A video, purported to be by Somalia’s al-Qaeda-linked militant group al-Shabaab, is urging Muslims to attack shopping malls in the United States, Canada, Britain as well as other Western countries. The video comes just days after the militant group carried out a major attack in central Mogadishu, which targeted ministers of the internationally-backed government.
The threat, urging attacks on Western shopping malls, came in the final minutes of a more than hour-long video in which the extremist group also warned neighbouring Kenya of more attacks, similar to the September 2013 assault that targeted the Westgate Shopping Centre in Nairobi, in which 67 people were killed. The newly released video depicted footage from major news organizations showing the assault on the mall and said that it was in reprisal for alleged abuses by Kenyan troops against Muslims in Somalia.
The masked narrator concluded the video by calling on Muslims to attack shopping malls, specifically the Mall of America in Minnesota, as well as the West Edmonton Mall in Canada and the Westfield Mall in Stratford, England. The narrator, who had his face wrapped in a black-and-white scarf and was wearing a camouflage jacket, spoke with a British accent and appeared to be of Somali origin. Speaking in the video, the man stated, “what if such an attack were to occur in the Mall of American in Minnesota? Or the West Edmonton Mall in Canada? Or in London’s Oxford Street?” He then called for Britain’s Westfield shopping centre to be targeted.
In response to the video, US Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson has urged people to remain vigilant, adding that he took the threat serious. Speaking on morning talks show in the US on Sunday, Mr Johnson called the video “the new phase” of the global terrorist threat, stating “these groups are relying more and more on independent actors to become inspired, drawn to the cause and they’ll attack on their own,” adding “I am very concerned about serious potential threats of independent actors here in the United States. We’ve seen this now in Europe, we’ve seen this in Canada.” When asked about the specific threat against the Mall of America, Mr Johnson stated, “any time a terrorist organization calls for an attack on a specific place we’ve got to take that seriously. What we’re telling the public is you’ve got to be vigilant…. There will be enhanced security there that will be apparent, but public vigilance, public awareness and public caution in situations like this is particularly important. It’s the environment we’re in.”
A statement released by the Mall of America, which is located in Bloomington, Minnesota and which is one of the nation’s largest shopping centre’s, indicated that officials are “aware of a threatening video which includes a mention and images of the mall,” adding that additional security have been put in place. On the ground sources have reported that shoppers seemed undeterred Sunday by threat.
In Kenya, the government has dismissed the new video. Interior Ministry spokesman Mwenda Njoka stated Sunday that al-Shabaab is “…using propaganda to legitimize what cannot be legitimized. When you lead a group to go and attack a shopping mall and kill innocent shoppers that cannot be legitimized, those were not soldiers…. Muslims also died in the Westgate attack. It’s in our interest to ensure Somalia is stabilized because the instability affects us. The video is cheap propaganda trying to re-write history and to get more support from those (who) support them.”
Although al-Shabaab has carried out attacks in neighbouring Kenya, Uganda and Djibouti, which all have troops that are fighting the extremist group as part of the multinational African Union (AU) force, al-Shabaab, which is affiliated with al-Qaeda, has never operated outside East Africa and the Horn of Africa. Minnesota, which is home to the largest Somali population in the United States, has been the target of terror recruiters in the past. Since 2007, more than 22 young Somali men from Minnesota have travelled to Somalia in a bid to join al-Shabaab. Authorities have reported that within the last year a handful of Minnesota residents have also travelled to Syria to fight with militant groups operating in the region. At least one Minnesotan has died while fighting for the Islamic State group.
On Thursday, a 19-year-old Minneapolis man, who was stopped at a New York City airport in November 2014 as he ant three others were allegedly attempting to travel to Syria, was indicted on charges associated with supporting the Islamic State group.
Just one day after a car bombing targeted a popular café in central Mogadishu another bomb tore through a senior policeman’s car on Monday, wounding at least two.
According to police major Ahmed Kassim, Monday’s attack occurred after a bomb was planted in the car of the police chief of the city’s Blacksea area, located near the busy Bakara market, with the car exploding “…as two mechanics started the engines…” to test it. No one has claimed responsibility for the attack, which wounded the two mechanics that were working on the car. The attack however is the third to occur in the capital city in the past twenty-four hours.
