after the group warned the Ministry of Education about using “un-Islamic” textbooks. The group has regularly acted on its threats to attack perceived enemies. There is no reason for American policymakers to assume that al Shabaab will not follow through on its threat to attack the United States.
The group has made clear its desire and intention to strike beyond the borders of Somalia, and it currently has the means to prepare and execute such an attack. It is partners with and loyal to al Qaeda, and it continuously strives to earn the respect and recognition of al Qaeda’s leadership. America cannot afford to ignore the threat posed by al Shabaab.
Chris Harnisch is a Research Assistant focusing on al-Qaeda and its associated movements. He graduated with high honors from Middlebury College with a degree in International Studies, concentrating on the Middle East and Arabic. Most recently, Chris served on the staff of Vice President Dick Cheney. Chris has lived and studied in Yemen and Egypt. Download the full report here.