By Paul Cruickshank, CNN Terrorism Analyst
The assassin was dropped off into the bitter cold by a taxi near the home of his target in Aarhus, Denmark's second largest city. His task for the night of January 1, 2010 was simple: kill Kurt Westergaard, the Danish cartoonist responsible in 2005 for a controversial depiction of the Prophet Mohammed. Armed with an ax and a knife, the would-be killer approached the front door and shattered the glass, setting off an alarm which alerted Westergaard and police to the intrusion. Westergaard grabbed his five-year-old granddaughter and rushed with her to a specially built safe room before the killer could reach them. When the police arrived minutes later the assassin lunged at them with his weapons but they managed to overpower him by firing shots into his left hand and right leg and then took him into custody.
The man they arrested - Mohamed Geele, 28, a Somali who first moved to Denmark in 1995 and who this February was convicted of the attack - was no amateur homegrown terrorist. He had already been under observation for an extended period of time by Danish security services because of his suspected close links to the Somali terrorist group Al-Shabaab. Even though the Somali group distanced itself from the attack in the hours after the attack, Danish investigators established that Geele had close ties to Al-Shabaab and senior al Qaeda leaders in east Africa, and had emerged as a hard-nosed player in the group during time he spent in Kenya in the 2000s.
The investigation indicated that what Western counter-terrorism officials had long feared had indeed become a reality. The Somali militant group – in control of more than half the war-torn east African country – had embraced al Qaeda's global Jihad and was now actively plotting attacks in the West.
Swedish authorities are investigating whether Al-Shabaab had any connection to four men arrested in Gothenburg on September 10 who were allegedly plotting to murder Swedish cartoonist Lars Vilks at an art gallery in the city. Three of the suspects were Swedish residents of Somali descent and one was of Iraqi descent. According to Swedish and U.S. counter-terrorism sources, it is possible the suspects were merely inspired by Al-Shabaab propaganda.
In November 2010 Al-Shabaab explicitly threatened Vilks in a propaganda video subtitled in English and Swedish. "We will catch you wherever you are," said Abu Zaid Sweden, a Swedish-Somali member of the group who was filmed in the stands of a dilapidated sports arena with bursts of gunfire audible in the background. "In whatever hole you are hiding – know what awaits you – as it will be nothing but this: slaughter," as he simulated slitting his throat. He also urged Al-Shabaab's supporters in the West to join them in Somalia and to carry out an attack on Vilks if they could. "If you can kill this dog called Lars Vilks then you will receive a great reward from Allah," he promised them.
Such messages are especially concerning to Western counter-terrorism officials, because Al-Shabaab's propaganda, amongst the most sophisticated and savvy of any Jihadist group, has resonated amongst a small but significant fringe of the 1.5 million Somali diaspora community. Radicalized Somalis have been implicated in a string of terrorism cases in the United States, Canada, the UK, Australia, and across Europe.
But it is in Scandinavia that counter-terrorism officials have recently had most cause for concern. In the 1990s an open-door policy by Nordic countries led to tens of thousands of Somalis refugees from the war-torn country settling across Scandinavia, many of them in Denmark and Sweden. It has been a difficult process integrating them into mainstream society and a radical fringe has emerged in violent opposition to the West.
There is perhaps nobody who has more closely tracked Islamist militancy in the Somali community in Scandinavia than Michael Taarnby, one of Denmark's leading experts on Al-Shabaab and a Research Associate at the University of Central Florida. He has conducted extensive field research in Scandinavia and Somalia over the last decade and the trends he sees concern him profoundly.
"There is a significant radicalization problem in the Somali Diaspora community in Denmark and Sweden," Taarnby told CNN, "and intelligence services have very little understanding of what's going on-recruiting informants has been an uphill battle because Somalis don't trust them to protect them."
Taarnby says that well informed sources in the Somali diaspora community tell him that there are around 300 to 800 hardcore Shabaab sympathizers in Denmark out of a total Somali population of 18,000. "These hardliners have been harassing Somalis who do not share their view and just want to get on with their lives. There is nasty infighting going on," he told CNN.
Taarnby says that the attempted assassination of Kurt Westergaard woke up many in the Somali community to the threat of Islamist extremism. But he says their efforts have not yet turned the tide of young Somalis being indoctrinated by Al-Shabaab's propaganda videos. "Those attracted are usually quite young - there's the usual issue of a clash of cultures - of being stuck between east Africa and Scandinavia and not knowing where they belong," Taarnby told CNN.
