The East Africa region has emerged over the past two decades as a region that is highly vulnerable to terrorist attacks and is considered a safe haven for international terrorist groups.
Africa’s porous borders and lax security at airports and seaports and weak law enforcement agencies are major concerns. Political, ethnic, and religious conflicts in the region create an environment conducive to terrorist groups. The inability of African security services to detect and intercept terrorist activities due to lack of technology and sufficient trained and motivated manpower is a major impediment in dealing with the terrorist threats in Africa. The takeover of power in Sudan by the National Islamic Front (NIF) in 1989 led to a significant increase in the activities of international terror groups in Africa.
The NIF government provided safe haven for well known international terrorist organizations and individuals, and the government’s security services also were directly engaged in facilitating and assisting domestic and international terror groups. Sudan has also been a safe haven for major terrorist figures, including the founder and leader of Al Qaeda, Osama Bin Laden. Bin Laden used Sudan as a base of operations until he returned to Afghanistan in mid-1996, where he had previously been a major financier of Arab volunteers in the war against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.
Many observers contend that it was during his five year stay in Sudan that Bin Laden laid down the foundation for Al Qaeda. The penetration by Al Qaeda into East Africa is directly tied to NIF’s early years of support to international terrorist organizations. The East Africa region is by far the most impacted by international terrorist activities in Africa.
The 1990s saw a dramatic and daring terrorist attacks against American interests in Africa. The U.S. Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 by Al Qaeda killed 229 people, 12 of whom were American citizens, and injured over 5,000 people. In November, 2002, simultaneous terrorist attacks struck Mombasa, Kenya. Al Qaeda suicide bombers drove a four-wheel drive vehicle packed with explosives into the Israeli-owned Paradise Hotel in Mombasa, killing 10 Kenyans and three Israelis. In June 1995, members of Gama’a Islamiya, an Egyptian extremist group, tried to assassinate President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
Somalia: Safe Haven for Terrorist Groups?
The United States, Somalia’s neighbors, and some Somali groups have expressed concern over the years about the spread of Islamic fundamentalism in Somalia. In the mid-1990s, Islamic courts began to emerge in parts of the country, especially in the capital of Mogadishu. These courts functioned as local governments and often enforced decisions by using their own militia.
Members of the Al Ittihad Al Islami63 militia reportedly provided the bulk of the security forces for these courts in the 1990s. The absence of central authority in Somalia created an environment conducive to the proliferation of armed factions throughout the country. Somali factions, including the so-called Islamic groups, often go through realignments or simply disappear from the scene. Very little is known about the leadership or organizational structure of these groups.
There have been three known radical Islamic groups in Somalia whose prominence alternately waxed and waned: Al Ittihad Al Islami (Islamic Union), Al Islah (Reform), and Al Tabligh (Conveyers of God’s Work). In 1995, a group called Jihad Al Islam, led by Sheikh Abbas bin Omar, emerged in Mogadishu, and gave the two main warlords, General Mohammed Farah Aideed and Ali Mahdi, an ultimatum to end their factional fighting. The group claimed at that time that it maintained offices in several countries, including Yemen, Pakistan, Kenya, and Sudan.
Not much was heard subsequently from Jihad Al Islam, although a group of Somalis later formed the Sharia (Islamic law) Implementation Club (SIC) in 1996. In late September 2001, the Bush Administration added Al Ittihad to a list of terrorism-related entities whose assets were frozen by an Executive Order. Bush Administration officials accused Al Ittihad Al Islami of links with Al Qaeda.
None of the groups mentioned above remain active, although some of their leaders are now leaders of groups engaged in terrorist activities in Somalia. The leader of Hizb Al Islam, Sheikh Hassan Aweys, who is on the U.S. terrorist list, was a leader in Al Ittihad Al Islami.
The Islamic Courts Union, Al Shabaab
Some observers have argued that the takeover of power in Mogadishu by the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) may have ended the insecurity and use of the country as safe haven for international terrorists in Somalia if Ethiopian forces, with the support of the United States, had not intervened to oust the ICU.
The ouster of the ICU, in the view of these observers, created a security vacuum in south-central Somalia and enabled Al Qaeda-affiliated Somali commanders to take control of many of the ICU fighters. Many ICU fighters, who joined the resistance against the Ethiopian forces, soon became members of Al Shabaab (the youth), a fairly new group led by a small group of Somalis with ties to foreign terrorist groups. Many foreign fighters and Somali expatriates, including over a dozen Somali-Americans, who went to Somalia to join the fight against the Ethiopian forces at the beginning of the intervention later fought against the Transitional Federal Government (TFG). Al Shabaab and Al Qaeda, however, have not been able to win the hearts and
minds of the majority of Somalis.
