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The truth on the ground may be quite different. Somali, Kenyan and Ethiopian military advances as well as severe leadership rifts among al-Shabaab's top officials have put pressure on the foreign fighters in the group, which has lead to two very different perspectives on where the foreign fighters are now.
One set of sources is firm the foreign fighters have fled Somalia for Yemen, while the other indicates the foreigners have only dug themselves deeper into Kismayo to defend their shrinking hold on the country.
At least 100 foreign al-Qaeda fighters working in Somalia with the hardline al-Shabaab Islamic group have fled the country for Yemen due to leadership squabbles and allied government advances towards their strongholds.
Top al-Shabaab officials and al-Qaeda leaders in Somalia have been at odds since airstrikes have bombarded the country over the last six months, targeting fighters both terrorist groups.
Sheikh Abuukar Ali Aden, the al-Shabaab general commander of the Lower and the Middle Jubba regions, confirmed the exodus to Somalia Report. “Yes, it is true that those brothers left us and went to Yemen due to some minor internal misunderstandings amongst ourselves. This started when we lost our brother, Bilal Al-Barjawi, on January 21st, but we are hoping to solve it and they will be back as soon as possible,” he said referring to an al-Qaeder leader who was killed in an airstrike near Mogadishu.
“The brothers went to Yemen for unknown mission and we are waiting for their contact,” added Sheikh Abuubakar.
Al-Jamhouria newspaper, based in Yemen, also reported the fighters were fleeing Somalia for Yemen.
Not to Flee
Top al-Shabaab officials and local shopkeepers told Somalia Report the reports were untrue and the foreign fighters are well entrenched in southern Somalia.
The aid to Sheikh Abdirahman Filow, who is the head of security al-Shabaab militia in Kismayo, said that Sheikh Filow left the port city six days ago to with a group of al-Shabaab militants to reinforce the village of the Dalayad.
“Sheikh Filow left Kismayo for the ongoing Jihad in the front lines against the Kufaris (non-believers) and we have not heard from him since the fighting ended in Dalayad village,” said the aide. "Sheikh Filow and Sheikh Siro led a large number of militants to back up the ongoing fightings in the village Dalayad. We have got a report from the militants in the front line that Sheikh Siro was targeted by KDF airstrike but Alhamdulilah (thanks to God) the Sheikh was not hurt,” added Ali.
A local shopowner who regularly provides supplies for the militants confirmed the foreigners were still in Somalia.
“A couple of minutes before you called three vehicles owned by foreign al-Shabaab fighters bought supplies from me and had left to the interior of the city as normal. They keep coming by. Everyday I see the same men and vehicles,” said the shopowner who asked not to be named.
A worker in the seaport of Kismayo, who also asked that Somalia Report hides his identity out of fear for his safety, said he had not seen any foreign fighters fleeing by boat.
“I have not seen foreign fighters leaving the city through the sea port nor have I seen Somali fighters doing the same. They did move out of their houses because they feared airstrikes. I now believe that they are still living in the city because I see them everyday. I have seen the landlords and they were paid. As I am talking to you I can see a war plane overflying the city and this is what has been happening over the last few days,” said Abdikhadar.
A local resident of Burgabo, an island used by the militants, had not seen any foreigners fleeing either.
“Well, I have not seen foreigners on the run here, but I can tell you that two Tanzania’s fighters who were my customers where killed by al-Shabaab who accused them of trying to escape. This kind of killing happen at times like this when they are defeated militarily,” said Khasim.
Media versus Reality
The new video was announced by an jihadi monitoring site run by Iraqi/Israeli Rita Katz. The SITE (Search for International Terrorist Entities Intelligence Group) is a for-profit group that tracks Islamic sites and groups. ICT and NEFA are non-profit groups that monitor and translate videos and communiques. Their main focus is on the propaganda released via the internet. In the past, video announcements have indicated the likelihood of a major attack, lending credibility to the amateurish and poorly assembled videos.
The video is the usual droning lecture with koranic chanting, a message from Ahmed Abdi Aw-Mohamed "Godane" and a long prepared message from Zawahiri.
Godane says; "O our beloved Emir, on behalf of my brothers in al Shabaab al Mujahideen Movement, commanders and soldiers, I say: We give allegiance to you to follow the Book of Allah and the Sunnah of His Messenger, to listen and obey in good and bad, to have altruism and not dispute with people in their fields except when we see clear unbelief that is proven in the revelation from Allah as much as we can,"
Godane is a 35 year old Koranic student from Hargeisa, Somaliland who went to fight against the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan in 2001. He fled after U.S. forces forced the withdrawal of foreign fighters after 9/11 and then worked for a money transfer company named Barakat.
He founded what became al Shabaab in Las Anod in 2003. Around 12 Somalis disagreed with the more moderate view of the The Islamic Union (al Ittihad al Islamiyya or AIAI, a salafist group who organized in February of 1993 and had created three training camps in Somalia. Aden Hashi Ayro, (killed in 2008 by an American air strike) and ‘Godane created the group that became known as al Shabaab In 2006 Godane became secretary general of the Executive Council of the Islamic Courts Union. Robow began the process of moving al Shabaab towards al Qaeda in September of 2009 when he structured the group as an al Qaeda affiliate and appeared in a video announcing that al Shabaab was joining al Qaeda. Osama Bin Laden issued an audio tape inside a video called "Fight on Champions of Somalia" in which he compared Somalia to Afghanistan and compared Sheikh Sharif to Karzai, Massoud and other "apostates".
In September of 2009, al-Shabaab publicly joined al-Qaeda with a video entitled, "Here I am at Your Service O Usama" but has always worked closely with the organization started by Osama bin Laden in the mid 90's.
