Was Kenya Westgate Attack More AQAP/AQ Central Than Shabaab?

This weekend brought a slew of counterterrorism news.  First, Abu Anas al-Libi was caught in Libya 15 years after the U.S. Embassy bombings in Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam for which he was indicted.  Second, and more interestingly, U.S. Navy Seals conducted a raid on the coastal Somali town of Barawe in an attempt to kill or capture the leader of Shabaab’s foreign fighters; a person named Abdikadir Mohamed Abdikadir, aka Ikrima.  (By the way, this story finally cleared after two days of the worst national security reporting I’ve ever seen. Almost every piece of this story was initially reported incorrectly.)  This latest development is the most interesting so far and suggests analysis of the Westgate Mall Attack should be widened a bit.

Immediately after the attack, I like most assumed the attack was the work of al Shabaab as they’ve been threatening attacks in Kenya for years, have sufficient motive to conduct an attack and Shabaab’s emir, Ahmad Godane is a bit of a madman having just killed off many of his internal rivals and American jihadi Omar Hammami (known hereafter as Omar).  But, as more information comes to the surface, the more I’m inclined to believe that this attack may be more the work of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) or al Qaeda Central (AQC) (which are effectively one and the same now, I believe, with the official announcement of Wuhayshi as al Qaeda’s #2).  Here are some things I think should be considered in this alternative hypothesis that AQAP/AQC was more responsible for the Westgate attacks.

  • I think Ikrima is probably not a Godane man – My guess is that Ikrima seems to be an old al Qaeda hand loyal to the Nabhan-Fazul-Berjawi-Sakr.  If Omar was correct that there was a rift between foreign fighters and Godane, I’m inclined to think Ikrima might be doing AQAP/AQC’s work in Somalia rather than Godane’s. The Kenyan intelligence report uncovered by NPR says that Ikrima was a known al Qaeda connection back to Pakistan.

A leaked Kenyan intelligence report confirms that Ikrima was plotting “multiple attacks” inside Kenya, “sanctioned by al-Qaida” in Pakistan, and “involving financial and logistical support from South African operatives.” The report continues:

“By December 2011, the planners had acquired safe houses in Nairobi & Mombasa, trained the executors, received explosives from Somalia and commenced assembly of and concealment of explosives.”

According to the report, Ikrima’s small “terror cell” included two British nationals: an explosives expert named Jermaine John Grant and the infamous White Widow, Samantha Lewthwaite. (Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta had confirmed that a “British woman” may have been among the fighters in Westgate Mall.)

  • Most accounts put Godane in Dinsoor area, not Barawe - The raid was mistakenly reported a  number of different ways and 24 hours ago most news outlets said the raid was targeting Godane.  But most recent accounts about Godane have put him more central to Shabaab’s strongest holds in and around Dinsoor in Bay province.  Barawe is on the coast and I’ve always assumed that the foreign fighters stayed closer to the water to maintain easy access to sea routes to Yemen (See Warsame case) and down into Kenya for attacks and egress (Fazul, Nabhan, Paradise Hotel, etc.).

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  • Omar used to always cite Barawe as a hub for dissenters – Omar used to tweet about cleric opinions supporting his position that were coming from Barawe.  Omar always gave me the sense that not only were clerics voicing opposition to Godane from Barawe but that other dissenters of Godane may be based there.  This makes sense that Omar would appeal for their support, as he often did trying to get Ibrahim al-Afghani’s backing.  Afghani once commanded the Kismayo area for Shabaab (just down the coast) and having fought in Afghanistan was one of the few Shabaab members that probably had his own connections with al Qaeda.  Note, Afghani issued a public plea to al Qaeda for the removal of his old comrade Godane.  Afghani’s plea resulted in Godane killing Afghani.
  • Omar’s ghost was one of the first to ask why everyone thought it was Shabaab that did the attack – After Omar’s death, someone took over his @abumamerican twitter account and was one of the only contrarians that was excited about the attack but not believing it was al Shabaab and Godane.  I don’t get the feeling Omar’s ghost has any real idea what happened with Westgate based on his other comments, so I would take this with a large grain of salt.

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  • Two of the named attackers likely have al Qaeda connections - The Kenyan government on Saturday named four individuals in connection with the attack.  The leader appears to be from Sudan and the Kenyan government claimed he was trained by al Qaeda.  Another may potentially be related to Nabhan, al Qaeda’s leader in Somalia up until he was killed by Navy Seals in Barawe in 2009 – sound familiar.

Abu Baara al-Sudani, Omar Nabhan, Khattab al-Kene and Umayr, names that were first broadcast by a local Kenyan television station. Matt Bryden, the former head of the U.N. Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea, said via email that al-Kene and Umayr are known members of al-Hijra, the Kenyan arm of al-Shabab.

  • Was this the big attack that was discussed in the al Qaeda conference call that wasn’t a conference call? - So remember just a couple months ago there was this al Qaeda conference call where supposedly Wuhayshi of AQAP said that they had a large attack ready to go and Zawahiri said “ok, get on with it.”  After the revelation of this call there was a string of drone attacks in Yemen, but maybe this Westgate attack was the attack described in the conference call.  Total speculation but it would kind of make sense and by all accounts this Westgate attack has been in the works for a year or more making it plausible that Wuhayshi would mention it.  And whether its Ikrima or Godane, both seemingly have contact with AQAP.  I don’t know anything to confirm this scenario, but I would not be surprised.
  • Really Five Shabaab groups at play - What’s been completely lost in the media is that Shabaab has been fighting internally for almost a year.  Godane has killed off key leaders of Shabaab, foreign fighters and this has resulted in there being up to five different sub-groups of Shabaab that could be involved or not involved in the Westgate attack.  So when you hear “Shabaab Attack” in the news, it could really mean many things.
  1. Shabaab Central Commanded By Godane – This is the Shabaab commanded by Godane and still what most people would think of when they hear Shabaab in the media.
  2. Foreign Fighters in Somalia With AQAP/AQC links -These are the foreign fighters around Barawe that have links to AQAP/AQC and may include Shabaab members left over from Ibrahim al-Afghani’s ranks.
  3. Robow’s militias – These would be Shabaab members loyal to Muktar Robow, Godane’s main living rival in Shabaab circles and they seem to be in and around Bakool region and more north of Diinsoor and far interior from the coast.
  4. Muslim Youth Center – The Kenyan support element to Shabaab and maybe hosting the White Widow, but I’m getting the sense this is all overblown.
  5. al-Hijra – Shabaab’s arm in Kenya that I would assume at a minimum played a support role in the attack and apparently Ikrima was a member of this group.

