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The news came out after a meeting held in Afgoye attended by Shabaab's ruling elites, during which Ahmed Godane, one of al-Shabaab's top commanders, named Sheikh Iman Ali as the organization's representative in Kenya. Mr. Ali, according to Godane, has been a trusted ally in mobilizing Kenyan youth to come to Somalia and take part in the jihad, or religious war against the Somali Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and allied forces.
Mr. Ali, who is not Somali, is a former resident of the Nairobi suburb of Majengo, in the district of Pumwani, where he established a community organization in 2008 known as Muslim Youth Centre (MYC), more commonly known as the Pumwani Muslim Youth (PMY). Though the MYC ostensibly exists to provide youth with religious counseling, in practice it serves as a recruiter of young militants and travel facilitator to Somalia, according to the July 2011 report from the UN Monitoring Group on Somalia.
In a September 13, 2010 lecture to MYC combatants and other Swahili-speaking pro-al-Shabaab fighters, according to the report, Mr. Ali urged his audience to "cut, peel, and slash" the throats of Kenyan "infidels," and to launch attacks in Kenya of similar magnitude to the July 2010 bombings in Kampala, Uganda.
Mr. Ali, who relocated to Somalia in 2009, has developed a strong network of members and sympathizers in the Kenyan cities of Eldoret, Garrisa, and Mombasa. Mr. Ali allegedly commands a force 200-500 fighters, most of whom are Kenyans, including minors, recruited from Majengo through his religious sermons.
On one hand, therefore, Mr. Ali's appointment is insignificant, with his title merely confirming a position he already holds. On the other, the public announcement may be an attempt by jostling al-Shabaab factions to curry favour with the well-connected commander.
"One explanation is that, because Shabaab is undergoing a leadership struggle right now, certain parties may be looking to shore up their allies," explained a regional Somalia expert. "Godane might be looking for access to Iman's funding and networks."
More worryingly, the timing of Mr. Ali's appointment could indicate that al-Shabaab leadership is setting Mr. Ali up to take credit for a terror attack in Nairobi that many analysts, including British intelligence sources, say is imminent.
"If MYC has been planning an attack in Kenya for a while, as many experts think, Shabaab could be setting him up to take public credit for it," said the source.
Some al-Shabaab leaders, including Islamic Courts Union (ICU) founder Hassan Dahir Aweys, welcomed the naming of Mr. Ali and expressed confidence in his ability to coordinate attacks in Kenya.
“We believe Sheikh Iman is a young and a very religious leader who has shown a lot of effort in recruiting youth for jihad, and we believe that he is going to double his work,” Mr. Aweys announced to a crowd in Afgoye this morning.
In a propaganda video posted to YouTube yesterday (since taken down), Mr. Ali is shown lecturing in Kiswahili wearing a set of green combat fatigues.
“Kenya has declared war against Somalia and jihad should now be waged inside Kenya which is legally a war zone," he says.