One of al-Shabaab’s top commanders vowed Thursday to redirect the militant group’s war to neighboring Kenya, urging fighters to launch attacks.
In a radio broadcast, Fuad Mohamed Khalaf, one of al-Shabaab’s most senior commanders stated “the war will be shifting to Kenya, if they kill a Somali girl we kill a Kenyan girl,” adding “we are urging all Muslims in Kenya…to fight the government of Kenya inside the country, because Kenyans killed your people including children.” Khalaf, who is viewed as second in command after chief Ahmed Abdi Godane, also noted “when their soldiers and war planes kill your people, God permits you to retaliate accordingly, we will fight the Kenyans.” This remark is likely linked to the recent air strikes that have targeted al-Shabaab bases in southern Somalia. The speech comes just days after fighters jets, believed to be from Kenya, struck al-Shabaab strongholds in southern Somalia earlier this week. The air strikes are part of the latest push by African Union (AU) forces against the militant group.
The United States has offered a US $5 million bounty for Khalaf, who holds both Somali and Swedish nationality. Khalaf, who the US says is both an al-Shabaab military commander and key fundraiser, reportedly spent over a decade in the Swedish capital Stockholm.
In the past few months, Kenya has seen a sharp rise in attacks on its soil, many of which have been linked to Islamist extremists. This rise demonstrates al-Shabaab’s shift in tactics, moving its focus partially from Somalia and more onto Kenya in the hopes that the Kenyan government will withdraw its troops from the Somali mission. This increase in attacks has prompted countries such as France, Britain, Australia and the United States to issue travel warnings. They have advised their nationals to avoid the coastal city of Mombasa and the capital, Nairobi. Last week, a double bomb attack in a Nairobi market left ten people dead and scores wounded, with more similar attacks likely to occur in the coming months.
On Tuesday, the AU force in Somalia confirmed that it had conducted new air strikes against a rebel base in the southern region of Somalia, the second air strike to be carried out in the past three days.
A statement issued by AMISOM indicates that its planes were after “senior leadership and foreign al-Shabaab fighters, at a base located near the town of Jilib, in Somalia’s Middle Jubba region. The statement also claimed that fifty insurgents were killed in the attack, which “further debilitated al-Shabaab’s capacity to wreak havoc and terrorize innocent Somali civilians.” A spokesman for al-Shabaab however has stated that only farmland was hit and that five civilians were wounded, adding “the claim of AMISOM is baseless and pure propaganda.” Witnesses in the area have reported that there were several civilians hurt, however they had not information on any al-Shabaab casualties. One local resident, Moalim Hassan, stated “we heard very big explosions as military jets flew over the town. Two of the bombs landed near Faragurow village leaving four civilians wounded but we don’t know about other casualties they may have caused.” The airstrikes on the town of Jilib are understood to be part of the offensive by the 22,000-strong UN-backed African Union force, who in March launched a fresh bid to gain control of the remaining towns under al-Shabaab’s control. The impoverished town is a key al-Shabaab hub in southern Somalia’s Middle Jubba region, and is located some 320 kilometers (200 miles) southwest of Mogadishu. It remains unclear where the jets are from, however Kenya, which is part of the AU force, has used its jets to strike al-Shabaab bases before.
Following a wave of attacks and unrest, which have been linked to Islamist extremists, a number of countries have increased their warnings against travel to Kenya’s port city of Mombasa. Australia, Britain and France have advised their nationals to avoid the coastal city. These travel advisories however will also likely deal a new blow to Kenya’s already embattled tourism sector as avoiding Mombasa complicates travel to the nearby beach resorts.
Last week, Britain’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) became the latest country to warn its citizens against “all but essential travel to Mombasa,” citing “recent terrorist attacks and the continuing terrorist threat in the area.” Australia has also updated its travel advice, urging its nationals to “reconsider their need to travel” to both Mombasa and to the capital city, Nairobi, which has also been targeted by a number of bombings in recent weeks. Meanwhile France has advised against all non-essential travel to Mombasa city, and has urged extra vigilance during stays in the nearby beach resort of Diani, which is situated to the south of the city.
