Will Al-Qaeda resurrect the network it lost in Afghanistan?
The U.S., European Union and their African allies are training and equipping the security forces of Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government to try to take back the parts of Mogadishu now under the control of an Al-Qaeda affiliate. Large portions of the city, known to most Americans as the site of the 1993 ambush that prompted the withdrawal of U.S. forces from the country, is controlled by the al-Shabaab terrorist group. Should Al-Qaeda and its allies succeed in seizing Somalia, they will be able to resurrect the network they lost in Afghanistan and activate their Somali networks in the West to deadly effect.
Recent incidents show the terrifying reach of al-Shabaab. An individual in Virginia named Anthony Joseph Tracy that admits having contact with the terrorist group is known to have smuggled 270 Somalis into the U.S., all of whom are believed to remain in the country and have proven extremely difficult to identify. It is improbable that al-Shabaab would use its resources to sneak random Somalis into the country. The odds are that these are their recruits and they are being used to establish sleeper cells in our midst. Considering that less than 20 terrorists were needed to execute 9/11, the number of nearly 300 could have catastrophic consequences.
A law enforcement report reveals that 23 Somalis suspected of being connected to al-Shabaab were arrested in Mexico early in the year as they planned to enter the United States. The Mexican authorities released the group on January 21, despite the fact that only 16 had been identified. One of those arrested was Mohamed Osman Noor, a member of al-Shabaab. It is not clear why the Mexicans released them but it is more than likely that the Somalis made their trip to the U.S. as they intended, albeit a little later than they had hoped.
Al-Shabaab has had great success in recruiting among the Somali communities in the West, many of whom have arrived under refugee programs meant to help those in the war-torn country. About 20 Somali-Americans have disappeared from the Minneapolis area alone and are assumed to have joined al-Shabaab’s ranks, at least six of whom have died in Somalia. The first American citizen to become a suicide bomber, Shirwa Ahmed, killed himself and as many as 30 others in Somalia in October 2008. Fourteen Americans have been charged for their involvement in al-Shabaab’s recruiting and transporting of Somali-Americans. This Al-Qaeda affiliate’s infrastructure in the West, particularly in the United States, is undoubtedly expansive, sophisticated, and successful.
In November 2007, terrorism expert Patrick Poole wrote that “…there exists an active recruiting and transportation network in the U.S., including Minneapolis, for Somali-run terrorist training camps, many of which have recently reopened. In many instances, these same Somali leaders purporting ignorance and innocence for the local media are not only aware of these recruiting operations, but have actively participated in them.”
At least five Somalis from Canada disappeared and probably joined al-Shabaab in November 2009, and dozens of Somalis in the United Kingdom have gone to their homeland for training and returned back. A Somali member of al-Shabaab is charged with trying to murder the Danish cartoonist who authored a degrading picture of Mohammed. This month, the Kenyan authorities arrested a Somali-Australian believed to be involved in an al-Shabaab terrorist plot in Australia but was accidentally released. Last August, the Australians arrested four suspected al-Shabaab terrorists believed to be planning attacks, some of whom had fought in Somalia.
Somalis have been captured in Saudi Arabia and Yemen after linking up with the Iranian-backed Shiite Houthi rebels, and Al-Qaeda operatives in Yemen are reinforcing al-Shabaab in Somalia. In this way, Yemen and Somalia can be compared to Afghanistan and Pakistan, as progress in one is offset by the harbor available on the other side. The increasing role of al-Shabaab and Al-Qaeda’s branch in Yemen in ongoing terrorist operations make an aggressive effort on both ends imperative.
Al-Shabaab currently controls southern Somalia and large portions of Mogadishu. Absent extensive aid to the forces of the Transitional Federal Government and militias like the Sunnah Wal Jama that are fighting them, Al-Qaeda will win the battle of Mogadishu and take control of Somalia. It is well within al-Shabaab’s capability to authorize attacks inside the United States, Canada and Europe, especially in light of the new revelation that one of their partners has smuggled in 270 Somalis into the U.S. The question is why they haven’t. It’s possible that they fear that doing so will expose their networks in the U.S., or that they don’t want to provoke the West into intervening further in Somalia.
It is unclear why al-Shabaab has not tried to perpetrate an attack in America yet, but it is clear that they have the capability and that capability will dramatically expand as they conquer Somalia. Al-Shabaab has pledged its allegiance to Al-Qaeda, and they fully intend to use their networks to carry out the follow-up attacks on America that Bin Laden has thus far been unable to. If Somalia falls to Al-Qaeda and its affiliates, then it will be their biggest victory since 9/11.