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All these groups are supposedly united under the black flag for religious reasons. Except they aren't.
Yes it's complicated.
If Osama bin Laden can be credited for doing one thing it was to take dozens of tiny fractured far flung insurgencies and superficially unite them in a global jihad against the Zionist Crusaders. His original focus was the holy cities of Mecca and al Quds. In 25 years, al-Qaeda has done nothing for either Palestinians or Saudi Arabia. His group has killed a lot of Muslims and destroyed many lives including many of his own followers. The tenants of Islam make it clear that the tactics of al-Qaeda are unholy. That is why any insurgent, political or military group who chooses to join al-Qaeda must pay the price for distancing themselves from traditional laws, regional alliances and rational political evolution.
After the violent unexpected but not surprising demise of founder Saudi Osama bin Laden, the perpetually grumpy Egyptian Dr. Ayman al Zawahiri may be launching an aggressive re-franchising program. He needs to convince the world that big jihad still loves the limping micro global terrorist networks. The aging Egyptian firebrand has not lit much on fire recently. His fifty or so stentorian messages in the past have failed to connect or inspire his audience. Even his hosts, the big "T" Taliban and the little "t" Pakistani taliban, are in negotiation talks with the Kufars, apostates and puppets making his stay in northern Pakistan potentially tenuous. Most analysts and media reports simply point out that al-Qaeda can't do much for al-Shabaab and al-Shabaab can't do much for al-Qaeda. Most of Somali would like them to pack their polished AKs, flipflops and kefiyas and just go home. Western nations are praying that they stay and end up as red spray on the side of buildings. There is little love for jihad or jihadis in Somalia these days. What al Shabaab knows only too well is that hitching your local uprising to al Qaeda wagon may provide increased funding and visibility in the short term but it also gets you the direct attention of JSOC and their very energetic and very global kill or capture program.
The Roots Of Al Qaeda
Although al-Qaeda's historical and organizational roots were planted in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, their terror program began in earnest in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and Yemen.
After the Russians retreated from Afghanistan bin Laden saw that the secondary effect of billions in Saudi intel money used to attract, fund and harness an estimated 35,000 Muslim volunteers from 43 different countries was to create an “old boys” networks. Loyal commanders hardened in battle and experienced in explosives, tactics and organization could be sent to cross pollinate regional insurgent groups. These groups would provide operatives in al Qaeda’s global program of terror. To most muslims, the battle against the godless Soviets was a just endeavor. But they left leaving bin Laden and his little black book overflowing with names and phone numbers.
In 1996 bin Laden formally announced al-Qaeda as a force against Christians, Jews and “apostates” and tried to include Palestine, Iraq, Lebanon, Tajikistan, Burma, Kashmir, Assam, Philippines, Ogaden, Somalia, Eritrea, Chechnya and in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The problem is that bin Laden was not a cleric and cannot issue fatwas. He is well respected in jihadi circles but within his greater goals the agenda of salafist endstate does not have a place in Somalia. Ayman Zawahiri a former medical doctor and bin Laden's sidekick has even less credibility as a scholar and less relevance to East Africans, let alone Somalis. His only East African credibility was established when Zawahiri fled to Sudan with bin Laden in 1992 and was part of the planning on the attacks on the U.S. embassies.
Bin Laden and gaggle of low level clerics and regional jihadis urged Muslims via videos and audio tapes to join the caravan and fight against the zionist crusader. His 1996 fatwa made lengthy reference to Somalia as an example of success for al Qaeda:
“Join forces and support each other to get rid of the main "Kufr" who is controlling the countries of the Islamic world, even to bear the lesser damage to get rid of the major one, that is the great Kufr".
In the long and lengthy proclamation Bin Laden uses a specific example of how mujahidin will defeat greater powers.
"But your most disgraceful case was in Somalia; where- after vigorous propaganda about the power of the USA and its post cold war leadership of the new world order- you moved tens of thousands of international force, including twenty eight thousands American solders into Somalia. However, when tens of your solders were killed in minor battles and one American Pilot was dragged in the streets of Mogadishu you left the area carrying disappointment, humiliation, defeat and your dead with you. Clinton appeared in front of the whole world threatening and promising revenge, but these threats were merely a preparation for withdrawal.
You have been disgraced by Allah and you withdrew; the extent of your impotence and weaknesses became very clear. It was a pleasure for the "heart" of every Muslim and a remedy to the "chests" of believing nations to see you defeated in the three Islamic cities of Beirut, Aden and Mogadishu."
This arrogant approach was the direct result of his offer of foreign battalions to defeat Saddam being turned down by Saudi intel. His constant biting of the wahabist hand that fed him led to him being banished to Khartoum.
There under Hassan Turabi's protection he gathered around a rag tag group of ex-jihadis criminals and fawning volunteers. Eastern Africa is a region with a deep history of Islamic movements, mahdi's and fearless tribesmen repulsing foreign occupiers. The region also has deep colonial fault lines that flare up into a number of tribal, religious, political and regional spats. Bin Laden began to see a landscape that was more fertile than South Asia and a willing work force of trained East African veterans from the Afghan jihad. Working with a core group of misfits in a lax security environment, al-Qaeda was able to carry out some devastating and suppress its more farcical failed attacks.