On Sunday, at least thirteen people were killed and eight others injured after a car bomb exploded outside a popular café in the capital city. According to a senior police official, the incident occurred near the Aroma café, located on Maka Al Mukaram road, with the bomb believed to have been detonated by remote control. Most of those killed in the attack were sitting outside the café. Somali government soldiers were deployed to the area shortly after the incident.
Just hours after the bombing at the café, suspected Islamist militants launched five shells at an area where the president was due to speak. The attack occurred in the Huriwa district, where President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud was due to attend celebrations marking the anniversary of Somali receiving its flag. Officials have not reported any casualties in that incident, and the President was able to attend the celebrations once security forces cleared the area.
While no group has claimed responsibility for these attacks, al-Shabaab is likely behind them, as the militant group has vowed to avenge the death of its leader, Ahmed Abdi Godane, who was killed in September in a US airstrike. The militant group has launched a string of bomb and gun attacks in Mogadishu, and in other city centres across the country, keeping up with its promise to step up action after African Union (AIMSOM) and Somali troops pushed them out of their remaining coastal stronghold a week ago. The loss of Barawe port on 5 October also means that al-Shabaab has lost a key economic source.
While the loss of Barawe coupled with US military air strikes that killed its leader last month, have dealt a severe blow to the militant group, which has been seeking to topple the internationally-backed government and to drive out African Union peacekeepers, it remains too soon to declare a victory over the group, which is skilled at guerrilla warfare.
The latest attacks to target Mogadishu also come as United Nations investigators warn in new report that Somalia’s new government remains corrupt and that al-Shabaab militants are as deadly as ever.
The new 482-page report, put forth by the UN Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea, disclosed, “underlying corruption as a system of governance has not yet fundamentally changed and, in some cases, arguably has worsened.” UN experts have indicated that financially, they have “consistently found patterns of misappropriation with diversion rates of between 70 and 80 percent,” adding “the indications are that diverted funds are used for partisan agendas that constitute threats to peace and security.” According to the report, a third of revenues from the capital’s busy seaport, which is a key source of income that totals millions of dollars for the internationally funded government, cannot be accounted for.
While the UN Security Council in 2013 allowed for a partial lifting of an arms embargo on Somalia, the new report discloses, “some of the weapons and ammunition have been diverted to arms markets in Mogadishu.” According to UN experts, weapons initially sent to the national army to defend the country’s internationally backed government, have instead been seen on open sale in at least one market where al-Shabaab militants are known to have purchased arms. This is particularly worrisome as al-Shabaab has begun to shift its tactics as the militant group faces sustained military assaults by the AU force and repeated air strikes, such as those that killed its chief last month.
The report warns that in the long term, air and drone strikes will achieve minimal damage to the militant group, noting, “strategic airstrikes have in general resulted in short terms gains but significantly failed to diminish al-Shabaab’s operation capacity…there is no current evidence that they have the potential to ‘degrade and destroy’ al-Shabaab.” This was particularly evidenced over this past weekend, as despite being pushed out of a key stronghold earlier this month, al-Shabaab militants were able to stage three attacks in the capital city, demonstrating that the militant group remains active in key areas across the country. Furthermore, while the loss of the port town of Barawe, including the loss of funding through the multi-million dollar trade of charcoal, will likely have some financial impact on the militant group, the trade continues unabated and militants will continue to profit as they continue to control production sites and truck checkpoints. According to UN experts, al-Shabaab have also increased their use of bombs, including the “noticeable” introduction of magnetic vehicle bombs, a tactic that was previously commonly used in Afghanistan and Iraq. The use of such car bombs in Somalia likely represents “…a transfer of battlefield knowledge to Somalia.”
Outside of Somalia, the militant group continues to pose a regional threat, as the military operations in southern and central Somalia have effectively forced al-Shabaab fighters to “become more operationally audacious by placing greater emphasis on exporting its violence beyond the borders of Somalia” and across the Horn of Africa.
On Monday, Somali military commanders celebrated the capture of the last major port city held by al-Shabaab insurgents as security forces secured control of the town for the first time in over two decades.