In the wake of the British Foreign Office’s heightened travel alert, officials and tour operators confirmed Friday that hundreds of British tourists were being evacuated from beach resorts near Kenya’s coastal city of Mombasa. Special charter flights have been organized just days after Australia, Britain, France and the United States issued new travel warnings for Kenya’s coast following a wave of attacks and unrest, which has been linked to al-Shabaab militants.
Meanwhile Thomson and First Choice, which are owned by London-listed TUI Travel, Europe’s largest tour operator, has also indicated that they have decided to cancel all flights to the coastal city until November 2014. A statement released by Thomson and First Choice stated “as a result of the change in FCO advice, the decision has been taken to cancel all our outbound flights to Mombasa, Kenya up to and including 31 October,” adding “as a precautionary measure, we have also taken the decision to repatriate all customers currently on holiday in Kenya back to the UK.”
In the wake of these new warnings, the Kenyan government has expressed “disappointment” and has accused countries that are telling tourists to stay away of “unfriendly acts.”
On Thursday, Kenya’s Foreign Ministry gave an angry response to the warnings. A statement released by the Kenyan government stated that “the advisories…are obviously unfriendly acts coming from our partners who have equally borne the brunt of global terrorism and no doubt understand the repercussions of terror,” adding “issuance of such travel advisories only plays to the whims of bad elements in society whose aim is to spread fear and panic.” Last month, Kenyan officials confirmed that the number of foreign visitors to the country, which is a top safari and beach destination, had declined by 11 percent in 2013. The current year is expected to also see a massive drop, particularly in the wake of the September 2013 attack on the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, which was claimed by al-Shabaab.
Despite opposition from the Kenyan government, the threat of terrorist attacks in Kenya remains high, as evidenced by the latest attack, which was carried out on Friday.
Kenya’s National Disaster Operation Centre confirmed Friday that at least ten people have been killed and seventy others wounded in two explosions that occurred in a busy market area of Nairobi. According to officials at the center, the first blast occurred on a 14-seater matatu, or public minibus, while the second occurred inside Gikomba Market, which is situated to the east of Nairobi’s central business district. Sources have indicated that two people have been arrested near the scene of the explosions.
Four videos and one audio link related to al Qaeda have emerged. An audio release was published on 18 April on the radical Islamist site, Hanein, containing an hour-long question and answer interview AQ’s media group, al-Sahab, and reportedly including al Qaeda’s global leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri. In the discussion, Zawahiri states that al Qaeda is “holding strong” despite the ongoing war on terror that began nearly 13 years ago, even adding that US President Obama is aware that AQ is growing. Al Zawahiri states, “The upper hand is for the one who does not withdraw from his land. Who has withdrawn from Iraq, and who has not? Who has withdrawn from Afghanistan and who has not?”
In Egypt, a the militant group Anjad Misr (Soldiers of Egypt) claimed responsibility for attacks in Cairo on April 10, 15, and 18 on their Facebook and Twitter pages. The group also released video of eight previous attacks. Their stated goal is to target members of the current regime, which they consider “criminal” since the overthrow of Muslim Brotherhood-backed president Mohamed Morsi. The group’s statement asserts that Anjad Misr does not intend to harm civilians, and has aborted or altered some operations out of concern for civilians in the area. However, the statement said that the group is prepared to receive “information about the movements of the officers and personnel of the criminal services, and their addresses.”
This statement coincides with al Zawahiri’s audio message: he calls the Egyptian army “Americanized” and said they should be fought: “We bless every jihadi operation against the Zionists and the Americanized army that protects their borders and the criminal of the Interior, and fights the American interests that assault the Muslims.”
