MOGADISHU, Somalia — Al Shabaab, Somalia’s Islamist insurgent group, declared its allegiance to Al Qaeda in recent days, confirming suspicions long held by Western intelligence agencies that the two groups were linked.
“We have agreed to join the international jihad of Al Qaeda,” the group said in a statement posted on a website and signed by its leader.
Harakat Al-Shabaab — meaning "Youth Movement" — emerged in 2005 as the armed wing of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), a group that defeated clan warlords and brought peace to Somalia for a few brief months in 2006.
When U.S.-backed Ethiopian troops invaded and forced the Islamic Courts out, Al Shabaab won popular support by fighting a guerrilla war against the Christian invaders.
Many of Al Shabaab’s top leaders are radical Somali veterans of the Afghanistan wars. In 2008 Ahmed Abdi Godane, known as Abu Zubeyr, replaced the group’s first commander, Aden Hashi Ayro, after he was killed by a U.S. air strike in May that year. Three months earlier the U.S. had designated Al Shabaab as a terrorist organisation.
Godane is believed to have fought in Afghanistan in the 1980s and is described by one observer as “a hardcore jihadi.” He is advised by a 10-man "shura" council.
Other senior commanders enjoying a large degree of autonomy are Mukhtar Ali Robow, a.k.a. Abu Mansoor, an experienced fighter who ran the training camp from which Al Shabaab emerged, and Ibrahim Haji Jaama, who won his nom-de-guerre Al-Afghani during years fighting in Afghanistan and Kashmir.
Under growing military pressure in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq, hundreds of foreign fighters have flocked to Somalia in recent years to join the battle against Sheikh Sharif Ahmed’s U.N.- and U.S.-backed Transitional Federal Government (TFG).
Hardened foreign fighters have brought with them a radical ideology of global jihad and some — such as a white U.S. citizen known as Al-Amriki — have taken prominent field commander roles.
Foreign fighters and even suicide bombers have joined Al Shabaab from the Somali diaspora in the United States and Europe. More than 20 young men from Minnesota are believed to have joined Al Shabaab. One of them, 26-year-old Shirwa Ahmed, blew himself up in a suicide attack in the northern Somali region of Puntland in 2008.
The man responsible for another deadly suicide bombing in Mogadishu in early December 2009 was a young Somali man from Denmark. A former Al Shabaab fighter told GlobalPost he had met Americans while he was a member of the armed group.
This foreign influence is changing Al Shabaab from a local insurgent group with national ambitions into a growing player in the wider battle between Islam and the West. Al Shabaab's announcement that it is allied with Al Qaeda will cement the group’s extremist reputation.
In areas under Al Shabaab control alleged adulterers have been publicly stoned to death, those accused of theft have had hands and feet chopped off. The group has banned bras, soccer, musical ringtones and PlayStations. Last year the young winner of a Koran recital competition was given an AK47 rifle and an anti-tank mine.
Yet not every Al Shabaab member is a committed zealot. In fact the rank-and-file foot soldiers are more often hired guns, conscripts or desperate volunteers.
In Mogadishu a young man who had left the group after his leg was blown off in a mortar attack told GlobalPost: “In our country there are three paths: you can join Al Shabaab, you can join [the government forces] or you can go abroad.
“Me, I don’t have money to go away so I join Al Shabaab,” said Ismail Mohamed Ishaaq simply.
The 21-year-old is neither a jihadist nor an extremist, neither murderous nor stupid. Rather he is a young Muslim man with an education but no opportunities in a country that has been at war for as long as he has lived.
During last year’s failed rains when food was scarce and Al Shabaab was in the ascendancy Ismael joined up.
“I didn’t have anywhere to stay or anything to do. My friends, some of them were Al Shabaab and they would tell me that TFG [the Transitional Federal Government] is not Muslim, but Al Shabaab is Muslim,” explained Ishaaq.
In Mogadishu Ismael lived with other young Al Shabaab fighters in a shared house in Bakara Market, an Islamist stronghold. He would wait for a call then take up his AK47 and go into battle. “I was mujahidin for real,” he said.
Four months after joining Al Shabaab a mortar mangled Ismael’s leg and left him bleeding into the dusty street.
GlobalPost caught up with the president of Somalia, Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, late last year in Chicago:
African Union peacekeepers (AMISOM) picked Ismael up and took him to their tented hospital close to the sea. Sitting on a camp bed a few months later he rubbed the bandaged stump where his left leg used to be.
“My leg, it is a small wound only,” he said with an ironic smile.
He is grateful to AMISOM for saving his life and said he has even now renounced Al Shabaab. As he spoke he turned a leather-bound Koran over and over in his hands: He has given up the violence of the Islamist insurgency but remains a pious Muslim.
“I would like my country to be at peace but I don’t know how." he said. "How many years have we been fighting now? Twenty? Me, I cannot see any peace, just fighting.”
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