On Sunday, local officials reported that Somali government troops, backed by African Union (AU) forces, had captured one of al-Shabaab’s remaining strategic strongholds in Somalia. Sources reported that the key port town of Barawe, located 200 kilometres (125 miles) south of Mogadishu, was now under the control of the Somali army and AU forces. The operation was launched Friday, with residents reporting that many of the al-Qaeda-linked militants had begun to withdraw from the key port town before troops began to arrive.
Speaking to hundreds of residents on Monday, Somali military commander Abdirisak Khalif Elmi confirmed that “al-Shabaab are no longer in Barawe,” and called on citizens to support the government. Tanks and armoured vehicles were seen patrolling the town Monday, as government forces continued operations to secure the port city. While some troops conducted house-to-house searches for weapons, the majority of soldiers were setting up bases just outside the town. Residents reported Monday that the port city was quiet, with no fighting. A statement released by the AU’s AMISOM force, which includes 22,000 soldiers from six nations, indicated that Barawe fell without “much resistance from the terrorist group.”
According to AU officials, the port town, which had been under the control of al-Shabaab for the past six years, was being used by the militant group as a base to launch attacks in the central and southern regions of Somalia, specifically the capital city. The port city was also a major source of revenue for the militant group. According to UN estimates, al-Shabaab exported charcoal through Barawe to Gulf countries, earning at least US $25 million a year from the trade, which was then used to fund their operations. It is seen as a major blow to the insurgents and comes just one month after the death of their leader Ahmed Abdi Godane, who was killed in a US air and drone strike. In the wake of their leader’s death, al-Shabaab vowed to avenge their leader’s death and to continue their fight to topple the country’s internationally backed government. On Saturday, al-Shabaab commander Mohamed Abu Abdallah reiterated that the militia would continue to stage attacks.
Over the past several months, al-Shabaab has lost several key towns as Somali and AU forces launched a new offensive to force the militant group out of their remaining strongholds in the central and southern regions of the country. The group however continues to control large territory in rural areas, which will likely be the next focus of the offensive once the major towns in the region have been secured. Al-Shabaab is known to tactically withdraw from areas when faced with a large offensive, however some fighters usually remain to launch attacks at a later point. It is likely that some militants may have stayed back in Barawe in a bid to launch attacks in the port city.
In what appears to be a sign that the militant group has not been shaken by air strikes that killed its leader exactly a week ago, on Monday al-Shabaab militants carried out a suicide bombing that targeted African Union (AU) troops in Somalia.
According to local governor Abdukadir Mohamed Sidi, a car laden with explosives struck an AU convoy as it was travelling southwest of the capital city, Mogadishu. The attack took place on the road between Mogadishu and Afgoye town, which is located 30 kilometres (19 miles) from the capital. At least twelve civilians in a minibus were killed and twenty-seven others were wounded, including several AU soldiers. Last week, sources revealed that the AU force supported US Special Forces in the air strikes. The AU’s continued presence in Somalia, coupled with on-going military operations to push al-Shabaab out of remaining strongholds they control in southern Somalia, likely means that the militant group will target them in the coming weeks.
This is likely the second attack to take place since the militant group vowed to avenge the killing of its leader Ahmed Abdi Godane. On Monday, officials confirmed that mortar shells had struck a Mogadishu neighbourhood late Sunday. According to one police officer, the shells landed in residential areas in Hamarjajab neighbourhood. Five people were wounded in the attack. No group has claimed responsibility for the attack however officials have disclosed that al-Shabaab militants are likely behind it.
With a new successor named on Saturday, al-Shabaab appears to be working under a “business as usual,” policy – effectively demonstrating that airstrikes and the transition of a new leader will have little effect on its operations. On Saturday, al-Shabaab’s spokesman disclosed that the militant group had unanimously selected Ahmad Umar, also known as Abu Ubaidah, at a meeting in an undisclosed location in Somalia. Al-Shabaab also confirmed that it remains aligned with al-Qaeda and vowed to carry out attacks in the wake of Godane’s death.
On Friday, Somalia’s government disclosed that it has credible intelligence that al-Shabaab is planning attacks in retaliation for Godane’s death. Such attacks in the short-term will likely target government facilities, the international airport, as well as AU and Somali troops.
