By Suzanne Kelly and Paul Cruickshank
News that Harakat Al-Shabaab - long associated with al Qaeda but never formally welcomed into the family - has gotten the blessingp from al Qaeda's leader seems to be a merger that was a long time coming. But the announcement does raise concerns that that the Somali terror group could help them in plotting to attack on U.S. soil.
In a message released Thursday the leader of Al-Shabaab, Mukhtar Abu al-Zubeir, pledged his allegiance to the terrorist network. His 14-minute pledge was followed by al Qaeda's leader, Ayman al Zawahiri, offering his "glad tidings" as a welcome to the larger organization, according to the SITE monitoring service.
One U.S. official, who would not be named because of the sensitivity of the intelligence information, said that "Zawahiri's announcement just formalizes what everyone already knew: Al-Shabaab is an affiliate of al Qaeda. This doesn't change the fact that al Qaeda's core is still suffering and trying to remain relevant."
Intelligence sources tell CNN the announcement was expected "weeks ago."
A second U.S. official, also speaking anonymously because of the sensitivity of current intelligence, suggested that the announcement was "possibly an attempt to consolidate those who are questioning Al-Shabaab's commitment to the global jihad movement, and that formalizing the alliance could help the smaller organization with its recruiting efforts.
Terrorism expert and CNN analyst Fran Townsend agreed.
"They do this because the little group gets legitimacy by being one of the franchisees and the big group gets legitimacy because they show they still have centralized power. They do it for different reasons, but the benefit comes in perception and fundraising."
Still, some experts point to the coordinated way it was communicated as significant. Al-Shabaab released a video titled "At your service Osama" in October 2009, but there has been little evidence of direct cooperation between the Somali group and al Qaeda's senior leadership in Pakistan.
Some analysts believe that the merger could increase concerns that Al-Shabaab may seek to plot a terrorist attack on U.S. soil, as the onus will be on the smaller group to cement its place within the al Qaeda network. Dozens of American Somalis, mostly from the Minneapolis area, have traveled to join Al-Shabaab in Somalia in recent years, and counterterrorism officials have worried that some would be sent back to launch terrorist attacks in the United States.
Last October, one of the American Somalis recruited by Al-Shabaab called for attacks against the United States in a martyrdom video before blowing himself up in a suicide bombing in Mogadishu, the fourth American to carry out such an attack in the country.
"If you ask me what keeps me awake at night, it is the thought of an American passport-holding person who transits through a training camp in Somalia and gets some skill and then finds their way back into the United States to attack Americans here in our homeland," General Carter Ham, the head of the United States Africa Command, said late last year.
Last July, House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Peter King said that "Al-Shabaab now has more capability than ever to strike the U.S. homeland," adding that "as many as two dozen Muslim-Americans with Al-Shabaab - who in many cases were trained by top al Qaeda leaders - remain unaccounted for."
That report cited U.S. counterterrorism officials as saying that Al-Shabaab recruiters, as well as being active in Minneapolis, were also operating in Boston, Seattle, San Diego, Washington and several other American cities with sizable Somali communities.
U.S. counterterrorism officials say there is no clear evidence that Al-Shabaab's Western recruits have received instruction in making explosive devices out of readily available chemicals - the type of training that al Qaeda has provided Western militants in the tribal areas of Pakistan.
Thus far the group's only plot on Western soil was the attempted assassination of a Danish cartoonist in January 2010.
Up till now the key focal point of cooperation between Al-Shabaab and al Qaeda was the presence of several East African al Qaeda operatives on Somali soil. Chief among these was Fazul Abdullah Muhammad, a Kenyan wanted for years for his alleged role in the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. His death in a shootout in Mogadishu in June was a big blow to the Somali group's capabilities to carry out complex operations outside the country.
"He was the gatekeeper to al Qaeda Central and was believed to have an extensive network across East Africa, including safe houses," Michael Taarnby, an expert on Al-Shabaab at the University of Central Florida, told CNN.