So after all this discussion, I’m sure I still left something out but I think we should be cosndiering several scenarios with the Westgate attack.

  1. Scenario: Shabaab did the Westgate attack on their own.- This was the most logical explanation at the time. Shabaab has the capacity to pull this off and they have executed many attacks like this in Mogadishu.  Maybe Godane used this as a diversion from the fact he has been killing off his rivals and foreign fighters.  But with more details, I’m starting to think this is less likely.
  2. Scenario: Shabaab Dissenters working with AQ foreign fighters and planners conduct the attack to upstage Godane and Shabaab - Still operating and having their own connections to al Qaeda, wanting to prove themselves to AQAP/AQC and embarass Godane, the Shabaab dissenters combine with the al Qaeda external operations guys to pull off the Westgate attack.  Wow, this would be interesting.
  3. Scenario: Shabaab under Godane and the foreign fighters are all in on it and use al-Hijra/MYC for local Kenyan support - I think this one is also highly likely.  While the infighting has been problematic, maybe the AQ cell in Barawe has been in constant synchronization with Godane and there is no rift between the two elements.  THis would support the non-stop Shabaab tweeting during the attacks and would not be as confusing for al-Hijra and MYC in Kenya as they’ve probably watched the Somalia infighting with some confusion about who they should support.

Anyways, lots to talk about in the Horn of Africa and I look forward to anyone’s thought on the latest developments.

Omar Hammami’s Ghost Tweets On Westgate, Kenya & Shabaab

Well, the events in the Horn of Africa are never dull.  One of the theories behind the timing of the Westgate Mall attack in Nairobi was that al Shabaab did it to distract from its internal problems and their killing of popular foreign fighter Omar Hammami.  This morning, it appears Omar Hammami started tweeting from the grave.  The Twitter handle @abumamerican, allegedly that of Omar Hammami, unleashed a torrent against al Shabaab’s emir Ahmed Godane for killing Omar. The account went on to make some interesting suggestions about the Westgate attacks.

Who is making these tweets?  Who knows? I’ve discussed here that Omar might actually be a zombie, but the account says that Omar did actually die.  Whomever it is, they are clearly fans of Omar and haters of Godane and al Shabaab.  Here are some of the interesting tweets I’ve seen so far.

  • al Shabaab is still in close contact with AQAP – The account states AQAP is still in close contact with Godane and Shabaab.  So was there an al Qaeda connection to this Westgate Mall attack?  I think Shabaab could probably execute this attack on their own. But, why would this account and the person behind it know if AQAP and Shabaab were still collaborating? Remember, Omar alluded to the links between AQAP and Shabaab a long while ago.

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  • How do we know al Shabaab was behind the attacks? – This account suggests that there is no proof of al Shabaab being behind the attacks.  Essentially saying that Shabaab may be taking credit for something that someone else did.  But, they don’t offer any opposing theories and the account states it was not Shabaab dissenters that pulled off the attack.  Hmmm, the Muslim Youth Center (MYC) twitter account has been strangely silent since the attack.  Was this a Shabaab affiliate operation?  No way to know who is really responsible at this point I guess, but an interesting take by the Omar account.

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  • The account has one thing in common with the Tea Party; they don’t like taxes – The account picks up where Omar left off in discussion of taxes and how Shabaab uses qat to fund its operations.  I guess they think this argument has resonance with the locals.

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  • The account also has something in common with the Occupy Movement; they are the 99% – The second strange argument is the alluding to Godane being a high-minded elite that doesn’t share with the people.  I guess this is also a “rally the locals” approach against Godane.

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  • The last straw: Shabaab took away the Hammami family phone charger – OK, if you didn’t think it was already bad enough that Shabaab led by Godane has killed Somalis in southern Somalia, likely attacked the Westgate mall and has killed Omar Hammami, they have done what all of us know is the last unspeakable thing – Taken the phone charger from Omar’s family.  This is something us in the West can totally relate to and get behind.  Screw taxes and the 99%, a phone charger, for Shabaab dissenters it turns out, is quite important; especially when you try to rally support via social media.

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Check out the arguments for yourself, it’s interesting to say the least.  If Omar Hammami shows up again, we’ll know this is the start of the zombie apocalypse: Wolrd War Z – conveniently available on DVD right now.

Interview on Westgate, Kenya, Somalia, Shabaab & Hammami on Loopcast

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to talk with @rejectionking on @theLoopcast about the recent Shabaab attacks on the Westgate mall and what the implications are for Kenya and Somalia.  This led to a more lengthy discussion on counterterrorism policy/strategy in the Horn which I sort of hijacked and took into a broader discussion – one many people may not care for. BLUF: I don’t think we can nor should try to solve all the world’s problems just to stop a few terrorists.

We concluded with some thoughts on Omar Hammami and his recent killing by al-Shabaab.

So with that, you can visit the Loopcast at this link if you are interested in listening or you can listen below on this embed.


 

Shabaab’s Attack in Kenya: Indicators of a resurgence or a last ditch effort?

Foreign Policy helped me post an article today which provides a brief, high level discussion of my initial impressions from al Shabaab’s four day siege at the Westgate mall.  Thanks to Foreign Policy for the opportunity and help with my prose. I also did an interview with CBS Philly linked here for those interested in hearing me drone on about Somalia.

