Al-Qaeda in Yemen is becoming more powerful because it provides the troops for a Sunni community that feels under increasing threat from a Shia insurgency that has seized much of the country.
Its increased strength has nothing to do with foreign jihadists like Chérif and Saïd Kouachi, who killed 12 people in Paris last week and received training from al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) based in Yemen in the summer of 2011. AQAP is finding support among Sunni tribes that previously fought against it but are now under pressure from the Houthis, who belong to a Shia branch known as the Zaidis.
About a third of Yemenis are reckoned to belong to the sect, which dominated the country for 1,000 years before the revolution of 1962.
In September, the Houthis captured the capital Sanaa and have been pushing south against Sunni tribes ever since. These are increasingly looking to AQAP to provide experienced fighters and suicide bombers to battle the Houthi militiamen.
The Houthi advance “is only increasing al-Qaeda membership”, said a member of AQAP interviewed by AP online. He added that the group’s strategy is to fight the Houthis in central Yemen far from their strongholds in the north, and “drag them into a long war, and force them to retreat”. He claimed that al-Qaeda has spread to 16 out of 21 Yemeni provinces.
There have been frequent bomb attacks against the Houthis around the city of Radaa, once held by al-Qaeda militants in 2012, and now the centre of heavy fighting. A local tribal leader in Radaa, Sheikh Ahmed al-Jabri, told the news agency that “it’s a matter of vendetta against the Houthis. Tribes can even ally with the devil.”
The development is a serious blow to the long campaign by the US using drones against AQAP camps and militants which has been publicised as a success story by President Obama. Yemen has traditionally been more divided by tribal and regional allegiances than by sectarian differences between Shia and Sunni. But this is now changing with Iran giving support to the Houthis and the Sunni states of the Gulf helping their opponents.
Different though Yemen is from Syria and Iraq, it is benefiting from many Sunni looking to it as a source of experienced and fanatical fighters to defend their community. The Yemeni government, always weak, has virtually collapsed, with President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi exercising little authority since the Houthi captured Sanaa on 21 September.
The Kouachi brothers covertly visited Yemen in the summer of 2011 and stayed two weeks. A Yemeni official said they met the American-born AQAP preacher Anwar al-Awlaki who was killed in an American drone strike in September of that year. Saïd Kouachi is reported to have shared a room with the Nigerian student Farouk Abdulmutallab who later tried to blow up a plane with explosives hidden in his underwear.
Nevertheless, it is likely that AQAP is more interested in exploiting the opportunities offered to it by the civil chaos and intermittent warfare in Yemen than it is in taking control of attacks in Paris.
The Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was forced to step down in 2011, once said “ruling Yemen was like dancing on the head of snakes”. The state has never been strong and its authority has depended on the backing of tribes and foreign allies. But Yemen is now being sucked into the Sunni-Shia confrontation in the region with Saudi Arabia and the Sunni monarchies of the Gulf nervous of the influence of Iran and the Shia in Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut and now Sanaa.
The growing strength of AQAP in Yemen means that there are now at least six countries in the wider Middle East and North Africa where jihadis from Europe can expect to receive sanctuary. These are areas held by the Taliban in Afghanistan, by Isis and other al-Qaeda type groups in Iraq and Syria, and parts of eastern Libya such Benghazi and Derna as well as in Yemen and Somalia. Given the numbers of foreign jihadis visiting these countries it is an impossible task for Western security agencies to monitor them all.
A remote-controlled bomb hit a vehicle in a troop convoy in the southern Somali port city of Kismayu, killing at least three soldiers, police and residents said on Sunday.
Militant group al Shabaab claimed responsibility for the attack, which hit the convoy as it drove through Gulwade village in Kismayu late on Saturday.
“The bomb was targeted at our convoy. Three soldiers were killed,” said Ismail Hussein, a police officer in the city.
Al Shabab has been weakened considerably by African Union troops and the Somali army, losing swathes of territory in the south of the country, but it has been carrying hit-and-run style attacks to show it has not been vanquished.
Local residents said troops in the convoy opened fire after the blast went off, killing two women who were passing by.
Hussein of the local police rejected the claim: “The forces did not kill residents after the blast,” he said.
Sheikh Abdiasis Abu Musab, al Shabab’s spokesman for military operations, said the group was behind the bomb attack and that it killed four senior intelligence officers.
The group also attacked a police station in the port of Bosasso with grenades and guns on Saturday, said Bashir Ahmed, a police captain in the area in the semi-autonomous region of Puntland.
They repulsed the attackers, but a woman who was selling khat, a narcotic leaf, sustained injuries from the fighting, Ahmed said.
Abu Musab confirmed they had carried out the attack, saying that four policemen were injured.
On Saturday East African foreign ministers met in Mogadishu to push peace efforts in war-torn Somalia, the first time the regional bloc has met in the country for almost three decades.
Dozens of heavily armed soldiers and police patrolled the streets, where Al Qaeda-affiliated Shabab militants regularly carry out bombings and killings. Ministers from Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda – who have contributed troops to the 22,000-strong African Union force in Somalia – all took part in the one-day meeting, organised by the regional IGAD bloc, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development.
