One month after Somalia’s al-Shabaab militants stormed Kenya’s Westgate shopping centre, killing sixty-seven people during a four-day siege, the threat from the militant group, and local sympathizers, remains high as officials in Somalia and in the African Union (AU) look towards increasing troop numbers in a bid to completely destroy a group which has transformed itself into a regional threat.
Posters reading “if you haven’t learnt the lesson Westgate, more is coming,” which were posted up last week during rallies held in the southern Somali port of Barawe, an al-Shabaab stronghold, confirm what is already going on throughout the country. Over the past number of months, al-Shabaab has significantly increased its attacks, both within Somalia and near the border regions with Kenya and Ethiopia, both countries which have deployed troops to Somalia in order to combat the militant group. While these attacks will not stop any time soon, recent remarks made by commanders within the group have indicated that al-Shabaab may increasingly place pressure on those states that have deployed troops in Somalia in a bid to force their withdrawal.
While over the past two years, AMISOM forces throughout Somalia have dislodged al-Shabaab from a number of its strongholds, including from the capital city of Mogadishu and the surrounding regions, as well as from the southern port city of Kismayo, the militant group has continued to carry out assassinations of politicians and journalists along with a number of suicide bombings that have targeted troops and security officials. While most of the groups‘ previous attacks have typically been small in scale, al-Shabaab has carried out large scale attacks in Somalia and in the region, such as the June 2013 attack on a UN compound in Mogadishu or the 2010 bombings in Kampala which killed seventy-six people. However this more recent attack on the Nairobi mall has demonstrated a significant and worrying step up in al-Shabaab’s operations, with the group now seemingly increasingly concentrating on attacks that require longer periods of planning and surveillance. Uganda’s announcement last week that it had increased its security level in the capital city of Kampala, after officials from the US Embassy indicated that they had credible information of a possible terror attack linked to al-Shabaab, also signified that the terrorist group may now increasingly focus on targeting regional interests, especially in those countries which have deployed troops to battle the militant group in Somalia. This recent move may also signify that al-Shabaab is turning its focus from Somalia’s internal politics to a more global agenda, similar to al-Qaeda, which the group is aligned with.
The battle to defeat al-Shabaab will now likely have to concentrate not only within Somalia, but also throughout the wider region, including in the countries that have deployed their armies in Somalia, such as Burundi, Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda. While the AU force in Somalia has requested that its size be increased by a quarter, which will amount to 23,000 troops, preventing al-Shabaab from attaining territorial gains within Somalia will not eliminate the group entirely. A UN report recently indicated that “al-Shabaab continues to pose a regional and international threat through its affiliates,” noting that as AU troops have seized more territory throughout Somalia, there has been an “increasing exodus” of foreign fighters, some of whom left “with the intention of supporting jihad in the region.” Last week’s announcement that a Norwegian citizen of Somali origin, 23-year-old Hassan Abdi Dhuhulow, was suspected of being one of the attackers in the Westgate incident confirmed what United Nations experts have already noted. That dozens, if not hundreds, of young men from countries across the Horn of Africa travel to Somalia in order to train with al-Shabaab militants. In turn, it remains unknown whether the Westgate attackers were sent specifically from Somalia, or whether they were a “homegrown” team recruited within Kenya. Consequently increasingly focusing on fighters coming from Western or Arab nations, along with local sympathizers and groups aligned with al-Shabaab across eastern Africa, will be a necessary step in fighting the militant group.
On Monday, United States Secretary of State John Kerry defended the capture of an alleged al-Qaeda leader who was apprehended on Saturday during two raids that were carried out by US commandos in Libya and Somalia. The US Secretary of State has indicated that the operations in Libya and Somalia showed that the US would never stop “in its effort to hold those accountable who conduct acts of terror.”
On Saturday, the Pentagon confirmed that US commandos captured an alleged al-Qaeda leader, Anas al-Libi, who has been suspected of masterminding the 1998 bombings of two US embassies in Africa. His capture was confirmed by his son, Abdullah al-Raghie, who stated that his father was seized by masked gunmen in Tripoli early on Saturday as he was parking outside his house after returning from morning prayers. He has claimed that the Libyan government was implicated in his father’s disappearance, however officials in Tripoli have denied any involvement.