Now, in my more typical style, I do have a few notes with regards to what I’m reading in the media.  There have been people trumpeting the return of al Shabaab and how this shows al Qaeda resilience.  We’ve heard this before.  In 2011, when Shabaab merged with al Qaeda there were vigorous warnings that Shabaab in Somalia was potentially the most dangerous al Qaeda affiliate.  Yet, this merger actually became the tipping point for Shabaab’s decline. We’ve also heard similar claims in recent years about AQAP in Yemen, AQIM in the Sahel, Ansar al-Sharia in Libya, and now AQ in the Sinai and Nusra/ISIS in Syria. These affiliates are not likely to all be the most dangerous threat (there can be only one) nor on the rise at the same time. So what are we to believe?  I always try to remember that counterterrorism is an industry as much as it is a discipline, without terror attacks and hype, we’d all have to start talking about Russia or climate change (boring). Back to Kenya…here are my thoughts in addition to what I posted at Foreign Policy.

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  • The Westgate Mall attack is not surprising, it’s more surprising this didn’t happen sooner – In 2007, I had the opportunity to work with Dr. Jacob Shapiro, Vahid Brown and a team of researchers on al Qaeda’s (Mis) Adventures in the Horn of Africa looking at how al Qaeda historically operated in the region.  After doing our analysis, we became increasingly more concerned about Kenya and its vulnerability as a target for terrorism.  See chapters 5 for some conclusions of this report and chapter 2 and 4 for some Kenya discussion.  Al Qaeda and now al Shabaab operatives have been moving through and attacking in Kenya for two decades.  Al Shabaab has been attributed with 50-100 incidents in Kenya this last year alone.  There have been concerns about an attack for years, its disappointing that this concern did not translate into a disruption of this attack.
  • Uhh, seems like media forgot Shabaab has been killing its own – As those who read this blog probably know, al Shabaab and its emir Ahmed Godane (Abu Zubeyr) have been leading a vicious campaign to kill off its own members in recent months.  Godane killed off his former deputy Ibrahim al-Afghani, pushed Sheikh Aweys into the hands of the Somali government and has been fighting against Shabaab elements loyal to Sheikh Muktar Robow.  Terror groups usually aren’t considered ‘strong’ or ‘resilient’ if they spend as much time killing their own people as they do their adversaries.  This infighting doesn’t seem to be getting much play in the media.
  • Uhh, Anyone remember that Shabaab killed its most celebrated American foreign fighter, Omar Hammami, just last week – This also seems to be overlooked in the discussion of resilience.  Omar Hammami was killed by Shabaab just last week; a public relations nightmare for the terror group.  Godane and Shabaab may have conducted this Nairobi attack because they needed a success to reset the agenda about their infighting and killing off of foreign fighters.
  • Shabaab isn’t dead, and it will never entirely go away – As described by Dr. Jeffrey Herbst in his book States and Power in Africa, African governments can rarely extend their authority beyond the capital. The Somalia Federal Government is no exception. Shabaab will retain their southern Somalia safe haven for some time which enables them to conduct attacks like the one we see in Nairobi.  Even if this area is cleared, Shabaab will just morph into another group with similar objectives and ideology, much in the way Shabaab came from AIAI and the Islamic Courts Union.
  • Godane is crazy, and maybe this attack is just about appealing to al Qaeda to get back into their good graces – As @AllthinngsHLS pointed out last night, Godane may just want to get back on al Qaeda’s radar.  This is something I failed to bring up in my interview and should be noted.  It also sits well with the hypothesis from last year that the Shabaab-AQ merger was nothing more than an exit strategy for Shabaab’s emir Godane who comes from the Isaaq clan and lacks significant clan support to endure in Somalia.  As Omar Hammami and Shabaab’s defectors noted, Godane likes violence, so maybe this is just about killing.
  • If notorious foreign fighters are the attackers, does this mean a resilient Shabaab or taking one last gamble? – Some claims of unknown reliability have said the attackers were Westerners and one may in fact be a woman, the infamous “White Widow” Samantha Lewthwaite.  If Shabaab used these foreign fighters, it could mean they were really focused on drawing international attention, or it could mean, that’s all they have left.  Either way they may have preferred these foreign fighter for their ability to cross into Kenya with less scrutiny.  If the “White Widow” was such an attractive recruitment tool, why would Shabaab use her for an attack?  Maybe she is a die hard and wanted martyrdom, who knows, we’ll probably not know the logic anytime soon.

To say Shabaab is resurgent or dying is premature since the attack isn’t complete and there is much we don’t know.  But here are the questions I’ll be looking at over the coming days, weeks and months to make this assessment.

  1. How quickly will al Shabaab follow up with another attack in Kenya?  Through its Twitter feed, al Shabaab claimed that this was the first of many attacks to come in Kenya. However, in July 2010, Shabaab executed a suicide bombing in Kampala, Uganda.  Some saw this as the start of Shabaab’s external operations in the Horn of Africa, but up to now there has been no strategic campaign for the region. If Shabaab quickly executes follow up attacks in Kenya in the coming days and weeks, this would suggest resurgence on Shabaab’s part. However, if Shabaab fails to generate another attack over the next six months, the Westgate attack may represent a last desperate attempt by a group to generate popular support, resources and personnel.
  2. Can Kenya control its reaction to the Westgate attacks? As seen by the 2007-2008 Presidential election violence, Kenya is prone to uncontrollable violence between ethnic groups, clans and tribes. Al Shabaab certainly intended for the Westgate attack to provoke Kenyans to overreact and commit large-scale violence against Muslims both in Kenya and in Somalia. If Kenya falls into this trap, they could hand al Shabaab the victory they desperately seek.
  3. How will Kenyan Muslims react to the Westgate mall attack? Kenyan Muslims have for years felt repressed by the Kenyan central government and the beginning of the “War on Terror” only exasperated this tension.  However, the 1998 Embassy bombing and the 2002 Paradise Hotel bombing killed or harmed Kenyan Muslims more than it did other Kenyans and Westerners.  In the Westgate attack, the attackers went to great lengths to target non-Muslims. Analysts should watch closely in the coming days to see the reaction of Kenyan Muslims from Mombasa up the Kenyan coast to Somalia.  If Kenyan Muslims reject the Westgate violence, then Shabaab will fall short in rallying Kenyan Muslims against the government.  If on the other hand, Kenyan Muslims appear indifferent or even condone Westgate violence, this could suggest deeper popular support for Shabaab throughout Kenya.
  4. Will the Westgate Mall attackers turn out to be of Somali, Kenyan, Western foreign fighters or a mix of all three? If the attackers turn out to be Kenyan Muslims or Somalis that have resided in Kenya for some time, this would be a troublesome sign for Kenya.  It may mean the attack was planned, prepared and executed locally – a troubling sign for Kenya. However, if the attack were executed strictly by foreign fighters, it may suggest that Shabaab used its Western passport holders to gain access to softer targets – also a troubling sign for the West who’ve been concerned for years about Western foreign fighters to Shabaab returning back home.
  5. Will the Global Somali Diaspora be inspired or appalled? – I assume a motive for the attack was for Shabaab to regenerate their support in resources and manpower from the Somali Diaspora.  Will this work?

