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.
For those following the Shabaab attack in Nairobi, Kenya or the trials and tribulations of Omar Hammami, I strongly recommend checking out Raffaello Pantucci’s excellent new article “Bilal al-Berjawi and the Shifting Fortunes of Foreign Fighters in Somalia“. Pantucci’s article provides insightful details from multiple sources to explain both the fractures in Shabaab and the pathways to fighting in Somalia. The piece provides a coherent documentation and great sourcing. Counterterrorism analysts should take note of how Pantucci uses Shabaab propaganda and open source government documents to piece together a tight set of analysis filled with real data; it’s really well done.
And for those seeing Shabaab as resurgent, here’s is a paragraph from Pantucci’s article concisely pointing out the problems inside the group.
This article offers an in-depth look into al-Berjawi’s life, as well as some thoughts on how he may have become enmeshed within the contingent of al-Shabab that has been sidelined. Al-Berjawi’s death, the reported death of American al-Shabab fighter Omar Hammami alongside another Briton, the death of long-time al-Shabab leader Ibrahim al-Afghani, the disappearance of Mukhtar Robow, and Hassan Dahir Aweys’ decision to turn himself in to authorities all point to a change within the organization that seems to have been punctuated by the ambitious attack in Nairobi. The ultimate result is still developing, but al-Berjawi’s rise and fall provides a useful window with which to look at the role of foreigners in the conflict in Somalia.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
For those that lauded the wonders of social media activism, the coup showed the weaknesses of Facebook revolutions for achieving lasting political change. Social media may have prompted Egyptians to storm the streets in January 2011, but it did not result in Western style democracy. Instead of the more Western and secular elements in Egypt leading change, the Muslim Brotherhood’s democratically elected leaders triumphed at the ballot boxes and further divided the country more than they unified it. Two years later, the failure of Egypt’s “Facebook Revolution” with a return to authoritarian military rule may in fact set democracy in the Middle East back more than it ever progressed it. This brings us to Malcolm Gladwell.
I know this is off my usual topics, but I’m a big fan of maps which some of you might have noticed. And I just saw this on Twitter and had to repost it. It’s from LiveLeak and its by a “abkebab”. I’d love to know who that is and if they’ve done other work as I really like this video. I’ve embedded it below. My only recommendation for improvement is that there should be a running timeline across the bottom of the video so you know what year it is at any moment history to better understand the time period for the map. I’d really like to see a version of this using African maps. Can anyone do this? If you know of it, please forward.
This interview from VOA-Somalia, done very well by Harun who asks very good questions, is fascinating to listen to – at times you can still hear a bit of Southern U.S. accent in Omar’s speech and he still uses some American jargon calling Godane (Abu Zubeyr) a “Control Freak”.
And Omar reinforces the idea that he was a terrorist Army-of-One and still committed to the end to his views of Islam and jihadi doctrine despite being shunned by both al Shabaab and al Qaeda. Committed to the end, but yet, I’m not entirely sure to what. Omar says at the end of the interview, he’s not coming back “unless its in a bodybag”.
Omar says that Robow is hiding in the forest as well, and that he does not have contact with Robow directly. Omar notes that there were five of them hiding together in the forest. Reports noted that Omar was killed along with a Osama al-Britani, a Somali and that Khatab al-Masri was captured. So who was #5? And did he quit or was he captured?
Shabaab had been closing in on Omar for a while, had captured his wives – Last week’s reports noted that Omar’s wives had been detained by Shabaab and that a guard protecting Omar’s wives had been killed. This seemingly brought Omar back out into the media.
Omar was executed alongside two others according to these tweets from HOA. Omar al-Britani, whom I believe might be the man to the left of Omar in the picture below from January 11, 2013, and a Somali, whom I wonder might be the guy in the mask to the far right and Omar’s Somali language coach on Twitter and YouTube, were both allegedly killed along with Omar. The BBC reports that Omar’s Egyptian friend, whom I wonder may be the man on the right of the below picture and Omar’s Arabic coach, was captured by al Shabaab.
Another of their allies, Khadap al-Masari, from Egypt, surrendered, the fighter said.
The alleged location of the shootout also makes sense. (UPDATE: as of 1000 am EST, 12 September 2013) Harun Maruf of VOA-Somalia, and I would guess the person that got the interview with Omar last week, says the incident happened near RamaAddey(Caday). This would be relatively close, I think, to where Shabaab tried to assassinate Omar a few months back. I’ll add that map from this past spring below Harun’s tweet. A new update from Harun Maruf. So I’ve included his new tweet and an updated map with my estimate of where the shootout took place. For me, that he was in Gedo calls into question how much support he had from Robow after all.
Omar was one of the last one’s standing, Shabaab could consolidate on him – In previous months, Shabaab has eliminated many of its opponents killing off al-Afghani and pushing Aweys into capture. With each dissenter eliminated, Shabaab has more force at its disposal to chase Omar. Now I wonder, where is Robow? He would be the last major dissenter that could stand in Godane’s way.
What will al Qaeda say? – Omar Hammami’s plight amongst Shabaab’s oppression of foreign fighters has been ignored by al Qaeda. They’ve turned a blind eye to the disasterous merger with Shabaab and Somalia and instead smartly focusing on opportunities in Syria and Egypt. My guess is al Qaeda doesn’t much care about Omar or his death. Where a year or two ago, al Qaeda desperately needed Western foreign fighters, today, the Syrian jihad provides an ample pipeline of manpower to try and tap into. So Omar’s pleas and his plight, well they have probably soured recruitment pipelines from the West into Somalia, but not really achieved much else.
