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07-13-2009, 02:01 PM
Renewed Focus on Foreign Fighters and Terrorist Threats in Somalia


By Evan Kohlmann

The last few weeks have seen a renewed focus on the issue of foreign fighters--particularly Somali-American exiles--who are traveling to Somalia in hopes of joining the militant Shabaab al-Mujahideen Movement. A former Islamic Courts Union (ICU) leader-turned Somali president Shaykh Sharif Ahmed spoke directly to the issue on Sunday, quoted by CNN (http://edition.cnn.com/2009/WORLD/africa/07/13/somalia.president.plea/) as urging, "the Somali-American community not to send their youth to Somalia to fight alongside al-Shabaab... I am saying to those young men from abroad: 'Your families fled your home to America because of insecurity. You should not return here to ferment violence against your people."

On the same day, the New York Times published a lengthy article on the recruitment of Somali-Americans by Shabaab (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/12/us/12somalis.html), along with an accompanying video presentation with analysis from a host of various Shabaab watchers (http://video.nytimes.com/video/2009/07/12/us/1194841468554/recruiting-americans-for-jihad.html?scp=3&sq=somalia&st=cse), including myself.

All of this is probably worth taking a look at, but I would just add some supplementary thoughts to my commentary in the New York Times video (http://video.nytimes.com/video/2009/07/12/us/1194841468554/recruiting-americans-for-jihad.html?scp=3&sq=somalia&st=cse). I believe that Dr. Ken Menkhaus is largely correct in his assessment that the underlying motivations for most Shabaab fighters are remarkably nationalistic. At least to some degree, the constant rhetorical posturing by Shabaab is a political tool -- a way to galvanize support among Somalis who may not be fundamentalists themselves, but who chafe at rampant crime and corruption, and who share a natural resentment to the presence of foreign troops in their homeland. As the Taliban have demonstrated in Afghanistan, when a political force is able to establish strict "law and order" in a chaotic, war-torn region, sometimes desperate citizens are willing to accept increasingly tangential conditions in order to preserve that sense of basic stability.

All that being said, we must be very careful not to simply dismiss outright the potential of regional and international terrorism delivered care of Shabaab al-Mujahideen. For its part, the Movement has repeatedly threatened to extend its war beyond the borders of Somalia, and has been disturbingly specific in issuing those threats. As cited in my NEFA Foundation report on Shabaab al-Mujahideen (http://www.nefafoundation.org/reports.html#shabaab0509):

- In March 2007, the official logistical partner of Shabaab's media wing, the Global Islamic Media Front (GIMF), published a document titled “Ways to Support Our Brothers in Somalia.” The document called on Muslims “to attack the interests of our enemies outside of Somalia… especially economic, military, and political targets, such as embassies and factories… One of the most important places to target the Ethiopian enemy is their international airport.”

- In January 2008, Shabaab al-Mujahideen published a lengthy condemnation of the African Union peacekeeping mission in Somalia, known as AMISOM. According to that treatise, "If the Somali capital Mogadishu… is subject to heavy bombardment and destruction at the hands of the Ugandan-Ethiopian-Burundian alliance, then it is only the balance of justice for the capitals of Addis Ababa in Ethiopia, Kampala in Uganda, and Bujumbura in Burundi to experience the same pain and bitterness… They have become the target of those who are launching strikes in order to defend the Muslims and their religion.”

- In April 2008, Shabaab al-Mujahideen repeated its threat to “punish” Uganda, Burundi, and Ethiopia—within their own borders. In a published communique, Shabaab boasted, “the wager made on the Ethiopians, Ugandans, and Burundians in Somalia was a failure, and history has proven it. Allah willing, we will attack them, roam [through their ranks], cut off every path they will take, chase away those who follow them, and fight them as insects and wolves. [We] will give them a taste of the heat of flame, and throw them into hell.”

- In May 2008, Shabaab’s former chief spokesman Shaykh Mukhtar Robow stated in an Arabic-language interview, “we will retaliate against these countries and their people, in their own lands, in a just punishment—yes, in their very own lands, just like they did [to us], and Allah is fulfilling his promise, but most people are unaware.”

- In an audio recording released on June 1, 2008, the top commander of Shabaab al-Mujahideen, Shaykh Mukhtar Abu Az-Zubair, boasted of how “the Muslim people of Somalia have merged with the most elite fighters from the Shabaab al-Mujahideen Movement… Allah willing, international jihadi units will be launched from the Land of the Two Migrations [the Horn of Africa] to haunt and destroy the infidels and their interests around the world… We are an integral part of the vanguard of the global jihad.”

A self-styled Islamist movement with largely nationalist ambitions, or "an integral part of the vanguard of the global jihad" -- will the real Shabaab al-Mujahideen please stand up? At least for the moment, Shabaab increasingly appears to be trotting down the latter path.

July 13, 2009