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Analysts Predict More US Suicide Bombers in Somalia

  • Nico Colombant

Africa analysts say they are not surprised that a recent suicide bomber for the al-Shabab extremist movement in Somalia has been identified as a U.S. citizen. The experts say they expect more attacks from Americans involved with the extremists.

Pro-al-Shabab media as well as former friends in the United States identified one of two Saturday suicide bombers in Mogadishu as an American citizen named Abdisalam.

Somali Americans who knew him say he was born in Somalia, and was brought to the United States at the age of 2. They gave his full name as Abdisalam Hussein Ali. They say he was a pre-med student at the University of Minnesota in the northern United States before disappearing in 2008.

The attack in which al-Shabab says dozens of people were killed targeted an African Union peacekeeping base. There is no independent reporting on the number or identity of those killed.

David Smock from the Washington-based United States Institute of Peace says al-Shabab knew it would receive more publicity from the attack if one of the suicide bombers was an American.

"Al-Shabab may be turning to desperate measures to gain attention and make it look like they are still a full force," said Smock. "It may also reflect increased affiliation with al-Qaida, using suicide bombers in this way."

J. Peter Pham of the Atlantic Council in Washington says he believes al-Shabab might have other Americans commit suicide bombings in Somalia in the coming weeks. He says it is very difficult for the U.S. government to stop them, even if it is known they have joined al-Shabab.

"I think [U.S.] intelligence knows approximately that they are with [al-]Shabab, but I do not think we have the intelligence to know precisely where they are within that broad area of south-central Somalia," said Pham.

The region remains under the control of al-Shabab, even though Pham says a famine, attacks by Kenya's military and divisions within their ranks are weakening the movement.

Al-Shabab's leaders say they are fighting to topple the United Nations-backed and U.S.-backed Somali government and establish an Islamic state.

U.S. officials say about 30 Americans appear to be part of al-Shabab in Somalia, including about 20 young men from Minneapolis, Minnesota's largest city, where there is a large Somali diaspora.

Richard Downie with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington points out that Americans have also been linked to al-Shabab fundraising efforts.

[Earlier this month] "There were a couple of women convicted here for sending funds over to al-Shabab," said Downie. "And there has been by some estimation up to three Americans who are thought to have carried out suicide bombings for al-Shabab as well. It is something that is concerning."

But Ken Menkhaus, a Somalia expert at Davidson College in North Carolina, says the money involved in that case was less than $10,000. He says recruiting and fundraising in the United States for al-Shabab have declined considerably since 2008. He says the movement became popular between 2006 and 2008, when al-Shabab fought against U.S.-backed Ethiopian troops in Somalia, but that since then, the escalation of violence among Somalis, coupled with famine, have made the group much less appealing to prior supporters.

Menkhaus says money for al-Shabab now comes mostly from charcoal exports and local taxes.

"The diaspora did fundraise extensively for Shabab in 2007 and 2008, but that has also really dried up as Somali Americans and Somalis in other countries around the world have grown quite disenchanted with and appalled by [al-]Shabab and the actions that it has taken," said Menkhaus.

But Menkhaus says that with Kenya's reprisal military action for cross-border kidnappings, new U.S. drone activity over Somalia, as well as a possible return of Ethiopian forces, there is a risk that al-Shabab's popularity, fundraising and recruiting capabilities, could all quickly reappear.

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