Some young radicalized Somalis are gravitating away from mainstream Somali mosques to mosques associated with radical preachers attended by hard-line Islamists of all stripes. "There's a lot more cross-fertilization going on in radical circles," Taarnby told CNN, "and this may explain why an Iraqi was arrested along with the Somalis in Gothenburg."
Unlike al Qaeda or its affiliate in Yemen – which in recent years have only been able to recruit Western militants after they have already traveled to Jihadist fronts on their own initiative – Al-Shabaab has recruiters directly working for it in several Western countries who not only are trying to persuade young Somalis to join the group in Somalia, but are also facilitating getting them there, according to Western counter-terrorism officials.
In recent years an estimated 40 young Somalis have been recruited from the United States in this manner, many from the Minneapolis area where there is a sizable Somali community. Dozens of others have been recruited from other Western countries. Somalis living in Canada have grown so fearful of youngsters being recruited that that some have reportedly started hiding their children's passports.
"For young Somalis it is culturally difficult to refuse to meet someone with status in the community, especially if they are linked to organizations in the homeland and have combat experience. Some of these young Somalis are also adventurous and want to be Jihadist James Bonds. The recruiters lure them in by making fighting with Al-Shabaab sound like an adventure with friends with some shooting of AK-47s." Taarnby told CNN.
An organized facilitation network transports Western recruits into Somalia, says Taarnby. Most arrive in Kenya's capital, now home to a quarter million Somalis, where Al-Shabaab has an extensive presence. There they are housed in safe houses for around a month and then transported in 4-by-4 pickup trucks northwards across the lightly patrolled border into Somalia. What happens when they arrive in Somalia, he says, is less clear.
But what is plain, he says, is the reality facing many Western recruits is very different from the message they hear in Minneapolis or Malmo. Unlike local fighters, Al-Shabaab commanders do not have to worry about alienating clan leaders if they send them off to carry out suicide bombings, says Taarnby. A significant proportion of Western recruits, he says, have taken this path. According to Taarnby, several Westerners objecting to becoming cannon fodder have later been found with bullets in their head, like a group that recently arrived from Canada.
Some of the western volunteers are valued by Al-Shabaab, according to Taarnby, because they are more educated than most Somalis and have technical skills in short supply in the country - for example in operating computers. One Western jihadist in particular - Omar Hammami, a 27 year old Syrian-American from Alabama - rose to a prominent position in the group.
Somalia experts believe that recruits from the diaspora have been crucial to the evolution of Al-Shabaab from a gun-totting militia to a political force in Somalia.
Taarnby says it's unclear what level of training Shabaab's Western recruits receive in Somalia. Most of the group's rank and file recruits receive only very rudimentary fire-arms training. Taarnby says there is no clear evidence that Western recruits are getting the sort of bomb-making training that al Qaeda has provided Western militants in the tribal areas of Pakistan.
"In some terrorist training camps, AQ-affiliated foreign fighters led the training and indoctrination of the recruits," the U.S. State Department warned in an August 2011 report on terrorist trends in Somalia in 2010. Somali experts say the group operates at least two large camps in Somalia on which there is little open source information.
Counter-terrorism officials across the West are now worried that the group may use Westerners for attacks back in their home countries. In July, Homeland Security Committee Chairman Peter King stated 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."
British authorities warned in July, "Over the past 12 months, the threat to UK interests from terrorists in Yemen and Somalia has significantly increased. People from the UK are also travelling to these countries to engage in terrorist-related activity; some are returning to the UK to plan and conduct terrorist operations."
Setbacks in Somalia
In July, after an offensive by Somali and African Union forces, Al-Shabaab started pulling fighters away from central Mogadishu and have since vacated most neighborhoods of the city. The withdrawal has been seen as turning point in the struggle against Al-Shabaab in the country. For years a fragile transitional federal government (known by its acronym TFG) and AMISOM, the African Union's peace-support forces, had been boxed into just a few city blocks of the seaside capital by Shabaab fighters. A failed offensive by Al-Shabaab earlier in the year in which hundreds of its fighters were ordered to launch suicidal frontal charges had left the group weakened.
Al-Shabaab, however, has far from given up designs on the capital. On Tuesday a truck filled with explosives barreled into a government complex in the heart of Somalia's restive capital killing dozens in an attack authorities have blamed on the militant group.
