Wednesday, September 23, 2009

A powerful insurgent group in war-ravaged Somalia has formally pledged allegiance to Osama bin Laden and his terrorist network for the first time in an apparent effort to accelerate recruiting among Somalis, including emigres in the United States.

The group, al-Shabab, made the pledge in a video called “Labaik ya Osama” — “At your service, Osama” — released on extremist Web sites Sunday and shown Monday at a public screening in a suburb of the Somali capital, Mogadishu, after prayers at the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

“This is certainly the most overt gesture of support for al Qaeda that al-Shabab has made,” a U.S. counterterrorism official, authorized to speak only on the condition of anonymity, told The Washington Times on Tuesday.

In the 48-minute video, members of al-Shabab are shown training, taking part in firefights and chanting bin Laden’s name.

The video features English-speaking commanders, including Abu Mansoor al-Amriki, according to IntelCenter, a firm that monitors extremist messaging for clients including U.S. agencies. Al-Amriki means “the American.” His real name is Omar Hammami, and he was born outside Mobile, Ala.

The decision to pledge formal allegiance to bin Laden is increasing concern about new attacks by the group, which has been recruiting among Somali diaspora communities in the United States, Canada and Europe. Such recruits are valued by al Qaeda and its affiliates because they have passports that enable them to move easily among Western nations.

“U.S. and European counterterrorism officials are concerned about youths going [to training camps in Somalia] and coming back to stage attacks,” said Karen von Hippel, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

The Times reported earlier this month that al Qaeda is increasing its presence in Somalia and Yemen and diversifying its leadership base as it comes under pressure in the tribal areas of Pakistan near the Afghanistan border.

Al-Shabab is among several militias fighting an internationally backed government in Somalia that is led by a moderate Islamist, Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed. Al-Shabab controls large swaths of southern Somalia, where it has established training camps similar to those al Qaeda once ran in Afghanistan.

The U.S. counterterrorism official said the footage was “reminiscent” of the images from those camps made famous in early al Qaeda videos. The official added that the video, which features speech in English and Arabic and some with English subtitles, was “quite sophisticated, but not at the highest production level” seen in some of al Qaeda’s videos.

On Tuesday, al Qaeda released a 106-minute-long video to mark the eighth anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and predicted the fall of President Obama, the Associated Press reported.

The video, in Arabic and released on militant Web sites, included comments from leading al Qaeda figures such as No. 2 Ayman al-Zawahri. He concluded the video by telling Mr. Obama that “God willing, your end will be at the hands of the Muslim nation,” the AP reported.

The release of the al-Shabab video follows a raid by U.S. forces in southern Somalia last week that killed suspected al Qaeda operative Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan.

“No one is sure if the timing is significant,” said the U.S. counterterrorism official, adding that analysts would be watching to see how the al Qaeda leadership responded to the new pledge.

The U.S. Embassy in Pretoria and all consular offices in South Africa were closed Tuesday after a security alert. A statement on the embassy Web site said the closure was the result of “information recently received by the Regional Security Office,” but officials declined to elaborate whether there was a connection to al-Shabab.

Another U.S. official who follows events in Somalia closely played down the significance of the video, calling it “an act of desperation.”

“We have known for some time that [al-Shabab and its leaders] were coordinating with al Qaeda,” said the official, who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak to the media about the issue. “That’s why [al-Shabab is] on the terrorism list.”

The official said al-Shabab had been able to take advantage of the U.S.-backed Ethiopian invasion of Somalia in 2006. “That created a vacuum in which small groups could expand and leaders who had been in hiding could re-emerge,” he said.

Now that Sheik Ahmed is heading the Somali government and Ethiopian troops have withdrawn, the official said, al-Shabab has lost the main pillar of its recruiting strategy: the appeal to join a jihad against foreign non-Muslims.

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