Amidst calls by officials in Libya on Sunday to receive an explanation pertaining to the special forces raid on its territory, US Secretary of State John Kerry defended the capture, stating on Monday that Anas al-Libi was a “legal and appropriate target.” Speaking to the media on the sidelines of an Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation (APEC) summit in Indonesia, the Secretary of State further noted that “with respect to Anas al-Libi, he is a key al-Qaeda figure, and he is a legal and an appropriate target for the US military.” When questioned whether the United States had informed Libya prior to the raid, Kerry refused to confirm or deny, stating only that “we don’t get into the specifics of our communications with a foreign government on any kind of operation of this kind.” The operation to capture Libi has drawn fury from the Libyan government, which has since stated that the operation was unauthorized and that Libi had been kidnapped. Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zeidan’s office has also stated that the Prime Minister has requested full clarification on the raid, stressing that Libya was “keen on prosecuting any Libyan citizen inside Libya.”
According to sources, Anas al-Libi, 49 and whose real name is Nazih Abdul-Hamed al-Ruqai, was married with a daughter and three sons, one of whom was killed in a battle with pro-Kadhafi forces when the rebels entered Tripoli in October 2011. Libi, a computer specialist, left Libya during the early 1990’s when Kadhafi was cracking down on Islamist groups. During that time, Libi joined Bin Laden’s terror organization in Sudan and would later follow the group to Afghanistan before securing political asylum in Britain in 2000. He is believed to have been one of the masterminds behind the 1998 US embassy attacks, which killed more than 200 people in Kenya and Tanzania. On 7 August 1998, a car bomb explosion outside the American embassy in Nairobi killed 213 people, and wounded 5,000. Almost simultaneously, a truck laden with explosives detonated outside the US mission in Tanzania, killed 11 people and leaving another 70 wounded. Al-Qaeda later claimed responsibility for both attacks. When a US court indicted him in connection with the bombings, he fled to Pakistan. Sources have indicated that he returned to Libya shortly after the outbreak of the revolt against Kadhafi, and probably would have fought against the rebels who ousted the longtime dictator.
Libi has been on the FBI’s most wanted list for more than a decade with a US $5 million (£3.1 m) bounty on his head. The raid to capture him came as Western Intelligence agencies increasingly feared that he had been tasked with forming an al-Qaeda network in Libya. According to a US official, shortly after the raid, Libi was taken to a US Navy warship in the region, where he was being questioned. This was confirmed by the Pentagon, which stated that he was being “lawfully detained under the law of war in a secure location” outside Libya. The operation in Tripoli ended a thirteen-year manhunt for Libi who was one of the last remaining high-level operatives from the core terror network that was established by bin Laden in the 1990‘s. His arrest paves the way for his extradition to New York to face trial.
With authorities and officials in Libya insisting that they were unaware of the US operation, the capture of the senior al-Qaeda militant is definitely an embarrassment for the fledgling government and could result in outrage amongst the country’s Islamist extremists. While authorities in Libya have been struggling to assert control over the countless numbers of militias that emerged during the 2011 uprising against Moamer Kadhafi, many militias have refused to disarm and effectively now control large portions of the country. Some of the militias in question include hardline Islamists who have accused the post-Kadhafi government of being too close to the West. In turn, reactions to his capture in Libya have been mixed, effectively demonstrating the divide in the country amongst Islamists and their secular opponents.
While the operation in Libya achieved its objective, it remains unclear whether the raid on a beachfront villa in southern Somalia was a success.
On Saturday, US commandos carried out an operation to capture one of the leaders of al-Shabaab however unconfirmed reports have indicated that SEAL commandos were forced to withdraw before confirming the kill. Reports have indicated that the mission was aborted after the commandos encountered fierce resistance from al-Shabaab fighters. The operation, which was carried out by members of SEAL Team Six, the same unit that killed Osama Bin Laden, occured Barawe, which is located 180 kilometers (110 miles) south of the capital city of Mogadishu. A US official has identified the militant as Ikrima, a Kenyan of Somali origin, however Washington has yet to formally name the intended target. When asked on Sunday as to whether officials in Somalia had been aware of the raid, Prime Minister Abdi Farah Shirdon Saaid stated that “our co-operation with international partners on fighting against terrorism is not a secret.”
In response to the raid, an al-Shabaab military operations spokesman, Sheikh Abdiasis Abu Musab, a fighter was killed during the raid. Al-Shabaab’s commander in the southern Somali port of Barawe, Mohamed Abu Suleiman, also noted that “the enemy of Allah tried to surprise the mujahedeen commanders with a night attack using a military helicopter, but they were taught a lesson and they have failed.” Residents of Barawe reported they were woken by heavy gunfire before dawn prayers and some of them saw commandos, presumed to be from a Western nation, rappelling from a helicopter and attempting to storm a house belonging to a senior al-Shabaab commander. Local media has also reported that two helicopters were involved in the raid. By Saturday morning, residents reported that al-Shabaab militants were heavily deployed on the streets of the town.