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Shabaab’s betrayal of Omar Hammami – In English this time!

After being frustrated by the Arab world ignoring his revelations about the bad behavior of Shabaab in Somalia, Omar Hammami posted an English version of his demise via a Twitter link today.  In January, I suffered through some miserable Arabic translation nightmares to write the post “Hammami Reveals Deceit, Dissension and Death in Shabaab and al Qaeda!“, but now all can read of his demise and betrayal by al Shabaab in the English version at this link.

Back in January, Omar hoped to reach the Muslim world and maybe al Qaeda by publishing his latest troubles in Arabic hoping to appeal to that audience – since his previous YouTube calls for help broadcast in a mix of English and Arabic fell on deaf ears in the Arab World.  Again, it appears Omar’s Arabic revelations from January didn’t find much audience amongst al Qaeda’s mainstream.  However, Omar’s American audience, despite this being Omar’s home country which he despises, has read and paid attention to Omar’s plight.  In January, Omar didn’t seem thrilled about myself and others in the West reading his Arabic pronouncements.

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But today, it appears Omar has changed his tune, reaching out in English this time.  Omar so desperately wants an Arab audience, but maybe he’s realized his biggest audience is in his native country.  Here’s some clips from Omar’s English version of the document.

On Godane (Abu Zubayr):

As for Abu Zubayr’s entrance into the whole affair, well, his background is a bit unclear because he was in Pakistan during the days of the Russian occupation and no one knows with certainty if he really participated in the Jihaad or if he just sat in Peshawar.

On Somalis and their distrust of al Qaeda:

history has proven that the Somalis generally do not want any influence from al-Qaa’idah or foreigners in their internal affairs.

On al Qaeda fomenting fractures with Shabaab as much as Shabaab creating fractures between local Somali (Ansar) vs. Foreign Fighters (Muhajirs)

It is here that I blame the brother s from al-Qaa’idah to some degree (and I mean Abu Talhah as-Sudaani, Abu ‘Abdallaah, Fazul, and an-Nabhaan) because, despite have pure intentions (as we see it, but Allaah is their Reckoner), there developed a sense of competition between them and the brothers of the Salaah ad-Diin camp.

Al Qaeda’s shift to focus on Kenya as anticipated in this document here in 2007:

Eventually, and probably because of such divisiveness, the brothers from al-Qaa’idah went to Ras Chiamboni to focus on training Kenyan Somalis to do outside operations.

On al Qaeda’s lack of strategy in Somalia:

Here I don’t know what to say about the actions of the brothers from al-Qaa’idah. They split up amongst themselves without executing any real strategy.

and on this one, I have nothing to add.  See the closing of the document….

And it seems I was duped by the slogans and the pretty words, and I hadn’t yet learned the realities,

New Research Series on Africa Security Issues – “Pardon the Pivot”

This week, the Homeland Security Policy Institute at The George Washington University released a new issue brief entitled “Pardon the Pivot, What about Africa?” designed to focus more attention on the myriad of security threats and development challenges across Africa.  Joseph Clark, Frank Cilluffo and I collaborated to write an overview of the hybrid threats emerging in different regions of Africa and how these security challenges are nested in overlapping, complex regional challenges.  In the coming months, HSPI will be working with Africa regional specialists to do indepth investigations into Africa threat groups and the regions in which they reside.

The paper is available at this link and here’s the introduction to the piece.  More to follow in the coming months.

Islamist fighters, separatist violence, and France’s recent intervention in Mali took much of the news media by surprise.  More than a few journalists were left, like the satirical Stephen Colbert, drawing vague contextual comparisons between Mali and Afghanistan.  Unfortunately the media’s lack of knowledge may mirror a general lack of sustained and focused attention on the part of senior policymakers.

Mali, Algeria, and other troubled areas, have been (and continue to be) tinder boxes for the outbreak of conflict and spread of terrorism.  In March 2012, Mali suffered a coup sparked by military frustration with the civilian leadership’s prosecution of the Tuareg rebellion.  Despite the installation of interim civilian government in April 2012, the coup unleashed a series of destabilizing events that eventually allowed Islamist forces to charge south seizing territory this past January.  These events led to France’s  intervention — which the militants responded to by attacking a much softer target in Algeria.  The attack against the In Amenas gas plant in Algeria was the deadliest terrorist attack on an oil and gas installation in the industry’s one-hundred and fifty year history.

Recent events in these two countries, and in other African nation-states, illustrate how quickly and easily certain parts of Africa may shift from potential to actual hotspots.  Furthermore, the presence of longterm concerns and trends at the continental level illuminate the critical need for continued emphasis on the security environment in Africa.

See more at: http://www.gwumc.edu/hspi/policy/HSPI%20Issue%20Brief%2017%20-%20What%20About%20Africa.pdf

Hammami thinks the grass might be greener in Syria

Yesterday, I noted that Omar Hammami, currently under a bizarre state of house arrest in Somalia for speaking out against al Shabaab, had tweeted the following with regards to possibly seeking other jihadi campaigns in which to participate.