The TFG and a number of formerly anti-government armed Islamic groups have formed alliances to fight Al Shabaab and Al Qaeda. A faction of Hizb al Islam has joined the TFG and Al Shabaab has not been able to forge a formal alliance with Hizb Al Islam and its leader Sheikh Aweys.
Another Islamic militia group, Ahlu Sunna Wal Jamaah, has become an ally of the TFG and is currently fighting against Al Shabaab. On February 1, 2010, Al Shabaab and the Ras Kamboni group, led by Hassan Al Turki, reportedly agreed to merge under one name: Al Shabaab Mujahidin Movement.
Both Al Shabaab and the Ras Kamboni group have been coordinating their attacks against the TFG and working closely with foreign fighters over the past two years. Senior TFG officials consider the merger a reaffirmation of a pre-existing informal alliance between the two groups.64
U.S. targeted attacks against the leadership of Al Qaeda and Al Shabaab have weakened the two organizations over the past two years. Two of the three wanted Al Qaeda terrorists in Somalia, Abu Taha al Sudani (a Sudanese national married to a Somali) and Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan were reportedly killed in 2007 and 2009, respectively. A number of Al Shabaab senior commanders have also been killed in the past two years. The killing of Nabhan in a U.S. strike reportedly shook the leadership of Al Shabaab and is likely to weaken the link between Al Shabaab and Al Qaeda, and it may take some time for Al Qaeda to replace Nabhan with someone familiar with that region.
Of the three most wanted Al Qaeda leaders in East Africa, the only one left is the leader of the group and the mastermind of the U.S. embassy bombings: Harun Fazul (a Comoronian national).
The Leadership of Al Shabaab
The leaders of Al Shabaab are not well known, with few exceptions. Ahmed Abdi Godane (also known as Abu Zubayr), who is on the U.S. terrorism list and who trained and fought in Afghanistan, is a key commander from the semi-autonomous region of Somaliland.
In September 2009, Al Shabaab released a video, entitled “At your service Osama,” declaring its allegiance to Bin Laden. Godane appeared on the video tape offering his service to Bin Laden. Mukhtar Robow, who is on the U.S. terrorism list and is a native of southern Somalia, is considered one of the key leaders of Al Shabaab and a former spokesman, although in late 2009 he reportedly was marginalized.
Another key leader is Ibrahim Haji Jama (Al Afghani), who is on the U.S. terrorism list and also from Somaliland, and reportedly trained and fought in Afghanistan. Hassan Al Turki is a member of the Ogaden clan from Ethiopia, who has openly called for Jihad, and works closely with foreign fighters. In 2004, he was placed on the U.S. terrorism list.
Another individual who was often referred to as the commander of Al Shabaab forces was Aden Ayro. Ayro’s importance and influence was highly exaggerated since he did not have a leadership position in the organization. Ayro was suspected of killing four aid workers in the breakaway region of Somaliland as well as a Somali scholar in Mogadishu named Abdulqadir Yahya. In May 2008, Ayro was killed in a U.S. air strike. Since the killing of Ayro, the insurgency has intensified its attacks and membership in the organization increased. One of the major mistakes that contributed to the emergence and strength of Al Shabaab was the labeling of the leadership of the Courts as extremist and jihadist, and the failure to identify and target the leadership of Al Shabaab, according to some observers.
In March 2008, the State Department designated Al Shabaab as a Foreign Terrorist Organization and as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist entity.
Implications for U.S. Policy
Al Qaeda poses a direct threat against U.S. interests and allies in East Africa. Al Shabaab, on the other hand, appears more focused on carrying out attacks against Somali citizens, the TFG, and African Union peacekeeping forces (AMISOM). On February 2, 2010, Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair at a Senate Select Committee on Intelligence hearing stated:
“We judge most Al Shabaab and East Africa-based Al Qaeda members will remain focused on regional objectives in the near-term. Nevertheless, East Africa-based Al Qaeda leaders or Al Shabaab may elect to redirect to the Homeland some of the Westerners, including North Americans, now training and fighting in Somalia.”65
Reportedly, over a dozen Somali youth from Minneapolis and other parts of the United States have left the U.S, and some community leaders believe they went to Somalia to join the insurgency. There is no clear evidence of how many and for what purpose these Somalis left Minneapolis, although some U.S. counterterrorism officials have expressed concern to Congress that some of these individuals could be recruited by Al Qaeda to perform attacks in Somalia or the United States.66
U.S. officials stressed in early 2009 that they did not possess “credible reporting” that suggested such an operation targeting the U.S. homeland was planned or imminent.67 The concerns appear based in part on the fact that one of the suicide bombers in the October 2008 attacks in Puntland and Somaliland was an American-Somali from Minneapolis, although broader concerns exist about the participation of U.S. citizens in Al Shabaab activities and potential U.S.-based financing for terrorist groups in Somalia.
