Somalia's al-Shabab Wants to Join Terror's Big League

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Feisal Omar / Reuters

An al-Shabab fighter runs for cover near a burned African Union military tank in Mogadishu on July 2, 2010

While U.S. officials worry that the July 11 Kampala bombing by Somalia's al-Shabab signals that the Mogadishu-based al-Qaeda ally has begun exporting its jihad, the groups has in fact been working abroad for some time. As early as 2006, al-Shabab is believed to have formed direct alliances with militant groups elsewhere, including Lebanon's Hizballah, sending hundreds of fighters abroad for combat training and experience.

According to a 2006 report by the U.N. Monitoring Group on Somalia, al-Shabab's leader in July 2006 personally hand-picked a cadre of approximately 720 militants and sent them to Lebanon to fight alongside Hizballah against the Israeli military. "As part of the criteria of the selection process, individuals were chosen based on combat experience that might include Afghanistan," said the report. "Only about 80 members of the force initially returned to Mogadishu after the fighting... A number of the fighters also remained in Lebanon for advanced military training by Hizballah. And, further, between 8 and 10 September 2006, about 25 Somalis returned to Somalia accompanied by five members of Hizballah.

The report added that, via Hizballah, the Somali group also received assistance from Iran and Syria. "In exchange for the contribution of the Somali military force, Hizballah arranged for additional support to be given to [al-Shabab and its allies] from the Governments of Iran and Syria, which was subsequently provided."

A senior Obama Administration official says Washington is "concerned about al-Shabab making associations with a variety of organizations — not just al-Qaeda, but others — as they look for assistance and support, whether it be weapons, arms, money."

The report's principal author, Bruno Schiemsky, now a security consultant based in Nairobi, says al-Shabab's goal has been for some time to expand its influence from Somalia. "In 2004, I obtained strategy documents from within the Shabab which indicated their transnational agenda," Schiemsky tells TIME. "Their long-term view is first control Somalia, then Yemen, then Saudi Arabia."

Al-Shabab is not close to the capability to deliver on such ambitions. But it has shown the ability to dispatch militants abroad, and given the contact between al-Shabab and Somalis based in North America, U.S. officials are worried. "All police departments should be as vigilant and as mindful of the recent developments in terrorism as possible," says the senior Administration official. Schiemsky, however, says there is no evidence of people who left America to train with al-Shabab afterwards returning to these shores.

Al-Shabab's principal training base for terror attacks is in the southern Somali town of Afmadow, near the Kenyan border, says Schiemsky. An attack on the base is well within U.S. capabilities. But the U.S. is hesitant to engage al-Shabab directly, in part because that may be exactly what the militant group is trying to provoke. Al-Shabab has called for the U.S. to invade Somalia, and, says Schiemsky, the group welcomed its listing on the U.S. terrorism list. "Al-Shabab was so happy that they finally made it to the select club of organizations because that showed them that they were getting serious now; for them it was a symbolic victory."