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My response to Omar’s quip was:

It seems Omar mistakenly believes that the infighting and conflict he’s found in Shabaab would be absent from the front in Syria.  I think he needs to do some research.

To this note, Omar gave a reasonable response yesterday.

Screen Shot 2013-01-15 at 10.15.41 AMI believe Omar is suffering from a “the grass is greener on the other side” problem.  This is understandable. Omar is in a tough spot. Few situations can be described as much worse than the one he is in.  Betrayed by al Shabaab, Omar remains dependent on his protectors to survive – protectors that likely have their own interests with regards to Omar and countering Shabaab.  When the interests of Omar’s protectors change, so will Omar’s fate.

But let’s examine Syria as a ‘greener’ jihadi conflict. While it is likely more coherent and in line with jihadi ideals, I maintain that many, if not all, of the challenges encountered by Omar (i.e. takfiri ideology, hypocritical taxation, distrust of outsiders, etc.) in Somalia have already nested in Syria. Back in September, I discussed some of the internal conflicts festering in al Qaeda and the FSA in Syria.  The post “Frontline Reporting On Foreign Fighters in Syria” showed the obvious fractures as Ghaith Abdul-Ahad reported for NPR.

I spoke to the regional commander of the Farouq brigade, a muscular young lieutenant from the southern province of Dara’a called Abdulah Abu Zaid. “I will not allow the spread of Takfiri [the act of accusing other Muslims of apostasy] ideology,” he told me in his military compound a few kilometres from the border post. “Not now, not later. The Islam we had during the regime was disfigured Islam and what they are bringing us is also disfigured. The Islam we need is a civil Islam and not the takfiri Islam.”

The jihadis, he said, had looted and stolen from the local people and demanded protection money from local businesses in order not to steal their merchandise. “I managed to stop them,” he said, “and I won’t let them spread here.”

Later that day he issued an ultimatum to their commander, a Syrian called Abu Mohamad al Abssi, to leave the area with his foreign jihadis or he would be killed.

Omar’s hopes for Syria are no different than for most people that are dissatisfied with their current station in life.  It’s common to hear people at work talk about how great it will be when they go to a new job.  This sort of behavior is very common with soldiers and I am prone to it as well. But it’s not long after arriving at the new greener pasture that folks often realize the new situation has its drawbacks as well. Soon the persistently unhappy employee begins chatting away about how great their last job was and begins hating on their current job.  I imagine for Omar, even if he got to Syria, he would find the same discrepancies he encountered in Somalia.  Takfiri ideology is rampant. Money is flowing into Syria from a host of donors and benefactors all that have their own interests of which there is only some overlap with the ideology Omar so cherishes.  And of course, the dominant al Qaeda faction in Syria comes from al Qaeda in Iraq – the same group that spoiled their own foreign fighter flow by using global recruits to settle local scores.  Here’s the article and here’s a quote from it:

By 2006, foreign fighter recruits were crossing the Iraqi border to find no mission waiting for them. They were also given suicide operations designed to settle local Iraqi disputes rather than achieve AQ’s global agenda.

So an interesting deliberation from Omar and now onto today’s O.T.R. (Omar Tweet Rundown):

Omar suggests al Shabaab wouldn’t exchange a prisoner for an old guard al Qaeda member because the old AQ dude might upset Godane’s control.

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Omar suggests the lack of respect paid to Fazul after his death implies their culpability in Fazul’s death.

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Thanks Omar for keeping it interesting. What I’m really curious about is whether the end of his 15 day window to turn over his weapon will still bring him into conflict with Shabaab?  It seems Omar may have found a way out again.  Only time will tell, I guess.

 

 

Hammami’s Twitter War with Shabaab & MYC in Somalia & Kenya

This weekend saw the full scale escalation of a Twitter war between Omar Hammami (or at least the Twitter account associated with him) and most of the Muslim world.  Here’s a quick recap of events.

On Friday, I left off with this note reference Hammami’s claims that he had gained some defenders from the Raxanweyn clan.

This account may not be Hammami and is just a propaganda machine uploading old pictures of Hammami and bashing Shabaab. (I don’t think so, but maybe)

Well Saturday morning U.S. time, Hammami answered this question posting this photo on the @abumamerican Twitter account.

Maya

Well, I guess that clears it up a bit.  Hammami’s tweet after this picture says he is with other foreign fighters who have been outcast from Shabaab.  This makes sense and may also suggest his Twitter account has been operated by a team of people with whom he is detained or closely affiliated. This might potentially explain the tendency to speak in the third person, occasionally tweet in Somali and Swahili languages, etc.  What’s also interesting is the pattern of Hammami tweets.  They come in bursts and endure only for a few hours before dropping off. This could mean several things such as only having limited power for communication before having to recharge, only being able to communicate before or after a guard shift, operating the tweets on a delay through a relay point, or only having cell coverage for certain periods of the day. Overall, I think Omar’s speaking in third person stuff is a bit ridiculous at this point.  Lastly, who let Ali G join Hammami?  He’s got some nice gear and a tough look. Nice!

Hammami suggests in his Twitter feed that he recently received some visitors and now may have some more folks to protect him.  It also seems he may have been visited by a ‘Sheikh’, potentially form Kenya, who was trying to negotiate some sort of settlement or something.  I may be confused on this. (I’m not sure why I would be confused since understanding terrorist infighting in 140 characters or less is so easy.)

Here’s a quick O.T.R. (Omar Tweet Rundown), noting where there is something interesting, significant or just generally funny.

Omar doesn’t like Godane - What’s glaringly obvious is that he does not like Ahmed Godane (Abu Zubayr) the head of al Shabaab. Omar claims on many occasions that Godane’s takfiri ways led to him excommunicating Omar & friends.  In addition, Omar believes Godane is a sissy who never fights in battles and thus is not a true jihadi. (Tell me this is not typical Game of Thrones stuff!)

