Youth Movement – Somalia’s Foreign Fighters

Posted: February 16, 2011 in Jane's
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I have a longer article in the latest Jane’s Intelligence Review exploring the phenomenon of young men (and even if reports are to be believed one woman) going to join the Shabaab in Somalia. The focus of the article is on the phenomenon more recently, using court docs from cases in the US, UK, Sweden and Denmark and trying to explore the shift from people being drawn from ethnic duty at their homeland being invaded by Ethiopia to jihadist rhetoric espoused by al Shabaab which seems to be drawing a more diverse community. At the end it looks at some of the plots that seem to have emerged from the Shabaab networks in the west (something I have touched upon before). I have written a growing amount on this topic which I find fascinating, as we appear to be watching live the evolution of a group from regional to global jihadists. The question is how much it is pushing itself in this direction, or how much is it happening because the networks are going violent by themselves and dragging the group with them.

Unfortunately, the article is behind a firewall (the link is below for those who have access). I have asked for a copy to distribute here, and will hopefully be able to post it once it has been cleared by them.

Youth movement – Somalia’s foreign fighters

Key Points
  • Somali jihadist group the Shabab is continuing its efforts to recruit foreign fighters who can be moulded into ideologically committed units for its war against the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and African Union peacekeepers in Mogadishu.
  • Radical networks in Western countries have channelled recruits and money to the group since January 2009, when the Ethiopian military withdrew from Somalia and some moderate Islamists were given prominent positions in the TFG.
  • While the Shabab used recruits from other East African countries to carry out the Kampala bombings in July 2010, there is currently little evidence to suggest it is sponsoring attacks on the West, although its support networks in Europe and Australia have been implicated in domestic terrorism.

The latest video from militant Islamist group the Shabab showcases recruits from all over the world. Raffaello Pantucci discusses why the Somali organisation has such wide appeal and what implications this jihadist cross-fertilisation may have for Western governments.

In late November 2010, Somali militant Islamist group Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahideen released its latest video from the battlefields of Somalia. Like previous films, this one featured foreign fighters (known as the ‘muhajirin’ or emigrants) from various countries, who called on fellow Muslims to join the ‘jihad’ in Somalia. In the process, they highlighted how the failed state has become a leading destination for radicalised young men from around the world.
The Shabab’s keenness to recruit foreigners can be at least partly attributed to its desire to raise ideologically committed units that are loyal solely to the group’s leaders and immune to the clan rivalries that have divided Somalis for the past two decades. The Shabab is also in a far better position to process foreign volunteers than its counterparts in Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere. Its control of virtually all southern Somalia is now uncontested and its activities behind the front lines are rarely disrupted by air strikes, allowing it to set up training facilities.
One such camp was seen in the video, which showed masked fighters training with individual and crew-served weapons. The video then introduced a multilingual cast of foreign fighters serving on the front lines in Mogadishu. The video also implied that recruits would be well-fed and generally looked after. Sheikh Ali Mohamud Rage, the Shabab’s official spokesman, said: “Almighty Allah has blessed us out of his bounty with a handful of noble muhajirin… we pledge to Allah to protect them with our blood, and to carry them upon our shoulders, and protect them from that which we protect ourselves and our families.”
While the Shabab appears to be recruiting foreigners primarily for street fighting in Mogadishu, the radical networks that are channelling volunteers and material support to the group are also becoming involved in terrorist conspiracies in their home countries.
Invasion
When it first emerged, the Shabab was a small hardline Islamist militia in Mogadishu with links to Al-Qaeda operatives wanted in connection with terrorist attacks in Kenya and Tanzania. It subsequently became part of the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) that rapidly took control of much of southern Somalia in 2006. While often described as the UIC’s military wing, it represented the most extreme part of what was an alliance of courts and their affiliated militias.
