While skimming through an English language Islamist forum I came across a recent propaganda video released by the Somali al-Shabab militia (who have conducted a number of suicide attacks, including two in Kampala during the football World Cup, and more recently against a hotel in which over 30 people were killed). The video, entitled ‘Mogadishu: The Crusaders Graveyard’ is pretty impressive – it looks and feels like a piece of war reporting, with some very high quality video and an English narration throughout. There is a good analysis of the video provided by Christopher Anzalone here, in which he charts the evolution of al-Shabab’s media capability. Also see here for a translation of al-Shabab’s statement reagarding the release of their new media channel logo.
The English narration is interesting, given the recent remarks by the head of the British Security Service (MI5) Jonathan Evans:
‘In Somalia, for example, there are a significant number of UK residents training in Al Shabaab camps to fight in the insurgency there. Al Shabaab, an Islamist militia in Somalia, is closely aligned with Al Qaida and Somalia shows many of the characteristics that made Afghanistan so dangerous as a seedbed for terrorism in the period before the fall of the Taleban…We need to do whatever we can to stop people from this country becoming involved in terrorism and murder in Somalia, but beyond that I am concerned that it is only a matter of time before we see terrorism on our streets inspired by those who are today fighting alongside Al Shabaab’.
It seems pretty clear that videos like this are designed to appeal to and draw in potential recruits from the Somali diaspora in the West (for example there are large ethnic Somali population in the UK (over 40,000), and in the US (Minnesota alone has around 20,000 Somali immigrants). According to recent testimony from Michael Leiter, the head of the US National Counter-terrorism Centre:
the Somalia-based training program established by al-Shabaab and now-deceased al- Qa‘ida operative Saleh Nabhan, continues to attract hundreds of violent extremists from across the globe, to include dozens of recruits from the United States. At least 20 US persons—the majority of whom are ethnic Somalis––have traveled to Somalia since 2006 to fight and train with al-Shabaab.(1)
US-born Somalis who returned to train and fight with al-Shabab have been involved in conducting suicide attacks against targets in Somalia itself. One of the five bombers involved in the October 2008 multiple attacks was Shirwa Ahmed, a naturalised US citizen who lived in Minnesota. (The New York Times has a useful resource detailing some of the other US recruits to the Somalian jihadist group). It was also reported that at least one of the attackers who mounted the September 2009 attacks against the African Union peacekeeping force compound in Mogadishu may have spoken with an American accent.
The attacks in Kampala were the first sign of al-Shabab’s intent and capability to mount attacks beyond Somali itself, targeting a country which contributes to the AU peacekeeping force. In January of this year, another US citizen, Omar Hammami (Abu Mansoor Al-Amriki), told The New York Times that:
“It’s quite obvious that I believe America is a target,”
Presumably however, if al-Shabab intends to attack the US or the West more widely, it would probably not be using American or British passport holders to mount suicide attacks in Somalia, or using them to fight as insurgents. Such individuals would clearly be a great asset in efforts to mount operations back in their countries of residence. This is not to say that al-Shabab’s intent will not change, or that these potentially very valuable human resources will not be co-opted by al-Qaida; after all, a number of British residents and citizens travelled to Pakistan in order to fight in Afghanistan, only to be given training and turned around and told to attack their home country. So the US and UK security authorities are probably right in being concerned by the prospect of their citizens and residents returning from Somalia.
(1) Michael Leiter, Director of the National Counterterrorism Center. “Nine Years after 9/11: Confronting the Terrorist Threat to the Homeland” Statement for Record Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee ” 22 September 2010