March 26, 2009 | Family Security Matters

Bin Laden’s Somali Gambit

Last week, al-Qaeda chieftain Usama bin Laden interjected himself yet once again into the ongoing conflict in the territory of the former Somali Democratic Republic. On closer examination, the move, like many which the terrorist mastermind has made, seems to be part of a carefully calculated stratagem involving multiple layers within which he hopes to ensnare not just his immediate target, the country's shaky “Transitional Federal Government” (TFG), but also the ultimate objects of his hatred which he explicitly identified as “America and its allies.”

In an 11-minute audio recording released last Wednesday by the terrorist network's As-Sahab (“the clouds”) Foundation for Islamic Media Publication, an English translation of which was published by the NEFA Foundation, bin Laden hailed the fighters engaged in ongoing insurgency spearheaded by al-Shabaab, an al-Qaeda-linked group that was formally designated a “foreign terrorist organization” last year by the U.S. Department of State, as “my brothers the Mujahideen, the honest sons of Somalia,” who “are one of the most important armies in the Mujahid Islamic battalion, and are the first line of defense for the Islamic world in its southwest part.”

After the usual benedictions and pious invocations, Bin Laden opened the message, which he addressed to the “persevering Muslim brothers in Mujahid Somalia,” with his interpretation of recent Somali history:

The war which has been taking place on your soil is a war between Islam and the international Crusade. The NATO alliance deputized Ethiopia to carry out this mission and after they and those who appointed them were exhausted by your blessed Jihad, they resorted to subterfuge and deception, as is their custom in the Islamic world, and appointed over you a man who, although from your kinsfolk, follows their religion, the former [TFG] president Abdullahi Yusuf. But since you weren't taken in by the old trick of “Karzais” which they have been using in the region, they replaced him and brought in a new, revised version … [Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed] was president of the Islamic Courts and with the Mujahideen, but as a result of inducements and offers from the American envoy in Kenya, he changed and turned back on his heels, and agreed to partner infidel positive law with Islamic Shari'a to set up a government of national unity.

Pronouncing this “greater polytheism which expels one from Islam,” bin Laden declared that the TFG leader was among of those presidents who, since they “are surrogates of our enemies and their authority is null and void,” have to “be dethroned and fought” because they have effectively become “infidels.”

Linking the fight in Somalia, now directed against what he views as the “apostate” regime of Sharif Ahmed, to the extremists' struggle against governments of Muslim countries like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Afghanistan, bin Laden called upon Somalis to rally around the fighters and for Muslims elsewhere to “extend a helping hand to our family in Somalia, to meet the needs of those afflicted by famine, and to also expend their energies and wealth to back the Jihad [there] until [the country] is liberated from invaders and hypocrites and the state of Islam is set up in it.” He also warned of the repercussions if the Somali jihadists are defeated: “The victory of the Mujahideen in Somalia is a matter of extreme importance, and not backing them [or not] taking their hand is extremely dangerous … because if the limbs are eaten, it is easy for the enemy to devour the heart of the Islamic world.”

Of course, bin Laden's concern is not entirely uninterested. The statement entitled “Fight On, Champions of Somalia,” along with an earlier message addressed to the Palestinians, as Douglas Farah of the International Assessment and Strategy Center noted earlier is week, seems to “indicate he is worried about how relevant he remains in the global Jihadist movement” especially as he is unable to exercise control in any meaningful operational sense.

There are, in addition to considerations of al-Qaeda's strategic communications, other factors in the calculus. As Admiral Denis C. Blair, the Director of National Intelligence, noted last month in reporting the Annual Threat Assessment of the Intelligence Community for the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, given the significant pressure that al-Qaeda has come under from prominent Islamic religious leaders and even fellow extremists on account of the costs which its indiscriminate tactics have exacted on Muslims, the group's leaders “increasingly have highlighted enduring support for the Taliban and the fight in Afghanistan and Pakistan and in other regions where they portray the West being at war with Islam and al-Qaeda as the vanguard of the global terrorist movement.” Furthermore, as Philip Mudd, associate executive assistant director of the National Security Branch of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, told a hearing of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs two weeks ago, al-Shabaab's gains are worrisome precisely because there “are links between al-Shabaab and al-Qaeda associates in the region and elsewhere, and the degree to which Somalia will become another safe haven from which to train, recruit, and then deploy Westerners already there for attacks against their home countries is an open question.”