In December 2006, the Ethiopian military invaded to topple the UIC and install a Transitional Federal Government (TFG) in Mogadishu. However, after their initial victories the Ethiopians became bogged down, and as resistance grew the Shabab re-emerged as an independent organisation that became Somalia’s most potent insurgent group, using suicide bombing tactics, sometimes with devastating results. In its increasingly slick propaganda, the group claimed that the United States had encouraged Christian-dominated Ethiopia to invade Somalia in what was yet another example of “crusader” aggression against Muslims.
Meanwhile, young ethnic Somali men living in Western countries began leaving for their ancestral homeland. A small number of them subsequently appeared in Shabab propaganda.
In March 2008, the group released a video featuring Abu Ayub al-Muhajir, a young English-speaking Somali whom the video said carried out a suicide bombing at an Ethiopian checkpoint on 10 October 2007. The UK media subsequently identified him as a UK national who had studied business at Oxford Brookes University.
The US-Somali Shirwa Ahmed has been identified by the US authorities as one of several Shabab suicide bombers who attacked targets in northern Somalia in October 2008.
Abdulrahman Ahmed Haji, a Danish-Somali who moved to Somalia in 2008 with his wife and children, was held responsible by TFG officials for a suicide bombing at a graduation ceremony for medical students at Mogadishu’s Shamo Hotel on 3 December 2009, an attack that the Shabab disowned after it provoked widespread outrage.
When journalists began investigating why Western Somalis were travelling to fight in Somalia, it became apparent that there was widespread opposition to the Ethiopian invasion in the diaspora communities. In a paper titled Al Shabab: the internationalisation of militant Islam in Somalia and the implications for radicalisation processes in Europe , published in February 2010 for the Danish Ministry of Justice, Danish researchers Michael Taarnby and Lars Hallundbaek stated: “The intense dislike and suspicion of the Ethiopians materialised in a high level of community support to the armed struggle intended to liberate the country from foreign invaders.”
This suggested that the support for the insurgency was largely an expression of the Somali nationalism that had been fostered by former president Muhammad Siad Barre (1969 to 1991), who wanted to establish a ‘greater Somalia’ at the expense of neighbouring countries. The result was the 1978 to 1979 Ogaden war in which Ethiopia inflicted a heavy defeat on Somalia.
Indeed, two Somalis put on trial in the UK in 2008 on charges of raising tens of thousands of pounds for the Shabab emphasised their nationalist motives for supporting the war against the Ethiopian invaders. However, at the same time they were accused of using the Al-Qimmah website, a predominantly Somali language jihadist forum that supports the Shabab, as well as Al-Qaeda and other affiliated groups. It was also stated during the trial that they had accumulated a vast volume of radical material from the internet, which they said they wanted to take to the resistance fighters in Somalia.
The key defendant, who faced two juries after the first failed to reach a verdict, was identified in the Swedish press as being known to the Swedish authorities as a member of a radical network they had encountered years earlier in a separate case. In court, it was revealed that when he was first arrested by British police in 2008 he apparently said: “Is it the British or Swedish police who want me? In Sweden we were active with the Islamic Courts.”
The juries did not find either of the defendants guilty.
It appears the Shabab’s radical Islamist message was resonating with young diaspora Somalis. For example, in his video released in March 2008 the English-speaking Abu Ayub said: “Know that I am doing this martyrdom operation only for the sake of Allah and his religion [not] for nationalism, tribe, and money or fame.”
He was not the only one to be motivated by ideology. According to court documents released by the US Department of Justice, US-Somali suicide-bomber Shirwa Ahmed left Minneapolis as part of a group of radicalised young men in December 2007 to train with the Shabab. These documents also stated they were the first in a wave of young US citizens in Minneapolis who were drawn to Somalia, spurred on by older former fighters who assured them they would find “true brotherhood” and that “to fight jihad will be fun”. The FBI believes that at least 20 young men have been persuaded by this rhetoric, a number of whom are still thought to be in Somalia, according to statements made when indictments against a Shabab support network in Minnesota’s sizeable Somali community were unsealed in August 2010.