The December 2009 Mogadishu suicide attack in which three TFG ministers and over a dozen civilians were killed was carried out by a Somali from Denmark. Over the past decade, many Somalis have returned to Somalia to work as journalists, humanitarian workers, and teachers. A number of these Somalis have been killed in the past two years by insurgents and security forces.
The Obama Administration has been engaged in support of the new leadership of the TFG, the same leaders that the Ethiopian government with the support of the United States ousted from power in late 2006. One option available to the Administration is engagement with the Islamic insurgents and clan elders to deal with the political and security problems facing Somalia.
According to some observers, it is pivotal to strengthen the moderate elements of the Islamic movements discretely. Most observers believe that Al Shabaab can only be contained by another Islamic movement supported by clan elders. Some of the most influential leaders in Al Shabaab are on the U.N. and U.S. Terrorism Lists.
Some observers argue that removing some of these individuals from the Terrorism List in exchange for some concessions, including an end to the insurgency and acceptance of a negotiated settlement, should be considered as an option. One of the key facilitators of the Djibouti talks that formed the TFG was a Somali man on a U.N. Terrorism List. According to U.N. officials, he was subsequently removed from the list.
The top leaders of Al Shabaab are determined to continue their terrorist campaign and are not inclined to participate in negotiations. Targeted measures, including sanctions and assassination of the most extreme elements of Al Shabaab, could pave the way for other moderate leaders to emerge.
However, others believe that this option is likely to backfire in the short term and increase anti-Western violence. Another option is to refer some of these individuals to the International Criminal Court (ICC) for war crimes. The most effective way of containing the extremists, most observers contend, is to look for a Somali-led solution, both political and military. The TFG, Somaliland, Puntland, and other moderate Somali forces could form a coalition to contain the advances of the most extreme elements of Al Shabaab politically and militarily. Such a coalition is likely to get the support of the Somali population rather than an external force.
The coalition can be assisted by neighboring countries. Many Somali observers contend that a Somali-led initiative would take away one of the most powerful justifications used by Al Shabaab to wage war, the presence of foreign forces.
This article is an edited selection of a larger February 2010 Congressional Research Service Report, Al Qaeda and Affiliates: Historical Perspective, Global Presence, and Implications for U.S. Policy (PDF) or found here at Open CRS
62 Prepared by Ted Dagne, Specialist in African Affairs.
63 The 2005 U.S. State Department Country Report on Terrorism described Al Ittihad Al Islami as “a Somali extremist group that was formed in the 1980s and reached its peak in the early 1990s, failed to obtain its objective of establishing a Salafist emirate in Somalia and steadily declined following the downfall of the Siad Barre regime in 1991 and Somalia’s subsequent collapse into anarchy. AIAI was not internally cohesive, lacked central leadership, and suffered divisions between factions.”
64 Ted Dagne interviewed President Sheik Sharif Ahmad of Somalia and other senior officials, January 29 and February 1, 2010.
65 Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair, Annual Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community for the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, February 2, 2010.
66 See “Young Somali Men Missing from Minneapolis,” International Herald Tribune, November 27, 2008. In March 2009, an NCTC official expressed “concern… over the travel by some tens of Somali-American young men back to Somalia, some of whom have trained and fought with Al Shabaab.” Testimony of Andrew Liepman, Deputy Director, Intelligence, National Counterterrorism Center before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, March 11, 2009.
67 Testimony of Andrew Liepman, op cit. “Let me stress we don’t have a body of reporting that indicates U.S. persons who have traveled to Somalia are planning to execute attacks in the United States. We don’t have that credible reporting. But we do worry that there is the potential that these individuals could be indoctrinated by al Qaeda while they’re in Somalia and then returned to the United States with the intention to conduct attacks.”
About the author: CRS
The Congressional Research Service (CRS) works exclusively for the United States Congress, providing policy and legal analysis to committees and Members of both the House and Senate, regardless of party affiliation. As a legislative branch agency within the Library of Congress, CRS has been a valued and respected resource on Capitol Hill for nearly a century.