Al-Qaeda in East Africa and the birth of the Shabaab terror group

Smoke rises from the Westgate mall in Nairobi on September 23, 2013.

What you need to know:

  • Al-Qaeda started establishing a base in Somalia in the 1990s after some of the Somali fighters who had joined the anti-Soviet struggle in Afghanistan returned home.
  • Reports suggest that Al-Qaeda began planning large-scale terrorist attacks on American targets in East Africa in 1993.
  • So Al-Shabaab is today a hybrid of  Somali Islamist insurgents and transnational terrorists affiliated to Al-Qaeda, according to the US congressional report.

Al-Qaeda started establishing a base in Somalia in the 1990s after some of the Somali fighters who had joined the anti-Soviet struggle in Afghanistan returned home.

The return of the Somali mujahideen helped to establish another militant Islamist movement called Al-Ittihaad Al-Islamiya (Arabic for ‘Islamic Union’), which started training Al-Qaeda operatives.Al-Ittihaad’s former commanders would later establish the militia known as Al-Shabaab.

According to a declassified US Congressional report, Al-Qaeda saw Somalia as a possible alternative operation base to Afghanistan.

This made senior Al-Qaeda military commander Mohammed Atef, also known as Abu Hafs, make several trips to the Horn of Africa state in 1992.

Al-Qaeda operatives reportedly established training bases in Ras Kamboni —  a Somali town near the Kenyan border — as well as in other towns.

They also infiltrated the Ogaden region of Ethiopia, but operational challenges appear to have led the group to view Somalia as a more useful transshipment point for operations in the region, particularly in Kenya.

Reports suggest that Al-Qaeda began planning large-scale terrorist attacks on American targets in East Africa in 1993.

It scouted for “soft” targets and established a cell in Nairobi.

Osama bin Laden’s personal secretary, Wadih el Hage, and Comorian Fazul Abdullah Mohammed (also known as Harun Fazul, who had trained with Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and was killed in Somalia this year), were key members of the Nairobi cell, which masqueraded as a humanitarian relief organisation.

According to one account, Fazul, who was among the FBI’s most wanted terrorists, in 2001 assembled operatives in Mogadishu to plan attacks.

He subsequently became a senior leader in Somalia’s nascent Union of Islamic Courts (UIC), and was in charge of recruitment, training and radicalising UIC militants.

Transitional Federal Government forces killed him at a Mogadishu roadblock.


Al-Shabaab is today a hybrid of  Somali Islamist insurgents and transnational terrorists affiliated to Al-Qaeda, according to the US congressional report.

The group is nominally led by Ahmed Abdi Godane (aka Ahmed Abdi Aw Mohamed or Abu Zubeyr) and a shura (council) composed of both Somalis and foreigners.

The UN Monitoring Group in Somalia has referred to Al-Shabaab as “a sprawling coalition of jihadists, business interests and clan militias”, but some recent analyses suggest that the group has become more centralised under the control of a group of hardliners, with significant influence from foreign operatives.

Reports estimate that Al-Shabaab has several thousand fighters, including at least several hundred foreigners, mainly from Kenya, but also from Tanzania, Sudan, Bangladesh, Chechnya and Pakistan.

Others are from Europe, Australia, Canada, and the United States.

Among the fighters from the United States is a Lebanese-American from Alabama, Omar Shafik Hammami, now known as Abu Mansour al-Amriki, who appears in the group’s propaganda videos and is believed to be one of its commanders.

Recent reports indicate that he was killed as a result of in-fighting in the group.

Several of Al-Shabaab’s top leaders and some of its fighters have fought and trained abroad with terrorist groups.

Al-Qaeda and other foreign groups have reportedly provided training, equipment, and support, and UN reports suggest that the group has benefited from the support of Iran, Syria, Libya and Eritrea.


Al-Shabaab relies on some financial and logistical support from segments of the Somali diaspora, including sizeable communities in Dubai and Nairobi.

Much of its revenue also appears to come from control of infrastructure (ports and roads) and taxes on business revenues in Somalia.