Swedish networks
More details about the Shabab’s radical diaspora support networks emerged in the form of documents released in December 2010 after a Swedish court convicted Mohamoud Jama and Bille Ilias Mohamed of plotting to carry out terrorist attacks in Somalia. In their mid-20s, the two Swedish-Somalis admitted travelling to Somalia, but stated that they did not support terrorist activity.
Prior to 2010, the two men were subject to a long-term investigation by the Swedish Security Service (Säkerhetspolisen: SAPO) into a network of extremists that had developed in and around Rinkeby, a part of Stockholm nicknamed ‘Little Mogadishu’ by locals. The radical cleric Sheikh Fuad Mohamed Qalaf (alias Shangole) was based at the Rinkeby mosque before returning to Somalia in 2004. He has since emerged as a senior leader in the Shabab.
According to court documents published after Jama and Mohamed’s convictions, the main contact between the Shabab and Sweden was a Somali-Swede named Ismail Ahmed Yassin who was born in Somalia in 1979. He migrated to Sweden in 1994 and became a Swedish citizen in 2007. Well-integrated into Sweden’s Somali community, he worked as a youth leader around the Rinkeby mosque and nearby Creative House community centre. While working there, others in the community noticed that he started to adopt more radical views, leading to his eventual dismissal. According to court documents, Yassin continued to organise events and raise awareness of the situation in Somalia, including a conference on Islam in July 2008 that was attended by more than 90 young men.
A few months later, in October 2008, Yassin travelled via Kenya to join the Islamist fighters in Somalia. According to intercepts and court documents released by Swedish authorities, having moved to Somalia, he established himself as the main conduit for Swedes seeking to join the Shabab. Describing himself as ‘amir al-muhajirin’ (leader of the foreign fighters) in intercepted conversations, Yassin exhorted others to swear allegiance to the group and raise money, and provided updates on the group’s activities on the front line.
Using the pro-Shabab Al-Qimmah internet forum and telephone calls through a network of friendly interlocutors, Yassin maintained regular communication with individuals in Sweden who sent money and fighters to the group, according to Swedish court documents.
Among those to travel along this pipeline was Shoaib Ali Sheikh Mohamed, a Somali born in 1981 who moved to Sweden in 1992 and became a Swedish citizen in 1998. In October 2008, Sheikh Mohamed returned to Somalia via Kenya to join the Shabab. In an intercepted August 2010 telephone conversation released in court documents, Yassin and an associate in Sweden discussed the ‘martyrdom’ of Sheikh Mohamed in a clash with Ugandan forces in July 2009.
In December 2008, two months after Yassin and Sheikh Mohamed moved to Somalia, they were followed by Ali Yasin Ahmed, a slightly younger Swedish-Somali, about whom less is known. Intercepted telephone conversations used in the trial against Jama and Mohamed indicate that he witnessed an attack led by Sheikh Qalaf and that he was familiar with the Danish-Somali alleged suicide-bomber Abdulrahman Ahmed Haji. In January 2010, the Swedish press cited officials as saying that around 20 Swedes had joined the Shabab.
Withdrawal symptoms
In January 2009, the Ethiopian military withdrew from Somalia, leaving the TFG under the protection of the Ugandan-led African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) peacekeeping force. This facilitated an agreement that led to some of the more moderate UIC Islamists joining the TFG. Their leader, Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, became the TFG’s president. With the foreign invaders gone and the new president promising to introduce Islamic law, there was widespread hope that the Shabab’s appeal would be significantly undermined.
The group was forced to shift the focus of its rhetoric towards AMISOM, claiming that its Ugandan and Burundian soldiers were continuing to perform the same role as the Ethiopians. The Shabab also denounced its erstwhile UIC colleagues who had joined the TFG as apostates who had sold out their religion.
There are signs of a general decline in diaspora support for the insurgency in the wake of the Ethiopian withdrawal. For example, the Swedish authorities recorded a conversation on 10 August 2010 in which Jama complained to a fellow Somali-Swede that “the diaspora helped us before, when the Ethiopians came, so that we could drive them away… because they hated Ethiopia so much… when they left, then came the Ugandans… but they hate the Ethiopians more than the Ugandans… they have never heard of the Ugandans… and now we get no help because they do not know what the war is about.”