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Screen Shot 2013-01-13 at 10.09.24 PMOmar says that Fazul and old al Qaeda dudes never liked Shabaab – I’ve contended for a while that it was old al Qaeda guys aligned with Bin Laden, namely Fazul, that prevented the merger of al Qaeda and al Shabaab.  Omar seems to suggest the same.  I’m not sure how he would know this, but it’s interesting nonetheless.
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Omar doesn’t like e-jihadi’s who talk the talk but don’t walk the walk – Omar displayed his frustration in the past about not getting much attention from al Qaeda’s online community.  Omar amplified his view of al Qaeda’s online-only supporters this weekend and I imagine he will continue bashing e-jihadi’s until he gets their attention.

Screen Shot 2013-01-13 at 10.12.01 PM Omar thinks Omar is a big deal – Shabaab contended in December that Omar was a narcissist.  Well, some of these tweets seem to suggest he is quite a diva. It also appears that he might have liked the show In Living Color as a kid, homie!

Screen Shot 2013-01-13 at 10.11.04 PMScreen Shot 2013-01-13 at 10.12.41 PMOmar says he escaped to Bay and Bakool region – As I assumed from his previous tweets about the Rahanweyn clan, Omar is in Sheikh Robow’s territory in Bay and Bakool.
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Omar isn’t getting along with the MYC in Kenya – The Muslim Youth Center, a younger Kenyan extremist group aligned with al Shabaab, have really been sticking it to Omar on Twitter.  Despite sticking up for Kenyans a good bit and warning Kenyans not to join Shabaab, Omar has been getting a lashing from those guys.  (BTW, the MYC Twitter feed is way better than the Shabaab feed. Whomever mans the MYC Twitter account is using it way more effectively than @HSMPress – Shabaab account)

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Lastly, Omar seems to be re-directing any of his supporters away from Shabaab and to other jihadi conflicts – namely Syria.  One of the questions posed is here below.  It seems Omar mistakenly believes that the infighting and conflict he’s found in Shabaab would be absent from the front in Syria.  I think he needs to do some research.

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My last point is for those analysts that maintain that al Qaeda Central or al Qaeda as a collective organization is ‘stronger‘.  In light of the Hammami diatribes, how can this be?  Do you believe a Bin Laden led al Qaeda would allow such a damaging, public dispute occur within its ranks?  I know there have been rifts in al Qaeda before, but they were private and settled without tainting the organization’s foreign fighter pipelines.  While I understand the perspective that certain al Qaeda affiliates may be getting relatively stronger, I do not understand, in light of the recent musings of Omar Hammami on social media, how one can believe that al Qaeda as a whole is stronger.  As Omar suggested in previous tweets, al Qaeda may be having a schism of its own at the highest levels. At the lower ranks, where foreign fighters reside, Hammami’s enduring public bashing shows a loss of centralized control and awareness on the part of al Qaeda globally.

Hammami’s Latest Call Reveals Deceit, Dissension and Death in Shabaab & al Qaeda

Yesterday, I posted about a Twitter account I believed to be that of Omar Hammami or his close associate (here and here). Well, Hammami didn’t disappoint and returned this morning with some tweets and this afternoon with all the real dirt about the al Shabaab fractures and al Qaeda merger/fiasco. Omar, thanks for sending all the details on al Qaeda and al Shabaab’s infighting and how you got pushed out by Godane (Abu Zubayr). You confirmed many of my suspicions from last winter. @Aynte was also thinking along the same lines as well. And for those that were claiming there was no evidence of splits in al-Shabaab, stop being foolish.
Here’s where the morning started off.

Screen Shot 2013-01-07 at 10.20.38 PMFirst, a tweet from Omar. I’m not sure how Omar’s mission in Somalia relates to Martin Luther King.  Last time I checked, Martin Luther King was about non-violence and Omar and the Somalia jihad is very much about violence.  I believe MLK had a dream and Omar is having a nightmare.

But, then came this tweet.

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Now we are talking.  Omar seems to think the splits and fractures he is experiencing with al Shabaab are occurring with al Qaeda as well.  Omar, we’d all love to know more so please expand.  I realize you don’t want to put yourself in jeopardy, but I think you’ve already shot one of your feet, so no need to hold back.

Things were quiet for most of the day and then @azelin sent out the links to a new Hammami video showing a tired and gaunt Hammami (See below).  This video link at his YouTube channel was accompanied with two documents in Arabic (Here’s #1 and #2).  Previously, Omar had posted his biography, in english, which was ignored by the e-jihadi crowd.  This time he wrote two Arabic documents, which detail his trials and tribulations in Somalia. I’m assuming he chose Arabic to make sure word got out in the jihadi crowd. While I don’t read Arabic, I’ve gone through the Google translate and talked to a knowledgeable scholar, Dr. Will McCants, about what I think are key passages.

Omar names “names” and illustrates in great detail conflict between different factions in al Shabaab, conflict between al Qaeda and al Shabaab, and even disagreements between different al Qaeda elements in Somalia. Great stuff all around and for those that believe al Qaeda is unified and operates in lock step based on the rules of an all powerful ideology – you need to stop what you are doing and read Omar’s notes.

Again, I’m not an Arabic speaker, but I’ll do some quick paraphrasing here of what I interpreted (could be some mistakes) and the implications.  For Arabic speakers out there, if you do an english translation of these documents, please post and send me the link and I’ll do a post on them here.

