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Inside Somalia: Al Shabaab, ally of Al Qaeda

Interview with an Al Shabaab fighter provides a glimpse into the Islamic extremist group.

Editor's note: Somalia defines the term failed state. This GlobalPost series includes accounts of being under fire in Mogadishu and on guard duty with African Union peacekeepers, a look at Somalia's revered poetry and an analysis of when Somalia will improve.

MOGADISHU, Somalia — Al Shabaab, Somalia’s Islamist insurgent group, declared its allegiance to Al Qaeda this week, confirming suspicions long held by Western intelligence agencies that the two groups were linked.

“We have agreed to join the international jihad of Al Qaeda,” the group said in a statement posted on a website and signed by its leader.

Harakat Al-Shabaab — meaning "Youth Movement" — emerged in 2005 as the armed wing of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), a group that defeated clan warlords and brought peace to Somalia for a few brief months in 2006.

When U.S.-backed Ethiopian troops invaded and forced the Islamic Courts out, Al Shabaab won popular support by fighting a guerrilla war against the Christian invaders.

Many of Al Shabaab’s top leaders are radical Somali veterans of the Afghanistan wars. In 2008 Ahmed Abdi Godane, known as Abu Zubeyr, replaced the group’s first commander, Aden Hashi Ayro, after he was killed by a U.S. air strike in May that year. Three months earlier the U.S. had designated Al Shabaab as a terrorist organisation.

Godane is believed to have fought in Afghanistan in the 1980s and is described by one observer as “a hardcore jihadi.” He is advised by a 10-man "shura" council.

Other senior commanders enjoying a large degree of autonomy are Mukhtar Ali Robow, a.k.a. Abu Mansoor, an experienced fighter who ran the training camp from which Al Shabaab emerged, and Ibrahim Haji Jaama, who won his nom-de-guerre Al-Afghani during years fighting in Afghanistan and Kashmir.

Under growing military pressure in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq, hundreds of foreign fighters have flocked to Somalia in recent years to join the battle against Sheikh Sharif Ahmed’s U.N.- and U.S.-backed Transitional Federal Government (TFG).

Hardened foreign fighters have brought with them a radical ideology of global jihad and some — such as a white U.S. citizen known as Al-Amriki — have taken prominent field commander roles.

Foreign fighters and even suicide bombers have joined Al Shabaab from the Somali diaspora in the United States and Europe. More than 20 young men from Minnesota are believed to have joined Al Shabaab. One of them, 26-year-old Shirwa Ahmed, blew himself up in a suicide attack
in the northern Somali region of Puntland in 2008.

The man responsible for another deadly suicide bombing in Mogadishu in early December 2009 was a young Somali man from Denmark. A former Al Shabaab fighter told GlobalPost he had met Americans while he was a member of the armed group.