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.
- Omar said there was a split between the foreign fighters and Godane – The rift between Omar and Godane came in part to Godane’s marginalization of foreign fighters (Muhajir) for local Somali Shabaab members (Ansar). Foreign fighters were given much less clout under Godane and this came after….
- Omar said that Godane eliminated long-time al Qaeda operatives in Somalia – According to Omar and other sources, Harun Fazul, long-time al Qaeda leader in the Horn of Africa, was sent to his death by Godane. Omar claims that Godane and Fazul often butted heads as Godane didn’t like it that Fazul was setting up an al Qaeda external operations training base in the Galgala mountains. Likewise, Fazul seemed from many accounts to block an official merger between Shabaab and al Qaeda because he thought Shabaab too reckless and prone to clan fighting. Additionally, after Fazul was killed, there were accounts that Fazul’s successors Berjawi and Sakr were both killed in drone strikes that Godane supposedly orchestrated.
- 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.).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.