  • Connections between al Shabaab and al Qaeda in Yemen – In one section, Omar describes how members of al Qaeda in Yemen (AQAP) showed up in Somalia and were the communication conduit with al Qaeda Central in Afghanistan/Pakistan.  The AQAP members were trying to coordinate the official merger of al Shabaab with al Qaeda.  At the time, Ahmed Godane (Abu Zubayr) was against the merger as he thought the conditions in Somalia were not right yet.  It seems at the point of the AQAP visit, Shabaab thought local public support for an Islamic state was sufficient but that the local populace would reject an alliance with al Qaeda.  However, the foreign fighters present, in principle, did agree to be affiliated with al Qaeda.  (My question: Did Godane balk at unity with al Qaeda at this point because he did not have firm control of al Shabaab and wanted to shore up loose ends before a formal merger?)
  • Desire to conduct external operations in Kenya – Throughout the second document, Hammami consistently discusses the desire by many within al Shabaab and particularly al Qaeda elements to begin conducting foreign operations and a deliberate campaign in Kenya.  However, it appears certain leaders within Shabaab, particularly Godane I think, wanted to keep a lid on the foreign fighters and keep them focused on internal fighting in Somalia.  (My question: Does the recent uptick in al Shabaab activity in Kenya represent a loss of control by Godane over Shabaab?  I would assume with Shabaab’s losses and Godane likely fleeing north to Galgala, his control on those wanting to operate in Kenya is limited.)
  • Fazul’s return to Somalia, his conflict with Godane and resulting death – Omar describes in one section that legendary al Qaeda operative Harun Fazul returned with trainers to Somalia with the intent of establishing an external operations capability to project al Qaeda attacks from Somalia.  Fazul told one of the commanders of foreign fighters, going by the name of A’sar Yusr, that he wanted to establish a training camp in the mountains of Puntland (probably Galgala). From what I understand, A’sar Yusr let Fazul’s plans slip to Godane (Abu Zubayr).  Godane apparently didn’t like Fazul’s plan because 1)  Godane, being from Hargeisa, didn’t want Fazul playing on his turf in Puntland (probably Galgala) and 2) Godane believed Fazul to be aligned with Mukhtar Robow (Abu Mansur) – Godane’s Southern Somalia rival for control of al Shabaab. As I understand it, this led Godane to plot Fazul’s demise setting Fazul up to approach a checkpoint in Mogadishu that was awaiting his arrival and prepared to kill him.  (My note: This passage confirms Nelly Lahoud’s theory that Fazul was betrayed. This section also describes al Qaeda’s intent to conduct external operations from Somalia and matches the reporting of Michelle Shepard where she details how Fazul had plans for attacking London when he was killed.)
  • Conflicts between local Somali clan fighters (Ansar) and foreign fighters (Muhajir)- Hammami describes how many of the trainers that came with Fazul left Somalia.  When they departed, many foreign fighters to Somalia left the country with the trainers to join al Qaeda’s ranks outside of Somalia.  Hammami says the foreign fighters were frustrated because the fighting in Somalia was not a real jihad.  Omar suggests foreign fighters were treated poorly in a variety of ways. As mentioned in his biography, he notes that there were constant tensions about how foreign fighters desired to be separated into their own cadres similar to how its done with Taliban/al Qaeda in Pakistan. There are also some comparisons to how foreign fighters are used in Iraq but I didn’t understand all of this. (My note: Omar, this is an exact replay of al Qaeda’s experience in Somalia from 1992-1994.  The clans didn’t like being bossed around by outsiders and they always wanted to focus on local battles over global issues.)
  • Hammami overstepped with Godane and got punished – In one passage, Hammami describes his rift with Godane and how this has likely put him in his current predicament.  Hammami had pledged at some point to stay out of Shabaab politics.  Godane, at some point, wants to know why the foreign fighters are leaving Somalia.  Hammami volunteers to explain the circumstances under which foreign fighters are frustrated over the local focus of clan fighters. Hammami suggests that a way to alleviate this frustration is for Godane to step aside and let Mukhtar Robow (Abu Mansur) take a bigger leadership role in Shabaab as he is well respected by the local Shabaab fighters and also has good rapport with the foreign fighters.  Godane sees this as a challenge to his leadership and believes Hammami is partaking in politics again (breaking his promise to abstain) and joining the side of his rival Robow.  This overstep later leads to Godane having angst with Hammami. (My notes: Omar needs a class in how to win friends and influence people.  Sounds like he directly questioned Godane’s leadership and it wasn’t received well.)
  • Disastrous merger between al Shabaab and al Qaeda – My interpretation is that Godane calls a meeting for all of al Shabaab’s shura.  Once everyone arrives, Godane announces that al Shabaab is going to officially join al Qaeda. Those in attendance, I believe, were caught a little off guard but were amenable.  Then, Godane’s deputy (Guessing this might be Ibrahim al-Afghani) compels everyone to swear bayat (oath of allegiance) to al Qaeda and Godane.  Those at the meeting think they have been fooled because there is no immediate formal recognition of this merger by al Qaeda Central and Ayman al-Zawahiri.  Those that swore allegiance have a bad taste in their mouth about how this meeting went down as they have been told before they were going to be officially part of al Qaeda only to find out later that this was not true. Instead they would usually find out that a Somali leader had used the claim only as a political ploy to consolidate power.  Also, Robow (Abu Mansur) is not at the meeting, which makes people nervous, and it is weeks (if I remember correctly) before Zawahiri formally and publicly recognizes the merger. (My note: It appears that Godane is a total Machiavelli in Somalia.  Over many months, he systematically kills or pushes out those al Qaeda operatives in the country with connection to al Qaeda global, particularly after Bin Laden’s death.  Once all connections to al Qaeda Central are removed, he uses his remaining connection to al Qaeda to push the merger forward and secure loyalty of other Shabaab leaders and establish sole communication and control with al Qaeda, which I imagine included resources.  Total Game of Thrones going on with Godane, he sounds like a real dick! An additional note for all those that believe an oath to al Qaeda’s is a rigid everlasting and binding agreement that cements loyalty of al Qaeda members forever, please read this section.  This totally undermines such a notion.)
  • Omar asserts that Godane killed off al Qaeda members and foreign fighters such as abu Talha, Fazul, Sudani and detained other foreign fighters – After the al Qaeda merger, Godane gave Hammami a figurehead position on a Shura but ultimately Hammami pushed back on the strategic direction of Shabaab landing him in his current predicament.  Essentially, Godane used his linkage with al Qaeda to take firm control over foreign fighters in Somalia, focus all efforts on local power plays and suppress dissent. (My note: Bin Laden would not go with a Shabaab merger because he knew better and he had his aides in Somalia – Fazul.  Zawahiri fell for the alliance with Godane, and in doing so is now aligned with a leader, Godane, and an affiliate, Shabaab, that killed off core members of al Qaeda. While I don’t think Zawahiri called for the killing of old al Qaeda vets like Fazul, he is negligent for not doing better intel in preparation for the merger.)