The United States military on Tuesday confirmed that it carried out air strikes in Somalia, which targeted the leader of al-Shabaab.
On Wednesday, a US security source reported that the death of the leader of al-Shabaab in a US air strike carried out Monday night is a “very strong probability,” however still unconfirmed. According to the source, “there is a very strong probability that he is dead…. This requires verification on the ground, which is not simple.” A senior Somali security official has echoed this comment, stating “we believe that the Shabaab leader is dead, though we don’t have his body. Most probably he is dead.” The source further indicated that he believes that al-Shabaab is currently “talking about a successor” however Somali security officials are “…still assessing the situation.”
On Tuesday, officials at the Pentagon confirmed the operation, which was carried out by US Special Forces using manned and unmanned aircraft, however they noted that it remained unclear whether al-Shabaab leader Ahmed Abdi Godane was hit. Abdukadir Mohamed Nur, governor of southern Somalia’s Lower Shabelle region confirmed, “the Americans carried out a major air strike targeting a gathering by senior al-Shabaab officials, including their leader….” According to Mr Nur, although al-Shabaab fighters had largely fled the area in the face of the AMISOM offensive that began Friday, the US airstrikes targeted al-Shabaab commanders as they gathered for a meeting “…to discuss the current offensive in the region.” A spokesman for al-Shabaab has disclosed that Godane was in one of two vehicles hit by the US military strikes. While the spokesman confirmed that six of the group’s fighters were killed in the attack, which occurred 240 km (150 miles) south of the capital Mogadishu, he did not confirm whether Godane was among those killed. According to Abu Mohammed, the group’s leader had been travelling in the convoy, which was on its way to the costal town of Barawe, however he has refused to confirm whether Godane was among the victims.
On Monday, local citizens reported hearing three loud explosions and seeing black smoke rise from the area of the attack. Others have reported that there was a brief exchange of fire that occurred immediately after the explosions took place. Local residents also reported that shortly after the US strikes, a number of masked Islamic militants arrested dozens of people who they suspected of spying for the US, and searched a number of nearby homes.
Monday’s attack came just hours after a senior US army commander visited Mogadishu, where he held talks with Somali military chiefs. It also comes at a time when African Union (AU) troops and Somali government forces have launched new operations to push al-Shabaab out of the remaining areas they control. Sources have indicated that the troops are now closing in on the coastal city of Barawe, which has been the main stronghold of al-Shabaab since they were driven out of Kismayo in 2012. The US strikes also come just one day after al-Shabaab attacked a detention centre in Mogadishu in an apparent effort to free other militants detained there.
If Godane has been killed, his death will likely deal a significant blow to the militant group. According to Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman, Godane has no heir apparent and his death would be a “significant blow” to al-Shabaab’s organization and abilities. Some however believe that Godane’s death could also lead to a complete shift in the group’s ideology, noting that they may abandon its association al-Qaeda and align itself with another terrorist group in a bid to garner more international attention. While last September, al-Shabaab gained international notoriety after its militants attacked the upscale Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya, killing at least 67 people, in recent months, the militant group’s activities have largely been overshadowed by those carried out by Nigeria’s Boko Haram and the Islamic State (IS) group in Syria and Iraq. With the death of Godane, some commanders may look towards putting in place a new leader that will garner momentum and international attention for the militant group. There are also reports of a rift within al-Shabaab over which global terror group to align with. Godane’s death, if confirmed, could lead to further splits within the group.
Godane, 37, was reportedly trained in Afghanistan with the Taliban and took over the leadership of al-Shabaab in 2008 after then chief Adan Hashi Ayro was killed by a US missile attack. Al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri has recognized Godane as the head of the “mujahedeen” in East Africa, however letters released after Osama Bin Laden’s death have indicated that the Islamist leader had a lower regard for al-Shabaab’s capabilities. Godane is one of the US State Department’s most wanted men, with a US $7 million (£4.2 million) reward for his capture.
In recent years, the US has carried out a number of air strikes in Somalia, targeting those areas controlled by the militant group. In January, a missile strike killed a high-ranking intelligence officer for al-Shabaab while last October, a vehicle carrying senior members of the group was hit in a US attack that killed al-Shabaab’s top explosives expert.