While diaspora Somali support may have declined after the withdrawal, more radicalised individuals remained committed to the cause. Both Jama and Bille Ilias Mohamed, for example, travelled to Somalia after the Ethiopian withdrawal. Mohamed led the way, attempting to enter through Kenya in February 2009 and Uganda in March 2009 and finally succeeding on his third attempt in late April 2009. Jama appears to have had less difficulty, managing to get to Somalia with his wife and one-year-old daughter on their first attempt on 11 March 2009. Conversations intercepted between the men and their own confessions show a high degree of focus on religion and violent jihad and both admitted supporting the Shabab.
They were not the only Western Somalis to travel to Somalia that year. In November 2010, BBC radio broadcast an interview with a British-Somali woman who claimed that her brother, a biology graduate, announced in late 2009 that he and a friend were going to travel to Egypt to study religion. Leaving with few possessions or explanations as to where he had got the money for such travel, the young man telephoned his family sporadically over the next year saying first that he was in Egypt and then in Somalia. In mid-September 2010, the family received word through his travelling companion that he had been killed “by a flying missile”. The family has heard nothing more about his fate.
In addition, networks that allegedly raised funds for the Shabab continued to operate in the US after the Ethiopian withdrawal. Amina Farah Ali and Hawo Mohamed Hassan, both naturalised Somali women, were arrested in August 2010 as part of the Minnesota investigation into Shabab support networks. They await trial on charges of knowingly providing material support to a designated terrorist group and making a false statement when questioned by federal agents.
According to court documents, the two women maintained contact with key leaders in Somalia with whom they regularly held teleconferences to raise money for the group. The published indictments quote Ali telling an unindicted person in Columbus, Ohio, in an intercepted telephone conversation on 12 January 2009, to “always collect under the name of the poor” when gathering funds “for the mujahideen in Somalia”. The same indictments state that a month later, during a 10 February 2009 teleconference fundraiser, Ali told listeners to “forget about the other charities” and instead to focus on “the jihad”.
Ali is alleged to have raised enough funds to send at least USD2,750 to Somalia in February 2009, her most successful month, according to the figures listed in her indictment. Such a figure could indicate there was not a notable decline in the amount of money Ali was allegedly able to raise in the wake of the Ethiopian departure. However, the intercepted telephone call to Columbus suggests it was not always clear to the donors who the recipients of the money would be.
Both Ali and Hassan have pleaded not guilty to all charges.
Another Shabab fundraising network allegedly remained active until it was disrupted by arrests in July 2009, according to court documents. Their indictment states that Abdi Mahdi Hussein of Richfield, Minnesota, and Mohamud Abdi Yusuf of St Louis, Missouri were involved in sending money to the Shabab, mainly in 2008. The indictment also states that a payment of USD1,000 was sent to the Shabab in March 2009, after the Ethiopian withdrawal. The men are currently awaiting trial on charges relating to providing material assistance to the Shabab. Both have yet to register a plea.
Diversification
There are also signs that the war in Somalia continues to be seen as a legitimate jihad by non-Somali radicals as well as diaspora Somalis. In June 2010, police in New York arrested Mohamed Alessa, a Jordanian-Palestinian, and Carlos Eduardo Almonte, a Dominican convert, as they prepared to board flights to Egypt, allegedly with the intention of travelling to Somalia to join the Shabab. According to their indictment, the two men had previously attempted to get through Jordan into Iraq to join jihadists there in 2007. Both await trial on charges of conspiring to kill, kidnap or injure persons outside the US and have yet to register a plea.
A month later, in July 2010, federal agents intercepted convert Zachary Chesser, a US citizen, as he attempted to board a flight from New York to Uganda. In a statement published as part of his indictment, Chesser said this was his second attempt to join the Shabab, the first being in November 2009, and that he had previously produced “things” for the group (most likely online material). He pleaded guilty to terrorism-related charges in October 2010.