In Somalia, a video from al-Shabaab, the Somali-based al Qaeda affiliate, has also emerged. In the video, members of the militant group reflect on the siege of Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya. The attack resulted in 67 deaths and is one of the bloodiest events associated with the group. However, in the video, the group states that more is likely to come: “It’s not that Westgate was enough. There are still hundreds of men who are wishing for such an operation.”
A final video shows what may be the largest al Qaeda gathering in years. Nasir al-Wuhayshi, the head of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the Number Two for global al Qaeda operations, appears in Yemen, greeting his followers. The video shows al-Wuhayshi delivering a speech containing specific threats to the United States: “We must eliminate the cross. … The bearer of the cross is America!”
Analysts believe the video is authentic, and because some faces were blurred out, it may suggest that those individuals may be involved in upcoming plots.
Security officials in Somalia confirmed Tuesday that a suicide bomber had struck a vehicle packed full of explosives into a hotel in a southern town, just days after it was recaptured by Government forces from al-Shabaab. According to security official Sulieman Adam, “there was a suicide attack involving terrorists at a hotel in Buulo Burde,” where African Union (AU) peacekeepers and Somali army commanders were staying. According to the official, the blast happened at 02:00 local time (23:00 GMT) with fighting continuing until about 07:00. About fourteen people, mainly fighters from both sides, were killed, with another twenty-four wounded and taken to hospital.
A spokesman for al-Shabaab has confirmed that the militant group was behind the attack, stating that thirty AU and army commanders had been killed. Authorities however have yet to comment on the attack. Reports have indicated that communications to the central Hiran region went down not long after the fighting and gunfire ended.
The attack on the hotel in the strategic central town comes after the militants lost control of Buulo Burde last week. It was captured as part of an on going AU and government offensive against al-Shabaab, which continues to control much of southern and central Somalia. On the ground sources have indicated that al-Shabaab had occupied Buulo Burde for more than five years. The town, which has a strategic bridge over the River Shabelle and is at a crossroads linking various regions of the country, was an important base for al-Shabaab.
The incident in Buulo Burde came as a convoy of African Union’s AMISOM force was targeted by a car bomb just outside the Somali capital on Monday. The attack took place near a checkpoint on the road linking Mogadishu and the town of Afgoye. A witness reported that “…a suicide bomber rammed his car into an AMISOM convoy,” adding that “there was a heavy explosion at the Alamada area…, we don’t know about the casualties but I saw military ambulances rushing to the scene.” A Somali military official, Omar Adan, confirmed the attack however declined to give the number of casualties. Mr. Adan blamed militants from al-Shabaab, stating “al-Qaeda linked militants, who have lost ground, are attempting desperate attacks.”
Although al-Shabaab has claimed responsibility for the attack, stating that seven Burundian peacekeepers and five American nations travelling in the vehicles were killed on Monday afternoon, AMISOM spokesman Col. Ali Adan Humad has denied that there were any casualties. Monday’s attack came just days after a car bomb went off in central Mogadishu near a hotel popular with government officials and businessmen. Saturday’s attack injured at least one person, however so far no claims of responsibility for the attack have been made.
In February alone, major attacks in Mogadishu have included a car bomb at the gates of the airport, a major suicide attack on the presidential palace and a car bombing on a café located close to the intelligence headquarters.
Meanwhile, Kenyan police authorities indicated Monday that they had arrested two men who were driving a vehicle packed with explosives in the Indian Ocean resort city of Mombasa. According to Henry Ondiek of the Mombasa Criminal Investigation Department, “we have not established where the target was, but we have detained two terror suspects who were in the vehicle,” adding “we were tipped off that the two were headed for an attack on an unspecified place and we laid an ambush and got them.” One police source indicated that the two men were of Somali origin, signalling that they were likely members or supporters of Somalia’s al-Shabaab militant group. According to Kenyan police, two homemade bombs were found in the vehicle, along with a mobile phone, which could have been used as a detonator. The arrest of the two suspected terrorists comes after Kenya’s top security chiefs warned last month of “increased threats of radicalization” from home-grown Islamists, singling out Mombasa’s Musa mosque as a specific centre encouraging extremism, along with two others. Over the past several years, Kenya has suffered a string of attacks, which have all been blamed on al-Shabaab, including the September 2013 massacre in Nairobi’s Westgate mall in which at least sixty-seven people were killed.
