By William Tucker
In the past two months rumors of an impending assault on the Somali capital of Mogadishu have gathered steam. In the midst of all this several militant groups have undergone changes and political alliances have shifted. The first noticeable shift came when Hizbul Islam, one of the Islamist groups that assaulted Mogadishu in 2009, split with half of the group merging with al-Qaeda linked al-Shabaab and the others left fighting for their very existence. Another significant event was the meeting in Addis Ababa between the Somali transitional government (TFG) and Ethiopian backed Ahlu Sunnah Waljamaah. According to several press reports the TFG and Ahlu Sunnah came to some sort of an agreement, but while the exact details are unknown we can reasonably assume that the two parties agreed to military cooperation and possible collaboration on a future government. And finally we have word today that Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, the mastermind of the bombing of two U.S. Embassies in Africa, has reemerged and taken the helm of al-Shabaab. Indeed, this is a disturbing development.
For the last two years several terrorists experts, myself included, have been pointing to Yemen and Somalia as countries that have not had adequate attention or resources devoted to fighting the growing terrorism threat in these nations. It wasn’t until the failed attempt to destroy an aircraft on Christmas Day that the threat from Yemen was brought to the fore, fleeting though it was. Currently, the Yemen government has had a few successful operations against al-Qaeda in the past few months, but the momentum has died along with the press coverage. Somalia on the other hand has been watched off and on as small, targeted operations by the U.S. have been carried out with Operation Celestial Balance being the most visible.
With these political shifts in Somalia it does indeed appear as if the Somali TFG, backed by African Union peacekeepers, may attempt to eject al-Shabaab from Mogadishu to give the fledgling government some breathing room. The U.S. stated today that they will not take a direct role in any offensive, but this does not rule out support actions such as naval and air support as was seen in 2006 when Ethiopia invaded and removed the Islamic Courts Union from power. Al-Shabaab on the other hand will not take this lying down which explains why Fazul Abdullah Mohammed has been given a prominent role.
At this point Mohammed’s role is unclear, but he is unlikely to have been made leader of the group. Instead it is more likely that he will be acting as the head military commander because of his experience and his ability to do something that most terrorists have trouble doing – staying alive while continuing to operate. Fazul Mohammad has an extensive background in planning terrorist attacks in multiple African countries, speaks five languages, and goes by over twenty known aliases. Simply put, Mohammad is a terrorist that folks in the counterterrorist community dread, not unlike the now deceased Hezbollah operative Imad Mughniyeh. If Mohammed continues to operate as he has in the past it is highly likely that he will be able to command the smaller al-Shabaab force in a more efficient manner than the complex alliance supporting the TFG. It is also highly likely that he will have multiple external operations planned against countries and elements supporting the TFG when and if the offensive takes place.
In the past Mohammed has had success in running multiple, simultaneous operations and it is reasonable to expect he will do so now that he has been placed in command of al-Shabaab. The most likely targets will be in Africa such as elements of the Ethiopian government and of course targets of the U.S. At this point al-Shabaab’s ability to strike within the U.S. is unknown, probably limited at best, but it cannot be ruled out. Al-Shabaab has recruited from the large Somali population in the U.S., and in fact, has caused concern within the FBI because some have returned to Somalia and disappeared. One such individual became the first known U.S. suicide bomber when he executed an attack in Somalia on al-Shabaab’s behalf. While we don’t know what Mohammad’s plans are, we can be sure that Somalia will remain a dangerous place and the U.S. will remain an al-Shabaab target.