Less than a month later in August 2010, agents similarly intercepted Shaker Masri, a young Jordanian resident of Chicago who claimed to know Chesser and was also allegedly on his way to join the Shabab. He awaits trial on charges of supporting the Shabab and Al-Qaeda and has not yet registered a plea.
Examples of non-Somalis joining the Shabab have been seen elsewhere, with the UK authorities in particular saying the group is attracting people of various ethnicities. Having been shown classified reporting on the subject, the UK Conservative Party MP Patrick Mercer was quoted in September 2009 as saying: “There is now a mixture of British people, from numerous backgrounds, who are heading out there [to Somalia] and that is causing great concern.”
The Shabab seems to be encouraging this diversification. Eight of the nine masked foreign fighters who featured in the recruitment video released in November 2010 were identified as coming from Ethiopia, Kenya, Pakistan, Sudan, Sweden, Tanzania and the UK. The ninth spoke English with a North American accent. While some may be ethnic Somalis, the use of English and Swahili subtitles throughout the video suggests it was intended to appeal primarily to Anglophone and East African audiences. This may be an attempt to recruit foreigners with even less attachment to the clan system than their Somali diaspora counterparts.
The emphasis on Swahili could also reflect the Shabab’s desire to further carry out regional attacks such as the 11 July 2010 bombings in the Ugandan capital Kampala. In the wake of the Shabab’s first major operation outside Somalia, Ugandan military intelligence held a press conference in which three Ugandans and a Rwandan confessed to organising and carrying out the attack.
The danger of returnees
The Kampala bombings seemed to be a direct extension of the fighting in Mogadishu, with the Shabab trying to justify them as retaliation against the deployment of Ugandan troops. Nevertheless, counter-terrorism officials fear the Shabab’s Western recruits could carry out similar attacks in their countries of origin. Noting there are a “significant number of UK residents training in Shabab camps”, Jonathan Evans, the director general of the UK’s Security Service (MI5), said in a September 2010 speech to security professionals in London: “I am concerned that it is only a matter of time before we see terrorism on our streets inspired by those who are today fighting alongside the Shabab.”
While the Shabab does not currently appear to be sponsoring terrorist conspiracies against the West, there is already evidence that the radical networks that have formed to channel recruits and material support to the group are becoming involved in domestic terrorism.
In one of the more prominent cases, on 1 January 2010, Mohammed Muhideen Geele, a Danish-Somali in his mid-20s, broke through the front door of cartoonist Kurt Westergaard’s Aarhus home in Denmark armed with an axe. When he appeared in court in January, Geele was charged with terrorism and attempting to murder Westergaard, who had drawn a controversial cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad, and a policeman who responded to the incident. He denied the charges, saying he only intended to frighten Westergaard. On 4 February he was convicted and sentenced to nine years in prison.
Geele had previously been picked up in Kenya by counter-terrorism authorities conducting a sweep against Shabab networks ahead of a visit by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in August 2009. According to a report in the Swedish press, Geele was also seen in Sweden alongside the Danish-Somali Abdulrahman Ahmed Haji.
In the wake of the attack, Shabab spokesman Rage told the AFP: “I tell you that this incident is not something that could be related only to the Shabab or other Islamic organisations. It is a general obligation for all Muslims to defend their religion and the Prophet.”
Rage issued a much stronger denial when confronted with claims that the Shabab had sponsored a mixed Somali-Lebanese group arrested and detained in August 2009 in Australia in connection with a plot to attack the Holsworthy Army Barracks outside Sydney. The case emerged from an investigation by Australian security services into a network allegedly channelling funds and fighters to the Shabab. According to detailed Australian press reports based on police briefings, the security services became aware of the network after Wissam Fattal, a Lebanese former kick-boxer, attracted attention in his local mosque with his radical proclamations.
Fattal and four other men were tried on charges relating to the Holsworthy Barracks plot in 2010. During the trial, it was revealed that mosque-goers overheard Fattal trying to arrange travel to Somalia through Saney Aweys, a Somali refugee living in Australia. Fattal later described the conflict in Somalia as a “true jihad” to a police informant who had infiltrated the group. However, while Aweys was able to organise travel for others, Fattal could not get the visas he needed. The prosecution claimed that this rejection prompted him to begin planning an attack in Australia.