The raid comes shortly after al-Shabaab confirmed that it had carried out last month’s attack on the Westgate shopping centre in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, leaving at least sixty-seven people dead. Sources have indicated that while Ikrimah was not linked to that attack, the raid has prompted fears that the target could be planning a similar assault on other Western targets in the region.
Multiple nations currently operation Special Forces in the wider Horn of Africa region, and many have carried out similar missions in the past. In recent years, both US and French Special Forces have carried out raids on coastal targets in Somalia. Last year, US Navy Seals flying at least six military helicopters carried out an operation to rescue two aid workers held by pirates in northern Somalia. Washington has also used drones in Somalia to support the local government and African Union (AU) forces in their battle against al-Shabaab militants. And earlier this year, France carried out an unsuccessful raid to free a French intelligence agent. On 12 January, elite French forces carried out an overnight operation, involving some fifty troops and at least five helicopters, in southern Somalia. Two French commandos were killed and al-Shabaab later reported that it had killed the agent. With minimal information being released pertaining to Saturday’s raid, it currently remains unclear whether either of these countries was involved. Furthermore, Western navies are present in the region, patrolling the seas off Somalia, which has been beset by conflict for more than two decades. While they have been tasked with fighting piracy, in 2009, US Navy commandos attacked and killed an al-Qaeda leader, Kenyan-born Saleh Ali Nabhan, during a daylight raid on Barawe.
Nearly one year into its mandate, the internationally-backed government in Somalia continues to struggle as it’s first anniversary in power approaches. Al-Qaeda-inspired fighters, breakaway regions, coupled with rival clans and an ongoing climate of insecurity are the continuing threats that are jeopardizing the current government’s initiatives of concluding decades of anarchy. Although the current government was the first to attain global recognition since the collapse of the hardline regime in 1991, and has since seen billions in foreign aid being poured into the country, officials within the country have struggled to maintain security. Somalia has taken steps forward, particularly in the coastal capital city of Mogadishu, which is now busy with laborers rebuilding after al-Shabaab fighters fled their city two years ago. However the situation throughout the rest of the country continues to remain bleak. Outside the city, the weak central government continues to maintain minimal influence as much of the country is fractured into autonomous regions, including the self-declared northern Somaliland. Earlier this month, the northeast region of Puntland cut ties with the central government while in the far south, self-declared leaders in the Jubbaland region continue to defy Mogadishu’s authorities. In turn, multiple armies are fighting for control of southern Somalia, including rival warlords, Islamist extremists and a national army that is backed by the 17,700-strong African Union (AU) force. Al-Shabaab too remain powerful, despite losing a string of key towns and leaders, the terrorist group continues to carry out attacks. A suicide attack on a UN compound in June of this year demonstrated al-Shabaab’s ability to strike at the heart of the capital’s most secure areas. Last month, a report released by the UN Monitoring Group estimated that al-Shabaab still have some 5,000 militants within its group and that they remain the “principal threat to peace and security in Somalia.” Aid workers are struggling to contain a dangerous outbreak of polio, with the UN warning that while more than one hundred cases have been recorded, there are “probably thousands more with the virus.” Compounding the problem is an almost impossible environment for aid workers. In a major blow this month, Doctors Without Borders (MSF), an aid agency used to working in the world’s most dangerous places, pulled out of Somalia after two decades of providing aid in the country. The agency cited that it could no longer put up with a “barrage of attacks,” including kidnappings, threats, lootings and murder. Over a million Somalis are refugees in surrounding nations and another million are displaced inside the country, often in terrible conditions, with the UN warning of “pervasive” sexual violence.
A car has exploded inside the main market in Somalia’s capital city after a hand grenade was thrown into a vehicle which was carrying four police officials. At least one person has been killed in the attack, proving that despite recent infighting inside al-Shabaab, including the recent killing of top leaders, the extremist group is far from defeated and continues to be a severe threat to security within Mogadishu and the rest of Somalia. The attack comes just one day after Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud’s plane caught on fire, forcing the president to route back to Mogadishu.
According to police officials, the four-wheel drive vehicle caught fire after a homemade bomb was detonated at about 10:30 local time (07:30 GMT) in the capital’s main market. Sources on the ground have indicated that officers from a nearby police station rushed to the scene, shooting in the air in order to disperse the crowd. A police source in Mogadishu has confirmed that four of the police officers inside the vehicle were wounded. The market was partially closed for several hours while an investigation into the attacks is currently underway.
Al-Shabaab spokesman Abdulaziz Abu Musab has indicated that the militant group’s fighters had set off an improvised explosive device which targeted security officials in Mogadishu’s Bakara market. The militant group has claimed to have killed three officials and wounded three others.