There are many other things in these documents and I just haven’t had time to go through it.

Other small things I picked up on:

  • Omar used his own money at some point to hire his own security and car to protect himself against Godane- Shabaab.  (My note: this is when I would have broken with the group probably, like when they are trying to kill me.)
  • Omar explains how Shabaab deliberately discussed shifting back to Phase 1 guerilla warfare once Ethiopia and Kenya had fully invaded.

I’ll stop for now. And Omar, thanks for the information and feel free to send more.  It appears you have resigned yourself to Shabaab and what appears to be a confrontation that will likely lead to your death.  You don’t have to go that way.  You’ve been betrayed by the group you joined.  You could always turn yourself in and encourage those that might be considering a similar path to rethink their choice to join a terrorist group.

 

al-Shabaab & al-Qaeda Merger: An AQAP-Yemen Exit Strategy for Godane?

Two months ago, some were calling Somalia’s al-Shabaab merger with al-Qaeda a sign of both groups’ growing resurgence. I and many others felt the merger represented the relative weakness of both groups over their history.

Some assertions made after the merger appear true.  Al-Shabaab, or at least elements of the group loyal to Godane, has shifted away from a broad based insurgency and retreated to safe havens in Somalia pursuing a guerilla warfare strategy using pinpoint terrorist attacks on high profile targets (e.g. National Theater attack in Mogadishu).

Likewise, the merger may have resulted (as forecasted) in certain elements of al-Shabaab expanding external operations outside of Somalia to include potential low effect grenade attacks in Kenya (alleged Shabaab attacks).  Al-Shabaab’s renewed focus on external operations mirrors the practices of other AQ affiliates in the region, specifically AQAP.  Last week:

The Al Qaeda-allied group in Somalia of Al Shabab has published the first magazine in Kiswahili language which analysts say is a media war against Kenyan media and to attract youth in East Africa.

While  advances in guerrilla warfare tactics and expansion of external operations may appear ominous at a distance, al-Shabaab’s internal structure appears in shambles after the merger with al-Qaeda. The merger may end up bringing the group’s end.

The Shabaab-AQ Merger: An exit strategy for Godane to AQAP?

Two weeks ago, I put forth an outlying scenario for the AQ-Shabaab merger which I’m increasingly researching.  Here’s a recap of scenario #4 from deciphering the Hammami situation weeks back:

An outlier notion- alternate scenario #4: The AQ-Shabaab merger was nothing more than an exit strategy for Shabaab from Somalia.  Maybe the impetus for the merger came from both Godane and Robow recognizing Shabaab’s eventual defeat under the combined squeeze of TFG, Kenyan, Ethiopian and U.S. military pressure.  Godane orchestrated the merger to facilitate the safe harbor of remaining Shabaab members to Yemen once it becomes necessary.

The hypothesis (only a hypothesis at this point): Godane’s faction of Shabaab sought the AQ merger and a defined relationship with AQAP because:

  1. TFG, Kenyan and Ethiopian Forces were squeezing al-Shabaab.
  2. Fracturing from Robow and Aweys was imminent (Robow had allegedly been reaching out to the TFG and Aweys has already declared his desire to break).
  3. Godane needed a stream of operational resources independent of al-Shabaab.  As a member of the Isaaq clan and from Somaliland, Godane’s clan affiliation and background results in him controlling no territory in South-Central Somalia and depending on other Shabaab members for operational resources.
  4. Godane, in the event of an al-Shabaab breakup, needed an operational safe haven.  Again, not a member of a clan controlling territory, Godane saw the merger as a means for potentially retreating to Yemen with those Shabaab fighters most devoted to al-Qaeda’s ideology and least tied to clans holding strong positions in Somalia (minority, weak clan members).  The necessity of a safe haven is likely seen with the rapid announcement of a merger between al-Shabaab and the Galgala Militia.  The merger with the Galgala Militia, influenced by the installation of a new Godane allied leader (Kilwe), provides Godane’s hardline Shabaab faction a Golis mountain safe haven bordering Godane’s home of Somaliland and more proxiamate logistics, communication and retreat avenues to Yemen.

The evidence for this hypothesis remains scant but continues to emerge.  As I mentioned in a previous post, the connections between al-Shabaab and AQAP in Yemen continue to grow:

What should we expect?

If the AQAP-Shabaab connection were to be true, what should we expect? Remember, this is all a hypothesis and is tough to anticipate, but I would expect the following:

Assuming Kenyan, Ethiopian and TFG pressure remains constant:

  • Aweys will break completely with Shabaab in the coming 2-3 months and form his own group (Hizbul Islam) and negotiate with the TFG for peace.
  • Robow will be in a tough spot.  Robow will want to keep control of his turf and will also negotiate through back channels with the TFG.  But can anyone legitimately negotiate with Robow (and Aweys) as designated terrorists and members of Shabaab?   A tough position for all parties, but the TFG has already hinted at an amnesty program for Shabaab members.
  • Shabaab will see defectors in many sectors. The defectors will form their own militias or fall under other warlords as fighters.
  • Godane and hardline members of Shabaab will first retreat to the Golis Mountains and join with remaining members of Kilwe’s Galgala Militia where they’ll stage terror attacks in Somalia.
  • If the TFG pushes into the Golis, I’d expect increased exfiltration of Godane faction Shabaab members fleeing Somalia for Yemen.
  • In Yemen, I’d look for an increased number of Shabaab fighters crossing from Puntland/Somaliland into Yemen.  This will be difficult to assess as there is natural migration occurring frequently.
  • I’d expect to see more AQAP or Ansar al-Sharia casualties of Somali background over the next 6 months.
  • The ultimate sign will be if Godane or Ibrahim al-Afghani end up in Yemen. They’ll hold out in Somalia as long as possible but if the pressure gets too great, they’ll have to move. I think this would outright confirm this scenario.

Again, only a hypothesis at this point and only time will tell, and for the rest of this week, more on the Hammami situation and Shabaab’s decline.