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A Threat Coming to Your TV Screen

10/02/2011

In September last year, the Director General of the Security Service (MI5) made a speech in which he highlighted,

In Somalia, for example, there are a significant number of UK residents training in al-Shabaab camps to fight in the insurgency there. al-Shabaab, an Islamist militia in Somalia, is closely aligned with al-Qaeda and Somalia shows many of the characteristics that made Afghanistan so dangerous as a seedbed for terrorism in the period before the fall of the Taliban. There is no effective government, there is a strong extremist presence and there are training camps attracting would be jihadists from across the world.

This speech was the latest proof of high-level concern about the Islamist al-Shabaab (the youth) militia in Somalia, which has evolved quite rapidly from regional insurgency to aspirant regional al-Qaeda affiliate. The most recent evidence of its evolution was the revelation last week that the group both had a new logo and was launching its own television channel. As the official press releaseput it,

The “al-Kataib News Channel” came to teach.. to tell.. and to incite.. in honor of the martyrs who covered battlefields with their blood in various fronts; east and west, south and north. This came in defense of the victories of the Mujahideen who broke the pride of the infidel West, scattered its papers and made their senior commanders lose their minds. This in support of the Muwahideen’s patience and persistence in the land of pride.

This news comes in the wake of a continuing escalation in activity from the group. I have written in the past about the group in a number of different formats, each highlighting different aspects of the group’s morph from regional insurgent to global actor. It has gone from being one amongst many in the civil war in Somalia, to being an actor able to launch attacks first in semi-autonomous Puntland, to being able and willing to launch attacks in neighboring Uganda, to maybe even being connected to international attacks. There has been an almost constant digest of stories of al-Qaeda leaders hiding out amongst the group in East Africa, rhetorical video exchanges between al-Qaeda and al-Shabaab, and evidence of other al-Qaeda affiliates moving to set up shop in Somalia. On the ground, stories point to the group’s increasing extremism and imposition of Shariah law, now a television channel, and all the while it seems able to draw a wide community of foreigners to its ranks.

International Threat? Members of al-Shabaab in Training

The trajectory it seems to be headed is an attack on the international stage. As Evans put it, the group ‘shows many of the characteristics that made Afghanistan so dangerous as a seedbed for terrorism,’ and consequently it understandable that it is high on the list of threats that keeps him up at night. But at the same time, the question that should be asked is whether we are wishing ourselves towards a conclusion that in fact is not in the interests of the group?

Yes, it does seem as though the Shabaab’s trajectory is invariably taking it towards attacking the West, and at least one of its leaders has openly threatened America. As Omar Hammami, aka Abu Mansour, put it to the New York Times, “it’s quite obvious that I believe America is a target.”

But why would the group attack the West? On the one hand it would give it a greater profile and prestige, all which would invariably bring it a greater degree of support and contacts, but at the same time such an attack would bring the additional nuisance of foreign interference and attention. It already has a great deal, but compared to AQAP or AQ core in Waziristan it remains a secondary issue for western counter-terrorists. So much so that aspiring Western fighters wanting to go to jihad consider Somalia an easier place to go than the other jihadi battlefields. As far as Western security services are concerned, the greatest concern is from radicalised networks affiliated with the group that chose to move into action in their home states, rather than going to Somalia to fight. Examples of this would be in Denmark in the case of young Somali-Dane who tried to kill Kurt Westegaard, one of the cartoonists responsible for the infamous Mohammed cartoons, and the cell in Australia who were trying to get to Somalia, but failed and instead decided to try to do something at home. In addition, there is the mixed group in Demark who were apparently targeting Jyllands-Posten, and at least one of whom had tried to link up with Somali networks in the past.

But in all three cases, it is unclear to what degree al-Shabaab central command was involved. This does not mean that they are absolved of activity outside Somalia – certainly the Kampala attack seems to have had a high degree of Shabaab involvement – but it remains uncertain that the group wants to start attacks in the west. The risk it would seem is from radicalized networks who decide to do things at home of their own volition (like the Australian or Danish networks), or might be coopted by groups like Al Qaeda to carry out attacks in the west (maybe the mixed network of attackers in Denmark).

This nonetheless means the group is a threat, but it is different from the threat posed by groups whose leadership appears to have made a conscious decision to attack the west. At the moment its attacks outside Somali borders have focused on nations involved in the AMISOM force, rather than any “kaffir” state. The danger is that we wish ourselves into facing a threat from the group by focusing too much attention on it. While it seems clear that radicalized networks are a threat, it is not clear that the group itself is eager to launch attacks against the west. This is not to say that it might not happen (I am wary of making any concrete assumptions, aware of how these groups mutate and how easy it is for affiliate networks to be coopted by others), but it is unclear that we are there yet in terms of core command targeting cities in America or Europe.

The Director General of MI5 seems very aware of this, and chose his words carefully about the group. “I am concerned that it is only a matter of time before we see terrorism on our streets inspired by those who are today fighting alongside al-Shabaab,” is how he put it. But maybe this should be more delicately put saying “connected” rather than “inspired.” The point is not that the group is not dangerous or a threat, but that it is not quite at the stage of being an AQAP or AQ core threat. To think strategically it would seem as though we need to find a better way by which to assess which affiliates are direct and indirect threats and what are the signs they are moving in an increasingly dangerous direction. All of which might help identify what moves might be made to send them down a different path.