Business has been booming in Bakara market over the last two years. Although insecurity remains to be an issue throughout the capital city there have not been many recent attacks in Bakara market. The attack was carried out on the eve of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which is one of the busiest shopping days. The Somali Federal Government has also warned the public that Islamist militants may increase their activity over the following month. In previous years, the month of Ramadan, which is expected to start this week, has witnessed a surge in al-Shabaab attacks as gunmen have been urged to carry out attacks by their extremist preachers. In a bid to topple the internationally-backed Somali government, al-Shabaab militants have launched a string of attacks, including a daylight attack last month on a fortified United Nations compound.
Meanwhile a plane carrying the Somali president was forced to make an emergency landing in Mogadishu after one of its engines reportedly caught fire. A spokesman for President Hassan Sheikh Mohamed confirmed the incident, stating that it was not immediately clear why the engine had stopped working. According to local reports, the President was not injured however fire fighters quickly arrived at the scene in order to put out the flames. The President was flying to the South Sudan capital of Juba when his flight was forced to turn round.
News of the incident was first reported on a Twitter feed that is run by al-Shabaab, however the report did not indicated that the militant group had attacked the plane.
An apparently accidental publication of a diplomatic letter has exposed a rift between the Somali Federal Government and Kenyan troops. The letter accuses the Kenyan army of causing recent faction fighting, which has left at least sixty-five dead in the southern port city of Kismayo. Kenyan troops are in Somalia as part of the African Union (AU) force who is currently battling Islamist militants in support of the United Nations-backed government. Kenyan authorities have yet to comment on the letter.
The letter, which is titled as “Extremely Urgent – Kismayo conflict,” is from the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Fawzia Yusuf Adam. He is also the deputy prime minister to the African Union. The letter accuses Kenyan troops, who are part of the AU’s peacekeeping force, known as AMISOM, of not being neutral peacekeepers and that instead, they are attempting to create a buffer state, known as Jubbaland, within Somalia, which will be run by local politicians that they can control. It further indicates that the Kenyan Defence Force (KDF), which is backed by one Somalia faction against others, arrested a senior Somali government army officer and used heavy weapons in civilian areas. According to the letter, the “incompetence” of the Kenyan commander of AMISOM in southern Somalia is said to have caused an outbreak of recent fighting in the southern port city of Kismayo which has led to a “preliminary” count of 65 dead and 155 injured. According to on-the-ground reports in Mogadishu, the letter appears to have been emailed to journalists accidentally after someone had mistakenly included the Prime Minister’s “press contacts” into the email recipients’ list.
The letter calls for the “immediate deployment” of a multinational African peacekeeping force to take over control in southern Somalia in a bid to calm the situation, which threatens to destabilize a region of the country which continues to be threatened by al-Shabaab militants. Although the Kenyan AMISOM contingent was recently reinforced by several hundred troops from Sierra Leone, Sierra Leoneans are “embedded” inside the Kenyan units. As such, the KDF continues to be the dominating force in this region of Somalia, which has been classified by AMISOM as “Sector 2.” While the letter highlights the need for a multinational deployment in the region, it does not go as far as to say that Kenyan troops should be replaced. Instead, it pointedly states that new “political officers” should be appointed for the area “whose nationalities will be different from the AMISOM contingent in Sector 2.”
Although Kenyan authorities have not yet officially responded or made any comments pertaining to the newly released diplomatic letter, the Kenyan army has previously insisted that it was neutral in its dealing with Somalia and that it was only attempting to bring peace to its neighbor. However this is not the first time that the Kenyan troops have been accused of backing a militia force, which opposed the central Somali government in Mogadishu. Over the past several weeks, authorities in Somalia have accused Kenyan troops of supporting militia soldiers “in violation of their mandate,” as well as attacking civilians and arresting a top government army commander. These accusations culminated in the Somali government demanding several days ago that Kenyan troops stationed in Kismayo be replaced. With the accidental release of this confidential diplomatic letter, it appears that this time the Somali government’s accusation may confirm suspicions in the region that while Kenya’s troops are a part of AMISOM, they may also have their own agenda – to create a buffer zone to prevent further cross-border attacks which have plagued the border region ever since Kenya deployed its troops in Somalia in 2011. Kenyan forces seized Kismayo, which is located 480 km (300 miles) south of Mogadishu, from al-Shabaab in October 2012. Currently, there are several self-declared presidents of Jubbaland and the central government in Mogadishu does not recognize neither one of them. Although Somali and AU forces have driven al-Shabaab militants out of a number of major cities, its fighters still control the smaller towns and rural areas located in central and southern Somalia, where they have been able to launch attacks within government-controlled territory.