The most devastating was the 1998 US embassy bombings in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam (and failed attack in Kampala) along with the attacks on the USS Cole in Aden in October 2000 made it clear to the United States that there was more than rhetoric. Somalia only was tangential to the East African terror campaign as a training and hideout for wanted terrorists much like Pakistan's tribal areas.
Before 9/11, a “terrorist” was more likely to be a state sponsored proxy group like Hezbollah or a disgruntled lone white Christian army veteran. Over a decade later the world has well-funded, connected anti-terrorism agencies that track al-Qaeda communications, proclamations and movements. With the drastic reduction of small fighting groups like al-Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Sayyef in the Philippines and the UMI in Uzbekistan, the typical terrorist group and terrorist act is changing. The "lone wolf" with a domestic passport, looks and clean background may be the new profile for a potential terrorist. The recent influx of non-Somali Americans, Canadians and Europeans towards al-Shabaab is the number one concern for domestic terror.
The recent news of al-Shabaab joining al-Qaeda is not really news, just an attempt to shore up an on-again, off-again relationship that began in 2003 when Aden Hashi Farah "Ayro" and a small group of Somali jihadis returned home from Afghanistan looking to stir things up. "Al-Shabaab" as a recognized group became formalized during the Ethiopian invasion in 2006. The roots of al-Shabaab also come from al-Qaeda's origins in East Africa and their quest for "the next big thing". The main barrier to global alignment always came from Somalia's unique sense of identity that clashed with al-Qaeda's more socialist and anti-tribal dogma.
The American Beginnings of al Qaeda
Whadi al Hage left Arizona to work for Osama bin Laden in 1992 and became his most trusted aide. Al Hage moved to Kenya in 1994 and began to create his own cell. One of his trusted lieutenants was a young man named Fazul Abdullah Mohammed. Fazul was a key instigator of the 1998 embassy bomb plot and later the go between for al-Shabaab and al-Qaeda. Although it is hard to accept that many of these odd groups have their roots in American, al Qaeda itself is the direct result of Egyptian Sayyid Qutb's time in Greeley Colorado. A place where a social misfit was angered by the culture and decadence of America. Dr Ayman Zawahiri was an acolyte of Qutb, his new BFF Osama. In 1995 Bin Laden was eager to meet a swarthy Baluch who was also angered by his time in America. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed had been tossed in jail in North Carolina for unpaid bills while attending engineering college. He had tested (and screwed up) an idea for a synchronized attack using commercial jetliners. Sudanese authorities chased him away. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed would later meet bin Laden in Jalalabad and perfect his idea.
In 1996 bin Laden was expelled from Sudan and flew to Jalalabad. With some introductions from Rasool Sayeff, he was able to make his way into the Taliban's inner circle. After 9/11 that link was the direct reason why American forces invaded Afghanistan and still conduct assassination programs in Pakistan against al Qaeda. It is important to remember that the history and goals of al Qaeda as more foreign to Somali's as that of AMISOM every shifting mission.
In late 2006 during the Ethiopian invasion, Comoran born Kenyan Fazul Mohammed sent his wife to Pakistan to contact bin Laden to get support and advice in their fight against the Ethiopians. The advice Fazul received back was to stop focusing on local fighting and concentrate on off-shore terrorist operations. In October 2006, the head of al-Qaeda in East Africa, Bajabu, met with Fazul and another al-Qaeda operative, Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, at Bajabu's home. The three looked into launching repeat attacks on US and Israeli embassies as well as attacks on Kenya’s anti-terrorism headquarters in Nairobi, and the Mombasa Marathon in order to kill foreigners. Bin Laden's advice was for the East African cell of al-Qaeda to step up their game and therefore get bigger funding.
With the full control of Mogadishu under Ethiopian troops, December of 2006 was the darkest period for the Islamist insurgents in Somalia. Three years later on January 26, 2009 while the media focused the departure of Ethiopians troops, eleven Somali-Americans were arrested in Somaliland for smuggling anti-aircraft weapons. It was an ominous event that would repeat its self in countries around the world.
Inside Somalia, the Islamic Courts Union was in disarray and now an al-Qaeda affiliate named al-Shabaab gained control of Mogadishu along with much of the south. Al-Shabaab was created and led by former jihadis who had fled Afghanistan either just before or after the American assault in 2001. They envisioned their struggle as one of conquest and rule, but their leaders were divided on tactics.
The relationship between al-Qaeda and al-Shabaab continued in a September 2008 video in which Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan reached out to al-Qaeda's top leadership for help and pledged alliance to al-Qaeda. This video may have inspired a number of Americans, Brits and Canadians to join al-Shabaab. Many of these volunteers were killed, and three were used as suicide bombers against AMISOM. It is expected the most hardened and experienced will be tasked to be covert operators.
