Posts Tagged ‘Somalia’

My latest piece for CTC Sentinel has finally landed in timely fashion, about Bilal el Berjawi a British-Lebanese man who ended up connected with al Qaeda and al Shabaab in Somalia. Quite apt in the wake of events in Nairobi, about which I have done a few media hits. More on that later. I was on al Jazeera English’s channel talking about trouble in Sinai and Euronews on foreign fighters going to Syria.

Bilal al-Berjawi and the Shifting Fortunes of Foreign Fighters in Somalia

Sep 24, 2013

Author: Raffaello Pantucci
On September 21, 2013, al-Shabab militants attacked an upscale shopping mall in Nairobi, the Kenyan capital. The brazen operation comes in the aftermath of al-Shabab leader Ahmed “Mukhtar Abu al-Zubayr” Godane’s consolidation of power. In June, Godane swept aside a raft of senior leaders in the group. His power grab marked a watershed event in a period of dramatic turmoil for al-Shabab.

One individual, Bilal al-Berjawi, whose death may have come as part of an early expression of this schism, returned to public attention when al-Shabab published a number of videos and materials celebrating him in early 2013. A British citizen who was drawn to Somalia before al-Shabab formally existed, he rose through the ranks of al-Shabab and the foreign fighter cell linked to al-Qa`ida to become a figure who was reportedly second only to the head of al-Qa`ida’s East Africa operations, Fazul Abdullah Mohammad (also known as Fadil Harun). Al-Berjawi’s death in January 2012 reportedly triggered tensions within al-Shabab, culminating in Godane’s takeover earlier this year. Yet al-Shabab emphasized that al-Berjawi’s death was the product of Western intelligence efforts, rather than an internal purge.[1]

The accuracy of al-Shabab’s claims in the videos remain to be proven, but the releases provide an interesting view on current developments within al-Shabab as well as illuminating al-Berjawi’s role within the group and his narrative as an epigraph for foreigners drawn to al-Shabab.

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,[2] 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.

The Life of Bilal al-Berjawi
Bilal al-Berjawi was a Lebanon-born, British-educated young man also known as Abu Hafsa.[3] Born in Beirut in September 1984, his parents brought him to the United Kingdom when he was a baby.[4] Raised in west London, he lived as a young man near an Egyptian family whose son, Mohammed Sakr, became his close friend. Characterized as “two peas in a pod” by fellow Somalia-based foreign jihadist Omar Hammami, al-Berjawi’s and Sakr’s stories seem closely intertwined.[5] Sakr’s family reported that the two men met as boys when Sakr was 12-years-old, and then lived adjacent to each other.[6] Most references to the men in jihadist materials mention them as a pair.

In a martyrdom notice for al-Berjawi, al-Shabab said that he was from west London,[7] while the BBC identified him as being from St. Johns Wood in the northwest of the city.[8] A community worker who knew al-Berjawi in his teenage years said that he was involved in teenage gang violence in west London, specifically in clashes between Irish gangs and Muslim youth in the area.[9] He was not particularly religious, although he appeared to be a contemplative young man.[10] He had a wife of Somali origin who he married when he was 19- or 20-years-old, and a child who was conceived after he had risen up the ranks of al-Qa`ida’s East Africa cell.[11]

According to a longer martyrdom notice published almost a year after his death as part of a series called “Biographies of the Flags of the Martyrs in East Africa,”[12] al-Berjawi was trained by al-Qa`ida operatives Fazul Abdullah Mohammad and Salah Ali Salah Nabhan when he first arrived in Somalia in 2006.[13] Under their tutelage, he seems to have flourished, although when the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) fled as a result of the Ethiopian invasion, al-Berjawi returned to the United Kingdom to fundraise and find ways to send money back to East Africa.[14] Al-Berjawi’s martyr biography praised him in this role, calling him “brilliant” and able to set up many profitable projects.[15] According to his martyrdom video released by al-Shabab’s media wing, after the release of his written biography, he decided to travel back to Lebanon from London.[16]

In February 2009, al-Berjawi and Sakr headed to Kenya, telling their families their intention was to go on a “safari.”[17] They were detained in Nairobi because they “aroused the suspicions” of a hotel manager in Mombasa.[18] Both were deported back to the United Kingdom (as British passport holders) and told different accounts of their actions to awaiting security officials.[19] When Mohammed Sakr’s father confronted his son about his actions, Sakr said, “Daddy, it’s finished, it will never happen again. It’s all done and dusted.”[20]

By October 2009, the men decided to try to return to Somalia, and this time they were able to evade detection and slip out of the United Kingdom along with a third man. According to the “Biographies of the Flags of the Martyrs in East Africa,” they had to travel through a number of countries before they arrived in Somalia.[21] In November, they were reported by Ugandan authorities as being at the heart of a manhunt for individuals allegedly plotting terrorist acts in the country.[22] The two were identified alongside a third British national named Walla Eldin Abdel Rahman—a name that corresponds with British court documents.[23] Al-Berjawi, in particular, was identified as having three passports with him.[24]

According to his martyr biography, having returned to Baidoa in Somalia, al-Berjawi joined a camp and trained diligently alongside others, undertaking “difficult assignments” despite being reported as having a stomach condition.[25] He was described as being supportive of his colleagues and a lover of battles. As time passed, he seemed to have assumed greater responsibilities, helping to supply forces (with items such as clothing and weapons) and to take on responsibility for tending to families left behind by fallen warriors.[26] In early 2010, Mohammed Sakr called his parents from Somalia to reassure them that he was doing well.[27]

In July 2010, a cell linked to al-Shabab conducted a double suicide bombing in Kampala, Uganda, on two bars where people watched the soccer World Cup final. The attack claimed approximately 74 lives.[28] According to one report in the Ugandan press, al-Berjawi, Sakr and Rahman were detected entering the country in July 2010, although it remains unclear the exact role that they played, if any, in the Kampala attack.[29]

By this point, al-Berjawi was repeatedly referred to in the Ugandan press as being a direct deputy to Fazul Mohammad, the head of al-Qa`ida’s operations in East Africa, although he seems to have been close to others in al-Shabab as well.[30] The “Biographies of the Flags of the Martyrs in East Africa” identified him as being in regular direct contact with Fazul, and even helping him get into Somalia at one point.[31] A biography of Fazul released by al-Shabab and statements from American jihadist Omar Hammami corroborated this, with the biography stating that al-Berjawi was in regular contact with Fazul[32] and Hammami claiming in an interview that Fazul kept abreast of developments in Somalia through contacts with al-Berjawi and Sakr, both of whom “were very close to Fazul at the time prior to his martyrdom.”[33] In September 2010, the British home secretary sent letters to al-Berjawi’s and Sakr’s parents revoking their citizenships “on grounds of conduciveness to the public good.”[34]

In June 2011, a drone strike that may have been targeting senior al-Shabab figure Ibrahim al-Afghani supposedly injured al-Berjawi.[35] This came two weeks after Fazul took a wrong turn down a road in Mogadishu and drove straight into a Somali government roadblock. According to al-Shabab’s biography of Fazul, in the wake of his death concerns started to mount about the circumstances involved, and a number of al-Shabab commanders, alongside al-Berjawi, Sakr and others, fled the country.[36] In this version of events, as the group fled Somalia, they were targeted by the drone that injured al-Berjawi.[37] After being injured in the drone strike, al-Berjawi snuck into Kenya to recuperate with Sakr’s assistance.[38]