Taarnby's sources in Mogadishu tell him that Al-Shabaab are still active in two or three neighborhoods in the capital, and that they will likely regroup and return. Reports of increased in-fighting amongst factions that had united to push out Al-Shabaab have not been an encouraging sign.
And the militia still has tight control over most of central and southern Somalia, where it controls the strategically and commercially vital port of Kismaayo, from where it collects lucrative customs tolls and fees.
The famine in Somalia, which has been most acute in southern Somalia, appears however to be starting to take a toll on Al-Shabaab. There are reports of rising anger against the group in the south because of the group's refusal to let in international aid. According to Somali experts the famine has also hurt Al-Shabaab's bottom line by making it more difficult for the group to raise money within Somalia. According to U.S. authorities the group raises most of its income internally and has in recent years raised $70-100m per year from taxation and extortion, according a report released by the U.N. last July.
The 2008 designation by the U.S. of Shabaab as a terrorist group has also reduced remittances sent to the group from overseas, according to Somalia analysts. Western counter-terrorism agencies have also cracked down on financial donations by Western-based sympathizers of the group. On Monday Amina Farah Ali, a 35 year old American-Somali woman, went on trial in Minneapolis charged with trying to send the group $11,000 she had raised by soliciting money door to door and through teleconferences. She is the first of twenty individuals charged with fundraising or recruiting for Shabaab in the FBI's long-running investigation in Minnesota to go to trial.
The revenue Shabaab receives from Somali pirates has been exaggerated by some, Taarnby says. Though the group takes a cut when it can from the estimated $150m in ransoms and illicit revenue obtained by pirates each year operating off the Somali coast, there is no clear evidence the group has ever become directly involved in piracy or is directly cooperating with pirates.
There are also reports of in-fighting between Al-Shabaab commanders who disagree over the need to continue taxing southern Somalis during the famine. Historically Al-Shabaab commanders from the north have been less sensitive to the needs of locals in the south than their southern counterparts and are viewed by locals as foreigners, according to Somalia analysts.
Al-Shabaab has won few friends in territory that it controls. Unused to governing, it has resorted to brutally imposing Taliban-like restrictions on the local population, alienating many. A popular backlash against the group in the south - along the lines of the Anbar awakening in Iraq – is a real possibility, according to Somalia analysts. While there are reports that the group has opened several of its own aid camps and has been cooperating with charities from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, the famine appears to have significantly dented its support.
According to Ken Menkhaus, an American expert on Al-Shabaab, and the author of the 2004 book "Somalia: State Collapse and the Threat of Terrorism," the militia group reached the peak of its power in 2008 and has been in decline ever since. "Their draconian interpretations have appalled Somalis," he told a conference organized by the New America Foundation in April, "Whole clans have taken the decision to distance themselves from Al-Shabaab."
Global Jihadist Ambitions
Some experts believe that setbacks for Al-Shabaab in Somalia may make the group more likely to plot attacks outside Somalia, including against the West - in frustration and in a calculated attempt to boost their recruitment and prestige. "They are more dangerous when weak and their weakness now worries me. I think it's in their interest to regionalize or globalize the conflict," Menkhaus stated.
In July 2010 the group carried out a trio of deadly bombing in Kampala, Uganda killing more than 70 - its first attack outside Somalia, in retaliation, it claimed, for Uganda's deployment of peace support forces in Somalia.
Al-Shabaab's loose structures makes it difficult for counter-terrorism agencies to decipher its global terrorist ambitions. Somalia analysts say the militia is a messy constellation of different factions with differing agendas, and no one leader is in absolute control.
"It's difficult to know how to rank Al-Shabaab as a threat. It's not clear how serious they are about attacking the West and what sort of networks they really have. There are too many unknowns and that's what really scares counter-terrorism officials in Europe," Taarnby told CNN.
At his presentation at the New America Foundation, Menkhaus identified three main strands within Al-Shabaab: those seeking to establish an Islamist state, those who saw the country as a base for global jihad, and a third group that had degenerated into feeding off the war economy and favored the status quo.
For years, the leading light of the global Jihadist faction was Fazul Abdullah Muhammad, a Kenyan al Qaeda terrorist wanted for years for his alleged role in the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam. According to Taarnby, Jihadist websites have also boasted he was the al Qaeda operative who orchestrated a failed surface-to-air missile attack on an Israeli passenger jet in Mombasa, Kenya in 2002. 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," Taarnby told CNN, "and the question is who can now replace him?"
