MOGADISHU, Somalia, Aug. 8 (UPI) — The withdrawal of Islamist insurgents from Mogadishu, Somalia’s capital, is a major gain for the shaky Western-backed Transitional Federal Government and comes as the United States is stepping up a covert war against the group that’s linked to al-Qaida.
As the Americans escalate counter-terrorism operations in Yemen, across the Gulf of Aden, they have also stepped up covert airstrikes against al-Shabaab in Somalia, a failed state that has been gripped by clan warfare and anarchy for more than two decades.
U.S. officials say the Somali organization, which pledged loyalty to Osama bin Laden’s successor and longtime deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri in June, is developing stronger ties with al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen.
There have been at least three airstrikes against al-Shabaab in recent weeks. The first was April 6, when a jihadist commander was killed in the southern town of Dhobley. Some reports said 35 fighters were slain.
On June 23, a U.S. Predator drone carried out a nighttime missile strike on a convoy at al-Shabaab’s military camp at Qandal outside the southern port of Kismayo. It was the first known drone attack by the Americans in Somalia. Two jihadist commanders were killed, al-Shabaab communiques stated.
Somalia’s RBC Radio identified one of the dead as Ibrahim al-Afghani, an al-Shabaab’s top commander who fought the Soviets in Afghanistan with bin Laden.
Afghani reportedly traveled to Pakistan after 9/11 with Aden Hashi Ayro, al-Shabaab’s ruthless and reclusive field commander who was killed in a U.S. Tomahawk cruise missile attack May 1, 2008, as he met with al-Shabaab leaders.
Al-Shabaab has been losing ground in Mogadishu against a TFG offensive, launched in May and spearheaded by Amisom, and also has been wracked by internal schisms.
It’s not clear whether the escalating U.S. operations were a major factor in al-Shabaab’s decision to pull out of the capital.
The primary U.S. objective appears to be blocking what officials say are moves by al-Shabaab and AQAP to strengthen ties.
The Americans say the two groups together pose a serious danger to the United States and a strategic threat if they can control the Bab al-Mandeb Strait, a vital shipping route that’s the gateway between the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean.
But despite these allegations, the level of the connection remains unclear. Al-Qaida veterans are known to have worked with al-Shabaab in recent years. But the two groups have had very different objectives.
AQAP is a hard-core and increasingly dangerous branch of al-Qaida committed to the global jihad.
Al-Shabaab is rooted in Somalia’s archaic clan system and on past evidence is infinitely more parochial in outlook and ideology, although some of its leaders do advocate attacking the Americans and their allies.
Al-Shabaab’s main objective is to overthrow the U.S.-supported TFG in Mogadishu.
It’s a fractious, corrupt and inept administration installed by the West in December 2006 and is only kept in power by the support of a 9,000-strong African Union “peacekeeping force” known as Amisom.
The only attack al-Shebaab has conducted outside Somalia was twin suicide bombings in Kampala, Uganda, in July 2010 that killed 74 people.
Uganda, which neighbors Somalia, supports the TFG and provides thousands of troops for Amisom.
If there are moves afoot toward a grand alliance, they suffered a severe setback June 7 when al-Qaida lost one of its top operatives and a key liaison with al-Shabaab.
Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, alleged mastermind of the August 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam in which 240 people died, was killed when the driver of his sports utility vehicle stumbled into a government roadblock in Mogadishu.
The April 19 capture of another pivotal figure in efforts to get AQAP and al-Shabaab to coordinate operations was another setback for the jihadists.
Ahmed Abdulkadir Warsame, a senior al-Shabaab figure, was seized by the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command aboard a fishing boat heading for Somalia from Yemen.
He was held aboard the USS Boxer, an amphibious assault ship in the Arabian Sea, and interrogated for more than two months before being flown to New York July 4 to be indicted on terrorism charges.
A senior U.S. official noted Warsame “clearly served as an important conduit between the two organizations,” which are “directly engaged in plotting against the United States or our interests.”