Al Qaeda’s branch in Somalia, the terrorist group’s largest and most active global affiliate, has issued specific new threats against Americans in East Africa and even the United States, U.S. commandos, counterterrorism officials and intelligence analysts say.
Several ominous signs indicate that the Qaeda affiliate, the Shabab, is seeking to expand its lethal mayhem well beyond its home base, and attack Americans wherever it can — threats that have prompted a recent flurry of American drone strikes in Somalia to snuff out the plotters.
In recent months, two Shabab operatives have been arrested while taking flying lessons — one last summer in the Philippines and another more recently in an African country, intelligence officials say. Those arrests carried eerie echoes of the original Sept. 11 plotters, who trained to fly jetliners. Shabab fighters are seeking to acquire Chinese-made, shoulder-fired antiaircraft missiles, which could pose a deadly new risk to U.S. helicopters and other aircraft in Somalia.
American commanders are hardening defenses at bases in the region after a Shabab attack in January at Manda Bay, Kenya, killed three Americans and revealed serious security vulnerabilities. That attack came about a week after an explosives-laden truck blew up at a busy intersection in Mogadishu, the Somali capital, killing 82 people. The Shabab also claimed responsibility for that attack.
The strike in Kenya came two months after the Shabab released a 52-minute video narrated by the group’s leader, Abu Ubaidah, in which he called for attacks against Americans wherever they are, saying the American public is a legitimate target. The statement mirrored Osama bin Laden’s declaration of war against the United States in 1996.
“Shabab is a very real threat to Somalia, the region, the international community and even the U.S. homeland,” Gen. Stephen J. Townsend, the head of the military’s Africa Command, told a House committee in Washington this month.
The Shabab control large parts of Somalia and raise considerable funds through local taxation and extortion. Despite intensified American airstrikes and a long-running offensive against the African Union, the group has carried out deadly attacks not only in Somalia but also in neighboring Kenya and Uganda.
American and other Western intelligence analysts and Special Operations officers express fears that Shabab militants could threaten the 3,500 personnel at the Pentagon’s largest permanent base on the continent, in Djibouti, as well as international shipping in the critical Bab al Mandab waterway off the southern Yemeni coast.
And last month, the United States Embassy in Nairobi warned of a possible terrorist attack against a major hotel in the Kenyan capital that is popular with tourists and business travelers. The warning did not specifically mention the Shabab, but intelligence officials said the threat bore the hallmarks of such an operation.
The Defense Intelligence Agency told the Pentagon’s inspector general in a recent report that the chances of the Shabab attacking the United States remained relatively low, but the analysts noted that the group had made clear its intentions to kill Americans at any location.
One threat could be home grown, from radicalized Somali-Americans living in cities like Minneapolis or Columbus, Ohio, which have large Somali-American communities, analysts said. Another could be from Shabab militants in East Africa, who have pilot training and might be able to slip into the United States — a much more difficult feat now than when the original Sept. 11 plotters entered the country in 2001.
For now, Shabab threats against Americans remain highest in East Africa.
In September, a suicide bomber detonated a car packed with explosives at the gate of a military airfield in Bale Dogle, Somalia, injuring one American service member. Afterward, according to the Pentagon’s inspector general report, the Shabab and other Qaeda-related groups released near-simultaneous messages on social media, suggesting a coordinated media strategy among the Qaeda branches.
“This is what we struggle with,” Brig. Gen. Dagvin R.M. Anderson, the commander of American Special Operations forces in Africa, said in an interview last month on the sidelines of a counterterrorism exercise in Mauritania. “Their intent is clearly stated. The question is, are they able to develop a safe haven to plan, fund and plot these attacks against the U.S.? What’s their timeline? How do we and our partners keep them off balance?”
It is unclear how the Shabab might try to exploit the spread of the coronavirus pandemic on the continent, where many countries face huge challenges responding to the crisis, General Anderson said on Friday in a separate telephone interview from his headquarters in Germany.