The group uses intimidation and terror tactics to instil fear in the population.

Its so-called religious police mete out severe punishments, including floggings, amputations, stoning, and beheadings for violations of its strict interpretation of Islamic law.

Al-Shabaab has conducted kidnappings, shootings, and political assassinations, not only of Somali government officials, but also journalists, civil society activists and aid workers.


The group’s use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and suicide bombers is a new dimension in the context of the Somali conflict, tactics of urban warfare that have been used by terrorists in Iraq and elsewhere.

UN experts suggest that the IEDs used by Al-Shabaab have become increasingly sophisticated, as have the tactics for their use, and the planning.

The use of the suicide bombings against the African Union Mission to Somalia (AMISOM) targets indicate a level of expertise reminiscent of Al-Qaeda operations.

The terrorists have also used guided surface-to-air missiles known as man-portable air defence systems (MANPADS).

They used the missile to shoot down a cargo plane in Mogadishu in 2007.

It was a sophisticated SA-18 missile, which can differentiate between target aircraft and other heat sources.

Al-Shabaab is also reported to have less advanced SA-7s, the type of missile fired at the Israeli airliner in Mombasa in 2002.

Yemeni arms networks are thought to provide many of the weapons used in Somalia today.

The group maintains an official website (formerly or with videos and statements posted online in Somali, Arabic and English, to reach an international audience.

Al-Shabaab also uses Internet chatrooms to solicit contributions.

Within Somalia, the group has taken over local FM radio stations in areas under its control.


Al Shabaab recruitment and fundraising in the United States is of increasing concern to US officials.

As the State Department’s Country Reports on Terrorism notes, the number of Americans seeking to become operatives for foreign terrorist groups has increased in recent years, as has the prominence of US citizens as advocates of violent extremism.

Recruitment among the Somali diaspora has drawn particular attention from US law enforcement.

Al Shabaab’s ability to recruit from the broader American Muslim community has also raised concern.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation reports that the number of people believed to have left the United States for Somalia in recent years is comparatively larger than the number of those who have gone to other conflict zones.



Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan is among the top-ranking Al Qaeda terror masterminds to be killed by US commandos in Somalia.

His mother, Aisha Abdalla, said her son grew up as a polite and devout Muslim, and that at no time did he raise suspicion that he was involved in criminal activities of international proportions.

“I was shocked when I was told he was linked to terrorism because he never showed signs of being capable of hurting anybody,” she said in an interview with this writer when Nabhan was killed.

She said after her son dropped out of school in Form Two, he began hawking fruits, mobile phones and their accessories, so the the family was surprised when he was accused of being among the 2002 terrorist attack masterminds.

Mrs Abdalla said the US and the Kenya Government had kept her in the dark regarding her son’s death in Somalia in September 2009.

She said she relied on news reports indicating that her son had been killed by American forces in the war-torn nation.

Mrs Abdallah said she had neither seen nor communicated with her son for more than seven years following his linking to the bombing of the Israeli-owned Paradise Hotel in at Kikambala in Kilifi District, which took place simultaneously with an attempt to down an Israeli-owned Arkia plane as it took off from the Moi International Airport in Mombasa on November 28, 2002.

“Since he disappeared after the 2002 incidents, I have neither set eyes on him nor talked to him.

I only hear things about him in the media,” she said.


Mr Abdalla Aziz, who is married to Nabhan’s sister, Nasim, said it was difficult to link Saleh with any criminal activities because he was a disciplined young man.

“Many of us did not believe it when we were told that he was involved in terrorism because of the way he conducted himself,” he said.

However, another relative who did not want to be named described Nabhan as a loner.

She said she could not believe it when the police went to Nabhan’s home in Majengo looking for him in connection with the November 28, 2002 twin terrorist attacks in which 15 people, including two Israeli nationals, had been killed.

“At no time did he show any signs of being sympathetic to any extremist cause because we were together when news of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the US broke, but he did not utter a word in praise of the attack or show any indication that he was happy about it,” the relative said.

She said Nabhan had moved out of their flat six months before the twin terrorist attacks, explaining he did not like the place.