Late October a mysterious al Qaeda envoy with a North American accent - Abu Abdulla Alhmujahir - started appearing in Al-Shabaab propaganda videos. He claimed he had been sent by Zawahiri to hand out food aid to famine victims on behalf of the terrorist group. While counterterrorism analysts were cautious about the claims - and some speculated he was an American extremist who had traveled to Somalia - the videos signaled that Al-Shabaab sought closer relations with al Qaeda.
While Al-Shabaab had much to lose from a formal merger while it controlled most of Mogadishu and southern and central Somalia, the group has been coming under increasing pressure in the past year.
It has been forced on the defensive by the Kenyan incursion into southern Somalia, where it is strongest, and is being driven by African Union forces farther from the capital it used to control, and it has been further weakened by a backlash against it for imposing Taliban-like laws and preventing international aid agencies from reaching famine victims.
The United States is deploying surveillance drones in the region to better track Al-Shabaab - and there are reports that it has already carried out strikes on Somali militants. The group's propaganda made clear it believed that the United States and their allies were orchestrating their demise.
In this context, experts believe the decision to join the al Qaeda fold may have been a ploy for recruits and funds.
Ken Menkhaus, an expert on Al-Shabaab and a professor at Davidson College in North Carolina, told CNN he was surprised by the announcement of the merger because of recent tensions between Al-Shabaab and foreign fighters linked to al Qaeda on the ground in Somalia. Some of the latter suspected an Al-Shabaab commander had a hand in the death of Fazul last June, said Menkhaus.
"My guess is that this is a 'Hail Mary' pass on behalf of both Al-Shabaab and al Qaeda. They're hoping they can galvanize support amongst radical Muslims around the world and take advantage of the military operations by Kenya and Ethiopia to rally Somalis and non-Somalis to their cause. It worked when Ethiopia invaded in 2006, but I don't think it's going to work this time," Menkhaus told CNN.
As Shabaab expert Taarnby outlined in a recently published paper, al Qaeda's connections to militant groups in East Africa date from when the terrorist organization was based in Sudan in the early 1990s. During this period, al Qaeda set up operations in Somalia and reached out to Somali Islamist groups, which they attempted to prod into confrontation with U.S. peacekeepers deployed to the country.
Despite building ties to Somali Islamist groups such as al-Ittihad and claiming success for downing an American Blackhawk helicopter, al Qaeda found it difficult to navigate Somalia's tribal structures. After bin Laden relocated to Afghanistan in 1996, a small contingent of al Qaeda operatives remaining in Somalia formed the nucleus its East African operations. In August 1998, after five years of planning, the terrorist group carried out suicide truck bomb attacks against U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, killing more than 200 people. By then Nairobi had emerged as al Qaeda's most important base in East Africa.
After 2000, al Qaeda operatives started moving back to Somalia seeking safe haven. During the following years al-Ittihad members, having taken control of the country's Islamic courts and operating under a new name - the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) - gained increasing popularity in Somalia. Their victory over competing militias in a battle for Mogadishu in 2006 prompted Ethiopian troops to invade.
It was anger over the two-year Ethiopian occupation that saw the rise of Al-Shabaab - a hard-line part of the ICU coalition - which by 2009 had taken control over much of Mogadishu and central and southern Somalia. In subsequent years several factions of the group drew increasingly close to al Qaeda's worldview. Al-Shabaab also had ties to bin Laden's terrorist network through several al Qaeda operatives who moved to Somalia from other East African countries.
In July 2011, the group orchestrated a trio of suicide bombing in Kampala, Uganda, killing dozens, illustrating its growing intent to launch attacks outside Somalia.
U.S. officials have expressed concerns that the group was beginning to cooperate with al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and the Nigerian militant Islamist group Boko Haram to target American interests in Africa. They are also worried about deepening cooperation with al Qaeda's affiliate in Yemen. Tanzanian, Kenyan, and other East African militants trained in its camps in southern Somalia, and inspired by al Qaeda's ideology posed an increasing threat in Africa, especially the Muslim Youth Centre, an Al-Shabaab-affiliated group with chapters across Kenya.
Menkhaus, the American Al-Shabaab expert, said he believes that despite the group's ability to mount major attacks in Nairobi, it has been holding back from launching an attack there because it will hurt Somali business interests in the country. He does not expect the merger with al Qaeda to change this.