Among those Aweys sent to Somalia was Yacqub Khayre, a young former drug addict he had taken under his wing. According to the prosecution, Aweys tasked Khayre with obtaining a fatwa from a scholar in Somalia to justify the attack that Fattal was planning in Australia. However, Khayre proved an unreliable recruit, apparently running away from his training camp at least twice, leading Aweys’ contacts to tell him that the young man was “a risk to you, us and the whole thing”, according to recordings played in court.
Aweys also tried to obtain such rulings from clerics with whom he was in telephone contact, including Sheikh Hayakallah in Somalia, to whom he outlined the firearms attack they were planning on the army base. The jury found Fattal, his Lebanese lieutenant Nayef el Sayed and Aweys guilty of conspiracy to commit a terrorist act in December 2010. Khayre and another man of Somali descent were acquitted.
In a more recent case, Munir Awad, a Lebanese-born Swede, was arrested and charged along with two others by Danish police on 29 December 2010 for his role in an alleged plot to attack the Copenhagen offices of Jyllands-Posten , the Danish newspaper that published Westergaard’s cartoon.
Awad was first detained in Somalia in 2007 along with his 17-year-old pregnant wife Safia Benaouda, the daughter of the leader of Sweden’s Muslim Council. The two were part of a group of foreigners picked up by Kenyan troops as they fled the fighting in Somalia. In explaining why the couple had found themselves in the middle of such violence with Safia pregnant, she told The New York Times : “We wanted [to do] something more authentic.”
Awad and his wife appeared in Pakistan in September 2009, when they were stopped at a checkpoint as they travelled to South Waziristan. Again, the Swedish authorities intervened to bring them home.
Awad pleaded not guilty to charges relating to the Copenhagen plot in December 2010 and is now awaiting trial in Denmark.
Awad’s arrest came just days after Dutch security forces moved to disrupt what they believed was a network of Somalis in Rotterdam who were plotting a terrorist attack in the Netherlands. While all but one of the men were released and handed over to immigration authorities, the arrests highlighted the concerns of the Dutch authorities about radicalisation in the country’s estimated 20,000-strong Somali community.
According to one community leader in the Netherlands quoted in Dubai-based newspaper The National , a new radical element comprising young men who “use religion purely for political purposes” has “recently” entered the community. There were also instances in 2009 of the Somali community reporting their concerns about radicalisation among its youth to the authorities in an attempt to prevent them from travelling to Somalia to fight.
Conclusion
There do not appear to be any reliable estimates of the numbers of foreign fighters in Somalia, with some figures in the hundreds and others in the thousands. It is also unclear whether the flow of recruits has increased or decreased since the Ethiopian withdrawal. What is clear is that some continue to travel to Somalia and the Shabab is keen to recruit more, presumably to fill out the ranks of its core units, but possibly also to ensure that radical networks in the West continue to raise funds on its behalf.
There is currently little evidence that the Shabab is following the example of the Al-Qaeda operatives in Pakistan’s tribal areas who are directing their Western recruits to return home to carry out attacks. However, the Shabab’s supporters have already been implicated in a number of conspiracies in Western countries, suggesting that the conflict in Somalia is helping to forge and radicalise networks that are committed to a so-called ‘global jihad’ against anyone or anything they perceive to be anti-Islam.
This means that the Shabab has the necessary human resources should it decide to cement its reputation as a transnational jihadist organisation by carrying out attacks against the US and its allies. The bombings it carried out in northern Somalia in October 2008 and in Kampala in July 2010, beyond its normal areas of operation, showed the results could be devastating.
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Comments
  1. […] For previous bits on the topic, see this for information on one of the clerics I refer to below, this for more on the pipelines of people going back and forth and this and this for bigger views of Shabaab’s internationalization (many of those I now […]

  2. Jane Skinner first worked in television information in Duluth, Minnesota.

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