It is unclear at what point al-Berjawi returned to Somalia, but by early 2012 he seems to have been back in the country and is described in the regional press as having assumed Fazul’s position as the leader of al-Qa`ida in Somalia[39]—although given he had been injured so soon after Fazul’s death, it is not clear how much he would have been able to achieve in this role. Nevertheless, this would have made him a target for foreign intelligence services and, according to a video confession produced by al-Shabab and released by al-Kataib that was posted in May 2013 seemingly to affirm the narrative behind al-Berjawi’s death, it is at this time that unspecified foreign intelligence services allegedly recruited a young Somali named Isaac Omar Hassan.[40] According to Hassan’s confession to al-Shabab, he was recruited by foreign intelligence services to help them track al-Berjawi so that he could be killed in a drone strike.[41] Hassan said that al-Berjawi was the first person that the handlers asked him about.[42]

In Hassan’s telling, he recruited a friend, Yasin Osman Ahmed, who was to drive al-Berjawi that day.[43] Al-Berjawi allegedly called Ahmed on the morning of January 21, 2012, at around 9 or 10 AM as he wanted to go to the market to purchase a firearm.[44] Later, according to Hassan, al-Berjawi was driving to meet with the “amir of the mujahidin” when they stopped to make a phone call. It was at this point that the drone found its target, killing al-Berjawi.[45] In Hassan’s confessional, a month later an almost identical scenario played out, but this time with him recruiting a third man called Abdirahman Osman to act as the person who supposedly led the drone to its targets: Mohammed Sakr and another group of foreign fighters.[46]

Questions About Death
Bilal al-Berjawi’s death seems to have sparked a wave of concern within the community of al-Qa`ida in East Africa and foreigners in al-Shabab. After al-Berjawi death, hundreds of foreign fighters reportedly left Somalia. Shaykh Abuukar Ali Aden, an al-Shabab leader for Lower and Middle Jubba region, told Somalia Report that “yes, it is true that those brothers left us and went to Yemen due to some minor internal misunderstandings amongst ourselves. This started when we lost our brother Bilal al-Berjawi.”[47] An emergency meeting was held almost immediately after al-Berjawi’s death that was attended by al-Shabab leaders Ali Mohamed Rage, Hassan Dahir Aweys, Mukhtar Robow, Omar Hammami, Shaykh Fuad Mohammed Kalaf, and unidentified others.[48] Notably absent was Godane.[49] This seemed to echo another meeting that had been held prior to al-Berjawi’s death in December 2011 when al-Shabab leaders “opposed to Godane” gathered in Baidoa.[50]

Concerns seem to have focused around the fact that so many key players in al-Qa`ida’s East Africa cell and the foreign fighter community were being removed from the battlefield in quick succession. The fact that Fazul died in such odd circumstances for a man of his caliber and training,[51] followed by al-Berjawi’s death, all seemed to suggest an internal purge. When Sakr and others were killed a month after al-Berjawi, this sense seemed to harden, with Omar Hammami considering Sakr’s death “a strange incident.”[52] In between al-Berjawi’s and Sakr’s deaths, however, the new leader of al-Qa`ida, Ayman al-Zawahiri, announced al-Shabab’s official merger with the terrorist group.

The exact details of this possible leadership dispute remain unclear. Yet the recent executions of Ibrahim al-Afghani and Sheikh Maalim Burhan,[53] the reported death of American Omar Hammami,[54] Hassan Dahir Aweys’ decision to hand himself over to authorities in Mogadishu, and Mukhtar Robow’s abrupt move into hiding[55] all indicate that whatever leadership struggle was underway has now come into the open with Godane emerging victorious. What role al-Berjawi played in this remains unclear, although it seems as though his death may have been a catalyst to precipitate subsequent events. The emergence of the video confessional produced by al-Shabab seems a conscious effort to claim al-Berjawi’s death was solely the product of external intelligence efforts, rather than due to an internal purge.[56]

Al-Berjawi’s Links to Other Militants
What led Bilal al-Berjawi to fight in Somalia is uncertain. His decision to train in Somalia in 2006 when the ICU was in power suggests he was part of a larger community of London radicals who were drawn to Somalia before al-Shabab emerged as a powerful entity. The fact that he had a Somali wife likely acted as a stimulant to go to Somalia, rather than to Iraq or Afghanistan, which were popular destinations among British Islamists at the time. These individuals were part of the radical scene in London that were drawn by messages advanced by radical preachers who circled around the “Londonistan” community. Al-Berjawi was further connected, at least peripherally, to a group linked to the network that attempted to carry out a terrorist attack on London’s transportation system on July 21, 2005.

The links to this cell can be found through an individual mentioned in UK court documents as “J1.” An Ethiopian national born in 1980, J1 reportedly moved to the United Kingdom with his family in 1990 and is currently believed to be fighting deportation to Ethiopia.[57] He was part of a group that attended camps in the United Kingdom run by Mohammed Hamid, an older radical figure who took over responsibilities for the community around Finsbury Park after Abu Hamza al-Masri was taken into custody in 2003.[58]

In December 2004, J1 was picked up by police in Scotland near where Hamid was running a training camp, far away from their residences in London.[59] A former crack cocaine addict who had founded the al-Koran bookshop on Chatsworth Road, East London, Mohammed Hamid is currently in jail having been convicted of soliciting murder and providing terrorist training.[60] Most notoriously, in May 2004 he ran a training camp in Cumbria where four of the July 21, 2005, bombers attended.[61] Also at the camp was a pair of men who were later detected to have gone to Somalia in May 2005 with three other friends as part of what security services assessed was “for purposes relating to terrorism.”[62] J1 admitted knowing the men had gone to Somalia, although he claimed he thought it was for “religious purposes.”[63]

Around a month later, on July 21, 2005, J1 was in telephone contact with Hussain Osman—one of the men responsible for the attempted London bombings that day (also present at Mohammed Hamid’s camp).[64] His role in al-Berjawi’s tale is similar to that with the May 2005 group that went to Somalia. According to court documents, by 2009 J1 was a “significant member of a group of Islamist extremists in the UK” and in this role he provided support for al-Berjawi, Sakr and a third acquaintance when they went to Somalia in late 2009.[65]

Conclusion
The narrative around al-Berjawi shows the shifting relationship between al-Shabab and al-Qa`ida’s East Africa cell. His travel to the region in 2006, and then again in 2009, was during the period when jihad in East Africa was of great appeal to Western aspirants seeking jihadist adventures. The emergence of the ICU that at first seemed to emulate the Taliban provided inspiration that was then spurred on with the invasion of Somalia by U.S.-supported Ethiopian forces in 2006.[66] With the withdrawal of Ethiopian forces and the subsequent overstretch by al-Shabab, however, Somalia appears to have become a less welcoming place for foreigners seeking to advance a narrative of global jihad.[67]

This is not to say that the jihad in Somalia no longer has its foreign adherents. The elusive Samantha Lewthwaite, the convert wife of July 7, 2005, bomber Jermaine Lindsay, remains at large in East Africa and is accused of being a key figure in al-Shabab cells outside Somalia.[68] Canadian passport holder Mahad Ali Dhore was among those involved in the attack on the Mogadishu Supreme Court in April 2013.[69] Most significantly, al-Shabab claimed that a number of foreign fighters—including Americans—participated in the recent Westgate Mall attack in Nairobi.[70]

Yet Somalia has lost some of its luster, something that has been accelerated by the emergence of alternative battlefields like Syria or North Africa as places where young Western jihadist tourists can go. This is a situation that could reverse itself, but until some greater clarity is cast over Godane’s power grab in the organization and the status of al-Shabab, it seems likely that fewer foreigners will be drawn to that battlefield. The life and times of Bilal al-Berjawi offer a window with which to see the waxing and waning appeal of East Africa for Western jihadists.

