Friday, May 29, 2009

Al-Shabaab's foreign fighters and possible money troubles

Following up on an earlier post about foreign fighters showing up in Somalia, here's an update on the situation from a couple of sources:

A Swedish media outlet reports that the Säkerhetspolisen (Sapo), Sweden's security service, believes at least ten young men have left the country to train and fight with al-Shabaab in Somalia. Sapo says, "a handful of people with Swedish passports have been killed in the fighting." And while a number of those who left Sweden were of Somali-background, others are reported to be of mixed ethnicity, attracted by the chance to take up arms in what they see as a global struggle.

That it is not just expatriate Somalis aiding al-Shabaab was confirmed to me by a colleague in East Africa. Speaking by phone earlier today, he briefed me about what he'd seen on his most recent trip through Somalia and, among other things, told me that in the port town of Baraawe the leader of the local contingent of al-Shabaab is a Chechen. Located about halfway between Kismaayo and Mogadishu, Shabaab has been controlled by Baraawe since last November and is one of the areas in which they have imposed their interpretation of Shari'ah law.

My source also says that Shabaab may be encountering some money troubles. He confirms that the group has been receiving some funding from pirate gangs operating in the southern part of Somalia and is encouraging the pirates to continue attacking vessels (in return for a cut of any ransoms garnered). The Islamists are hoping that with all the attention being focused on northern waters - such as the Gulf of Aden - there will be more potential prizes in the southern seas. My contact could not say whether or not this means that pirates will attempt to continue attacking even with the onset of the summer monsoon season, but if Shabaab is facing a money crunch, they might try to convince pirate allies to venture out even if marine conditions may not be the best.

My source also says that Shabaab now control three of the four roads leading into Mogadishu and are preparing for renewed fighting in the next couple of weeks. He said that Ethiopian troops crossed the border into Somalia last week and may be preparing to take on Shabaab in the vicinity of Jawhar, which is just north of the capital and is held by the Islamist group. (Reports that Ethiopian troops have returned are disupted by the government in Addis Abiba.) He added that there are fears in the country that without more support, the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) will not be able to effectively deter the hard line Islamists and that Mogadishu will be lost to the latter forces.

Finally, regarding that report that a large group of pirates in Eyl were intending to give up their criminal activities (see previous post here), my contact broke out laughing when I mentioned it. Like me, and many others, my East African colleague felt it was more a public relations stunt than a sincere desire to actually end their pirating days. And he agreed that the summer monsoon season could be a strong factor motivating this event and that the truth could only be found when the fall piracy season begins.

(For more detailed information on recent events in Somalia, see the Armed Conflict Database of the International Institute for Strategic Studies website, located here.)

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