He did not show his family his new house, the relative added.

“However, he continued to visit us occasionally until two weeks before the attack, when he came and told us that he was moving with his wife and daughter to South Africa, and that he would get in touch with us once he settled there,” she said.

Although Nabhan liked keeping to himself, he did have close friends who used to visit him, relatives told this writer.

Most, however, agreed that Nabhan was not a devout Muslim, saying they sometimes had to remind him or force him to pray.

The young man, one of five suspects in the Kikambala attack, was said to have bought the Mitsubishi Pajero used in the attack from a Mombasa car dealer.

He was also suspected of bringing into the country the weapons used in the attempt to bring down the aircraft, as well as the material used to build the bomb used in the Kikambala attack, from the neighbouring Somalia.

By the time of his death, Nabhan had risen through the ranks of Al-Qaeda in Somalia and had taken over command in the absence of Fazul Abdallah.



Fazul Abdallah Mohammed, one of the Al-Qaeda terror masterminds believed to have been killed by US Special Forces in Somalia, had more than 10 aliases and could disguise himself as an African, Arab or Asian, depending on the circumstances.

Although he was born in the Comoros, he lived in Mombasa’s Saba Saba area for several years before he was linked to the August 7, 1998, twin bombings of the US embassies in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania and Nairobi.

He was said to dress casually and liked wearing baseball caps.

He spoke French, Kiswahili, Arabic, English and Comorian and was said to be a computer wizard.

The US State Department put up a US$5 million (Sh430m) reward for his arrest in connection with his involvement in the 1998 bombings and the 2002 attack on the Israeli-owned hotel in Kikambala in Kilifi District, as well as the attempt to down an Israeli airplane at Moi International Airport, Mombasa, before he was finally killed in Mogadishu, Somalia, in June 2011.


Before his death, Fazul had managed to evade arrest on numerous occasions in different parts of the world for many years.

In Kenya he evaded arrest more than three times.

In 2002, for instance, he was arrested by the police in Mombasa but was released under mysterious circumstances.

In 2008, he escaped an anti-terror police dragnet twice in two weeks in Mombasa and Malindi.

The police had planned a routine search at a house near Saba Saba in Mombasa, unaware that Fazul was holed up in the building.

That was a week after the police mistook him for a local preacher and allowed him through a road block near Kijipwa Police Station.

Fazul is also said to have escaped numerous air strikes in Somalia targeting him and other Al-Qaeda operatives believed to be holed up in the war-torn Horn Africa country.
Fazul was the head of Al-Qaeda operations, not only in Somalia, but in the East African region, and was said to have a direct line to the late Al-Qaeda mastermind, Osama bin Laden.

He was Al Qaeda’s top trainer and fixer, and was tied to numerous Al Qaeda businesses and charity fronts in East Africa.

Apart from being proficient in obtaining and producing forged documents, he was also a bomb-builder and was involved in building the weapons used in Nairobi in 1998 and in Kikambala in 2002.


Fazul came from a large and prominent family in Moroni, Comoros.

His estranged father was a well known preacher.

Notably, several of his cousins migrated to Pakistan in the 1970s.

Many who knew him as a child believe it was the relatives in Pakistan who “inducted Fazul to the world of extremism” before he went to Afghanistan to join the mujahideen and, later, Al-Qaeda.

According to those who grew up with him in Moroni, Fazul was a recluse who twice contemplated suicide but was talked out of it by his teacher at the Fundi Muhammad Ali Muslim Madrassa.

Mahamud Mze, a former schoolmate in Moroni, recalls that only arguments on matters of religion seemed to interest Fazul, who always expressed extreme views the few times he spoke.


The gaps in this man’s early life may be filled in by a 40-page unfinished manuscript Kenyan anti-terrorism agents retrieved from a laptop computer confiscated from his wife, Mariam, when she was arrested in 2007 at the Kenya-Somalia border, considered to be his diary.

The document has since been declassified.

The original manuscript in Arabic, has been translated into English and is entitled, Who is a Reformer?