Raffaello Pantucci is a Senior Research Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) and the author of the forthcoming We Love Death As You Love Life: Britain’s Suburban Mujahedeen (Hurst/Columbia University Press).

[1] “A Drone Strike Pronounces a Martyr,” al-Shabab, January 21, 2012.

[2] Tom Whitehead, Mike Pflanz and Ben Farmer, “British Terror Suspect Linked to ‘White Widow’ Samantha Lewthwaite Reportedly Killed,” Telegraph, September 12, 2013. In fact, it is not clear whether the individual identified in the article was the same Briton killed alongside Hammami, although it seems clear that the kunya identifying him as British was correct (Osama al-Britani).

[3] One Ugandan report also gave him the following pseudonyms: Hallway Carpet, Omar Yusuf and Bilal el Berjaour. See Barbara Among, “Police Foil Another Bomb Attack in Kampala,” New Vision, September 25, 2010. An online biography released about al-Berjawi also mentioned he liked to use the name Abu Dujana.

[4] Among; Chris Woods, “Parents of British Man Killed by US Drone Blame UK Government,” The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, March 15, 2013.

[5] This quote is based on a Twitter conversation between this author and the @abumamerican Twitter handle, April 19, 2013. Omar Hammami is believed to be the owner of that handle.

[6] Woods.

[7] “A Drone Strike Pronounces a Martyr.”

[8] Secunder Kermani, “Drone Victim’s Somalia Visits Probed,” BBC, May 30, 2013.

[9] Personal interview, Tam Hussein, community worker who knew al-Berjawi, London, August 2013.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Woods.

[12] For the entire series “Biographies of the Flags of the Martyrs in East Africa,” see http://www.jihadology.net/category/biography-of-the-flags-of-the-martyrs-in-east-africa.

[13] See “Biography of the Martyred Figures in East Africa 4: ‘Abd Allah Fadil al-Qamari,’” available on Jihadology.net, which seems to draw on Fazul Mohammad’s own published biography, “War on Islam,” and interviews with individuals like al-Berjawi.

[14] “Biography of the Martyred Figures in East Africa 5: Bilal al-Birjawi al-Lubnani (Abu Hafs),” available on Jihadology.net.

[15] Ibid.

[16] This video is available at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dPQGhZaxD5A&feature=youtu.be.

[17] Woods.

[18] BX v. The Secretary of State for the Home Department, Royal Courts of Justice, 2010.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Woods.

[21] “Biography of the Martyred Figures in East Africa 5: Bilal al-Birjawi al-Lubnani (Abu Hafs).”

[22] Milton Olupot, “Security Hunts for Somali Terrorists,” New Vision, November 8, 2009.

[23] J1 v. The Secretary of State for the Home Department, Royal Courts of Justice, 2013.

[24] Olupot.

[25] “Biography of the Martyred Figures in East Africa 5: Bilal al-Birjawi al-Lubnani (Abu Hafs).”

[26] Ibid.

[27] Woods.

[28] Elias Biryabarema, “Uganda Bombs Kill 74, Islamists Claim Attack,” Reuters, July 12, 2010.

[29] Among.

[30] In fact, it is not entirely clear how separate the two organizations were at this point. The al-Qa`ida in East Africa cell seems to have been quite small and largely part of al-Shabab’s community.

[31] “Biography of the Martyred Figures in East Africa 5: Bilal al-Birjawi al-Lubnani (Abu Hafs).”

[32] “Biography of the Martyred Figures in East Africa 4: ‘Abd Allah Fadil al-Qamari,’” available on Jihadology.net.

[33] “Answers to the Open Interview with the Mujahid Shaykh [Omar Hammami] Abu Mansur al-Amiriki,’” The Islamic World Issues Study Center, May 2013, available at Jihadology.net.

[34] Woods.

[35] Thomas Joscelyn and Bill Roggio, “Senior Shabaab Commander Rumored to Have Been Killed in Recent Predator Strike,” The Long War Journal, July 9, 2011.

[36] “Biography of the Martyred Figures in East Africa 4: ‘Abd Allah Fadil al-Qamari,’” available at Jihadology.net.

[37] Ibid.

[38] “Biography of the Martyred Figures in East Africa 5: Bilal al-Birjawi al-Lubnani (Abu Hafs).”

[39] “Al Qaeda Leader Killed in Somalia Blast,” The Star [Nairobi], January 24, 2012.

[40] This confession video was purportedly filmed by al-Shabab. It is worth noting that in the video the group alternates between accusing the CIA or Britain’s MI6 of being responsible for handling Hassan. The video was posted in May 2013 and is available at http://ia600707.us.archive.org/22/items/3d-f7dhrhm-2/SoBeware2_HQ.m4v.

[41] Ibid.

[42] Ibid.

[43] Ibid.

[44] Ibid.

[45] Ibid.

[46] Ibid.

[47] Rashid Nuune, “Al Qaeda, al-Shabaab Pledge Allegiance…Again,” Somalia Report, February 9, 2012.

[48] Mohammed Odowa, “Al Barjawi Assassination Widens Rift in Shabaab,” Somalia Report, January 23, 2012.

[49] Ibid.

[50] “Al Qaeda Commander Killed in Somalia Blast,” The Star, January 24, 2012.

[51] It is worth noting that in the East Africa martyrs biography about Berjawi, Fazul’s death is characterized as being a “planned” assassination, suggesting it was not an accident.

[52] This detail is based on a Twitter conversation between this author and the @abumamerican Twitter handle, April 19, 2013. Omar Hammami is believed to be the owner of that handle.

[53] “Godane Loyalists Reportedly Execute al-Shabaab Leader Ibrahim al-Afghani,” Sabahi, June 28, 2013.

[54] Whitehead et al.

[55] Hassan M. Abukar, “Somalia: The Godane Coup and the Unraveling of al-Shabaab,” African Arguments, July 3, 2013.

[56] This could certainly be true as al-Berjawi clearly was a focus of Western intelligence efforts.

[57] J1 v. The Secretary of State for the Home Department.

[58] Ibid.

[59] Ibid.

[60] Duncan Gardham, “Airlines Plot: Al-Qaeda Mastermind ‘is Still Alive,’” Telegraph, September 10, 2009.

[61] Dominic Casciani, “Top Extremist Recruiter is Jailed,” BBC, February 26, 2008.

[62] J1 v. The Secretary of State for the Home Department.

[63] Ibid.

[64] Ibid.

[65] According to court documents: “In October 2009 Berjawi, Sakr and Rahman travelled from the UK to Somalia for the purpose of terrorist training and terrorist activity in Somalia. The appellant knew in advance about the travel plans of those three men and the purpose of their expedition.” See ibid. Confirmation of support is provided through a separate court document: J1 v. The Secretary of State for the Home Department, “Deportation – Substantive (National Security) – Dismissed,” 2011.

[66] It emulated the Taliban in the sense that it was an Islamically driven movement seeking to restore order to a land overrun by warlords.

[67] Most publicly, this has been seen in the struggle around the American Omar Hammami whose writings and online activity on YouTube and Twitter highlighted the disagreements between the various factions in al-Shabab, but traces of it can also be found in Bilal al-Berjawi’s tale.

[68] Mike Pflanz, “White Widow Samantha Lewthwaite ‘was Plotting to Free Jermaine Grant,’” Telegraph, March 13, 2013. It is worth noting, however, that it was her new husband, Habib Ghani, who died alongside Omar Hammami. See Whitehead et al.

[69] Michelle Shephard, “Probe Focuses on Canadian as Shabaab Leader of Somalia Courthouse Attack,” Toronto Star, April 15, 2013.