Held in a heavily guarded hotel near the main government district in Mogadishu, it was one of the largest and highest profile meetings in the capital for years. Key issues included security and political reconciliation within the Horn of Africa nation, riven by conflict since 1991.
At least 20 Al-Shabaab militants and five Somali soldiers were killed on Tuesday in fierce fighting that broke out in Somalia’s Galgala Mountains region.
“The Puntland president has confirmed to us that 20 terrorists and five of our soldiers were killed today,” Abdulkadir Sumaysane, a government official, told The Anadolu Agency following a cabinet briefing by Puntland President Abdiweli Ali.
“Four of our soldiers were wounded,” he said, adding that 27 militants had also sustained injuries.
The casualties, however, could not be independently verified.
Puntland is a semi-autonomous region in northern Somalia.
A local medical official at Bandar Qassim Hospital in Bossaso, a major seaport in Puntland, told AA that they had received ten injured government troops.
President Ali also reportedly told his cabinet that two senior Al-Shabaab leaders – identified as Mukhtar Mohamed and Ahmed Mohamed – had been captured.
“We have declared victory. Al-Shabaab has lost its last base in Galgala,” said Sumaysane.
Citing eyewitnesses, local media has reported that most of the slain Al-Shabaab fighters had likely been killed by U.S. drones.
The claims, however, could not be independently verified.
The army offensive began on Sunday.
For several years, the Al-Qaeda-linked Al-Shabaab group has maintained a stronghold in the Galgala Mountains region.
In 2014, Puntland saw an influx of Al-Shabaab fighters fleeing a major offensive conducted by the Somali army and African Union troops.
The offensive had targeted the group’s main areas of influence in southern and central Somalia.
Somalia has remained in the grip of on-again, off-again violence since the outbreak of civil war in 1991.
Earlier this year, fractious Somalia appeared to inch closer to stability after government troops and African Union forces – deployed in the country since 2007 – drove Al-Shabaab from most of its strongholds.
Somalia Al Shabab militants attacked a military base in the outskirts of the town of Baidoa on Friday morning, killing at least seven soldiers, a Somali military official said.
The attack came two days after the United States said it had killed the chief of al Shabaab’s intelligence and security wing, Tahliil Abdishakur, in a drone strike.
Al Shabab seeks to topple the Western-backed Mogadishu government.
“Al Shabab attacked our base unexpectedly, early in the morning today. We lost seven soldiers,” Captain Ahmed Idow, a Somali military officer, told Reuters by telephone from Baidoa.
Idow said Somali soldiers killed three al Shabaab insurgents during the attack.
A spokesman for Al Qaeda-linked Al Shabab said the group had briefly seized the base and killed more than 10 soldiers.
Al Shabab often cites a higher death toll than the number given by officials.
“We fiercely attacked the military base near Baidoa,” Sheikh Abdiasis Abu Musab, Al Shabab’s military operation spokesman, said.
In a separate incident in central Somalia on Friday, Al Shabaab ambushed a government convoy carrying food aid, killing one soldier, according to Somali officials.
A spokesman for Al Shabab confirmed the group was behind the attack. Eight gunmen infiltrated the main African Union (AU) base in Mogadishu last week and killed three peacekeepers and a civilian contractor.
Al Shabab claimed responsibility for the attack, which lasted several hours, and said it had killed 14 peacekeepers. Witnesses reported hearing bomb blasts and volleys of gunfire through the day.
“We targeted the enemies at a time they were celebrating Christmas,” Sheikh Abdiasis Abu Musab, al Shabaab’s military operations spokesman, said.
The raid showed Al Shabab’s ability to carry out high-profile attacks in the capital even as it is losing territory in rural areas to AU peacekeepers who have launched two major offensives this year.
“The terrorists, some of whom were disguised in Somali National Army uniforms, breached the base camp around lunch hour and attempted to gain access to critical infrastructure, during which five of them were killed and three others captured,” the AU peacekeeping mission in Somalia, AMISOM, said in a statement.
It did not disclose the nationalities of the peacekeepers and civilian contractor killed in the attack.
An unmanned US aircraft that unleashed Hellfire missiles at a vehicle in Somalia earlier this week killed a leader of the al- Shabaab militant group.
Rear Admiral John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary, confirmed the strike in a twitter post.
He said the department could now “confirm that Tahliil Abdishakur, chief of al-Shabaab’s intelligence and security wing, was killed in a US air strike in Somalia on 29 December.”
The Pentagon said in a statement that Abdishakur was responsible for the group’s external operations and “his death will significantly impact al-Shabaab’s ability to conduct attacks against the government of the Federal Republic ofSomalia, the Somali people and US allies and interests.”
The strike took place on Monday in the vicinity of Saakow, Somalia, by US forces using an unmanned aircraft that fired several Hellfire missiles at a vehicle carrying the al-Shabaab leader, the statement said.
US and Somali officials speaking on condition of anonymity confirmed Abdishakur’s death yesterday but the Pentagon had said it was still examining the evidence.
