Al Shabaab and Domestic Radicalization
11:06 AM, Jul 27, 2011 • By DANIEL HALPER
Indeed, my worry is that some counterterrorism analysts may be falling into the same trap analysts fell into previously with respect to another al Qaeda affiliate, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Although AQAP was well known to CT and intelligence officials prior to the failed Christmas Day 2009 attack on Flight 253, they did not consider AQAP a major threat to the U.S. In its report on the intelligence failures that allowed Umar Farouq Abdulmutallab on board Flight 253, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence found (emphasis added): “Prior to the 12/25 plot, counterterrorism analysts at NCTC, CIA, and NSA were focused on the threat of terrorist attacks in Yemen, but were not focused on the possibility of AQAP attacks against the U.S. homeland.”
This was a potentially devastating analytical error. As we’ve witnessed on multiple occasions now, AQAP has the intent and the capability to strike the U.S. This should not have come as a surprise. Since the 1990s, al Qaeda’s strategy for inciting global conflict has relied on so-called “local” jihadist groups that can be folded into its international jihad. Jihadist groups from Southeast Asia to northern Africa have started out as local endeavors and eventually adopted al Qaeda’s desire to strike the U.S.
With that focus in mind, I will now turn to a three-part overview of the relationship between Shabaab and al Qaeda. In the next section below, I highlight public statements made by senior Shabaab and al Qaeda leaders. Senior Shabaab terrorists have repeatedly said that their struggle is part of al Qaeda’s international jihad, and senior al Qaeda terrorists have repeatedly praised the group.
Despite these public declarations, some analysts argue that the organizational ties between the two groups are minimal. My view is that, as clandestine organizations, neither Shabaab nor al Qaeda publishes an organizational chart. So, we do not know the full scope of their “operational” links. And as Bill Roggio has reported, Ayman al Zawahiri has even commanded Shabaab to play down these links publicly after previously trumpeting them.
In the second section below, I provide an overview of Shabaab’s leadership. Shabaab’s most senior leaders, including its founders, have longstanding ties to al Qaeda. The depth of these personal ties cannot be easily dismissed. In the third and final section below, I evaluate the threat of Shabaab’s recruits living in the West through the lens of Shabaab-al Qaeda relations.
Shabaab & Al Qaeda’s Public Statements
Senior al Qaeda leaders have long seen Somalia as contested territory in their international campaign against the West and its allies. Al Qaeda members have claimed that they were instrumental in the 1993 “Black Hawk Down” episode in which 18 American servicemen were killed. While al Qaeda’s claims of responsibility are almost certainly overblown, there is solid evidence that al Qaeda operatives were on the ground at the time. And al Qaeda never took its eyes off of Somalia.
In 2006, for instance, Osama bin Laden specifically mentioned Somalia as a key war front:
In August 2008, senior Shabaab leader Mukhtar Robow admitted: “We are negotiating how we can unite into one [with al Qaeda]. We will take our orders from Sheik Osama bin Laden because we are his students.” Robow continued:
The Los Angeles Times reported that Robow “also spoke for the first time about eventually expanding [Shabaab’s] activities outside Somalia’s borders, saying Americans, even journalists and aid workers, were not immune from attack because of what he called “the aggression of the American government.” Robow explained, “Once we end the holy war in Somalia, we will take it to any government that participated in the fighting against Somalia or gave assistance to those attacking us.”
In September 2008, a senior Shabaab leader who was also an al Qaeda operative reached out to senior al Qaeda leaders in a 24-minute video posted online. Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, the dual-hatted Shabaab/al Qaeda leader, heaped praised on Osama bin Laden: