Obama Says U.S. Will ‘Redouble’ Efforts Against Somali Islamist Group

by , July 15, 2010

U.S. President Barack Obama has said Washington will "redouble" its efforts against the Somali Islamist group al-Shabaab (The Youth), whose deadly bombings in Kampala, Uganda on Sunday are likely to result in stepped-up U.S. military and other assistance to the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) in Mogadishu.

In an interview with the South African Broadcasting Corporation Tuesday, Obama suggested that the group represents a growing threat to the region.

"[W]hat we know is that if al-Shabaab takes more and more control within Somalia, that it is going to be exporting violence the way it just did in Uganda," he said.

"And so we’ve got to have a multinational effort. This is not something that the United States should do alone, that Uganda or others should do alone, but rather the African Union (AU), in its mission in Somalia, working the (TFG) to try to stabilize the situation and start putting that country on a pathway that provides opportunity for people, as opposed to creating a breeding ground for terrorism," Obama said.

Sunday’s twin bombings at a popular Ethiopian restaurant and, across the city, at a rugby field where hundreds of spectators were watching the World Cup final in Johannesburg, killed a total of 76 people.

The Shabaab, which government officials here describe as increasingly tied to al Qaeda’s global agenda, took responsibility for the bombings, saying that Uganda was targeted due to its contribution of troops to the AU’s 6,000-man peacekeeping mission in Somalia (AMISOM).

"We are sending a message to every country who is willing to send troops to Somalia that they will face attacks on their territory," said Shabaab spokesman Ali Mohamoud Rage Monday. He added that Burundi, the second-largest troop contributor to AMISOM after Uganda, "will face similar attacks, if they don’t withdraw."

Aside from brief cross-border raids into Kenya, Sunday’s bombings marked the first time the Shabaab has carried out a major attack outside Somalia. U.S. officials noted that the simultaneity of the bombings suggested that the attacks were inspired, if not organized, by al Qaeda operatives.

Washington, the single biggest supplier of military equipment and training for both the AMISOM and the TFG, sent three Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agents to Kampala to help Ugandan authorities investigate the bombings. The U.S. ambassador to Uganda, Jerry Lanier, said Wednesday more agents were expected in the coming days.

"We believe the Uganda mission is more important than ever now," he said, adding that the administration intended to "increase assistance to Uganda. "In fact, the entire AMISOM mission … is more important because al-Shabaab has shown a willingness to kill civilians outside of Somalia," he added.

That was echoed by a senior administration official who gave a background briefing to reporters late Tuesday. "(We) also… need … to look at the situation in Somalia and to determine if this is now a trend that al-Shabaab is going to be on, and to take all appropriate measures."

While the administration has not indicated precisely what it will do, most analysts believe it will step up assistance to both AMISOM, which is supposed to add 2,000 more troops in the coming months, and to the TFG’s security forces which, despite launching a long-planned joint offensive with AMISOM against the Shabaab two weeks ago, have been unable to expand the government’s control beyond a small area of Mogadishu.

Washington has provided tens of millions of dollars in equipment and training – much of it conducted by member states of the European Union (EU) in Uganda – to the TFG’s security forces and AMISOM, particularly since the election by the Somali Parliament of Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed as president in January 2009.

It was hoped that Sharif’s election and his government’s adoption of Sharia law, combined with the withdrawal in late 2008 of all Ethiopian troops from Somalia, would deprive both the Shabaab and Hizbul Islam of their religious and nationalist appeal and persuade a sufficient number of key insurgent leaders to lay down their weapons and effectively end their rebellion.

But those hopes have gone largely unfulfilled, due in part to a combination of protracted infighting within the TFG, insufficient funding to attract and maintain recruits, and corruption.

"There have been problems in paying recruits regularly; some of that is due to not enough money, or the money is going into the wrong pockets," according to David Shinn, a former ambassador to Ethiopia and an expert on the Horn of Africa. "More importantly, the TFG has yet to offer a vision of a future for Somalis. That’s the big challenge, and, until that happens, I can’t be very optimistic. At some point, people are going to stop writing checks."

Disillusionment with the TFG’s performance has prompted a number of analysts to call for reconsidering Washington’s opposition to any dealings with al-Shabaab, which was created in 2006 as an offshoot of a coalition of Islamist groups then led by Sharif. The group, which has attracted recruits from the Somali diaspora in the United States, as well as Europe and other parts of Africa, was placed on the State Department’s terrorism list two years later.

The International Crisis Group called in May for the TFG to "reach out" to elements of the Shabaab that are "disenchanted with the influence of foreign jihadis in the group and the al-Qaeda sympathies among its leadership" and to the Hizbul Islam, arguing that there were growing splits divisions within the Islamist movement.

In one widely noted study, Bronwyn Bruton, an analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations, also argued that, left to itself, the Shabaab would likely split into different factions.

Calling for a policy of "constructive disengagement," she urged Washington to signal "a willingness to coexist with any Islamist group or government that emerges, as long as it refrains from acts of regional aggression, rejects global jihadi ambitions, and agrees to tolerate the efforts of Western humanitarian relief agencies in Somalia."

But while conceding there are differences between more nationalist and more al Qaeda-oriented elements in the Shabaab, Shinn argued that the leadership is united on basic issues. "Al-Shabaab wants total control; they’re not going to want to share power," he said. "I see no willingness to compromise."

The administration official who also briefed reporters appeared to dismiss Bruton’s suggestions as well. "I think that what we’ve seen in Kampala is a good example of why that’s not a viable way forward," he said.

In the last years of the Bush administration, Washington carried out a series of drone attacks against al-Shabaab leaders suspected of being closely tied to al Qaeda. Those attacks, in which civilians were also killed, are now seen as having been largely counterproductive.

Obama appears to have suspended such attacks, although, in mid-September last year, helicopter-borne U.S. Special Forces ambushed a convoy carrying Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, the leader of an al Qaeda cell in Kenya who, according to U.S. officials, played key roles in the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam and a 2002 bombing of an Israeli hotel in Mombasa.

Nabhan was one of what many analysts believe are about 300 "foreign fighters" in the Shabaab with links to al Qaeda.

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