In conclusion, Omar did ultimately die at the hands of al Shabaab which he basically predicted with his public discussion. I imagine today is a tough day for his family and I feel for them. Omar plunged into Somalia looking for a pure ideology and committed violence in pursuit of this vision. Only in the end, Omar found out that in Somalia as in other campaigns, jihad is really just about violence, and nothing else.
First, this morning, what I initially thought was a middle school computer science project appeared on YouTube – a tribute to Omar Hammami with some sort of Somali language behind old Omar footage. At first I didn’t get it, but then I got to wondering if this audio was some new announcement by Omar in Somali – which I unfortunately can’t speak so don’t have a clue what is being said. But I think its Omar babbling about something in Somali.
What’s been strange about the recent spike in Omar activity is that its been in Somali language. Omar started his media campaign in Arabic trying to reach out to al Qaeda supporters and the Arab world. He didn’t get much of a response. So then, he started tweeting in English and gained quite a following from CT pundits and Westerners along with some serious pushback from Shabaab supporters. However, getting the word out in English and in the West doesn’t do you much good when you are in Somalia. The interview with VOA-Somalia, the Rasminews website and Omar’s bad Somali dubbing suggest now he’s not trying to win over the Arab world, al Qaeda supporters or Westerners. No, I think he’s focused 100% on winning over local Somalis – those that have got his back and unlike al Qaeda may be willing to go after and topple Godane.
Now, after three more months on the run, Omar Hammami again survives and uses another of his nine lives. Just a little while ago the Twitter account of Omar Hammami (@abumamerican) sent out this call.
So, what’s the deal Omar? How’s your neck? When are you going to get back at Godane?
Omar Hammami, an Alabama native who traveled to Somalia in 2006 to join Al-Shabaab militant group, has on Tuesday announced to have defected from the group and Al-Qaeda as well, though he still sees himself as a terrorist.
I thought it was pretty clear from the past couple years that Omar was not supporting Shabaab and this past spring Omar had stated that the world was in a post – al Qaeda period noting that Syria was the place to be to wage jihad. But, Omar still sees himself a terrorist? Interesting, I guess he is on a solo mission now – “A Terrorist Army of One” – prepared to fight the West, Shabaab and al Qaeda if he can only get out of interior Somalia. Getting out of Somalia appears to be further complicated by the fact that Godane and Shabaab may have just apprehended his wives (according to news reports).
He accused Ahmed Godane’s faction of killing a person who ‘offered shelter’ to two of his wives in Dinsor district, Bay region.
Twitter conversations suggest that Godane abducted Hammami’s two wives. I’m not entirely sure this is correct, but if it is, this would presumably be a ploy by Godane and Shabaab to draw Hammami back out into the open. Hammami is one of the last dissenters and I’ve not seen much reporting of Robow lately – not sure what he’s up to or if he is supporting Hammami.
I assume it was only a matter of time before Godane went after Hammami’s family. As Hammami noted from his tweets back in January, he thought of himself as a family man and even posted a family photo (a very American style one I might add – see below) on his Twitter account. Unless he was bluffing, one would assume that his family matters to him.
So what will it be? Will Omar emerge from the forests to strike revenge on Godane and rescue his wives and family? Or will he stay in the shadows to rebuild another force to counter Shabaab? This story gets more Hollywood everyday.
Recent weeks have seen a flurry of articles touting a resurgent al Qaeda. I have lots of grumblings about this notion, which I’ll post separately in the coming days – namely that al Qaeda has actually done nothing as of the writing of this post to achieve its so called resurgence.
The nexus of recent U.S. embassy closures and increased drone attacks allegedly came from an intelligence intercept of an al Qaeda conference call – or as we’ve now learned was probably not a conference call at all but instead some sort of an online chat where people that may or may not have involved high level leaders of al Qaeda affiliates or atleast some dudes that might know important people in al Qaeda affiliates. (We really don’t know anything essentially) What was interesting about the al Qaeda conference call that wasn’t a conference call was who did not participate. Check out this list of participants from the Daily Beast:
Al Qaeda members included representatives or leaders from Nigeria’s Boko Haram, the Pakistani Taliban, al Qaeda in Iraq, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and more obscure al Qaeda affiliates such as the Uzbekistan branch. Also on the call were representatives of aspiring al Qaeda affiliates such as al Qaeda in the Sinai Peninsula, according to a U.S. intelligence official.
Who is missing? uuhhh, al Shabaab right?
Maybe the source just forgot al Shabaab, but I think chances are that Shabaab wasn’t invited to participate in the call. Shabaab isn’t out in Somalia, but they most certainly are a mess. It was less than two years ago that Shabaab’s merger with al Qaeda was seen by many as a sign of that group’s growing strength with some in 2010 declaring Shabaab as al Qaeda’s strongest affiliate. Having recruited the largest number of Western foreign fighters of any al Qaeda affiliate at the time, Zawahiri probably thought a merger might be a good opportunity during a time of relative decline in al Qaeda.
So what for Zawahiri and al Qaeda? Egypt is an opportunity and Syria remains the center of gravity for foreign fighters. But we should use caution when overstating Zawahiri’s ability to control al Qaeda affiliates in these ripe battlefields. It was only a few months ago that al Qaeda went silent and turned a blind eye on its dysfunctional affiliate in Somalia. Zawahiri ignored Afghani, Aweys and Hammami; passively letting his affiliate leader Godane kill al Qaeda members loyal to AQ Central. Why should we be certain from a conference call that probably wasn’t a conference call that Zawahiri and al Qaeda are in control of a global insurgency in many countries? While I do think al Qaeda has probably only delayed the attack that prompted the embassy closures, I don’t think the West should heap so much credit on an al Qaeda that just a few months ago couldn’t silence one of its most celebrated foreign fighters (Hammami) or remove its most divisive emir (Godane).