[70] David Simpson and Arwa Damon, “Smoke Rises Over Besieged Kenya Mall,” CNN, September 23, 2013

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And with this I have caught up on a few weeks posting. This one is of course as a result of the recent grim events in Woolwich for RUSI, I did quite a media push around them and I will in due course post links here. More undoubtedly on this as the week goes on.

The Woolwich Murder: Initial Assessments of Another Lone Actor Attack

RUSI Analysis, 23 May 2013

By Raffaello Pantucci, Senior Research Fellow

From film and eye-witness footage, it is quite clear that the perpetrators of the Woolwich attack were motivated for terrorist ends. The trend is now quite apparent, as is their intended objective of sowing societal discord.
Woolwich Help for Heroes Tributes

Yesterday afternoon two individuals carried out a brutal attack on an off-duty British soldier. They then calmly announced what they had done to the surrounding crowd. This has sparked a reaction with the English Defence League (EDL), while separately individuals are alleged to have attacked mosques.  The assault  looks like the culmination of trends that have become increasingly visible in violent Islamist terrorism of late.

This is not the first time that such attacks or targeting has taken place. In May 2010, Roshonara Choudhry took a knife she had bought at Tesco and stabbed Stephen Timms MP. When asked about her motivation, she pointed to the fact that he had voted for the Iraq War. By her own admission, she had devised the punishment having watched videos by Anwar al Awlaki online. Targeting off-duty soldiers is also not new: within a British context there is the case of Parviz Khan who was plotting to kidnap and behead a British soldier in Birmingham .He was disrupted before he could successfully carry out his attack, but Mohammed Merah a 23-year-old French-Algerian was more successful. Having identified individuals  through online activity at home in Toulouse and Montauban, he shot and killed three soldiers, before targeting a Jewish school and murdering three children and a teacher.

The key elements in all of these incidents is that subsequently very little evidence emerged that these individuals had been tasked to carry out their incidents. There was verification that Merah and Khan had made connections to extremist groups abroad, but none had been tasked to do what they did. Choudhry on the other hand has so far had no links identified and no apparent direction beyond her own. It seems possible that the individuals in Woolwich may fall somewhere within this spectrum – possibly connected to radical groups either in the UK or abroad, but unlikely to have received much direction or tasking. When looking at orchestrated plots from abroad, the tendency has been for larger scale operations targeting higher profile institutions, individuals and usually deploying bombs.

In parallel to this trend of lone actor (or small cell) terrorism with no clear command and control, there has been a growing tendency towards the targeting of more local targets and domestic military sites. In a recent case in Luton, a group of men spoke of driving a remote control car laden with explosives into a local Territorial Army barracks. A separate group in Birmingham drove to Dewsbury planning on targeting an English Defence League (EDL) march at which they hoped to find the organisations leader. And even Roshonara Choudhry’s choice of a random MP (amongst many) to punish for Iraq, all seem to suggest a targeting that is maybe seen as being part of a grander picture to the individual, but in expression seems random and very local.

A consequence of the attack is that it may incite hatred and anger between and among communities. The EDL have reacted to this recent incident vociferously and individuals have sought to attack mosques.

These trends have been increasingly visible in the past few years. From a security perspective, the dilemma is two-fold. On the one hand, how to identify lone actor terrorists who may feature in a larger intelligence picture, but do little to distinguish themselves from the crowd. And on the other, how to manage societal tensions when extremists on both sides prove eager to incite violent reactions in others.

More on current events in North Africa, this time for the BBC. I owe Virginia a note of thanks for reviewing it – grazie! I was also quoted briefly in this Financial Times article on the British government’s response. (UPDATE: have briefly tweaked it to reflect a commenter’s correct catch)

Islamists in Africa emerge as threat to West

By Raffaello Pantucci

Senior Research Fellow, Royal United Services Institute

An Islamist rebel is pictured on April 24, 2012 near Timbuktu in northern Mali
Militant Islamists are operating across the vast Sahara Desert

UK Prime Minister David Cameron has said that Islamist extremists in North Africa pose a “large and existential threat” – a comment he made following the siege of a gas facility in Algeria, where dozens of people, nearly all of them foreigners, were killed.

“It will require a response that is about years, even decades, rather than months,” Mr Cameron said.

“What we face is an extremist, Islamist, al-Qaeda-linked terrorist group. Just as we had to deal with that in Pakistan and in Afghanistan so the world needs to come together to deal with this threat in north Africa.”

The group responsible for the incident in In Amenas in Algeria appears to have been led by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a local jihadist-criminal who had been a commander of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

He left or was asked to leave AQIM late last year. Branching out, he founded an independent faction called the Signed-in-Blood Battalion that seems to have operated out of territory controlled by the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (Mujao) in northern Mali.

Belmokhtar’s faction claims that the assault in Algeria was conducted to avenge the French decision to attack northern Mali.

But, with his organisation reportedly having agents within the compound, it seems likely that this was a longer-term plot that was brought forward in response to the French assault.

It was in fact Belmokhtar’s close companion, Omar Ould Hamaha, a leader in Mujao, who declared in response to the French intervention in Mali that France “has opened the gates of hell [and] has fallen into a trap much more dangerous than Iraq, Afghanistan or Somalia”.

That Belmokhtar’s faction would want to attack a Western target is not entirely surprising.

He has a long form of kidnapping foreigners and AQIM – to which he belonged until last year – has a long and bloody history.

Originally born as the Armed Islamist Group (GIA) in the wake of the Algerian military annulling elections that the Islamic Salvation Front was poised to win Algeria in the early 1990s, the group evolved first into the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), before adopting the al-Qaeda mantle in 2007 to become AQIM.

Militant Islamists Mukhtar Abu Mansur  and Omar Hammami (R) in Mogadishu, Somalia,  on 11 May 2011
American-Syrian Omar Hammami (R) joined al-Shabab in Somalia in 2011

The GIA, in particular, has been linked to attacks in the mid-1990s on the Paris metro system, the GSPC to plots in Europe and North America prior to the attacks in New York on 11 September 2001, and the groups across North Africa have historically felt particular enmity towards former regional colonial power France.

What is worrying about events in Africa, however, is that violent groups espousing similarly extreme rhetoric can be found in a number of countries.

In Mali alone, alongside AQIM, Mujao and the Signed-in-Blood Battalion is Ansar Dine, another splinter from AQIM that has held large parts of the north since last year and has been imposing its version of Islamic law.

In Nigeria, Islamist group Boko Haram has conducted a destabilising and bloody campaign of terrorism in a fight that is rooted in longstanding local social and economic tensions.

Reports emerged last week that a leader from the group may have found his way to northern Mali, while American military commanders have long spoken about the connection between AQIM and Boko Haram.

Further demonstrating the potential links to Nigeria, back in July last year, a pair of men were accused in an Abuja court of being connected to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which is al-Qaeda’s Yemeni affiliate.

And across the Gulf of Aden from Yemen is Somalia, a country that has been home to al-Shabab, a jihadist group that last year aligned itself officially with al-Qaeda.

There have been reports of Boko Haram fighters training alongside al-Shabab fighters and the Somali group is known to have deep connections with AQAP.

Particularly worrying for Western security planners, many of these groups have attracted an unknown number of foreign fighters.
In al-Shabab, some, like Omar Hammami, the American-Syrian who rose up in the Somali group’s ranks before recently falling out of favour, have become minor celebrities in their own right.

AQIM’s networks are known to stretch into France, Spain, Italy and even the UK.

Mujao’s Omar Ould Hamaha claims to have spent some 40 days towards the end of 2000 in France on a Schengen visa, whilst there have been numerous reports of Westerners being spotted or arrested trying to join the jihadists in northern Mali.

