Somalia: Despite regional setbacks and internal tensions Al-Shabaab remains a challenge for regional security

The events occurred in the past months in Kenya and Somalia show that Al-Shabaab, the Somalia-based terrorist group, is not only strengthening its influence in the region, but also expanding its ties with other Islamist terrorist groups present in Eastern Africa. In particular, the conduct of more high-profile coordinated attacks on diversified targets, including highly secured areas, suggests that Al-Shabaab is increasingly becoming an international terrorist threat.


Despite the fact that in recent months the group has lost control over several territories in south-central Somalia, Al-Shabaab is still able to circulate freely through border territories, to launch cross-border raids in neighboring Kenya and to dispose of sufficient resources to perpetrate large-scale attacks against civilian and military targets. This trend was illustrated by increasing number of attacks perpetrated against African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) peacekeepers and Kenya Defense Forces (KDF), main partners of the mission.


On January 15, Al-Shabaab conducted a coordinated attack against the AMISOM base in El Adde, in the Gedo region, killing several dozens of Kenyan soldiers. Claiming responsibility for the attack, Al-Shabaab stated to have killed more than 100 troops and kidnapped others during the ambush while AMISOM reported the death of 60 soldiers and denied the kidnappings. If the number of casualties, declared by Al-Shabaab is confirmed, the incident would represent the bloodiest attack suffered by AMISOM since the operation was launched in March 2007.


On January 25 the terrorist group posted online a propaganda video featuring two separate attacks on Kenyan troops in Lamu County. The video clearly showed Al-Shabaab fighters crossing into Lamu County and talking with residents of a village warning them not to ally “with the kuffar (infidels)”.


These events as well as the lack of a strong political counterpart in Somalia intensified discussions the overall efficiency of the UN-lead mission. Therefore, Kenya reconsidered its presence in the country, calling for a review of the mandate of the mission and proposing a five-point plan that will be voted at the end of February.


On January 21, Al-Shabaab fighters also carried out a spectacular attack at a beachfront restaurant in Mogadishu, combining a car bomb with a group assault and a hostage taking, leaving at least 20 civilian killed.


However, the main international attention was paid to the suicide attack against the Daallo Airlines airbus in Aden Adde International Airport in Mogadishu on February 2, the  first Al-Shabaab’s attack perpetrated against a passenger flight.


The Flight 159 was forced to make an emergency landing after around 15-20 minutes following its departure due to an explosion caused by a suicide bomber on the plane. The bomber, identified as Abdullahi Abdisalam Borleh, was sucked out of the one-meter hole caused by the explosion. His body was found by the police in the town of Balad, around 32 km from Mogadishu. Other two passengers were slightly wounded, but all the other passengers and the plane crew managed to safely evacuate.


It is important to underline that 70 passengers, including the suicide bomber, out of 74, were supposed to fly with Turkish Airlines, but they were redirected on the Daallo plane because their flight to Djibouti was cancelled due to bad weather.


A surveillance footage released by the Somali National Intelligence Agency (NISA) showed the suicide bomber receiving a laptop, allegedly concealing the explosives, after the security controls inside the terminal. The laptop was hand-delivered by two men who were allegedly airport employees. The explosive device is considered "sophisticated" since it would have pass through the X-ray scanners undetected. 


In the statement released Al-Shabaab claimed that they carried out the attack in retaliation «for the crimes committed by the Western crusaders and their intelligence agencies against the Muslims of Somalia». Even if the explosion did not manage to bring down the plane, «it struck terror in the hearts of the crusaders, demonstrating to the disbelievers that despite all their security measures and the strenuous efforts they make to conceal their presence, the Mujahideen can and will get to them».


In addition, four months earlier a similar attack was conducted as a terrorist managed to bring a bomb inside a Kogalymavia plane flying from the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh to St Petersburg in Russia, carrying 224 passengers and crew, making it crash in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula. Also in that occasion the attacker would have been helped by airport employees. The Islamic State claimed the responsibility for the attack soon after.


In Daallo flight bombing Al Shabaab adopted the same strategy that was used by Islamic State in the attack in Sharm el-Sheikh, surpassing security controls with the help of insiders in the airport security service. Both attacks once again demonstrated vulnerability of civilian flights in the international airports, rising concerns over the security protocols both in African and in Western airports.


Concerns over the capacity of Al-Shabaab terrorists to attack targets abroad is also raised in the context of strengthening of ties between Al-Shabaab and other Islamist terrorist groups present in the region.


So far the closest relations are believed to be maintained between Al-Shabaab and the Al-Muhajiroun in East Africa, Emigrants of East Africa, a terrorist group led by Ahmed Iman Ali aka Abu Zinnirah mainly present in Kenya (especially in Mombasa) and Tanzania (Tanga). Al-Muhajiroun was established to support Al-Shabaab’s attempts at expanding into Kenya and East Africa and it is considered as an offshoot of the terrorist group Al-Hijra, an Al-Shabaab affiliate operating in the coastal regions of Kenya and Tanzania.


The extent of the relationship between Al-Shabaab and Al-Muhajiroun in East Africa remains, however, still unclear. Although Al-Muhajiroun involvement has been speculated by the media in few attacks perpetrated in the region, so far the group has not publicly claimed responsibility for any terrorist attack.


Furthermore, the Somalian president Hassan Sheikh Mohamud has recently claimed that Somalian intelligence has evidence to suppose that some fighters of the IS-affiliated Nigerian terrorist group Boko Haram received training in Somalia. The President has not mentioned whether this information refers to the latest period or to the previous years as so far Al-Shabaab leadership still refuses to pledge allegiance to the Islamic State.


Meanwhile, the relationship of Al-Shabaab with Islamic State today remains on top of the agenda, due to the increasing support of the Caliphate by some Al-Shabaab members. The position of the Somalian terrorist group regarding Islamic State was also discussed during the meeting of the members of the Shura Council of Al-Shabaab after the end of Ramadan in 2015.


Since its creation in 2006, Al-Shabaab had maintained strong links with Al-Qaeda and in February 2012 the Somali group’s former leader, Ahmed Adi Godane, officially announced the affiliation with Al-Qaeda. Over the past years Al-Qaeda and Al-Shabaab have only shared ideology, while from the financial and organization point of view Al-Shabaab remained totally independent from Al-Qaeda. Increasingly suffering from the lack of funding and harmful raids, carried out by US drones, AMISOM and Somalian governmental troops, Al-Shabaab has been clearly tempted to join the Islamic State.


While the senior leadership of Al-Shabaab remains loyal to Al-Qaeda, several divisions of the group allegedly pledged their allegiance to Islamic State, dramatically intensifying internal tensions, increasing a risk that the group would split into a couple of rival factions. 


The diversification of targets and modus operandi of the attacks in such situation can be interpreted also as a result of increasing competition between rival wings within Al-Shabaab. Meanwhile, the latest attacks of Al-Shabaab demonstrate that international and foreign targets remain among the priorities of the terrorist group, rising concerns of a possible group’s involvement in high-profile terrorist attacks abroad.




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