Al Shabab: Who are its Al Qaeda leaders, Western faces, foreign commanders
All you need to know about the Al Shabab, its ideology, its leaders, recruiters, etc.
For more than three whole days, gunmen who stormed Nairobi’s Westgate mall have continued to hold out against every effort by security forces to purge the five-story building of them. Their persistence has drawn the world media’s attention to the intense training and planning that appear to have gone into the attack, bigger and more dramatic than anything the Al Shabab has executed until now.
As has been widely reported, the group aligned itself with the Al Qaeda not so long ago, but some dots are still to be joined linking the group’s leadership and functioning, and its threats of more dramatic violence, to global jihadist networks.
Reports of Westerners among the attackers remain unconfirmed still, but the Al Shabab is not a stranger to foreign commanders, with some reports indicating that Al Qaeda commanders who left Afghanistan and Pakistan have assumed positions of leadership in the Somali group. Uncorroborated reports suggest that a Pakistani national runs the group's security and training.
According to this report in the Longwar Journal, the Al Qaeda commanders come from Kenya, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Sudan and the United States.
The report mentions, among others, Pakistani citizen Abu Musa Mombasa who serves as the Al Shabab's chief of security. (Later reports have not confirmed this.)
The Longwar Journal report also mentions other key Al Qaeda men now with the Al Shabab -- Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, a Kenyan who was appointed by Osama bin Laden as the Al Qaeda leader in East Africa; Shaykh Muhammad Abu Fa'id, a Saudi citizen who serves as a top financier and manager; Abu Sulayman Al Banadiri, a Somali of Yemeni descent who trained in Afghanistan.
There is also Abu Mansour al Amriki, whose real name is Omar Hammami, a US citizen who converted to Islam and traveled to Somalia in 2006, and was reportedly killed last year. Before his death, the American Hammami was a commander, recruiter, financier, and propagandist who appeared in several videos.
Hammami reportedly joined the Al Shabab in 2006, appeared as the American face of the group and was seen promoting some Islamic rap songs and also viewed as the sheikh of Western jihadi fighters.
A research paper from the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence (ICSR), London, also says that the Al Shabab, like the Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), attracts English-speaking Muslims and also recruits Western Muslims. Noting that large Somali populations in the United Kingdom and United States could be recruitment pools for the Al Shabab, it cites two key instances.
One was the January 2012 arrest of a former U.S. Army soldier charged with trying to join Al Shabab.
The other was in November 2011 when the Al Shabab claimed that an American-Somali from Minnesota, wanted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, took part in an October assault against African Union forces in Mogadishu.
“He was apparently one of two suicide bombers involved in the attack.” He was “at least” the third American Al Shabab suicide bomber, the research paper said.
Notwithstanding some foreign commanders and fighters, the Al Shabab was set up by Somalis who continue to control it through a Shura Council. In a series of detailed profiles of the Al Shabab’s top leadership, Critical Threats, which tracks security threats to the United States, says the Shura Council has suffered internal divisions ever since the group overtly joined the Al Qaeda network.
According to the site, the Al Shabab is led by Ahmed Abdi Godane, aka Mukhtar Abu Zubair, who the group calls ‘emir’. Godane was one of the original founders of the group and its top leader since 2008, designated as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT) by the US and with a reward of up to $7 million for information leading to his location.
Godane, from Hargeisa in Somaliland, studied at a madrassa in Pakistan on a scholarship funded by wealthy Saudis. He is suspected to have a home and family in Sharjah.
“In his first statement on June 2, 2008, as the head of al Shabaab, Godane pledged allegiance to Osama bin Laden and praised other prominent al Qaeda operatives. He also vowed that his group would launch a direct attack against the United States,” says the report. A later video shows Godane pledging allegiance to Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri
Other leaders of the Al Shabab include Sheikh Mukhtar Robow, also known as Abu Mansur, about who unconfirmed reports have suggested that he surrendered to the Somali government in July this year. Also a Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT) to the US, Robow is from Baidoa in the Bay region of Somalia and trained with the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2000, returning to Somalia after the Taliban fell from power.
“Robow also promotes a degree of transnational jihadist activity,” the report says, adding that he once told militants in Mogadishu that he would send them to Yemen.
“On March 7, 2011, Robow threatened Kenya with a repeat of the devastating bombings that rocked Uganda on July 11, 2010,” the report says.
Robow is committed to a state governed by Sharia law. By various accounts, there appear to have been rifts between Robow and Godane.
The group’s chief spokesperson is Ali Mohamed Rage, also known as Ali Dhere. Another senior leader is Fuad Mohamed Qalaf, also known as Shongole, believed to be key to fund-raising for the Al Shabab.
“Shongole took asylum in Sweden in 1992, but returned to Somalia in 2004 to fight with the Islamic Courts Union (ICU),” the report says.
A critic of media organizations, he accused editors of Voice of America (VOA) and the BBC of treason to Islam for misleading Somali Muslims in 2010.
Read the complete profiles of the leaders here.