And now in In Amenas it appears a Canadian citizen may have been one of the attackers.

Seen from Western Europe, a dangerous picture emerges, potentially leading back home through fundraising networks and recruits.

But the risk is to overstate the threat and focus on the whole rather than the individual parts.

While links can often be drawn between these groups – and they can maybe be described as “fellow travellers” ideologically – it is not the case that they operate in unison or have similar goals.

Rescue workers carry the coffin of one of the hostages killed during a hostage crisis in a gas plant at the hospital in In Amenas, 21 January 2013.
Western interests in Africa will be reassessed as potential targets

Often local issues will trump international ones, even if they claim to be operating under the banner of an international organisation such as al-Qaeda.

And looking back historically, it has been a long time since AQIM-linked cells have been able to conduct or plot a major terrorist incident in Europe.

While a number of plots over the past few years have been connected to al-Shabab, so far there is little evidence that they have actually directed people to attack the West.

The bigger threat is to Western interests in Africa – sites such as In Amenas that will now be reassessed as potential targets for groups seeking international attention, or revenge for French-led efforts in Mali or Western efforts to counter groups elsewhere.

A longer post for a new outlet, the blog of my excellent English publisher, Hurst. Draws on material that I have gone into in much more depth in the text of my book, and touches upon the theme of Shabaab’s use of media for recruitment that I have written about before (and am working on a bit at the moment as well).

The Ballads of Global Jihad

When 17-year old Saajid Badat first moved to London in 1997 he was given a cassette tape – still a popular medium then – by some new friends he had made in Tooting. Called ‘In the Hearts of Green Birds’ and produced by Azzam Publications, the tape relayed the stories of jihadist warriors who had fallen fighting for the Muslim ummah in Bosnia. An impressionable young man who had attained the status of hafiz (memorised the Koran) by the time he was twelve, Badat was moved by the stories he heard on the tape and ‘tried to meet with different people with similar view in respect of jihad.’ Within a year, he used these same contacts to go and train, setting him down a path which in 2001 led him to agree to be deployed by al Qaeda as one half of a ‘shoe bomb’ suicide mission targeting transatlantic flights. In the event, Badat backed out at the last minute, while his co-conspirator Richard Reid attempted to bring down a Paris-Miami flight.

Stories and myths have always been important in the history of Britain’s jihad, be they delivered by cassette, video or in written form. In the 1990s at Abu Hamza’s Finsbury Park mosque, young men would crowd around and watch videos from the front in Algeria or Chechnya. Up in Beeston, young Waheed Ali, who later attended a training camp in Pakistan with Mohammed Siddique Khan (one of the four men who carried out the 7th July 2005 London bombings), recalled getting videos of fighting from a friend at the Iqra bookshop in Beeston and taking them round to his friend Shehzad Tanweer’s house. ‘Watching the brothers fighting in Chechnya against the Russians…was really inspirational.’ As he later told a courtroom, ‘it really brought a sense of brotherhood to a different level [….] if you get a Chechen Muslim or you get a Russian civilian you can’t tell the difference, they both look the same and you’re getting one people who are annihilating another people and you’re getting Muslims from all round the world, Arabs, you’re getting Pakistanis, you’re getting Africans going to Chechnya, a foreign land, to help their Muslim brothers and it was unbelievable. I couldn’t believe it. I thought ‘this is beautiful’. Ali was eventually jailed for trying to return to a training camp in Pakistan in 2007.

Others found motivation in books, like that written by Dhiren Barot, a convert who in the mid 1990s left his job working for an airline in London to go and fight alongside Kashmiri jihadists. He later wrote up his experience in a book called The Army of Madinah in Kashmir that has featured repeatedly among the collections of men jailed for terrorism in the UK. Clearly impressed by the author’s experiences, the anonymous editor Abu Umamah tells readers in the preface, ‘what is most unusual about this book is the author himself. It is so rare for people in our age to take on the struggle for the sake of Allah. So imagine someone who comes from a non-Muslim background, struggling first against himself, then those around him from friends and family to take on the most noble of duties in Allah’s cause’.

The importance of these narratives has not shrunk and extremist groups abroad have become adept at producing accessible material that tell glorious hagiographies and of a united ummah fighting against oppression. Al-Shabaab has become particularly good at this, producing videos that look professionally made, highlighting what the group has achieved in Somalia. Most recently, they released what promises to be the first in a series called ‘The Life under the Shade of Islamic Sharia in Somalia.’ Produced by al-Khataib (which translates as the person who delivers the sermon), the film was made in the style of a documentary about what life was like under sharia law in Baidoa, a city Shabaab used to control. In the film we see the English-speaking narrator (with a slight foreign accent, but clearly someone who has spent considerable time in the UK), acting like a documentary narrator on the BBC ‘travelling back to find out’ more about how Baidoa fared under al-Shabaab rule. He talks to the camera, poses against the backdrop of scenes of battles he is describing, and conducts on-screen interviews with citizens. Preceding his trip to Baidoa with a brief history lesson, we hear about dictator Siad Barre whose socialist republic collapsed in 1991, leading to a period in which, he tells us, the country descended into tribal conflicts and warlordism with Ethiopian funding.

Animosity towards Ethiopia is something that pervades the video and the more general Shabaab narrative; a majority Christian country that is repeatedly accused of being a crusader army come to oppress Somalia’s Muslim community – either with outside support or simply for its own nefarious reasons. Talking to a Somali social worker in Ealing on the topic of Shabaab a few years ago, I was surprised to hear first-hand about the strength of the Ethiopian invasion as a narrative that spurred anger among young Somalis. The importance of this narrative to Shabaab in particular can be seen in a recorded telephone conversation from August 2010 between two Somali-Swede’s accused of fundraising and recruiting for the group: ‘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.’ Without this narrative to tap, the men were having difficulty raising money from the community in Scandinavia.

Hence the need to produce videos explaining their narrative and highlighting successes, and the narrator’s trip to sharia-governed Baidoa to show what Shabaab are achieving. In the video, he goes around like a reporter interviewing shop owners (one of whom breaks off during the interview to go to prayer) and asking locals what they think of sharia rule. We visit madrassas filled with eager children learning the Koran and see teams of religious police wandering around the city during prayer time to make sure everyone has closed business and gone to pray. At other times we see a bustling city apparently thriving under the group’s control with markets and new construction sites, all courtesy of foreign investment that has supposedly come to the city in the wake of the stability al-Shabaab had brought. A big point is made of talking about the role that women play in the markets – in supposed contrast to the evil democratic narrative that says they are oppressed under sharia – though at no point are we shown any women’s faces.

This particular narrative may be new and unique to the Somali situation, but there are universal elements in the video and other Shabaab productions that hearken back to earlier videos. The Chechen and Bosnian videos were infamous for their depiction of butchered civilians and while the Shabaab videos are not quite as gruesome, we see a Shabaab warrior showing us a selection of skulls that are purportedly civilians beheaded by Ethiopian soldiers. In contrast to the earlier Chechen videos, however, these ones are less bloodthirsty. In ‘Russian Hell’ – also an Azzam production – it is relatively common to see mujahedeen fighters cutting the throats of Russian prisoners and executing them for the camera. Shabaab chooses a tamer version of the violence, something likely learned from the experiences of other groups where the excessively visible spilling of blood had a negative effect on the general perception of the group.

