Al Shabaab grows East Africa wings as security chiefs warn of new threat

Sunday June 19 2011

Women in Mombasa, Kenya, demonstrate against recruitment of their sons.

Women in Mombasa, Kenya, demonstrate against recruitment of their sons. 


The killing last week of Fazul Abdullah, the terror mastermind of the August 1998 twin bombings of the US embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, removed one of the biggest threats to East African security.

However, according to a senior Kenyan security official, Fazul’s demise may have come too late. This, the official said, is because Fazul, who was thought to be the key Al Qaeda leader in the region, East Africa region, had already worked with his Al Shabaab allies to transform the Somali militant group into a “pan-East African entity.”

Fazul, who held a Kenyan passport, was wanted not just for the 1998 embassy bombings that killed least 250 people, but was also named as the planner of the 2002 bombing of the Kikambala Hotel in Mombasa in November 2002 that killed 15 people, and an attempt at almost the same time to shoot down a passenger jet carrying Israeli tourists in the same area. He eluded capture despite a $5 million bounty on his head.

Fazul was killed by Somali government forces on June 8 at a roadblock near Mogadishu, along with a senior leader of Al Shabaab. The Shabaab functions largely as an Al Qaeda satellite.

The radical group first gave notice of how far its East African tentacles had reached, and how deadly it was, in July last year, when it set off two bombs at sports clubs in Kampala where football fans were watching the World Cup finals. Nearly 70 people were killed in the attacks. The Shabaab said the attacks were to punish Uganda for having troops in the African Union’s peacekeeping mission in Somalia (Amisom). The only other country with troops in Amisom is Burundi, but suspected Shabaab suicide bombers were intercepted at the Rwanda-Burundi border at the same time, and thus Bujumbura escaped the Kampala nightmare.

Though there have been disputes about how many of the people subsequently arrested in Uganda and Kenya were actually conspirators in the July Kampala attacks, there has been evidence that links some of them to the plot. The arrests however, surprised everybody in the region, where a stereotype of what a terrorist was that he was likely to be Somali, or from the Coastal region of Kenya, and most definitely Muslim.

However, the majority of the people arrested shortly after the bombings in Kampala were not Somali. In all, the public figure given by Uganda authorities for the number of suspects arrested was 32. Of these, 14 were Ugandans, 10 Kenyans, 6 Somali, one Rwandan, and one Pakistani.

In November 2010, 18 of the suspects were acquitted, but after they were freed, the Uganda police issued an arrest warrant for three new suspects — Muhammad Ali, Jaberi Mahmood Ali and Nyamadondo Hijal Sulaiman, a Tanzanian national.

The majority of the Kenyan suspects were not Coastals — they were from the Central, Western, and Nyanza Provinces of the country. And some were only recent Muslim converts, meaning they had probably been recruited into Al Shabaab when they were Christians, or traditional religious adherents.

Fazul and the Shabaab had shown a sharp understanding of the how East African prejudices work, and figured that the stereotype about what a terrorist in the region would look or behave like, meant security forces were not keeping an eye out for non-Somali and non-Coastal people.

New face of terror

The Doubting Thomases changed their position when in December last year bombs went off at the Nairobi terminus of the Kampala Coach bus service. At least three people were killed by the explosion next to the bus. Two suspects were arrested: Aboud Rogo Mohamed, a preacher in Mombasa, suspected of having links with the Tanzanian man who died after his luggage exploded at the Kampala Coach terminus.

In June 2005 Mohamed, together with three others, was acquitted of the Kikambala 2002 bombing.

The second person arrested was Abubakar Sharif Ahmed, a Muslim elder from Mombasa. He was also charged with being a member of Al Shabaab

The bombs were thought to be destined for Uganda, and had originated in Tanzania.

But that was nothing compared to the shock that the Kenyan army got when it clashed with Somali militants earlier in the year in the border areas in southern Somalia. According to our security source, the casualties on the militants’ side were quite high, and it was immediately obvious to the Kenya army that most were very inexperienced.

The shocker came when the army tried to establish the identity of the dead militants. The majority of them, it turned out, were again from Central, Western and Nyanza Provinces of Kenya – they were fresh into the Shabaab ranks and green in battle.

Alarmed, the Kenya police in March put out a media notice about Al Shabaab men on the loose. The police said 11 Kenyans recently trained by Al Shabaab could be planning terrorist attacks.

The list of the suspects included John Mwanzia Ngui alias Yahya and David Kihuho Wangechi alias Yusuf. The two have since been killed by police.

It also included Eric Achayo Ogada alias Swaleh Ibrahim, Steven Mwanzi Osaka alias Duda Brown, and Jeremiah Okumu, also known as Duda Black, or Mohamed.

Others were Sylvester Opiyo Osodo alias Musa, Abbas Hussen Nderito and Ibrahim Ruta, also known as Musyoki Kyondi.

Police headquarters also named Abdulrahman Mutua Daud, Abbas Muhamad Mwai and Juma Ayub Otit Were.

The fact that the new ranks of Shabaab recruits are from all over East Africa, seemed to vindicate warnings by Kenyan Somali leaders that the region was taking a simplistic view of what the Shabaab and Al Qaeda were up to by seeing the terrorists (and lately Indian Ocean piracy), as a “Somali problem.”

An alarmed Kenyan official told The EastAfrican recently that the outreach work of the Shabaab, means that countries like Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda probably now have a “homegrown terrorism problem.”

Poverty, youth alienation, and the scandalous levels of youth unemployment in East Africa seem to be the main reason young people join the Shabaab. The Shabaab seems to have enough money to make it worthwhile for these young people. A young Shabaab fighter from Kisumu captured by Kenyan troops at the border said he had joined “because of the money.” Part of the money is sent to the poor parents of the new recruits, and it’s often more than they ever dreamt of handling.

At one particularly revealing point in the series of reports on the recruitment of young Kenyans into Shabaab ranks on NTV entitled The Enemy Within (NTV is a sister platform of this newspaper) between June 1 and 3, a woman called Saumu Chambulu in the Kenyan coastal town of Diani, told the programme that her son Suleiman Hassan Simba had died in Somalia.

Economic reasons

The programme found information suggesting that several Kenyan families of the young men who disappear in Somalia do receive part of their wages that are sent to them by people they don’t know.

Some commentators say that the highest security risk in East Africa is the high youth unemployment rate. In the two East African Community states with the highest rates, Uganda weighs in top with a youth unemployment rate of 80 per cent, one of the highest in the world, while Kenya’s is at 65 per cent.

It is small wonder than then today, these are also the two East African countries facing the biggest terrorist activity.

A researcher on Somalia says that the death of Fazul could prove a mixed blessing. He argues that the older terrorists generally tend to be more measured, and to be conservative in the number of people they seek to kill because they do not want to lose their overall long-term goals by turning everyone against them.

The new youth recruits into al Shabaab, however, are “more extreme” and “angrier,” and beyond the politics, want to punish the societies from which they come for turning their backs on them.

According to the researcher, the killing of Al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden by US special forces in Pakistan at the start of May, and now the death of Fazul, are likely to open the door to a new crop of younger and more vicious leaders.

He agrees with the assessment of security leaders in the region that all those living within reach of the Shabaab, will do well to sleep with one eye and ear open for the foreseeable future.