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Foreign fighters gain influence in Somalia's Islamist al-Shabab militia

Suicide bombers struck this African Union base in Mogadishu last month. The al-Shabab militia linked the attack to events in Iraq.
Suicide bombers struck this African Union base in Mogadishu last month. The al-Shabab militia linked the attack to events in Iraq. (Sudarsan Raghavan/the Washington Post)

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By Sudarsan Raghavan
Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Foreign fighters trained in Afghanistan are gaining influence inside Somalia's al-Shabab militia, fueling a radical Islamist insurgency with ties to Osama bin Laden, according to Somali intelligence officials, former al-Shabab fighters and analysts.

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The foreigners, who include Pakistanis and Arabs, are inspiring the Somali militants to import al-Qaeda's ideology and brutal tactics from Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. A significant number of Americans are also being drawn to the Somali conflict. Two New Jersey men were arrested in New York on Sunday and charged with planning to travel to Somalia to join al-Shabab.

In April, suicide bombers drove a white truck filled with explosives into an African Union peacekeepers base, mirroring recent bombings in Baghdad or Kabul. Within hours, a grainy photo emerged on local Web sites of a young, gap-toothed man clutching a sign in Arabic over the words "Distributed by al-Shabab." It declared the operation revenge for the U.S.-aided killings of Abu Ayyub al Masri and Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, the top leaders of the insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq.

"The foreign jihadists were once in the shadows," said Rashid Abdi, a Somalia analyst in Nairobi with the International Crisis Group, a conflict research organization. "Now, there is no doubt they have taken control of the movement."

Foreigners are increasingly foot soldiers in Somalia as well.

The two New Jersey suspects, Mohamed Mahmood Alessa, 20, and Carlos Eduardo Almonte, 24, appeared in U.S. District Court in Newark on Monday on charges of conspiring to kill, maim and kidnap people outside the United States. They told a judge they understood the charges against them, and they were ordered held pending a bond hearing Thursday, officials said. Their attorneys did not immediately return phone calls Monday. The two men face up to life in prison if convicted.

In September, a Somali American from Seattle drove a truck bomb into an African Union base in Mogadishu, killing 21 peacekeepers. In December, a Dane of Somali descent blew himself up at a hotel in the capital, killing 24 people, including three government ministers.

In February, al-Shabab formally declared ties to al-Qaeda. The militia has received praise from bin Laden and radical Yemeni American cleric Anwar al-Aulaqi, who has been linked to the suspect in last year's shootings at Fort Hood, Tex., and the suspect in an attempted attack aboard a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas Day. Aulaqi has been cited as inspiration by the Pakistani American held in last month's attempted bombing in Times Square.

Al-Shabab's main rival, Hezb-i-Islam, also has proclaimed bin Laden welcome. "We are both fighting the Christian invaders in Somalia," said Mohamed Osman Aruz, a spokesman for the group, referring to the West and to Somalia's mostly Christian neighbors who back the government.

The rise of the foreign fighters suggests a growing internationalization of the conflict, part of a trend emerging from Yemen to Mali, where al-Qaeda's regional affiliates are showing increasing ambitions nearly a decade after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Today, U.S. officials consider the vast, ungoverned lands of the Arabian Peninsula and Africa the second-biggest terrorism threat after Afghanistan and Pakistan. As the United States focuses its military muscle in those regions, there is concern that more al-Qaeda-linked fighters could migrate to this part of the world.

"The lesson of the last 10 to 15 years of counterterrorism is that as pressure goes on the network in one place, it moves elsewhere," Michael Chertoff, former Department of Homeland Security chief, said during a recent visit to Cameroon's capital, Yaounde.


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