As international destinations go, Somalia has been off-the-charts for more than two decades. With no effective central government and a mindboggling array of clans, militias, Islamists and pirates, this Horn of Africa nation has turned into the farthest thing from paradise on earth.
Except if you’re on the “jihadi tourism” trail, scouting for the perfect terrorism training spot.
The term “jihadi tourism” first appeared in news reports in late 2010, when US diplomatic cables, revealed by WikiLeaks, quoted a US diplomat in East Africa worrying about “a certain amount of so-called ‘jihadi tourism’ to southern Somalia”.
In a January 2010 cable on a classified meeting, then UN Special Representative for Somalia Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah warned that Somalia was turning into an “incubator” for terrorists, “including those holding US, United Kingdom and European passports”.
But when it comes to Somalia, it’s easier to overlook the latest threat from a country that has turned into a byword for a failed state than to actually do something about it. In another leaked cable, for instance, senior British officials dismissed a request for peacekeeping troops with a terse, “there is not enough peace to keep in Somalia”.
Making the journey to an ‘Islamic land’
Peace has not come to this East African nation, but right now, there are plenty of African troops fighting in the al Shabaab strongholds of southern and central Somalia. The Islamist group ceded territory to African Union troops in the Somali capital of Mogadishu last year. In mid-October, Kenya launched a military operation in southern Somalia, which was followed by an Ethiopian incursion in November.
Despite the onslaught, al Shabaab is by no means a spent force. In the face of superior firepower, the Islamist group has been employing hit-and-run tactics, slowing down the Kenyan military advance.
As for the jihadi tourism trail, it shows no sign of drying up. If anything, a recent slew of reports suggest that US and European nationals are still responding to al Shabaab’s recruitment drives.
Shortly before Christmas, Jermaine Grant, a British national, was apprehended in the Kenyan coastal city of Mombasa and charged with possessing explosive materials and plotting to explode a bomb.
Grant’s arrest came as Kenyan authorities issued an arrest warrant for another British national, Natalie Faye Webb, who is believed to have links to al Shabaab.
Meanwhile in the US, prosecutors in Maryland charged a former US soldier last week with attempting to join and provide material support to al Shabaab.
In a nine-page criminal affidavit, US prosecutors alleged that Craig Baxam, a 24-year-old convert to Islam, had traveled to Kenya, from where he intended to reach al Shabaab territory in neighbouring Somalia.
Baxam was arrested in Kenya before being put on a plane back to the US, where he’s currently facing trial.
According to the affidavit, the Maryland native “had no real religious affiliation” until he discovered Islam on a religious Web site. He quit the US army in July 2011, shortly after converting to Islam. The affidavit notes that Baxam “wanted to make his hijra [or migration to an Islamic land] to Somalia to defend Sharia law under Al-Shabaab.” [sic]
Somalia competes with Pakistan as a jihadi destination
Until fairly recently, Somalia was an easy destination on the jihadi tourism trail, according to Katherine Zimmerman of the Washington DC-based American Enterprise Institute.
“Unlike Afghanistan and Pakistan, there wasn’t much of a foreign military presence there. Travel to Somalia was easy, the borders are porous and the flights from Kenya were largely unmonitored,” said Zimmerman in a phone interview with FRANCE 24.
Once the top destination for disaffected youth seeking jihad, Pakistan’s tribal areas these days are difficult for wannabe Western mujahideen to penetrate. Testimonies by “Times Square bomber” Faisal Shahzad and David Headley, a Pakistani-American accused of conspiring in the 2008 Mumbai attacks, show that militant groups in the tribal areas are increasingly suspicious of western intelligence infiltration following successful US drone strikes in the region.
Somalia, in contrast, is high on the jihadi propaganda list. “Al Qaeda repeatedly names Somalia as one of the regions where Muslims are encouraged to fight jihad,” said Zimmerman.