Perusing it one gets the impression of a born religious fanatic and an extremist.

He begins by introducing himself by three different names: Abdallah Muhammad, Ali Fadil Husyn Mulla Ati, and Harun Fazul.

“I have decided to take a risk and write this book to clarify the truth and to raise morale of the Mujahidin everywhere.

“I have purposely written it in Arabic because I love the language of the Qur’an, and hope that every Muslim will benefit from it.

If I get the opportunity I will translate it into Swahili, English and French,” he writes.

He gives vivid details of undergoing training in guerrilla warfare and sabotage after leaving university in Pakistan at the age of 18 to join the Mujahidin in Afghanistan.

He also gives a sketchy account of his life in Sudan and Somalia in the late 1990s and early in this century.

That is when he planned and executed the August 7 terrorist bombing in Kenya.

It is clear that Fazul had decided what he wanted from an early age.

This is what he says about his decision to change course at the university in Karachi: “I always wondered how my mother would feel when she heard that I opted for a religious university considering that she wanted me to take modern studies.

What is worse, how would she react if she heard that I was going to Afghanistan when I had not completed even one year in Pakistan?”

His other aliases included Abdallah Fazul, Abdalla Fazul, Abdallah Mohammed Fazul, Fazul Abdilahi Mohammed, Fazul Adballah, Fazul Abdalla, Fazul Mohammed, Haroon, Harun, Haroon Fazul, Harun Fazul, Fadil Abdallah Muhamad, Fadhil Haroun, Abu Seif Al Sudani, Abu Aisha, Abu Luqman, Fadel Abdallah Mohammed Ali, Fouad Mohammed.

At a fairly young age Fazul went to university in Pakistan.

The next thing Mze heard was that he had quit to join the Mujahidin in Afghanistan, an Islamic militia opposed to Soviet occupation of the country in the twilight years of the Cold War.



Mombasa-born Mohammed Abdulmalik is among more than 100 detainees at the US detention facility, Guantanamo Bay, in Cuba, who have been on a hunger strike to protest against the inhuman treatment they are subjected to.

Abdulmalik, who was arrested in 2007 at a café in Mombasa by five policemen and bundled into a car, is one of the 166 detainees who have been at Guantanamo Bay for years waiting for charges to be preferred against them.

His step-sister, Mwanajuma Rajab Abdalla, has appealed to the government to intervene in his case.

“We know he is innocent, that is why he has not been charged with any offence.

Why are they subjecting him to this torture?” Ms Abdalla asks.

At least 25 of the detainees are being forced to eat, although the UN Human Rights Council says force-feeding amounts to torture.

The American Medical Association (AMA) says that force-feeding violates medical ethics.

“Every competent patient has the right to refuse medical intervention, including life-sustaining interventions,” AMA President Jeremy Lazarus wrote to Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel.

Pentagon claims that Abdumalik confessed participation in the 2002 Paradise Hotel terror attack in Kikambala in which 15 people were killed and more than 80 others injured.

In his testimony, Abdulmalik says during his journey to Guantanamo Bay, he remained chained to the floor of the plane, with his eyes, head and mouth covered.

He adds that, during the flight, American soldiers at one point took him to the door of the aircraft and threatened to throw him out.

“You have two possible journeys: one back to your family, or another that is very, very long.

If you don’t tell us what we want to hear, you will have a long, long journey; you will spend your life in a cage,” he quotes a US interrogator as threatening him.

He says that from Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan, he was taken to another secret prison in Kabul, where Americans took his photographs, weighed him, and gave him a blue jumpsuit to wear.

He was later drugged and put on a flight to Guantanamo Bay.

Guantanamo’s single most important distinguishing feature has been an indefinite military imprisonment without fair process.

According to classified documents leaked to the whistleblower website, Wikileaks, Abdumalik has neither been given a chance at a combatant status review tribunal nor been charged with terrorism.

His US lawyer, Darin Thompson, says the US government has made it difficult for Abdulmalik, especially without facing a combatant status review tribunal, to exercise his right under international and American law to challenge the lawfulness of his detention in a US civilian court.