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Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Closer ties between Somali and Yemeni jihadists threatens oil through the Gulf of Aden

Somalia’s President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed talks to journalists after visiting Howlwadag district following fighting between government troops and members of the Al Shabaab group of insurgents, which has been linked to Al Qaeda, in the capital Mogadishu. (REUTERS Photo)
Somalia’s President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed talks to journalists after visiting Howlwadag district following fighting between government troops and members of the Al Shabaab group of insurgents, which has been linked to Al Qaeda, in the capital Mogadishu. (REUTERS Photo)
Affiliates of Al Qaeda operating on opposite shores of key oil-export routes through the Gulf of Aden have forged closer ties in what could emerge as a substantial threat by a group that has been dealt severe body blows by the Arab revolt sweeping the Middle East and North Africa and the killing in May of Osama Bin Laden by US Navy Seals.

The closer ties between Yemen-based Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and Al Shabaab in war-shattered Somalia is sparking concern among intelligence and counter-terrorism officials who suggest that AQAP may be the driving force behind closer cooperation between the two groups.
Cooperation between the two groups could heighten threats to the Gulf of Aden which through the Suez Canal links the Indian Ocean with the Mediterranean Sea. An estimated 2 million barrels of oil or 5 percent of the world’s seaborne oil trade is shipped each day through the Gulf, which has been nicknamed Pirate Alley because of continued attacks by Somali pirates. A UAE tanker was pirated late Friday bringing to 22 the number of vessels being held for ransom.

Intelligence and counter-terrorism officials are further concerned that the cooperation could prompt Al Shabaab, which despite recent setbacks controls significant chunks of Somalia, to expand its operations further into East Africa and embrace the principle of global jihad by also focusing on targets outside of Africa. AQAP is believed to have been supplying the group with weapons, fighters and training in explosives over the last year.
Ironically, the threats are posed by two affiliates of an organization already in decline that are fighting domestic battles of their own. Al Qaeda has lost much of its appeal over the last decade as a result of multiple suicide attacks that killed scores of Muslims and the mass anti-government protests sweeping a swath of land stretching from the Gulf to the Atlantic coast of Africa that reject its violence and puritan interpretation of Islam. The impact of the bombings and the revolt is also taking its toll on Al Shabaab and AQAP.

Al Shabaab, which has largely focused its operations in Somalia, but last year claimed responsibility for the bombing of two sites in the Ugandan capital Kampala where Ugandan and foreigners had gathered to watch the 2010 World Cup final, is finding recruitment increasingly difficult because of a lack of funds and its harsh Islamic rule.

The group, which has banned the playing and watching of soccer as un-Islamic in areas it controls, said the bombings were intended to persuade Uganda to withdraw its African Union peacekeeping forces from Somalia. The bombings killed 74 people.

The closer ties come as Al Shabaab has been losing territory in the capital Mogadishu as well as along the border with Kenya in clashes with forces loyal to Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG) supported by the peacekeepers.

Once restricted to several blocks around Villa Somalia, the presidential palace, TFG forces now control 13 of Mogadishu’s 15 districts, including much of Bakara Market, an open air market in the heart of the city famous for its trade in arms and falsified documents and as the crash site of one of two downed US Black Hawk helicopter in the 1993 Battle for Mogadishu. Somalia’s ambassador to Kenya Mohamed Nur predicted last week that the TFG would capture the rest of the city “in the next few weeks.”

The cooperation also comes amid increasing chaos in Yemen as a result of mass anti-government protests demanding the resignation of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, which has allowed AQAP to expand its influence in the south of the country. Nonetheless, AQAP, which is meeting stiff resistance from tribesmen, has not launched a major operation since its failed attempts in October last year to mail bombs aboard cargo planes headed for the United States and in October 2010 and to detonate a bomb aboard a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas Day 2009.

US intelligence and counter-terrorism officials were alerted to the closer cooperation between AQAP and Al Shabaab by information found on hard drives seized during the raid in May on Bin Laden’s hideout in the Pakistani garrison city of Abbottabad. They gleaned further information from the interrogation of captured Al Shabaab operatives.

The Nation reported last week that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was operating a counter-terrorism training program for Somali intelligence agents and operatives at Mogadishu’s airport and was also using a secret prison in the beleaguered Horn of Africa nation to interrogate prisoners. A US drone is believed to have last month wounded two Al Shabaab operatives associated with Al Qaeda.

A New York court indicted an Al Shabaab commander, Ahmed Abdulkadir Warsame, earlier this month on charges of providing material support to both the Somali group and AQAP. Mr. Warsame was interrogated aboard a US naval vessel before being transferred to New York. He is believed to have been one of AQAP’s key contacts in the Somali group.

The closer cooperation between AQAP and Al Shabaab expands US efforts to deal Al Qaeda and its affiliates a final death knell in the wake of Bin Laden’s death. The two weakened groups no doubt pose a threat to shipping in and the flow of oil through the Gulf of Aden, but their efforts to coordinate and extend their theatre of operations is unlikely to do much to boost their popularity or resurrect a movement that faces an existential challenge it has yet to come to grips with.

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