We also see clips of heroic fallen fighters – Abu Ayyub, Britain’s first suicide bomber in Somalia, is venerated in the video and we see a clip from the film he recorded prior to driving a truck bomb into an Ethiopian checkpoint in October 2007. And throughout the documentary we see footage of fighters talking to the camera, some of whose names are followed up with ‘may Allah accept him.’ This is an almost exact replica of earlier videos and cassettes where we see and hear footage of fallen fighters with a brief description of where they are from and their victorious actions. Supposedly the first in a series, the film is one of a number the group has produced, though it is of unusually high quality.

But heroes are not only conjured through film. In much the same way that Dhiren Barot wrote his story as a warrior in Kashmir, young American Omar Hamammi wrote an autobiography which he self-published online. Telling his life story as a young American in Alabama who found religion and then ran away to Egypt with his Canadian-Somali wife and then on with a friend to Somalia, the book is intended as an inspiration to others to follow in his path. He does not stint from telling about the difficulties encountered, but it is all painted in the manner of an exciting adventure in which our intrepid hero gets by on his wits. At the end of the text (which promises sequels by calling itself ‘The story of an American Jihaadi Part One’), Hammami undertakes an interview with a fellow extremist looking in some depth at some of the questions raised in the text and the justifications of what he is doing. He also reveals himself during the book to be a prolific strategist, claiming to be ‘Abu Jihad al-Shami,’ the author of four previous texts about jihad in Somalia.

The impact of these narratives is hard to judge in absolute terms. Looking back at the 1990s and the impact of the videos from Algeria, Bosnia and Chechnya, it is easy to see the influence they had in helping inspire young men to go and find out what jihad was about and how they could participate. Bosnia in particular had a transformative effect on the British Muslim narrative. Nowadays the narrative of jihad and fighting for the Muslim community in faraway lands is fairly well known, with most having at least a cursory knowledge of what it is about simply by looking in the media. But stories with heroic figures are important and showing potential fighters that what they are signing up for is a righteous adventure in a foreign land rather than an anonymous death by drone strike is essential if these groups are to maintain the flow of support and attention from the affluent west.

The importance of such material was highlighted recently in a series of cases in the London where Shabaaz Hussain from Stepney pled guilty to sending more than £9,000 to a group who had gone to fight in Somalia. According to the prosecution, his home was ‘practically dripping’ with radical material, including jihadist manifestos, speeches by Osama bin Laden and recordings of hook-handed preacher Abu Hamza. A pair of identical twins, Mohammed Shabir Ali and Mohammed Shakif Ali, were later convicted on similar charges. They had sent £3,000 to Somalia through Hussain. For these two, the narrative of what was going on in Somalia was particularly personal, as their brother Shamim Ali had gone to fight in Somalia in 2008. Among their possessions was a recording of a call he had made to them from abroad appealing for money – according to the prosecutor, he told them ‘the need is relayed by their brother for fighters to dedicate their lives to jihad, and if needs be to sacrifice life.’ Ali is believed to still be in Somalia, while his two brothers face another year of incarceration for sending him money to fight the war. The story of jihad in Somalia appealed to these men, something reinforced in the twin’s case through the direct involvement of their brother.

The threat from new battlefields like Somalia is one that keeps British security services awake at night. As MI5 head Jonathan Evans put it in June, ‘al Qaeda affiliates in Yemen, Somalia and the Sahel have become more dangerous as al Qaeda in Pakistan has declined….in back rooms and in cars and on the streets of this country there is no shortage of individuals talking about wanting to mount terrorist attacks here.’ These individuals are motivated and inspired by stories from the battlefields, either as books, videos or recordings. In the religious conflict these groups see themselves at the vanguard of, epic stories and myths are essential to maintain support and draw others into the fray. And while the stories may come from new locations, their underlying intention remains the same and their impact can be measured in the continuing arrests and convictions we see in Europe and North America. As long as jihadi stories find an audience, radical groups will find a voice and weave mythical legends for young Britons to emulate. Stories will remain a crucial part of the British jihad.

A new post for CNN on the British connection with al Shabaab. Have been talking to a lot of people about this of late, and am wondering when the story is going to take off. It may  be on the cusp of turning into something, but we shall see. 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 realize are behind firewalls – drop me a note if you want copies, or look through my site using the Shabaab tag to see other non-firewalled bits I have written about the group).

Al Shabaab’s British Accent

Editor’s note: Raffaello Pantucci is an associate fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR) and the author of the forthcoming “We Love Death As You Love Life: Britain’s Suburban Mujahedeen” (Hurst/Columbia University Press).

By Raffaello Pantucci, Special for CNN

Friday’s conviction of Shabaaz Hussain, a former British teaching assistant for donating thousands to Al Shabaab is just the latest reason the Somali terrorist group is increasingly a priority for British security services.

With news stories of somewhere in the region of 50 British passport holders fighting alongside Al Shabaab, British officials are vigilant to the potential for terrorist plots that might emanate from Somalia in the future.The security of the region was in the spotlight last month at an international conference that drew top government officials from around the world.

It came on the heels of Al Shabaab’s announcement that it has officially joined the family of organizations under the al Qaeda banner.

The UK-Somalia terrorist connection is not a particularly new one.

As early as 2005 there was evidence that British citizens were going over to connect with Islamist networks in the country, and that same year, two radicalized Somalis living in the United Kingdom were involved in the failed July 21 bombing attempt on London’s public transportation system.

In the wake of the Ethiopian invasion of Somalia in December 2006, there was a surge of young Somali expatriates rallying to the nationalist flag, something that was clearly in evidence in the diaspora community.

In 2007 came the first confirmed British suicide bomber in Somalia.

But more recently it has become clear that preachers who were formerly based in London have now taken on important roles in Al Shabaab in Somalia. British-sounding voices have started to appear with greater frequency in Al Shabaab videos, and the government prosecuted – albeit unsuccessfully – a pair of Somalis living in Leicester who it was believed were involved in running Al Shabaab’s website.

Last month it was revealed that a longstanding jihadist with family in the United Kingdom was killed by a drone strike in Somalia.

And another Brit is currently on trial in Kenya on charges of being involved in a plot to carry out bombings in that country.

In that case, British security concerns come clearly into focus.

Jermaine Grant is a former inmate of Feltham Young Offenders Institution, the same prison that U.S. “shoe bomber” Richard Reid was allegedly radicalized in, and where July 21 attack leader Muktar Said Ibrahim did time. Grant is accused of having connected with Al Shabaab and then being dispatched as part of a cell to carry out attacks in Mombasa.

This is not the first time that Al Shabaab has been connected to terrorist plots outside Somalia’s borders. The attack during the World Cup final in Kampala that killed more than 70 was directed by the group, and links have been traced back to the group in connection with disrupted attacks in Australia and Denmark.

In September 2009, a cell including at least one Somali-Dane was connected to a plot to carry out an attack in Kenya while U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton was visiting.

And throughout all of this, authorities say they continue to see small groups of young British men trying to connect with the organization in Somalia. A pair from Cardiff was turned back last year, officials said, while three Bangladeshi-Brits stopped by Kenyan authorities were allegedly being sent money by Shabaaz Hussain of East London.

The evidence indicates it is not a mono-ethnic community of Somalis that is being drawn back, but rather a diverse group that reflects every aspect of the British Muslim community.

Preachers and websites from the United Kingdom are providing fundraising and ideological cover, individuals are sneaking over to join the fighting, and suicide bombers and now British citizens are embroiled in plots outside Somalia.

It is a repetition of a pattern already seen in Afghanistan that culminated in the London bomb attacks of July 7, 2005. The clear concern is that a similar trend is playing out in connection with Somalia, involving a group that has now been welcomed into the al Qaeda fold and therefore sees the world, and not simply Somalia, as its battlefield.

The difference is that, hopefully, the lesson has been learned from Afghanistan, and the West is unlikely to leap into large-scale military action.