While some Somali Islamists – most notably Hassan Dahir ‘Aweys, the former head of the Islamic Courts Union's shura who currently leads the Asmara, Eritrea-based wing of the Alliance for the Re-Liberation of Somalia who was interviewed on the television news network al-Arabiya – politely told bin Laden to leave Somali affairs to Somalis, numerous postings on the website of al-Shabaab gloried in the attention paid to them. According to the Somali-language Shabelle news service, Sheikh Hassan Yacquub Ali, a spokesman for the al-Shabaab government in the key southern port city of Kismayo, even called a press conference at which he specifically denounced ‘Aweys and welcomed bin Laden's message. For good measure, last Friday al-Shabaab observed the Muslim “Sabbath” by beheading two wounded religious leaders from an Islamist group, Ahlu Sunna wal-Jama'ah, that had aligned itself with the TFG after al-Shabaab began destroying Sufi and other traditional Muslim shrines last year.

So, what is to be made of the situation in southern Somalia and bin Laden's latest foray into Somali affairs?

First, despite all the wishful thinking with which the international community has invested in Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, he has nothing to show for his first two months in office. I warned of as much when, in my analysis six weeks ago of his farcical “election,” I noted that “while it is entirely possible that Sharif Ahmed's accession to the titular headship of the Somali state could herald an unexpected turnaround, it is probably more likely that the contrived nature of his “election” and the overall dynamics of the ongoing devolution of Somalia are such that it is but prelude to the wholesale unraveling of the transitional framework, opening the way for the conflict in the Horn of Africa to ratchet up to an entirely new level.” In fact, while Sharif Ahmed has made all sorts of promises of both money and concessions – including the imposition of Islamic law – he has yet to make much headway in building a broad-based coalition. In fact, the potential elements of the coalition, including members of the cabinet appointed under Prime Minister Omar Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke (a Canadian national who has lived abroad for nearly four decades and whose family is located in northern Virginia), are held together by little more than the expectation that they will be handsomely paid for their support the TFG. In fact, the TFG is so poorly coordinated when, late last week, Foreign Minister Ali Ahmed Jama Jangeli was dispatched to New York to plead for additional peacekeepers to protect it, Ahmad Abdisalam, the information minister, was going about denying that his colleague was on that very mission when confronted by the vigorous opposition to the presence more foreign troops by elders of the powerful Hawiye clan. The transitional parliament is even more dysfunctional: the fact that its writ barely covers several blocks in Mogadishu did not prevent its members from expanding its existing fourteen committees into twenty-seven panels in a vote Tuesday attended by barely a quorum of a simple majority the bloated 550-seat assembly.

Second, the reality of the situation is that by even the most flexible reading of the Transitional Federal Charter that forms the basis for the TFG has the interim government's mandate expiring within six months. Reports are already coming in that many factions are merely waiting for the time to run out and, surmising that the United Nations will be hesitant to create a blue-helmeted peacekeeping force to replace the under-resourced 3,500-strong African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) – which was recently beefed up by the deployment of a third battalion from the Ugandan People's Defense Force – are stockpiling weapons and recruiting fighters for the anticipated free-for-all for control of central and southern Somalia once the TFG loses even its notional claim to authority. In fact, the TFG's own limited troops seem to have drawn the same conclusion and acted accordingly: the Somali news service Mareeg reported Wednesday that five government soldiers were killed by other forces while they were robbing an aid vehicle.

