U.S. Worries Grow Over Al-Qaida's African Presence

Oct 25, 2011
Originally published on October 25, 2011 11:41 am

The U.S. has had major successes against al-Qaida this year, taking out Osama bin Laden in Pakistan and Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen.

But for American counterterrorism officials, concerns over al-Qaida in Africa keep growing.

In North Africa, al-Qaida's arm, al-Qaida in the Islamic Magreb, is making millions by kidnapping foreigners. In West Africa, a local Islamist group in Nigeria named Boko Haram has started attacking international targets with suicide bombers, an al-Qaida-like tactic. And in East Africa, foreign terrorists are traveling to Somalia to train for violent jihad.

U.S. officials see all these things as an indication that al-Qaida influence in Africa is becoming stronger.

"If you ask me what keeps me up at night, it is the thought of an American passport-holding person who transits to a training camp in Somalia, gets some skill and finds their way back to the United States to attack Americans here in the homeland," Gen. Carter Ham, commander of the U.S. Africa Command, told an audience at the Center for Strategic and International Studies recently. "That's mission failure for us."

A Foreigner In Somalia

So imagine the reaction when a little over a week ago an unusual video appeared on Islamic websites. It was of a white man with a scarf twisted over his face standing before bags of grain and piles of clothes in a desert in Somalia. In the video, he was addressing the hungry at a local feeding station. He said his name was Abu Abdulla al-Muhajir, or "the foreigner." And there was one thing U.S. officials noticed about the man almost immediately: He was speaking nearly perfect English.

"Alhamdulillah," or "Praise to God," he began. "We are honored and blessed to take this opportunity to send our heartfelt greetings to our brothers and sisters in Somalia, and we also take this opportunity to say we love you all for the sake of Allah, and we sincerely relate to your suffering and affliction during this testing time."

His English wasn't quite unaccented, and his word choice wasn't quite right — but it was close. The young man went on to tell the crowd that al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri had sent him to Somalia to distribute food and clothing. "Al-Qaida, under the leadership of Sheik Ayman al-Zawahiri, continues to highlight the plight of the [community] and continues to support them with every means at their disposal," he said.

Possible Links To Somali Militia

Counterterrorism officials say the release of this tape could mean al-Qaida is forging closer ties with the group that is controlling much of southern Somalia, an Islamist militia called al-Shabab. It has been fighting the transitional government in Somalia for years and, more recently, has banned most foreign aid organizations from the parts of Somalia where it has control.

A famine is sweeping through southern Somalia, and the United Nations estimates that tens of thousands of Somalis have already died of hunger. Al-Shabab has been criticized for making the disaster worse by threatening NGOs that want to provide food aid.

The food station where the young man was addressing the Somalis was one of the few stations controlled by al-Shabab. The group has forged ties with al-Qaida in recent months. U.S. counterterrorism officials, like President Obama's counterterrorism chief, John Brennan, see al-Qaida following a familiar pattern — the group takes advantage of chaos.

"Al-Qaida traditionally has taken advantage of areas that are wracked by conflict, turmoil and lack of government, it is a safe haven they see to launch attacks," Brennan told reporters recently. "Somalia is one of the most challenging areas of the world because it has this internal conflict, it has such a devastating famine, and it is an area that al-Qaida has tried regularly to exploit."

Against that backdrop, it is easy to understand why the video with this mysterious English speaker talking on behalf of al-Qaida got people's attention. Intelligence officials are trying to determine who this young man is. They have done voice comparisons, taking the audio from this video and comparing it with recordings they have of foreigners they believe have joined al-Qaida.

So far there hasn't been a match. Then again, intelligence officials are asking why al-Qaida would send an English speaker to Somalia in the first place? The people he was addressing at a food station would likely only speak Somali.

So maybe, the U.S. officials say, the English-language video was aimed at the U.S.

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While the death of Moammar Gadhafi gives U.S. officials one less thing worry about, the overall list of concerns in Africa for counterterrorism experts keeps growing.

In the north of the continent, al-Qaida's arm is kidnapping and killing foreigners. In West Africa, a local Islamist group in Nigeria has started attacking international targets. And in East Africa, foreign terrorists are traveling to Somalia and using it as a training ground. As NPR's Dina Temple-Raston reports, U.S. officials see all these problems as an indication that al-Qaida'a influence in Africa is growing.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: Officials are wary about al-Qaida's inroads all across Africa. There's Libya, there's Nigeria, but the place that worries them the most is Somalia.

GENERAL CARTER HAM: If you ask me what keeps me awake at night...

TEMPLE-RASTON: That's General Carter Ham, commander of the U.S. Africa Command.

HAM: ...it is the thought of an American passport-holding person who transits to a training camp in Somalia, and gets some skill and then finds their way back into the United States to attack Americans here in our homeland. That's mission failure for us.

TEMPLE-RASTON: So imagine the reaction when a little over a week ago an unusual video appeared on Islamic websites. It was of a white man standing before bags of grain and piles of clothes in the deserts of Somalia, addressing the hungry at a local feeding station. Here's one thing U.S. officials noticed about the man. He was speaking nearly perfect English.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Hamdullah. We are honored and blessed to take this opportunity to send our heartfelt greetings to our brothers and sisters in Somalia.

TEMPLE-RASTON: This is audio from that videotape.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: And we also take this opportunity to say that we love you all for the sake of Allah, (foreign language spoken), and we sincerely relate to your suffering and affiliation during this testing time.

TEMPLE-RASTON: It isn't quite unaccented English, but close. The young man told the crowd that al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri had sent him to Somalia to distribute food and clothing.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Al-Qaida, under the leadership of Sheikh Ayman al-Zawahiri, Allah protect him, continues to highlight the plight of the Ummah and continues to support them with every means at their disposal.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Counterterrorism officials say the release of this tape could mean al-Qaida operation is forging closer ties with the group that is controlling much of Somalia. The group is an Islamist militia called al-Shabab. And it has banned most foreign aid organizations from the parts of Somalia where it has control. U.S. counterterrorism officials, like President Obama's counterterrorism chief, John Brennan, see al-Qaida following a familiar pattern.

JOHN BRENNAN: Al-Qaida traditionally has taken advantage of areas that are wracked by conflict and turmoil and lack of governance. It's one of the safe havens that they see to launch attacks.

TEMPLE-RASTON: He added that Somalia is of particular concern.

BRENNAN: Somalia is one of the more challenging areas of the world because it has this internal conflict, it has such a devastating famine and as well as it is an area that al-Qaida has tried regularly to exploit.

TEMPLE-RASTON: So the video with this mysterious English speaker speaking on behalf of al-Qaida got people's attention. Intelligence officials are trying to determine who this young man is. And they've done voice comparisons, taking this video and comparing it to audio tapes they have of foreigners they believe have joined al-Qaida. So far there hasn't been a match.

Then again, intelligence officials are asking why al-Qaida would send an English speaker to Somalia in the first place? The people he was addressing at a food station would likely only speak Somali. So maybe, the U.S. officials say, the English language video was aimed at us.

Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.