August 3, 2011

Tracing al-Shabaab's Arms to Yemen's Saleh

The following appendix to Mogadishu’s Ramadan showdown warranted its own account.

Last week African Union officials preempted al-Shabaab’s looming offensive in the field and in the media, surrounding the notorious Bakaara market in Hawl Wadag district. As AMISOM forces pushed northeast towards Mogadiscio Stadium, in Wardhigley, their commanders informed reporters that al-Shabaab had sent 300 reinforcements to hold their remaining districts. According to CNN, “Sources say Al-Shabaab is massing hundreds of troops in the parts of Mogadishu it controls for a show of force during Ramadan.”

Clearly the insurgency is puffing itself up to appear stronger than its current position, which has eroded from losing the population’s support and now its refuge. al-Shabaab’s water is drying up from the migration to Mogadishu or Somalia’s borders, leaving its fish exposed to future military operations. Some Somalis claim that al-Shabaab’s fighters prefer to die in battle during Ramadan, however these fighters may fight with undying tenacity. If al-Shabaab doesn’t issue another promise of toppling the Transitional Federal Government (TFG), the insurgency will maintain an active presence in Mogadishu after Ramadan ends.

Once these reinforcements have been established - local accounts and international media both report an escalation in fighting - the next question turns to their weapons. First, with Somalia flooded with arms to the point that some militia deserters can’t even pawn their guns, does al-Shabaab need an external source? Various reports attribute a pipeline to Eritrea or Saudi Arabia, denied by both governments but a plausible scenario nonetheless. Considering that al-Shabaab has a greater need for heavy weapons and explosives than light-arms, these types of packages often ship from rogue governments.

A shadowy underworld partially explains why AU commanders claim the weapons drifted in from al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

Over the weekend Fredrick Mugisha, AMISOM’s ranking general, spoke of this transaction in depth, relatively speaking. Telling reporters that he was alerted to two small boats sailing from Yemen’s direction, Mugisha complained that his force lacked the ability to intercept the vessels. Voice of America has since extrapolated this story through Hussein Haji Ahmed, an official inside Somalia’s consul in Yemen. Ahmed spiked the number of arms boats to 10, claiming that two had been intercepted by Yemen’s government. He believed the other eight reached Somalia’s coast.

This alleged weapons shipment falls into harmony with America’s ongoing narrative to fuse Somalia and Yemen into one theater, similar to the now defunct “AfPak.” It’s no secret that al-Shabaab is connected to the al-Qaeda’s hub or that it maintains contact with AQAP; both groups have alluded to a idealistic partnership, and al-Shabaab vowed to ship reinforcements to Yemen in 2010. The depth of their partnership remains unclear, but this news is being repackaged as new after Osama bin Laden’s hard-drives and the April interrogation of Ahmed Abdulkadir Warsame. The formal al-Shabaab official was indicted on terrorism charges after being captured in the Gulf of Aden, where he supposedly admitted to being a "key interlocutor" between al-Shabaab and AQAP.

All of this information has been systematically released anonymous U.S. officials, who add of Warsame, "of course had ties and a relationship" with AQAP cleric Anwar Awlaki.

The main problem with understanding al-Shabaab and AQAP’s relationship stems from U.S. efforts to combine them. Although these groups maintain contacts, lumping the groups together simplifies Special Forces and CIA command while rationalizing both fronts to Americans. That al-Shabaab and AQAP could merge also overlooks the fact that al-Qaeda’s networks intentionally diversify to avoid this scenario. Mutual assistance is natural but all of these groups value their independence.

Combining the two groups also legitimizes the response to both, even though U.S. policy is more responsible for Yemen’s situation than Somalia’s. To respond the same - through Special Forces and drones - errors towards a disastrous policy in Yemen, where Washington supplied Ali Abdullah’s regime for far too long.

On a deeper level, Jeremy Scahill’s latest report emphasizes the willingness of Somali military and intelligence agents to do anything for regular U.S. payments. Rhetoric is child’s play compared to leading the CIA’s Mogadishu interrogation unit. The AU has a similar motive to link Yemen and Somalia, believing that a connection will increase the West’s urgency and funding. Both Mugisha and AMISOM spokesman Paddy Akunda criticized the international community for not doing enough on land, in the sea or over Somalia’s airspace. Yemen’s specter is presumably expected to accelerate a Western response.

TFG and AU officials wouldn’t mind another U.S. drone base in Somalia’s southern region.

How eight ships slipped through the international armada parked in the Gulf of Aden is an unbelievable logistical feat. Assume, though, that this half of the story is entirely true, because the other side is even more questionable. AQAP has amassed a heavy arsenal through tribal connections and looting government facilities, but the ongoing battles in Aden and Zinjibar supposedly left AQAP with a stockpile of weapons. In a recent interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, Brigadier General Mohammed al-Sawmali openly admitted from Zinjibar, “The security services pulled out of Abyan leaving their weapons behind, and Al Qaeda seized these weapons, and is now using them against us. This is something that no one can deny.”

The commander of Yemen’s 25th Mechanized Brigade, which found itself besieged after other army units withdrew, accused the U.S.-trained Central Security of leaving his unit to fend for itself. These forces, along with the U.S.-trained Republican Guard, has busied itself attacking protesters and tribal fighters instead of AQAP.

Thus if Saleh orchestrated the takeovers in Aden and Zinjibar, he could be directly responsible for the weapons now landing in Somalia. This excuse is then used to justify escalating activity in both Yemen and Somalia, even though Saleh’s source drips with the blood of Yemen’s people. Whether Washington and its allies are lying or telling the truth, their dirty pipeline will fuel America’s war machine until the connection is permanently severed by mainstream media.

Meaning war is due to escalate in both countries.

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