The United Nations has launched a human rights investigation into the on-going violence that is taking place in the Central African Republic (CAR). The launch of the investigation comes after the UN Security Council ordered an inquiry in December to identify suspects who could be prosecuted for the violence. On Monday, inquiry head Bernard Acho Muna indicated that he hoped the presence of investigators in the CAR would help prevent genocide. The Cameroonian judge added that “we have to put an end to the impunity,” noting that the “hate propaganda” in the CAR was similar to that in Rwanda before the 1994 genocide that killed about 800,000 people. Speaking at a press conference in Geneva, before heading for the CAR, Mr Muna stated “we don’t wait until genocide is committed and then we call for prosecution….I think it is in our mandate to see how one can stop any advances toward genocide.” The inquiry will “…present to the Security Council a complete file so that the appropriate action can be taken.” A team of UN investigators will arrive in Bangui on Tuesday to begin interviewing Christian and Muslim victims of attacks, as well as senior political and military officials and activist groups. The commission, which includes former Mexican foreign minister Jorge Castaneda and Fatimata M’Baye, a lawyer from Mauritania, will spend two weeks in the CAR and will also look into Chad’s role in the violence. They will then draw up a confidential list of suspects for eventual prosecution, which will be submitted to world powers later this year. They will also be in touch with a preliminary inquiry, which will be carried out by the International Criminal Court (ICC).
Since the beginning of the conflict last year, thousands of people have been killed while the UN’s World Food Programme (WFP) says that about 1.3 million people, a quarter of the population, are in need of aid. Tens of thousand of Muslims have also fled the country as Christian militias have stepped up their attacks since the forced resignation of the CAR’s first Muslim ruler, Michel Djotodia, in January 2014. Many Muslims have crossed the borders into neighbouring Cameroon and Chad, while thousands more are living in camps inside the CAR. Although interim President Catherine Samba Panza has appealed for an end to the bloodshed, this appeal has gone with little success.
On Friday, UN aid chief Valerie Amos announced that fewer than 1,000, of the more than 100,000 Muslims who once lived in the capital city, remain in Bangui.
Somali Forces Launch Operations to Retake al-Shabaab Controlled Regions
Officials indicated Monday that African peacekeepers, operating alongside government forces, have recaptured several strategic towns in the south-western region of Somalia. The recapture comes just days after the African Union’s AMISOM force announced that it had launched a wide scale offensive against al-Shabaab militants in areas located near the Ethiopian border. The operation to remove the militant group from its last remaining strongholds in central and southern Somalia also comes in the wake of a sure of attacks in the country’s capital, Mogadishu, where al-Shabaab continues its bid to oust the internationally-backed government.
Speaking to reports, regional government official Abdulahi Yarisow confirmed the operations, stating “AMISOM and the Somali troops kicked al-Shabaab out of several key towns including Wajid and regional capital Hudur,” adding that “our military advancement will continue until we eliminate the enemy from the rest of the country.” A statement released by AMISOM indicated that troops had secured the towns of Ted, Rabdhure and Buudhubow, effectively driving out al-Shabaab militants from the area. The statement added that “the SNA (Somali National Army) and AMISOM joint operations signal the beginning of the renewed efforts by the Somali government forces working more closely with AMISOM forces to dislodge al-Shabaab from many of its strongholds across the country.”
Although Hudur had been captured from al-Shabaab by Ethiopian troops in March 2012, their withdrawal from the region resulted in the town falling back into the control of al-Shabaab.