There are also now about 500 American troops in Somalia. Most are Special Operations forces stationed at a small number of bases across the country. Their missions include training and advising Somali army and counterterrorism troops and conducting kill-or-capture raids of their own.
The threat from the Shabab has increased so sharply that last November, General Townsend created a Special Operations task force with about 100 troops and analysts to focus on shoring up security in Somalia and countering the Shabab.
But the weapon of choice against the Shabab is drone strikes. The United States has carried out 31 strikesagainst Shabab militants already this year, and is on pace to nearly double the previous high of 63 last year — almost all against Shabab militants, with a few against a branch of the Islamic State. That compares with 47 strikes against the Shabab in 2018.
Several recent strikes have focused on targets near Jilib, about 220 miles south of Mogadishu, which American and Somali officials say is a major hub for the Shabab’s operations cell that plots attacks outside Somalia. Other drone attacks have targeted fighters in Shabab strongholds such as Jamame, Sakow, Bu’aale and Janaale.
The Africa Command, also called Africom, said that a strike on Feb. 22 in the vicinity of Sakow killed Bashir Mohamed Mahamoud, who the military says was a senior Shabab commander responsible for planning and directing the deadly Manda Bay attack.
“I would say that the threat is higher, has been higher in the last few months than it was eight months ago when I first got to Africom,” General Townsend told reporters after the House hearing last week. “That’s exactly why you’ve seen this increase in strike activity.”
The air campaign, however, has been shrouded in secrecy, and an investigation by Amnesty International last year reported on evidence that these airstrikes had killed or wounded more than two dozen civilians since 2017. A recent report by Airwars, a conflict-monitoring group, also challenged the military’s findings that its strikes had resulted in very few civilian casualties.
The Shabab formally pledged allegiance to Al Qaeda in 2012. But long before that, its members fought Western-backed governments in Mogadishu as the group sought to impose its extremist interpretation of Islam across Somalia. In defending the fragile government, the United States has largely relied on proxy forces, including about 20,000 African Union peacekeepers from Uganda, Kenya and other East African nations.
The United States estimates that the Shabab have about 5,000 to 7,000 fighters in Somalia, but the group’s ranks are fluid.
In recent years, the Shabab have proved adept at transforming itself into an agile and adaptive guerrilla force that has developed fiendishly sophisticated homemade bombs, including improvised explosives devices, or I.E.D.s.
“Now more than ever, Al Shabab effectively deploys I.E.D.s, complex attacks on both civilian and military targets, blockades to disrupt access, devises sophisticated extortion generating schemes, and utilizes intimidation tactics to afford itself invincibility status aimed at destabilizing Somalia and threatening neighboring countries,” said Abdisaid Muse Ali, Somalia’s national security adviser.
Mr. Ali said the Shabab had expanded its popular base by building on the issues that afflicted Somalia, including the influence of warlords, tribalism, regional meddling, and the lack of a government to expand and deliver services.
“Ensuring that we deliver services, register and pay civil-service and soldiers, and properly register weapons coming into the country, these are important,” he said of the government’s priorities.
Mr. Ali said Shabab leaders also sought to broaden their global jihadist appeal by striking American targets. “Al Shabab tries to internationalize their aggression by saying they are fighting America while seeking attention from Al Qaeda leaders,” he said.
Indeed, the authorities in the Philippines last July arrested a person accused of being a Shabab operative from Kenya who was studying to be a pilot at a local aviation academy. In announcing the arrest of the suspect, Cholo Abdi Abdullah, local reports in the news media said that he had been accused of conducting research on “aviation threats, aircraft hijacking and falsifying travel documents.”
“Al Shabab is a prime lesson in the Al Qaeda movement’s stubborn resiliency,” said Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations. “The group has suffered leadership losses, loss of territory and revenue; and the attrition of its fighters, but keeps on fighting — and escalating and expanding its operations elsewhere.