Wednesday, 20 May 2015




U.S. COUNTERTERRORISM AGENCIES have long been preoccupied with the threat posed by the recruiting successes of the Somali terrorist group al Shabaab in Western countries. The group has managed to lure hundreds of foreign fighters — including some 40 Americans — to Somalia through online propaganda videos and word-of-mouth in disaffected immigrant communities.
In recent years, however, al Shabaab has turned on the foreign fighters in its own ranks, waging a brutal campaign to purge the perceived spies from its midst. An intimate account of the Shabaab civil war was provided to The Intercept in a series of interviews conducted with a current member of al Shabaab and a source who has maintained close contacts with the group.
Al Shabaab has assassinated several foreign fighters on the CIA’s kill/capture list over the past few years and currently runs a network of secret prisons that hold, on charges of spying, U.S., British and other Western citizens who came to Somalia to join Shabaab, The Intercept has found. Shabaab operatives torture detainees using techniques such as waterboarding, beatings, and food and sleep deprivation, and conduct public executions of suspected spies, including by crucifixion.
Ibrahim* is a citizen of a Western country who traveled to Somalia several years ago to join Shabaab. He is currently living in a Shabaab-controlled territory, and the group believes he is a loyal member. The Intercept, which has confirmed his real identity, granted him anonymity and agreed not to identify his country of origin because criticizing Shabaab can result in imprisonment or death. “I’d be arrested and tortured,” Ibrahim said when asked what would happen if he spoke out against the group.
Like other young Westerners of Somali origin, Ibrahim decided to move to Somalia after watching Shabaab’s videos on the Internet and following the news of battles between Somali militants and the U.S.-backed African peacekeeping force, AMISOM. “At that time there was a lot of stuff going on and I felt like it was my religious duty to participate in the holy jihad that was going on in Somalia. And I felt that it was my responsibility as a Muslim youth to support my brothers and sisters in Somalia against the enemy,” he says. “I felt like the call of Somalia had to be answered.”
Ibrahim says he believed that Shabaab was fighting to establish a Shariah law system that would allow him to live according to his deeply held religious convictions. Joining the jihad, he believed, would help to make that a reality in Somalia. “It was at the beginning. At that time they were happy to see what you call foreign fighters — they welcomed them big time,” he says. “We took part in training, small training, basic training, small weapons and such. Everything was easy.” He adds: “According to the media, somehow they over-exaggerate about Shabaab training. The training is basically just simple, small arms and physical training and discipline.”
That period of relative harmony within the group would not last. And now Ibrahim wants to tell his story so that others will know not to follow in his path. For Keith Ellison, a Minnesota congressman who represents the largest Somali community in the United States, in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area, Ibrahim’s cautionary tale is an example of the kind of story alienated members of Shabaab should be encouraged to tell, rather than simply locking them up or killing them, which is the current U.S. government approach. “I think somebody who has been inside Shabaab telling the truth about how Shabaab is really a criminal terrorist group and not about the liberation of Somalia is probably more likely to promote safety and security than just throwing that same kid in jail,” Ellison says. “We need to learn from these people and we need to use them to message to young people who might be lured by a message from al Shabaab.”
Omar Hammami. (YouTube)
SOON AFTER JOINING al Shabaab, Ibrahim met the most famous American fighter in Somali history — a young U.S. citizen from Alabama, Omar Hammami, known in Somalia as Abu Mansour al Amriki. “He was a happy, young guy — typical Western,” Ibrahim recalls.
Ibrahim viewed Hammami as a mentor and a leader within the contingent of foreign fighters. Hammami had traveled to Somalia in 2006 and joined fighters from the Islamic Courts Union as they battled a U.S.-backed Ethiopian invasion of the country. The ICU, a populist coalition that expelled CIA-backed warlords from Mogadishu in the summer of 2006, sought to create a government based on Shariah law. But the ICU’s time in power would be short lived. U.S. and Ethiopian troops began assassinating and imprisoning its leaders, and Ethiopian troops occupied Mogadishu and other areas of Somalia for two years.
As the Islamic Courts disintegrated, al Shabaab emerged as the only remaining resistance force against foreign occupation. Overnight, the group went from being a small part of the Islamic movement to “liberate” Somalia to the vanguard of that struggle. It solidified its affiliation with al Qaeda and began aggressively recruiting foreign fighters. Al Qaeda, meanwhile, saw potential in Somalia as a future base of operations.
In early January 2007, bin Laden’s deputy, Ayman al Zawahiri, addressed the situation in Somalia in a recording released online. “I speak to you today as the crusader invader forces of Ethiopia violate the soil of the beloved Muslim Somalia,” he began. “I call upon the Muslim nation in Somalia to remain in the new battlefield that is one of the crusader battlefields that are being launched by America and its allies and the United Nations against Islam and Muslims.” He implored the mujahedeen, “Launch ambushes, land mines, raids and suicidal combats until you consume them as the lions eat their prey.”
Hammami had won street credibility within al Shabaab for being among the first to answer that call. He was there during a period of legendary battles, had a Somali wife and quickly became the prized English-speaking ambassador for Shabaab’s effort to attract Western youth. He would post YouTube videos describing the joys of the jihad and the comfort of an Islamic lifestyle. He even produced hip-hop songs predicting his demise by a drone strike or cruise missile. “He was a kind of symbol for the foreign fighters — he was here since the end of 2006 and he fought in a lot of battles and he was well educated. He was very smart,” says Ibrahim.

In late 2007, a year after he first arrived in Somalia, Hammami appeared on Al Jazeera — with a keffiyeh covering much of his face — explaining why he had joined al Shabaab. “Oh, Muslims of America, take into consideration the situation in Somalia,” he declared. “After 15 years of chaos and oppressive rule by the American-backed warlords, your brothers stood up and established peace and justice in this land.” By that point, Somali officials estimated that more than 450 foreign fighters had come to Somalia to join al Shabaab in its struggle.
Following Hammami’s lead, after receiving basic training from Shabaab, Ibrahim began to engage in regular attacks against AMISOM troops — mostly from Uganda and Burundi. “I took part in a lot of battles, mostly within Mogadishu. I don’t think any battles had a name,” he recalls. “When I came, I stayed with foreign fighters known as muhajireen.” He said there were fighters from the United States, Canada, the U.K., Denmark, Sudan, Saudi Arabia and East African countries.
Soon, however, powerful Somali leaders of al Shabaab came to see the flood of foreign fighters as a threat to their own fiefdoms. By 2011, a rift had emerged within the group — one that would pit the foreign fighters against the Somali leadership in bloody conflict, and would ultimately lead Ibrahim to regret coming to Somalia to join Shabaab.Continued

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