The fact that the connection is on people’s radars and the group has so far restricted itself somewhat in what it has done abroad is a positive sign, but recently the group seems to have stepped up its external operations and stories of recruitment and foreign fighters are becoming more frequent.

The recent London conference on Somalia highlights the United Kingdom’s key role in rebuilding that country – exactly the opposite of what Al Shabaab wants – but Britain’s problem is that it has also played a key role on the supply side for the terrorist network’s development. That took place during a time when Britain was investing untold millions of pounds into counter-radicalization programs.

The lesson appears to be clear: the West has still not figured out domestic counter-radicalization and the British-Somali connection is one that needs to be watched very carefully. Large-scale invasion of Somalia would be counterproductive in terms of reducing the threat to the United Kingdom, as it would only anger the group in Somalia more, as well as feed the underlying narrative that the West is at war with Islam.

But, in any case, Al Shabaab’s connection with al Qaeda now means the United Kingdom is seen as an active target.

UPDATE July 21, 2019 – Given his reemergence in Somalia in an ISIS video (a rare appearance), am doing a bit of very late housekeeping and finally posting here all of the article from a while back for Jamestown Foundation that was a profile of Abdulcaadir Mumin. Don’t think it has aged too badly since the almost decade (!) ago that it was written, but it does fill in some profile gaps which don’t seem to be out there. There are a few more details that I now have making me wonder whether it might be worth refreshing this piece altogether, including the fact that he was an important figure in helping build the link between the London group that produced Mohammed Emwazi, Michael Adebolajo and Bilal Berjawi and Somalia. In 2013 his UK based wife and kids tried (and failed) to join him. And he has been remarkably effective in building up the ISIS cell in Somalia since his establishment of it in 2015.

EARLIER POST: This is a piece that I have been cogitating about for a while, trying to find out more information about the chap. Unfortunately, most of it is in Somali, a language I confess to not understand. Nevertheless, he struck me as interesting given his history as a Somali leader who had lived until relatively recently in London only to then reappear alongside the al Shabaab leadership at their event in May this year in honour of Osama bin Laden’s death. Luckily, I was able to connect with AR of the excellent Somali War Monitor site who was able to help me find some more sources and the two of us pulled this short bio of Abdulcaadir together. The actual article is unfortunately behind a firewall, so I cannot simply post it here. But in the meantime, here is a hint.

A Profile of Sheikh Abdulcaadir Mumin: Al-Shabaab’s Leading Guide

Publication: Volume: 2 Issue: 11

November 30, 2011 01:37 PM Age: 22 hrs

By: Raffaello Pantucci and A.R. Sayyid

Sheikh Abdulcaadir Mumin

The appearance of Sheikh Abdulcaadir Mumin, alongside al-Shabaab’s senior leadership, in May 2011 at the group’s official press conference acknowledging Osama bin Laden’s death was something of a coming out for Mumin. Largely unknown outside the Somali-speaking community, he has until now lurked in the background of overtly radical Somali circles. Previously a prominent feature on the London Somali scene, Mumin, first appointed as the head of propagation for the Banaadir administrative region and its capital Mogadishu, appears at present to have risen into a senior position as one of al-Shabaab’s key theological guides.

The United Kingdom

Very little is known publicly about Sheikh Abdulcaadir Mumin’s background prior to his arrival in London. Apparently hailing from the northern semi- autonomous Puntland region, by the mid-2000s he relocated to the United Kingdom. It is believed he may have been in Denmark prior and if this is the case, then it is likely that he would have initially moved to Leicester. In Leicester there is a strong Somali community with links to the large Somali community in Scandinavia whose beginnings largely stemmed from were resettled in several European welfare states. In other instances, this connection has revealed extremist called Musse Yusuf who was arrested by British authorities on May 28, 2008. Yusuf was eventually cleared of charges against him but was found in possession of substantial volumes of radical material, including a video providing detailed instruction on how to create a suicide bomb vest. Yusuf claimed the information was intended to help Somali militants resist the Ethiopian troops then occupying parts of his homeland. Yusuf was quoted asking police when he was arrested whether it was British or Swedish police who wanted him. As he put it, “in Sweden we were active with the Islamic Courts [Union]. My friends are in Sweden” (This is Leicestershire, September 30 2010).

Whether Yusuf was connected to Sheikh Mumin is unclear, but it does seem as though Sheikh Mumin would have been moving in similar circles. At around the Mumin was listed as a speaker in at least one event at the Quba Mosque in Leicester. [1] This event sparked off local concerns, with a number complaining publicly and privately of Mumin’s extremist leanings. According to Londoners spoken to over the next few years, he was also a regular in London at mosques in Woolwich and Greenwich. He also appears to have taken on something of a public persona as a spokesman for East African and Somali affairs, appearing at events at the London Muslim Centre sponsored by the East Africa Welfare & Development Association and hosted by a former Hizb-ut-Tahrir member. [2] In early 2010, a bespectacled Mumin donning a long henna dyed beard appeared alongside outspoken former Guantanamo detainee, Moazzam Begg, speaking on behalf of his London-based Islamic NGO, Cageprisoners, to launch their report on East Africa criticizing American and Ethiopian cooperation there. [3]

However, by some point mid-year it became clear to Sheikh Abdulcaadir that he felt under heavy and potentially menacing surveillance from security services and he decided to leave the UK. In an interview conducted with Somali-language news site Somalimemo sympathetic to al-Shabaab, Sheikh intelligence surveillance as his reasons for abandoning the UK to join al-Shabaab. [4]

Mumin’s Return to Somalia

In the same interview, Sheikh Abdulcaadir described toward the end of 2010, and having stayed in Kenya for a brief period, he entered into Somalia via the town of Beled Hawo at the junction of the Ethiopia-Kenya- Somalia triple border, which was under al-Shabaab control at the time. [5] Once in Somalia, Mumin gave a sermon to hundreds of worshippers in the Dabaqeynka mosque, situated in the then al-Shabaab-held Yashid district of Mogadishu. There, he proceeded to rip up and burn his British passport and other legal documents, vowing to never return to the UK. Mumin pledged to spend the remainder of his life dedicated to serving the cause of jihad.

Nothing is publicly available on the whereabouts of his family and whether they followed or preceded him to Somalia. It is ambiguous whether the event at which he supposedly burned his passport is the same one in which he was seen at in late 2010 in Mogadishu where by May 2011, he was willing to stand alongside al- Shabaab’s leadership at a public press conference in which they praised Osama bin Laden in the wake of his death. [7]

In a brief discussion about the news article reporting on the Sheikh’s move to Somalia, a commentator expressed his certainty that Mumin and his wife belong to the powerful Majerteen ’Ali Salesian and the ‘Umar Mohamud sub-sub clans respectively of the larger Darood clan. In parts of Somalia, the sheikh is remembered for causing outrage whilst on a visit to Bosasso, Puntland’s principal city, where he declared the local governing authorities to be apostates in a lecture he gave to a packed audience. Apparently made a year before leaving the UK for al-Shabaab held areas in Somalia, the event would seem to presage Sheikh Abdulcaadir’s later development as an al-Shabaab hardliner. [8]

The al-Shabaab Theologian

For al-Shabaab the war to topple the African Union and United Nations-backed Transitional Federal Government (TFG) is ideological as much as it is military. In areas under al-Shabaab control, the group led an ardent campaign to portray its enemies as morally corrupt Western stooges that are a menace to the local clan-structured population. All sides in heavyweights within the country’s theological circle to discredit each other. No faction has employed this divisive tactic more so than al-Shabaab.