Today’s statement was the first official confirmation of the killing from the Pentagon and offered the first details on the nature of the strike.
Somalia’s National Intelligence and Security Agency said that Abdishakur was head of al-Shabaab’s Amniyat unit, which was believed to be responsible for several suicide attacks in Mogadishu.
Officials have said Abdishakur and another al-Shabaab militant were killed in the attack. They have said there were no civilian casualties in the air strike.
The strike was the latest in an ongoing campaign against al-Shabaab, whose leadership is affiliated with al Qaeda.
In September, a US drone strike killed the group’s main leader, Ahmed Abdi Godane.
The Shabaab al-Mujahideen Movement has proven to be resilient following the death of Mukhtar Abu al-Zubeir (AKA Ahmed Abdi Godane), largely putting to rest statements from Washington that the group had been diminished.
The group’s December 25 raid on the AMISOM Halane military base near Mogadishu International Airport, a heavily protected compound housing officials from the UN and other agencies, marks a new militaristic achievement for the group inside of Somalia. The attack reveals not only feeble security and intel of forces in Somalia, but also that the Shabaab maintains an ever-threatening level military capability.
The group issued an official statement on the raid through Shabaab-affiliated websites on December 26, a day after the Shabaab’s spokesman, Ali Mahmoud Ragi (AKA Ali Dheere), claimed credit for the attack and alleged to have killed at least 17 “crusaders.” The message also boasted to have breached the “seemingly impenetrable fortifications” of the base, following up:
Particularly troubling about the Shabaab’s siege is its indication of the African Union (AU) and UN’s lack of security and preparation for such an attack, as well as a grim indication of sturdy intel and military ability retained by the Shabaab. The militants managed to breach the base (some of whom allegedly doing so while wearing Somali National Army uniforms) during the compound’s lunch hour and shared hours of gunfire with AMISOM forces, after which two Shabaab fighters allegedly detonated themselves on-site.
It almost seems that the group’s attack on of the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya in September of 2013—wherein Shabaab militants opened fire on unsuspecting shoppers—had distracted the international community from the group’s militaristic aspirations. Sure, this attack at Westgate, while showing a willingness toward brutality, demonstrated little militaristic capability. However, Thursday’s attack on the AMISOM Halane military base stands as sobering proof that that this terrorist organization is a danger not only to civilians, but also to domestic security forces.
The aforementioned statement by the Shabaab regarding their attack on the base also claimed the attack to be one of revenge for the death of Godane, who was killed in a U.S. airstrike on September 2.
Unfortunately, though, this attack has served as more than retaliation; the Shabaab’s recent siege of the base is a reminder that killing the leaders does little to diminish a terrorist organization’s activity—let alone end it.
A leader with the Islamic extremist group al-Shabaab, who had a $3m bounty on his head, surrendered in Somalia, a Somali intelligence official said on Saturday.
Zakariya Ismail Ahmed Hersi surrendered to Somali police in the Gedo region, said the intelligence officer, who insisted on anonymity because he is not authorised to speak to the press.
Hersi may have surrendered because he fell out with those loyal to Ahmed Abdi Godane, al-Shabaab’s top leader who was killed in a US airstrike earlier this year, the officer said.
Hersi was one of eight top al-Shabaab officials whom the Obama administration offered a total $33m in rewards for information leading to their capture in 2012.
Despite suffering major losses such as losing major cities, al-Shabaab remains a threat in Somalia and the East African region. The group has carried out many terror attacks in Somalia and some in neighbouring countries including Kenya, whose armies are part of the African Union troops bolstering Somalia’s weak UN- backed government.
On Christmas day, al-Shabaab launched an attack at the African Union base in Mogadishu. Nine people died, including three African Union soldiers, in the attack on the complex, which also houses UN offices and western embassies. Al-Shabaab said the attack was aimed at a Christmas party and was in retaliation for the killing of the group’s leader Godane.
Al-Shabaab also claimed that 14 soldiers were killed, but the group often exaggerates the number of people it kills.
Al-Shabaab is waging an Islamic insurgency against Somalia’s government that is attempting to rebuild the country after decades of conflict that was sparked off by the 1991 ouster of dictator Siad Barre.
Three African Union (AU) soldiers, a civilian contractor and five al-Shabab militants were killed during a militant attack on the main AU base in Mogadishu, Somalia. The Islamists launched the attack during a Christmas day lunch hour on December 25.
Five militants were killed and three captured during an al-Shabab attack on the key base of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) located in the capital of Mogadishu, AMISOM said in a statement.
“Our forces shot dead three of them, two detonated themselves near a fuel depot,” Col. Ali Aden Houmed said, as quoted by the Associated Press. “An investigation is underway on how they entered the base,” he added.
Three AMISOM soldiers and a civilian were killed in the fighting.
At least eight al-Shabab militants, some of whom were wearing uniforms of the Somali National Army, launched the attack during a Christmas day lunch hour, according to the New York Times. The Islamists were allegedly targeting a Christmas party at the Halane base, the media outlet said.
The African Union condemned the attack.