Al Qaeda itself has struggled to establish a base of operations in Somalia. In the 1990s Osama Bin Laden's group made a concerted effort to build up operations there but found Somalia a difficult place to navigate because of its complex tribal structures and the chaotic situation on the ground, realities which have changed little since then.
Taarnby believes recent setbacks for the group may make it more cautious in plotting terrorist attacks against the West. "They need to re-organize, they need to respond to the famine, they need to respond to the fact they've been evicted from Mogadishu - they may not want to get too adventurous right now," Taarnby told CNN, "they are more likely to focus on 'do-ables' like the attack in Kampala or assisting Nigerian group Boko Haram."
This would mean the group in the short term could be focusing more on expanding its operational reach in Africa. Nigerian newspapers have reported that the suspected planner of Boko Haram's deadly suicide car bomb attack on a UN building in Abuja in August recently received training with Al-Shabaab in Somalia. According to Taarnby, Al-Shabaab bomb-making capabilities took a leap forward around 2009 after al Qaeda in Iraq operatives shared their technical expertise with the group. "The same devices being used in Iraq started turning up in Mogadishu. Around 80% of AMISOM's deaths have been from such devices," he told CNN.
Western counter-terrorism officials have recently expressed concern over cooperation between Al-Shabaab and other militant groups in Africa. In September the U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) warned that Al-Shabaab, Boko Haram, and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM )were trying to more closely synchronize their efforts to launch attacks on U.S and Western interests, but had yet to show a significant capability to launch attacks outside their homelands.
In recent weeks Al-Shabaab has been linked to two kidnappings of Westerners in northern Kenya, indicating that elements of the group may be intensifying their efforts to target Westerners in east Africa. On Saturday ten Somali gunmen kidnapped a French woman from her home in a resort in northern Kenya early Saturday, near where a Briton was seized and her husband killed last month, according to Kenyan authorities, who blamed Al-Shabaab.
One of the most disturbing scenarios of all, according to Taarnby, is if cooperation deepens in the coming months between Al-Shabaab and al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsular (AQAP) in Yemen, just a short distance across the Arabian sea.
For some time Western counter-terrorism officials have been concerned about an emerging alliance between the two groups. Ahmed Abdulkadir Warsame, a Somali citizen captured by U.S. forces in April and interrogated aboard a U.S. navy ship for two months before being taken to New York to face terrorism charges, had been in direct contact with Anwar al Awlaki and had attempted to broker a weapons deal between the groups according to the indictment in his case. Warsame has pleaded not guilty.
There have been unconfirmed reports that hundreds of Somali fighters have taken part in recent fighting in the south of Yemen after making the short trip over the Arabian Sea and disembarking at ports under Islamist control.
According to Taarnby both AQAP and Al-Shabaab have a strong interest in deepening cooperation. "The Yemenis have all the guns you could dream of, and also funds from donors in the Gulf, but what AQAP needs if they want to establish an Islamic emirate is manpower. The Somalis have this in abundance but what they need is weapons and cash."
"If such an alliance took root, the Horn of Africa would really then be a new front in the global war on terrorism," Taarnby told CNN. In recent months the United States has stepped up its ability to launch drone attacks in Somalia and Yemen, killing senior AQAP cleric Anwar al Awlaki in a drone strike Friday.
The Threat to the West
Taarnby expects the group to carefully weigh the cost and benefit of launching terrorist plots against the West. "They know their fundraising and recruiting network in the Somali diaspora will take a blow if they launch an attack." Taarnby says that Al-Shabaab's cost-benefit calculation is illustrated by the fact it has not launched any attacks in Nairobi. "They could easily tear apart Nairobi but they've done nothing there at all because they realize this is their golden egg," he told CNN.
With regard to Scandinavia, Taarnby believes the group has decided that assassinating the cartoonists would provide a sufficient boost to the group's prestige to be worth such a backlash. "The cartoon controversy really agitated Shabaab. They go on about them much more than any other Jihadist group. They are really carrying the torch on this –it's possible Somali militants in Scandinavia channeled their anger back to the group in some way," Taarnby told CNN.
Menkhaus, the American expert on Al-Shabaab, agrees that there are constraints on Al-Shabaab when it comes to launching attacks in the West because any international law enforcement crackdown which affects powerful Somali interests and which further reduces the flow of remittances will likely see a violent reaction against the group. "In that case they won't have to worry about what we do to them but what the Somali people will do to them," Menkhaus stated, "and I think that's one of our great advantages in trying to outflank this group."