Foreign jihadists have overrun the Somali nationals previously in charge of Al Shabaab, a development blamed for the movement’s new posture as an exporter of terrorism and a threat to stability in East Africa and beyond.
The Islamists, mostly veterans of the Al Qaeda training camps of Afghanistan, now control the movement’s policy making organs and were directly responsible for ordering the Kampala bombings which announced the Al Shabaab’s arrival as an actor with a reach that extends beyond Somali territory.
Intelligence reports made available to The EastAfrican indicate the bombings were aimed at achieving two intertwined objectives: They sought to draw regional powers into a war in Somalia, a development they hope will win the Al Shabaab public support by galvanising the people against a common enemy to help the group restore its severely diminished credibility.
According to a report compiled for the African Union Mission for Somalia (AMISOM), the key figure in the Al Shabaab is Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, a familiar name in East Africa for his role in a number of past atrocities including the twin US embassy bombings in Nairobi and Dar es salaam.
The other players serving in the Al Shabaab governing council are more obscure Jihadists who began arriving in the country from early 2009.
They are named in the report as: Sheikh Mohamed Abu Faid (Saudi-born, financier and “manager” of Al-Shabaab), Abu Suleiman Al-Banadiri (Somaliof Yemeni descent and an adviser to the movement’s nominal leader, Ali Godane), Abu Musa Mombasa (Pakistani, who arrived to replace Saleh Ali Nabhan, who was killed in a US military operation and is in charge of security and training) and Abu Mansur Al-Amriki (US-born, in charge of financing for foreign fighters).
Others are Mohamoud Mujajir (from Sudan, in charge of recruitment of suicide bombers) and Abdifatah Aweys Abu Hamsa (a Somali national trained in Afghanistan, who is commander of the Mujahidin of Al-Quds).
These foreign fighters are blamed for turning Al Shabaab into a more radical group, whose aims have shifted from only seizing control of Somalia to more regional and international objectives.
“The hardline wing of extremists that have taken over the Al Shabaab aspire to the creation of an ill-defined Islamic caliphate,” says International Crisis Group Horn of Africa director Ernst Jan Hogendoorn. “The attacks in Kampala increased threat perceptions in the region. But it is important that the response to the attacks do not exacerbate the problem.”
One theory about the motives of the Kampala attacks paints the bombings as part of a desperate effort by the Al Shabaab to win legitimacy, by bringing in external actors into the country’s conflict.
This is born of the fact that public support for the movement has collapsed as it has progressively moved to impose its harsh interpretation of Islamic law on the public.
Most Somalis identify with the moderate Sufi strain of Islam.
Before the arrival of more radical elements in the country, women were allowed to engage in business and covered their hair with colourful lesos (traditional rectangular cloth from East Africa) rather than the full body gown imposed by the Al Shabaab.
The extremists have imported suicide bombings, amputations and bans on football as aeel as movie dens into the country, moves that have been hugely unpopular.
But the Al Shabaab’s biggest blunder was the suicide bombing aimed at a graduation ceremony in February which killed 19 Somalis including four ministers.
The attack triggered a major backlash, especially because it was seen as having been authorised by the foreigners.
“The fundamentalists have virtually no support in Somalia,” says Mohamed Ali Nur, Somalia’s ambassador to Kenya. “It is only a small minority that has been won over by the extremists. And unlike 2006 (when Ethiopia invaded the country), any intervention now will be hugely popular with the public.”
To counter the lack of backing for the movement, the Al Shabaab has been using tactics previously deployed against US forces in Afghanistan.
The Taliban there routinely attack the Americans from heavily populated areas in cities such as Kandahar, with the return fire resulting in mass civilian casualties.
This hardens public attitudes towards the occupying forces.
In Somalia in recent weeks, the Al Shabaab has been firing on Amisom troops from the crowded Bakara market.
The resultant shelling of the market by the troops has been used as a propaganda tool by the Al Shabaab.
Three members of the presidential guard who defected to the Al Shabaab told radio stations on Wednesday they shifted camp because of the killing of innocent people by Amisom.
These tactics by the insurgents illustrate the scale of the challenge African Union heads of state will have as they consider a response to the attacks.
They must devise a solution that takes out the extremist elements of the Al Shabaab, without resulting in mass civilian casualties which would lead to a surge in support for the movement.
Officials briefed on the outcome of a meeting of senior military officers in Addis Ababa on Tuesday said the consensus among all actors was that military engagement with the Al Shabaab is inevitable.
This view also commands support within the upper reaches of the African Union.
AU Peace and Security Commissioner Ramtane Lamamra said he wants heads of state to take decisive action: “If properly equipped, and if mobility is available, as well as other assets and enablers, you could very much in the exercise of the legitimate right to self-defence, engage in some very bold actions aimed at pre-empting the actions of the terrorists and insurgents,” he said.
Uganda’s Foreign Minister Sam Kutesa has also repeated a statement by President Yoweri Museveni that the country is committed to taking the war to the Al Shabaab.
But analysts are cautious.“Uganda has called for and will get a significant increase in the number of forces,” says Mr Hogendoorn. “However, if the response is indiscriminate or widespread it will only alienate the Somali population. Ultimately, we (ICG) don’t believe there is a military solution to the problem in Somalia.
The Transitional Federal Government must be pushed to reconcile with local actors and gradually move to install a loose federal government which might stand a better chance of winning support of Somalis than a highly centralised one which is likely to be captured by one clan.”
Militia group’s credibility has diminished is gradually becoming unpopular