Al-Shabaab leadership continued to work with al-Qaeda in the late "oughts" but ignored Osama’s original advice. They used the power vacuum inside Somalia to spread military and political control inside Somalia. Generating funds from local taxes and ports. Somali volunteers from other countries came and went. Minor suicide attacks against TFG and AMISOM positions provided little strategic benefit but gave the foreigners something to do while on vacation. Al-Qaeda promoted attacks by individuals while Somalis inherently viewed the nihilistic Salafists as foreign to their clan structure, westernized sophistication and moderate Sufi view of Islam. Foreigners like Omar Hammani were featured in videos to create a sense of engagement but in reality Somalis have little to learn from or benefit by thrill kill visitors attacking AMISOM convoys.
Al-Shabaab began to succeed as a typical insurgent group taking, holding and administrating territory much like the Taliban did in Afghanistan before bin Laden showed up. The Somalis didn’t need al-Qaeda’s, Saudi zakat money or religious advice. Until now.
The Decline of Al-Shabaab
With the return of foreign invaders including the "Christian Abyssinians" as the Ethiopians are called, al-Shabaab should be attracting more support. But they are in decline, and no one knows it more than Sheikh Ali Zubeyr “Godane”, a young cleric from Hargeisa and spiritual leader of al-Shabaab. He went viral with his recent video troth to al-Qaeda’s new leader, Dr. Ayman Zawahiri. His previous terror attacks in the north went virtually unnoticed. The steady flow of Ansar volunteers and al-Shabaab fighters to the north has yet to set off any alarms and there will be little interest in jihads waged from the rugged mountains of Somaliland and Puntland.
Conversely, al-Qaeda, other than 9/11, has yet to bring any substantial benefit to any of their members, including their constant threats against Israel and America. Yes, bin Laden succeeded in dragging America into a long expensive no-win war in Afghanistan, but the Taliban have proven to be more focused on their agenda than al-Qaeda's. Same story in Iraq, Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria, Libya, Syria, Kurdistan, Chechnya and many more nations in change in which al-Qaeda is playing less and less of a role.
Unlike fellow Afghan jihadist Robow and Aden Hashi Farah before him, Godane did more than provide lip service and did take Osama up on his advice. He attacked foreign elements in Somaliland and Puntland in 2008 using car bombs. The synchronized operation against multiple targets took over a year to plan and resulted in little impact or even news coverage. Now Godane is back in the spotlight shifting al-Shabaab towards the international terror spotlight. He will need to plan and execute something spectacular outside the country to even get his full name spelled correctly.
American and Other Western Volunteers Heading Home?
It is with this meme that the idea of a “youth movement” kicking out America or the Ḥarakat ash-Shabāb al-Mujāhidīn forcing the Ethiopians to retreat. This was the official version but it was much more cohesive larger Islamic Courts Union not al Shabaab. Bin Laden' need to exaggerate about his role in "Black Hawk Down" may have had more to do with covering up the the mistaken attack on the Møvenpick hotel in Yemen in December of 1992 where al-Qaeda thought US troops on their way to Mogadishu were staying or more likely not wanted the world to know of his embarrassment upon finding out that the only two al-Qaeda operatives in Mogadishu, fearing capture, actually ran away after seeing the two helicopters were downed. It was the outrage of Somalis who saw the attempted capture of Aideed that created the images that led to President Clinton withdrawing US troops.
The arrogant and violent premise of al-Qaeda does not endear the group to Somalis. Al-Qaeda or the “base” was often mistaken for a legitimate political organization but it is began as a formalized cult that soon become an force for global jihad rather than foreign support for local military ground operations. Somali clans, politics and regional history are far too complex to serve the needs of al-Qaeda. The ultimate impact of al-Qaeda is to reach into other nations and wreak asymmetrical terror to serve their global agenda, not to bankroll local jihads. Attacks in New York, Madrid, London, Mumbai, Nairobi and many other countries have shown the devastating impact of nihilistic violence on inside countries who support attacks agains these Islamic nations. Once again this has no productive purpose for Somalia, nor does it bring anything more than surgical violence to al-Qaeda related terrorist groups.
Al-Qaeda's agenda and designs for Somalia may have nothing to do with Somalia instead using the struggle to recruit ill informed and misguided self-destructive volunteers under the guise of helping Somalia.
It would appear that disaffection with America is rooted in not only the origins of al Qaeda but al Shabaab's recruits. But there are no visible Americans to fight or kill in Somalia. So al Shabaab's use as a recruiting tool for al Qaeda suicide killers is starting to look hollow. Even if al Qaeda can find the funds to replace al Shabaab's lost taxes, very few Somali's would choose a violent draconian emirate over a cohesive functioning indigenous government. The list of failed attacks by Somalis and foreign volunteers is impressive. There have been arrests in Rotterdam, Maryland, Atlanta, California, Minneapolis, Columbus, Kenya, Sweden, and Australia are a model for future terrorist attacks.
It remains to be seen if the 100 or so foreign Ansar and al-Shabaab members will return to attack in their homelands. For now the world's law enforcement and anti-terrorist units are wait and watch. In the meantime, perhaps aspiring jihadi's should take the advice of "Sheikh" Osama who advised his own children to "Go to Europe and America and get a good education."