Third, in the short-term, bin Laden is probably sensing a chance to opportunistically share credit the likely success that al-Shabaab, which already effectively controls large parts of southern Somalia, will enjoy in the eventual scramble. One al-Shabaab leader, Ibrahim Haji Jama, a.k.a. “al-Afghani,” who trained with al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and is a veteran of terrorist campaigns there as well as in Kashmir and in Somaliland, is effectively the governor of the Jubba Valley region, while another, Ahmad Abdi Godane, a.k.a. “Abu Zubeyr,” a Pakistani-schooled cleric who also trained with al-Qaeda in Afghanistan before 9/11, seems have assumed overall leadership the extremist regime in Kismayo. Moreover, al-Shabaab has methodically developed a network throughout Somalia, even in areas which they do not openly rule – at least yet. Hence, even if its fighters do not directly bring it about, al-Shabaab is well-poised to profit from the overthrow of Sharif Ahmed and/or the collapse of the TFG.

Fourth, in a clever ploy, bin Laden may be attempting to lure the United States and its allies into reflexively backing a leader with little chance of success, Sharif Ahmed, just by playing up al-Qaeda's takfiri ideology-motivated opposition to the TFG head. Bin Laden's hope is that his enemies will then become mired as they stubbornly prop up an unpopular losing cause even as his transnational network of extremists turned the country into, as the London-based Arabic newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat headlined it on Monday, “Somalia: Al-Qaeda's Next Battleground.” (In an essay in the current issue of The National Interest, Milton Bearden, the retired Central Intelligence Agency officer who managed the covert assistance program to the Afghans from Pakistan during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, argues that the current U.S. effort in the country is suffering in part because of America's backing for an “unpopular emir” in Kabul. Perhaps bin Laden is counting on U.S. support for an even less legitimate sheikh in Mogadishu.) The security concerns which the United States has in the Horn of Africa do not revolve around the well-being of any single individual or government, but rather need to be viewed through the optic of the sobering assessment of the terrorist threat to American interests in the subregion which was delivered last month by Admiral Blair:

We judge the terrorist threat to U.S. interests in East Africa, primarily from al-Qaeda and al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamic extremists in Somalia and Kenya, will increase in the next year as al-Qaeda's East Africa network continues to plot operations against U.S., Western, and local targets and the influence of the Somalia-based terrorist group al-Shabaab grows. Given the high-profile U.S. role in the region and its perceived direction – in the minds of al-Qaeda and local extremists – of foreign intervention in Somalia, we assess U.S. counterterrorism efforts will be challenged not only by the al-Qaeda operatives in the Horn, but also by Somali extremists and increasing numbers of foreign fighters supporting al-Shabaab's efforts.

Fifth, despite their operational strength and strategic positioning, al-Qaeda's friends in al-Shabaab also face considerable social resistance from the Somali populace precisely because their extremism grates against traditional sensibilities. To cite just one example, earlier this week al-Shabaab faced riots by hundreds of civilians in the Baidoa, the onetime seat of the TFG parliament which the militants overran earlier this year. The cause of the disturbance were restrictions which al-Shabaab had tried to place on the sale and use of qat, ubiquitous evergreen shrub leaves which are chewed by the peoples of the region, especially the Somalis, for its naturally occurring alkaloid cathinone, an amphetamine-like stimulant. The three-hour-long protest began peacefully, but eventually degenerated into stone-throwing by the civilians and shots being fired by al-Shabaab militiamen. Fifty people were arrested by the extremist rulers of the town, according to a Mareeg report. This incident underscores the major weakness of the hardliners, a disadvantage which they have repeatedly attempted overcome by wrapping themselves with the banner of nationalism against non-Somalis openly intervening in support of the succession of weak central authorities.

Like a chess player who opens with a gambit, bin Laden is apparently willing to risk calling attention to his links to al-Shabaab in order to gain time on other fronts and lure his opponents into dividing their attention and forces. While Somalia – or, more accurately, the disorders arising there – present important security challenges to regional and global order, in themselves neither the unitary integrity of the country nor its present, ineffective “government” constitutes a vital strategic interest to the United States. In great game of geopolitics, like in chess, it is necessary to distinguish between the vital and the non-vital pieces on the board, declining to take the obvious bait when the former is not directly at stake.

J. Peter Pham is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. 

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Al Qaeda