Is Al Qaeda in Yemen connected to Al Qaeda in Somalia?
In the wake of the Christmas Day Northwest airlines bombing attempt, some are wondering if the Al Qaeda branches in Yemen and Somalia are linked. Most experts don't see evidence of coordination – not yet.
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Now these foreign jihadis are staying on to transform the narrow nationalist fight into a global jihad, and their harder ideology is seen in a rash of recent suicide bomb attacks on African Union peacekeepers and even a university graduation ceremony on Dec. 3 in Mogadishu. Experts say this is a sign that foreign jihadis have taken over leadership of Somalia’s largest Islamist militia, Al Shabab.Skip to next paragraph
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Both Somalia and Yemen have suffered punishing civil wars, and Somalia has gone nearly a generation without a functioning government. Decades of infighting by clan leaders and warlords have created a burgeoning arms trade, smuggled to and from Yemen. Yemen now has the largest number of Somali refugees in the region, many of them young, battle-hardened men looking for jobs abroad. Feeling duped by clan elders, many Somalis turn toward religious leaders preaching unity through the one institution – Islam – that all Somalis share in common.
Yet despite all these common factors, the conflicts in Somalia and Yemen seem to be largely separate, and there is little evidence that they are coordinated by some larger Al Qaeda entity.
“Shabab has only recently turned to Al Qaeda, and then it was only from the East Africa cell of Al Qaeda, not from Yemen,” says another expert on Somalia, who also spoke on background.
An Al Shabab connection?
While there is the potential for these two conflicts to become “increasingly intertwined,” as Shabab senior commander Muqtar Robow claimed recently Somali Shabab fighters were leaving to help Islamists fight the government in Yemen, this expert says that this may be simply rhetoric.
“Shabab has its own major conflict looming with Somalia's Transitional Federal Government," as the current Western-backed Somali government in Mogadishu is called, he says.
Thousands of Somali Army soldiers have now completed training in Kenya, Djibouti, and Ethiopia, and will be returning over the next month to Mogadishu. There are rumors that the government will put these soldiers to immediate use, and attempt to expel Al Shabab from portions of its territory across the south.
“This is one of the preconditions for extending the mandate of the transitional government,” says the expert. “They need to demonstrate that they can protect themselves and protect the Somali people.”
Yet as successive US administrations sending troops to Afghanistan have concluded, military might is only part of the solution. People living in neglected regions turn to those who offer support and keep their promises, and if Al Qaeda or its allied Islamist militias can show that they will bring development and security to the regions under their control, Somali or Yemeni citizens will be reluctant to kick them out.
The likely solution, experts say, is for Al Qaeda extremists to wear out their welcome, after carrying out one too many suicide bombings and killing too many innocent Somali bystanders. Until then, the West needs to be more flexible in choosing its friends, and be willing to work with those Islamists it once feared, but who share a revulsion to the destructive ideology of Al Qaeda.
"There is the perception or assumption that just because people come from Muslim countries, they are extremists,” says Mr. Dagne. “Islam is not the enemy. The ideology of extremism is the enemy. Those Somali leaders wrongly labeled as extremist and Jihadists are the ones fighting the real terrorists."