Somalia: Al Shabaab's Leadership Links to Al Qaeda

6 MINS READMay 6, 2008 | 17:34 GMT
Al Shabaab, the Islamist militant group active in Somalia, is tied closely to al Qaeda through its senior leaders, many of whom trained with and carried out operations in the name of al Qaeda prime. Its leaders' training and experience lend al Shabaab strength. Furthermore, al Shabaab is organized in such a way that if a senior leader is killed, operations suffer minimal long-term disruption.
Editor's Note: This is the second in a four-part series on the rebuilding of a key al Qaeda node in Somalia. The main link between Somalian Islamist militant group al Shabaab and al Qaeda is al Shabaab's senior leadership. Many of al Shabaab's senior leaders both trained with and conducted operations in the name of al Qaeda prime:
  • Aden Hashi Ayro is known to have traveled to Afghanistan sometime before 2001. While he was there, al Qaeda prime trained him in explosives and insurgent tactics. He ultimately returned to Somalia around 2003, where he established his own network and launched a series of operations. He is credited with multiple attacks against foreign aid workers and also is suspected in the murder of a journalist for the British Broadcasting Corp. He has since been described by multiple sources as al Qaeda's military commander in Somalia. Ayro was killed in a May 1 U.S. airstrike.
  • Fazul Abdullah Mohammed was involved with al Qaeda prime. He was instrumental in training warlord Mohamed Farah Aidid's militia in 1993 and helped plan and organize the 1998 bombings of the U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania as well as the hotel bombing in Mombasa, Kenya, and a surface-to-air attack on an Israeli jetliner in 2002. He went on to become a part of the leadership of the Supreme Islamic Courts Council (SICC) and subsequently a senior operational commander in al Shabaab. U.S. forces have targeted him on numerous occasions.
  • Abu Taha al-Sudani, also known as Tariq Abdullah, was al Qaeda's leader in East Africa and received training from al Qaeda prime in explosives. He is thought to have had close ties to Osama bin Laden and other high-level al Qaeda and al Shabaab commanders. The United States has also implicated him as the main financier for various al Qaeda operations in East Africa.
  • Hassan Turki and SICC leader Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys are longtime allies and are believed to be orchestrating the Somalian insurgency. Turki also has links to al Shabaab and al Qaeda. He operated a training camp in southern Somalia and was targeted in a March 2007 airstrike but is thought to have survived. His camp was known to have housed al Qaeda-linked militants and trained al Shabaab fighters. In 2004, the U.S. government formally designated Turki as a financier of terrorism.
  • Gouled Hassan Dourad was part of an al Qaeda cell operated by al-Sudani and has links to al Qaeda prime. The U.S. government implicated him in a mid-2003 plot to bomb Camp Lemonier, a U.S. Special Forces base in Djibouti that hosts the Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa contingent. Camp Lemonier has served as a the main U.S. operating base in the region — along with forward operating bases in Ethiopia — for many of the U.S. airstrikes on militant targets in Somalia. Dourad is currently being held at the U.S. detention center in Guantanamo Bay.
(click image to enlarge) Most members of al Shabaab's senior command and control structure also developed links with al Qaeda prime through their involvement in a now-dissolved group that operated in Somalia. Aweys, al- Sudani, Dourad and Turki were all members of al-Itihaad al-Islamiya (AIAI), a precursor to the SICC. It was known to have supported al Qaeda prime's operations in East Africa in the late 1990s and even into the early 21st century, helping to establish militant training camps near Ros Kamboni, a desolate marshland along the Somalian border with Kenya. When the SICC was formed, the members of AIAI dissolved their group and folded into the new organizations. Al Shabaab's senior leadership clearly has extensive experience and involvement in al Qaeda prime operations. These links have helped the leaders arrange support for their group through arms shipments from Eritrea and Yemen and through increased numbers of foreign fighters sent in to support their cause. Al Qaeda prime has also voiced support for al Shabaab. In a March 2007 al Qaeda statement, Abu Yahya al-Libi encouraged the use of suicide and roadside bombings — tactics commonly associated with al Qaeda-affiliated groups — against Ethiopian troops and pro-Somalian government forces. Bin Laden and his second in command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, have also made mention of Somalia in past recordings. This indicates that al Qaeda prime has recognized al Shabaab as a capable entity and has taken a proactive stance in order to help promote the group's continued growth.

Al Shabaab's Structure

Typically, al Shabaab operates in groups of 100 or so fighters when raiding local villages and towns. Within the urban areas, their organizational structure tightens up, and there is more control over small-unit actions. They have proven highly successful in urban combat — a skill perfected through years of conflict, and one the United States experienced firsthand during Operation Gothic Serpent in 1993, when the militias managed to kill 18 U.S. military personnel. Al Shabaab is a somewhat loosely organized group. While there is a set command and control structure, the senior commanders usually only issue broad directives and leave the day-to-day operations to the lower-level commanders. This style of structure — along with the fact that many of the militants and low-level commanders have been working together since serving in the military wing of the SICC — means that replacing upper-level leaders such as Ayro will be fairly easy and should not greatly affect operational capabilities. In fact, some preliminary reports indicate that Sheikh Mukhtar Abu Zubayr has assumed a more senior leadership role after Ayro's May 1 death. Yet Ayro's death is likely to create some short-term disruption in terms of organization within the group. This has been the United States' tactic of late: targeting key leadership in airstrikes as a means of slowing down the growth of groups such as al Shabaab and trying to keep them in a relative state of disorganization. The United States has employed a similar strategy with success in Pakistan and Yemen, utilizing Predator drones to deliver tactical strikes on key leadership targets. Judging from the success of the May 1 strike, the United States likely had "eyes on the target," either via Predator drones or Special Forces personnel on the ground. The United States has also received intelligence on the location and movement of high-value targets from the Somalian government, although this intelligence is often delivered late and is difficult to act upon in a timely manner. Still, the number of successful strikes since January 2007 suggests that coordination is improving. Next: Implications of the Al Qaeda-Al Shabaab Relationship

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