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

By Sudarsan Raghavan
Tuesday, June 8, 2010; A11

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.

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.

'Brainwashing our people'

Somalia is where the United States and the West are quietly engaged in the most ambitious effort outside the theaters of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq to halt the spread of radical Islam and al-Qaeda's influence.

The United States and its allies are providing weapons, training, intelligence and logistical support to the fragile government. They are also funding the African Union peacekeeping force that protects -- many say props up -- the government. Yet al-Shabab, or "The Youth" in Arabic, now controls large patches of south and central Somalia. The government, divided by political infighting, controls less than five square miles in Mogadishu.

In the capital, al-Qaeda-inspired tactics have altered the landscape. Hotels are tucked behind steel gates. Peacekeepers use high-tech gadgets to frisk visitors for explosive belts. Ordinary Somalis avoid empty, parked cars.

The foreign fighters in Somalia number 300 to 1,200, according to Somali and U.S. intelligence estimates. Most are from neighboring countries such as Kenya, Tanzania, Yemen and Sudan. But they include Afghans, Pakistanis and Arabs, say former al-Shabab fighters. At least 20 Somali Americans have joined the militia, including a top field commander, Omar Hammami, an Alabama native whose nom de guerre is Abu Mansoor al-Ameriki. He has starred in propaganda videos to attract more foreign fighters.

"The foreign fighters are brainwashing our people," Mohammed Sheik Hassan, the head of Somalia's National Security Agency, said in a recent interview in Mogadishu. "They want one Islamic nation under the leadership of bin Laden. But the ambition of Somalis is only to gain power locally."

Al-Qaeda operatives who perpetrated the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania that killed hundreds use Somalia as a haven, according to U.S. and Somali officials. "There's a parallel, converging interest between the al-Qaeda operatives in East Africa and al-Shabab," said a U.S. intelligence official. "There certainly is collusion, cooperation, probably training and some operational level of support."

'Orders from outside'

Foreigners in Somalia are the main link to al-Qaeda's central body, said Somali officials and former al-Shabab fighters. They train new recruits, both in weapons and ideology. Somalis who waged jihad in Afghanistan with bin Laden now lead the al-Shabab militia, which is loosely knit of at least 100 clan-based cells. Over cups of sweet Somali tea in Mogadishu recently, a group of clan leaders said the foreign fighters were turning al-Shabab against them, eroding the traditional authority of the clans, Somalia's most important social unit.

"All of us have been targeted," said Mohamed Hassan Haad, a senior figure of the powerful Hawije clan. "They are getting orders from outside."

Sheik Mohammed Asad Abdullahi, a former top al-Shabab commander who defected in November, said that bin Laden never gave direct orders but that al-Shabab commanders regularly consulted with al-Qaeda's central body. Literature and CDs on al-Qaeda tactics and ideology were regularly handed out to the rank and file, he said.

"I believed I was part of al-Qaeda," Abdullahi said.

He defected because he could no longer bear the suicide missions, which he described as orchestrated by the foreigners.

"If they conquer Somalia, they will not be satisfied," he said. "They will cross the borders."

With the United States expanding its counterterrorism operations in Yemen, U.S. and Somali officials said they are worried that al-Qaeda's Yemen branch and al-Shabab could join forces. Still, many Somalis interviewed said they felt a growing anger toward the foreign fighters.

At the scene of last month's truck bombing, police commander Abdi Fatah Hassan stared at the damage and lamented the violence brought by outside radicals bent on martyrdom on Somali soil. "What kind of people believe they will enter paradise by killing poor Somalis?" he said.

A few days later, Abdullahi Abdurahman Abu Yousef, a top commander of a moderate Sufi Islamist militia fighting al-Shabab, echoed that sentiment in a rousing speech to his militiamen. "They are destroying our home for the sake of Iraqis?" he bellowed. "The foreign devil is leading them."

Raghavan reported from Mogadishu. Staff writer Jerry Markon in Washington contributed to this report.

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