Americans in Shabaab’s top ranks
Another encouraging factor is the perception that al Shabaab is an upwardly mobile group with a number of its foreign fighters – notably Americans – climbing up the organisational hierarchy.
In October 2011, al Shabaab released high quality photographs of its militants distributing food aid to famine victims, according to IntelCenter, a US-based organisation that monitors jihadi propaganda.
The publicity shots, snapped at a refugee camp south of Mogadishu, featured Ali Mahmud Rage, Shabaab’s top spokesman.
Standing besides Rage in one of the photographs is a noticeably light-skinned man who used the occasion to address a gathering of local journalists. Known as Abu Abdullah al Muhajir in Shabaab circles, he has been identified by US intelligence officials as Jehad Mostafa, a California native with no ancestral ties to Somalia.
Mostafa’s nom de guerre is a dead giveaway. Muhajir is the Arabic word for “immigrant”. In a 2009 report titled “Somalia’s Divided Islamists,” the Brussels-based International Crisis Group noted that al Shabaab ranks were divided into local Somali militants (called ansars) and foreign fighters, known as muhajirin, the plural for muhajir.
The report states that the muhajirin is a “small, but well-resourced and powerful faction which is the driving force behind al Shabaab’s ideological drift to the far extreme”.
Unlike the local ansars, who have extensive links within Somalia’s clan-based society, the muhajirin pursue a more global al Qaeda style agenda.
A rap song for Obama
One of al Shabaab’s most powerful muhajirin is the US-born Omar Hammami, also called Abu Mansoor al Amriki (“the American”) who was profiled by The New York Times in 2010.
Al Amriki is believed to come up with Shabaab’s battle plans and he is one of the group’s most prolific figures on jihadist media circles with videos featuring the Alabama native rapping messages such as “How dare you” to US President Barack Obama.
Like a number of al Qaeda militants, al Amriki’s current status has been a matter of much dispute in the past. In July 2011, a Somali news site reported that he had been killed in a Predator attack in the Jubba region of southern Somalia.
But al Amriki has been declared dead before and he once even released a song mocking the reports of his death.
A war of words on Twitter
Experts note that al Shabaab’s media output is among the most sophisticated among al Qaeda affiliates. Following the Kenyan military operation, the group took its message on Twitter, barraging the microblogging site with minute-by-minute updates.
The group’s Twitter handle, @HSMPress (short for the group’s official title, Harakat al Shabaab al Mujahideen) has been putting out feeds in English that are invariably grammatically perfect, sometimes witty and often taunting.
In recent months, security experts have been unwittingly amused by a war of words on Twitter between al Shabaab militants and Kenya’s army spokesman, Major Emmanuel Chirchir [@MajorEChirchir] refuting and deriding each other’s military updates.
“@MajorEChirchir Your boys are a grotesque parody of an army! They can outpace ur world-class runners by far. Indeed, they ‘Run like a Kenyan,’” tweeted @HSMPress recently.
While much of Shabaab’s messages feature jihadist bluster and exaggerated battle claims, the idioms and turn of phrase certainly sound like the messenger is an American.
But like many experts, Zimmerman refuses to be drawn into a guessing game of who is behind al Shabaab’s recent tweets. “I don’t know who is managing al Shabaab’s Twitter account, but I can say that it’s someone with a good command of the language and the feed is extremely prolific and interactive.”
While it’s still too early to say if the current Kenyan and Ethiopian military operations in Somalia have weakened Shabaab as an organisation, many experts believe the latest onslaughts can be used as an effective propaganda tool to recruit more foreign jihadists.
“The fighting in Somalia is being labeled as a ‘true jihad’ and it certainly feeds into the al Shabaab rhetoric of resistance and protecting Somalia from a Christian invasion,” said Zimmerman, noting that Shabaab views Ethiopia and Kenya as “Christian nations”. It’s the sort of discourse that has aided al Shabaab’s foreign recruitment drives in the past and chances are it will continue to attract seekers on the jihadi tourism trail.