Al Qaeda base still strong in East Africa

Editor's note: The killing of Osama bin Laden has changed everything. Or has it? In this ongoing series Al Qaeda: What's Next?, GlobalPost senior correspondents worldwide investigate the uncertain future of global terrorism and religious extremism – from Afghanistan to Egypt and Tunisia, India, China, Africa, Southeast Asia, the former Soviet republics and beyond.

NAIROBI, Kenya — Jamia Mosque in the middle of Nairobi is crammed for Friday prayers.

Thousands of devout Muslims answer the muezzin’s call, kneeling on the carpeted floor. The faithful who cannot fit inside the mosque spill out into the compound and surrounding streets.

At Jamia the message is moderate, not so elsewhere in Nairobi. Buried deep inside the predominately Somali suburb of Eastleigh is the Sixth Street Mosque, one of a number of radical Wahabbi-influenced mosques attracting a younger congregation.

A confidential U.S. diplomatic cable said the mosque “directs recruitment operations” for Al Shabaab, the Somali insurgent group that has pledged allegiance to Al Qaeda.

Kenyan authorities worry that the country’s Muslim community, politically, economically and geographically marginalized since independence in 1963, may be ripe for recruitment into Al Qaeda’s radical ideology.

But there are warnings that the state’s heavy-handed response, with ethnic profiling and mass arrests, may create the very thing it fears.

“There is a witch hunt against Muslims,” said Farouk Machanje of the Muslim Human Rights Forum, in an interview with GlobalPost at the Jamia Mosque.

“The government portrays Kenyan Muslims as sympathizers of Al Qaeda and Al Shabaab but this is not the case,” he insisted.

“I fear Muslims will be pushed into radicalization, especially the youth, and I fear what might happen. The way the police and intelligence conduct themselves may lead to something happening that I would not like to see,” said Machanje.

Kenya has already suffered at the hands of Al Qaeda: in its inaugural August 1998 attack, when hundreds died as the United States embassy was blown up, and again in November 2002, when bombers struck an Israeli-owned hotel in Mombasa. Since then many of the masterminds of those plots have been killed but one remains at large: Comoros-born Fazul Abdullah Mohammed.

Intelligence officials say Fazul is in Somalia where he trains Al Shabaab fighters and suicide bombers and provides a key link between the local jihadis of Al Shabaab and the global ones of Al Qaeda. Some analysts warn that Osama bin Laden’s death might in fact elevate the importance of Somalia and Al Shabaab.

According to military documents declassified by the Harmony Project at West Point the current interim head of Al Qaeda, Egyptian-born Saif al-Adel, spent a number of years in Somalia during the 1990s attempting to establish a firm foothold there for Al Qaeda.

Like Fazul, Adel is wanted by the FBI in connection with the U.S. embassy bombings in East Africa in 1998.

“Al Shabaab has been a support framework for Al Qaeda in the Horn of Africa, and for the foreign fighters in Al Shabaab,” said Roba Sharamo, head of the African Conflict Prevention Program at the Institute for Security Studies in Nairobi.

“Al-Adel knows the region very well so he might use Al Shabaab as a base for launching attacks,” he warned.

“Al Qaeda is a much weaker organization in East Africa today as compared to the mid-1990s,” said David Shinn, adjunct professor of international affairs at George Washington University and a former U.S. ambassador. “In effect, it has been supplanted by Al Shabaab, which has a Somalia-focused agenda.”

Shinn concluded: “I don't think bin Laden's death changes the situation for Al Shabaab.”

But there has long been internal tension within Al Shabaab between those with strictly nationalist aims and those with regional or global aspirations.

Since bin Laden’s death, all of Al Shabaab’s key leaders have issued statements praising his martyrdom and some have threatened retaliatory attacks. Among them were Abu Mansour al-Amriki, an American jihadi who has become a poster boy for Al Shabaab’s recruitment efforts, producing English-language videos and rap recordings.

“Global jihadis have taken over the movement, so the killing of a global jihadi figure like Osama bin Laden will come as a blow, but will it stop the insurgency in Somalia? No,” said Rashid Abdi, Somalia analyst at the International Crisis Group in Nairobi

“These people believe in the global jihad agenda of Al Qaeda but they are fighting a local jihad,” he said.

Despite the ideological alignment between Al Shabaab and Al Qaeda analysts say there is no evidence of close financial or chain-of-command ties.

“There won’t be any financial impact of Osama bin Laden’s death because Al Shabaab gets funds from private persons in the Gulf countries, from local taxation in Mogadishu and the countryside and from the port at Kismayo, not from Al Qaeda,” said Stig Jarle Hansen, an expert on conflict economies and associate professor in international relations at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences.

“There was no command and control between Al Qaeda and Al Shabaab,” agreed Roba Sharamo, of the Institute for Security Studies in Nairobi.

Hansen said that while Fazul is the oldest link between Al Qaeda and Al Shabaab there is “an entire new generation” including Arabs and Yemenis in particular. “The closest Al Qaeda affiliate to Al Shabaab is Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula [AQAP],” he said.

American-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki has presided over the transformation of AQAP from a Yemeni Islamist insurgency into a dangerous terrorist organization with global ambitions.

Al Shabaab is regularly mentioned in "Inspire," an English-language online magazine published by AQAP. And al-Awlaki has praised Al Shabaab in his recordings.

“There are signs of growing links,” said Hansen. “Today Al Shabaab is the only organization that has sworn allegiance to Al Qaeda that has control over territory, and that makes them special. This is the future, what a lot of these groups strive for.”

The fact that Al Shabaab leaders can hold military parades, address large public gatherings, appear at key mosques and organize outdoor prayer meetings at a football stadium in the capital Mogadishu marks the group out as different from other Al Qaeda affiliates that are, for the most part, hidden and hiding.

That uniqueness wins Al Shabaab a measure of jihadi kudos and attracts support, both in fighters and finances.

“There are individuals in the Gulf states who for ideological reasons, back Al Shabaab financially, as they did the Taliban,” said Abdi. “They see Al Shabaab as the vanguard of an Islamic revolution in the Horn of Africa.”