In this new video the chairman of al Shabaab, Mukhtar Abu Zubeyr "Godane" pledging allegiance to Dr al-Zawahri. Despite these eagerness to meld the two groups, the U.S. State Dept was careful to separate al Qaeda and al Shabaab as distinct groups.
Zawahiri then mentioned al Shabaab in a November 19, 2009 video in which he referred to the group as the "Lion of Islam in Africa." The al-Qaeda video "From Kabul to Mogadishu" was designed to show the geographic depth of their organization.
Somalia and al Qaeda
When Osama bin Laden was exiled to the Sudan between 1991 and 1996 considered Somalia an ideal source of tough recruits and safe training center. Bin Laden took credit for the training and support of some of the Somali's who attacked US Forces in 1993. Exiled again to Jalalabad, the al Qaeda leader shifted to Afghanistan and ingratiating himself with The taliban. He didn't publicly mention the country until 2006 when he included them in a list of countries fighting America.
Somalia has a place in the mythology of jihad because of bin Laden taking dubious credit for the "Black Hawk Down" episode, the rise of the ICU during the Ethiopian invasion, and the current presence of a jihadi group battling a foreign invaders in the guise of AMISOM. In reality al Qaeda's support comes from the coastal communities in Kenya and the small group that carried out the US Embassy bombings in Nairobi. The presence of al Qaeda was first felt in the use of IEDs and suicide bombing starting in 2006.
Foreigners fighting inside Somalia became a problem around 2006 with the rise and fall of the Islamic Courts. Stories about suicide bombers, hard times and ambivalent loyalties began to emerge from deserters. In October 2007 an American from Alabama "Abu Mansoor Al-Amriki" appeared in an al Jazeera interview and became famous for his rap songs.
The synchronized car bomb attacks on the UN, Ethiopian intel HQ and Puntland Intelligence Service in the north in 2008 carried the distintive hand of al Qaeda and announced their influence.
In September of 2009 the President of Somalia estimated that there were between 800 and 1200 foriegn passport holders in al Shabaab. Insiders estimated about 400 foreigners (non-Somali's) with the bulk from Sub Saharan Africa. By 2010 AFRICOM was estimating the figure at 200 foreigners and 1100 Somalia diaspora with the non-Somali's coming from Kenya, Pakistan, Bangladesh, India, Afghanistan, Yemen, Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda and Saudi Arabia
The motivation behind this latest "re-pledge" video could indicate that al-Shabaab needs to polish their tarnished jihad credentials to keep funding and recruits coming. Al Shabaab fled Mogadishu and is increasingly under pressure from foreign armies. This would ideally recreate the same support that created the ICU but al Shabaab's normal method of funding via Nairobi was cut short when their main al Qaeda contact was cut off by a Reaper strike.
Being the bagman for al-Shabaab can be deadly as Fazul Abdullah Mohammed discovered back in June of 2011. Another key element of this video is the focus on Godane rather than Robow. Robow is another islamic student who also fought in Afghanistan in 2000. A series of U.S. and Kenyan air strikes against key leaders and camps has created paranoia in the organization. Despite the outward need to portray solidarity, the leadership is deeply divided along three groups. Godane, Robow and Aweys.
Al-Shabaab has an unofficial Twitter site run by an expat and sends press releases by email. Al-Shabaab senior leaders and known spokesmen handle all inquiries with the media directly. Media management for a terrorist group can be deadly. The publisher of "Inspire" was killed in drone attack. You can download the January issue here, which is now - oddly enough -distributed by the United States government.
Sites like Ansar al Mujahadeen are the most popular web sites for chat, information and links to download video. The video can be downloaded free here.
TFG Responds to Recent Declaration
In a government press release on Friday 10, TFG expressed their appreciation for al-Qaeda's declaration of ties to al-Shabaab and referred to it as the unmasking of the 'true colors' of a terrorist group. The scathing press release was issued by the TFG ministry of Information, Post and Telecommunication.
Update - February 13th TFG Press Release Regarding Union of Shabaab and Al-Qaida
PRESS RELEASE 23/2012
The official position of the Somali TFG regarding the union of Al-Shabaab and Al-Qaida
(Mogadishu - February 13, 2012) The Somali government is responding to the announcement, on the 9th of February, 2012 by the Al-Qaida leader Ayman Al-Zawahri and the Al-Shabaab leader Ahmed Abdi Godane which was about the official union of Al-shabaab with the terrorist organization of Al-Qaida and which was carried in their web sites.
The Somali government was never in doubt that Al-Shabaab was a branch of Al-Qaida, as witnessed now by the correspondence of their respective leaders.
The Somali government hopes that it is has been clearly proved to the whole world that the war in Somalia in the past years was between the Somali government aided by Amisom forces and Al-Qaida.
We also believe that their union will increase the insecurity in Somalia, East Africa and the rest of the world and that Somalia risks becoming an Al-Qaida base in East Africa as the Al-Qaida leader said in his statement.
The Somali government will not take lightly the danger from their official union and will put all its forces as well as the general public at the highest alert to confront the likely danger to the security of Somalia and the east African region.
The Somali government is requesting from the international community to stand by the Somali government and people and take the following steps.
1. To lift the arms embargo on Somalia so that it could defend the country and complete the achievements of the Somali army and Amisom forces.
2. To increase and reinforce the Somali National Army
3. To give direct assistance to the Somali government on all sides, so that it may fulfill its obligation to bring back peace and stability to the country.
Finally, we ask all the young people that have been misled by Al-shabaab to stop working with them since its clear to them that this group has shown its true color by joining the international criminal group of Al-Qaida. The Somali government is giving them the last chance for them to lay down their arms and follow the peaceful way within 15 days.