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Intelligence Gone Wrong: Why the Analysts Underestimated Al-Shabaab

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By William Tucker
“If Fazul Abdullah 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.”
– William Tucker, In Homeland Security, March 13, 2010
“If al -Shabaab is indeed responsible for the attacks – as their leadership has publicly claimed – it would mark the group’s first successful attack outside of Somalia and could portend future external attacks in Africa and beyond.”
– DHS Intelligence Note, DHS Office of Intelligence & Analysis, July 12, 2010


Prior to the Ugandan attacks it was considered by analysts following al-Shabaab that the group was focused solely on operations in Somalia. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, Bronwyn Bruton, an individual that worked with several NGO’s in Somalia stated, “Personally, my view is that they don’t have much to gain by [partnering with al-Qaeda to conduct an international attack], and they probably don’t have the capacity to do it. But it’s worrisome that they’re making the threats, so I think it’s something to be watched and assessed very carefully. But right now, I would say the odds of a transnational attack are very, very low.”
This post is not meant to disparage any one person in any way, rather it should serve as a reminder to all analysts, myself included, that the constructs on which we base our analysis should be reviewed and updated frequently. The construct on which most analysis of al-Shabaab rested was on the past rejection of al-Qaeda in Somalia. In the not so distant past al-Qaeda tried to partner with Somali militant groups, but only succeeded in sharing training and not ideology. The global ideology of al-Qaeda never really took hold until Islamism began gaining ground in Somalia through religious education. This took place in al-Qaeda’s absence not their presence.
Another change was the shifting politics in Somalia. This does not mean that the clannish society was being eroded, but rather neighboring nations were being inundated with Somali refugees. This put a strain on nations that were already poor further complicated by the deteriorating security environment that was taking hold on the borders of Somalia. Direct intervention by the Ethiopians, Burundians, Ugandans, and the Kenyans under the auspices of the African Union followed in the wake of uncertainty.
For the militants in Somalia, whatever their name or ideology, the challenge became removing the intervening nations. The strategy for accomplishing this was twofold – strike the enemy locally and strike the enemy’s homeland. Making the military occupation difficult can help undermine support, but the ability to bring the war to your enemies’ homeland can cause support for the government to erode rapidly. The move by al-Shabaab to strike at their neighbors intervening in Somalia was inevitable.
In the midst of this activity a change in militant make up took place. With the situation in Iraq stabilizing many fighters that were fighting the US left for Somalia and Yemen in hopes of joining other militant fights. This led to a transferring of tactics, and of course, ideology. It’s rather curious that al-Shabaab announced their allegiance to al-Qaeda shortly after the security situation in Iraq began to stabilize and foreign fighters were leaving. In response to this declaration al-Qaeda began congratulating al-Shabaab on their accomplishments in their propaganda videos. Then in March of this year Fazul Abdullah Mohammad, a veteran al-Qaeda operative, was given operation command of some of al-Shabaab’s activities. Mohammad is a rather capable terrorist who has operated in Africa effectively for years. This was the game changer that led to my analysis back in March.
All that said we can see that the evolution of the militant movements in Somalia was not fully considered and much of the analysis done on al-Shabaab was predicated on old information. Furthermore, many analysts suggested that if al-Shabaab were to go international they would focus on the US. As it stands, US involvement in Somalia really rests on supporting international efforts. From the perspective of al-Shabaab removing the AU troops from Somalia would ultimately kill the current incarnation of US involvement in the troubled country. Striking Uganda made more sense operationally as well as strategically. The recent attacks in Uganda may be a watershed moment for al-Shabaab, but we should temper this dynamic by understanding that future attacks outside Somalia will be carefully targeted and very deliberate. A wide terror campaign across eastern Africa would have the opposite effect al-Shabaab is looking for. In the meantime Somalia analysts would be wise to revisit their analytical models and reassess the political landscape. Although my March assessment was accurate I will be reassessing my knowledge baseline of Somalia and the surrounding region.

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