One can argue that al-Shabaab’s choice to present Sheikh Abdulcaadir as one of its foremost ideologues serves a number of purposes. He not only holds resonance with Somalis in the West and elsewhere in the Somali diaspora, but his rousing lectures and speeches are marked with fervent quotes beyond just the standard Quran and Hadith. Mumin references works by classical Muslim theologians who undergird Taymiyah and Muhammed Ibn Abdul-Wahab. Most importantly, he provides a bellicose counterweight to the comparatively quietist al-I’tisam bil Kitab w’al-Sunnah (also known as Jamaat al-I’tisam or simply group, which maintains a wide audience in Somalia and regards the frail TFG as the nation’s legitimate authority. The TFG has attempted to draft them to act as interlocutors between the government and al- Shabaab without any success thus far. Al-Shabaab path and thus condemned it.

Conclusion

At the time of this writing, it is unclear exactly what impact Sheikh Abdulcaadir’s presence in Somalia will reported that he was heard on a pro-Shabaab radio station as part of a series of speeches condemning the recent Kenyan military intervention analogous to his earlier bashing of the Ethiopian campaign in Somalia. [9] While he clearly stirs loyalty amongst followers in the West, it is unclear that he speaks much English so he is not likely to be that useful in al-Shabaab’s English-language campaigns spearheaded by American jihadi Omar Hammami. Nor is it clear that he is playing much of an operational role for the group as a warrior. Nevertheless, his repeated presence as a speaker at al-Shabaab events is indicative of his growing importance for the movement as a theological leader.

Raffaello Pantucci is currently an Associate Fellow at the International Center for the Study of Radicalization (ICSR) and the author of the forthcoming We Love Life As You Love Death: Britain’s Suburban Mujahedeen (C Hurst and Columbia University Press).

A. R. Sayyid is the editor of The Somali War Monitor Blog http://www.somaliwarmonitor.wordpress.com

Notes:
1. To view Mumin listed as appearing in Leicester, see (Somali): http://www.somalitalk.com/2008/ july/09jul048.html.
2. To view Mumin listed as appearing in London, see: http://www.ummah.com/forum/showthread.
3. To view Mumin appearing in London at the Cageprisoners event, see THE HORN OF AFRICA INQUISTION Part 3 (Arabic/Somali): http://www. youtube.com/watch?NR=1&v=87LX1bjlFwo
4. Al-Qimmah.net, November 10, 2010, (Somali) http://al-qimmah.net/showthread.php?p=43479
5. Ibid.
6. http://forums.islamicawakening.com/f18/shaykh-abdul-qaadir-mumin-from-london-moqadishu-40272/
7. http://alqimmah.net/showthread.php?p=43089
8. http://alburtinle.com/2010/09/mid-ka-mid-ah- culumaaudiinka-qurba-joogta-ee-ka-soo-jeeda- puntland-oo-ku-biirey-xarakada-alshabaab/ ; http://daafeet.com/index.php?news=1416
9. http://www.somaliareport.com/index.php/

A new piece over at the Guardian, looking at the perennial question of al Shabaab and its western recruits. I realize the conclusion might be seen as a bit exaggerated, but it does seem to me that we are potentially running the risk of going in this direction and at the end of the day it is often what we don’t expect that happens. The question is how long will this sense hang over us. As usual thoughts and comments warmly welcomed.

Al-Shabaab: the American Connection

There’s ample evidence of radicalised US citizens wooed to fight in Somalia. We need to ensure they don’t bring the jihad home.

A fighter from al-Shabaab, Mogadishu

A fighter from al-Shabaab runs for cover from a burnt-out African Union tank during fighting in Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu, 2 July 2010. Photograph: Feisal Omar/Reuters

The news of another American suicide bomber shows, once again, the deadly allure of jihadism among a small number of young US citizens, but it also casts a light on the potential danger that allowing the conflict in Somalia to continue unabated poses. Now that we are at the third possible American suicide bomber in Somalia, it is time to take stronger measures to solve this problem – before it comes back to haunt us in the west.

In a cynical way, the news is a tidy resolution for security services. The fact that these young men have died abroad means they will no longer be able to pose a threat at home. But this fails to take into account the larger threat that these deaths represent, both in terms of the embedding of jihadist ideas in North America, but also the growing menace internationally of the al-Shabaab group.

The story of the American jihad is not new. At this point, we have seen jihadist plots in the US with links to all of the major jihadist battlefields abroad, and in many cases, they have involved US citizens. And within the US, there have been a number of plots uncovered involving Americans who have radicalised and chosen to participate in plots that may have concluded in terrorist attacks. The conviction of Tahawwur Rana for his role in a plot targeting Denmark was merely the latest manifestation.

Somalia and al-Shabaab (whose name literally means “the youth”) is a subset of this issue, but one that has been growing in importance as it becomes clear that the group has been able to draw to itself both young ethnic Somalis and an ever increasing number of radicalised young men and women from other ethnicities. Young Shabaab leader Omar Hammami, for example, is a Daphne, Alabama native of Syrian descent who left the comfort of the US to serve as a leader in the Somali group using the nom de guerre “Abu Mansur al-Amiriki”. And he is not alone, with some of his compatriots agreeing to act as suicide bombers in that war-torn country.

But in parallel to this trend of young Americans leaving to fight jihad, al-Shabaab has gradually escalated the tenor of its violence. From a group that was a wing of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), which emerged from the rampant warlordism gripping Somalia, Shabaab has steadily risen to become a formidable fighting force that has absorbed other groups and taken and held increasing chunks of territory. It has also demonstrated a capacity to launch coordinated attacks beyond its territory of control. In October 2008, it sent six suicide bomber teams deep into usually peaceful northern Somalia; one of those bombers was Shirwa Ahmed, a 26-year-old Somali American from Minneapolis. Then, in July of last year, as people enjoyed the football World Cup final, a pair of suicide bombers sent by Shabaab blew themselves up in Kampala, Uganda, killing some 74 people.

In between, there were numerous other bombings, attacks and firefights inside Somalia, alongside a growing trend for terrorist plots or attacks in the west – all with links to Shabaab. A group in Australia, frustrated in its ambition to go fight in Somalia, was disrupted while apparently plotting to attack an army base in Melbourne. A young Somali Dane, who was picked up and repatriated to Denmark by Kenyan forces as part of an alleged network planning an attack against Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, tried to kill cartoonist Kurt Westegaard for his role in the Mohammed cartoons. And a group of young Britons, who had attended outward-bound camps in the UK alongside attempted London suicide bombers in the UK, went to Somalia seeking connections with a-Shabaab.

It is unclear whether al-Shabaab directed any of these attacks or groups, but the connections are worrying. As the head of Britain’s MI5 said last September, “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 al-Shabaab.”

Yet, the prevailing western tendency has been to observe the problem, rather than engage with it. While direct intervention in Somalia is clearly a bad idea, a more focused effort is needed. Broad sweeps of the Muslim community, exemplified in New York Representative Peter King’s recent congressional hearings on radicalisation, are not helpful: they put people’s backs up while failing to address a problem that only affects a minority within a minority. Instead, efforts should be focused on demythologising jihad. Former fighters who have returned and changed their minds can foster a counter-narrative, while jihadist websites in the west need to be taken down and the webmasters identified. Fundraising and support networks should be pursued, and the community needs to be persuaded that turning a blind eye to this activity is only going to attract negative unwanted attention. Some of these measures are likely already being deployed, but clearly, they are not proving totally effective.

The pattern that can be observed in the Somali jihad is one that replicates almost precisely the pattern that culminated in the 7 July 2005 bombings in London. Let us learn from those mistakes and ensure that it does not culminate with a similar atrocity in the US or elsewhere.