Al-Qaida's branch in Somalia, the terrorist group's largest and most active global affiliate, has issued specific new threats against Americans in East Africa and even the United States, according to U.S. commandos, counterterrorism officials and intelligence analysts.
Several signs indicate that the al-Qaida affiliate, al-Shabab, is seeking to expand its lethal mayhem well beyond its home base and attack Americans wherever it can -- threats that have prompted a recent flurry of U.S. drone strikes in Somalia to snuff out the plotters.
In recent months, two al-Shabab operatives have been arrested while taking flying lessons -- one last summer in the Philippines and another more recently in an African country, intelligence officials say. Those arrests carried echoes of the plotters in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, who trained to fly jetliners. Al-Shabab fighters are said to be seeking to acquire Chinese-made, shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles, which pose a deadly new risk to U.S. helicopters and other aircraft in Somalia.
American commanders are hardening defenses at bases in the region after an al-Shabab attack in January at Manda Bay, Kenya, killed three Americans and revealed security vulnerabilities. That attack came about a week after an explosives-laden truck blew up at a busy intersection in Mogadishu, the Somali capital, killing 82 people. Al-Shabab also claimed responsibility for that attack.
The attack in Kenya came two months after al-Shabab released a 52-minute video narrated by the group's leader, Abu Ubaidah, in which he called for attacks against Americans wherever they are, saying the American public is a legitimate target. The statement mirrored Osama bin Laden's declaration of war against the United States in 1996.
"Shabab is a very real threat to Somalia, the region, the international community and even the U.S. homeland," Gen. Stephen Townsend, the head of the military's Africa Command, told a House committee in Washington this month.
Al-Shabab controls large parts of Somalia and raises considerable funds through local taxation and extortion. The group has carried out deadly attacks not only in Somalia but also in neighboring Kenya and Uganda.
American and other Western intelligence analysts and special operations officers express fears that al-Shabab militants could threaten the 3,500 personnel at the Pentagon's largest permanent base on the continent, in Djibouti, as well as international shipping in the critical Bab al Mandab waterway off the southern Yemeni coast.
And last month, the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya, warned of a possible terrorist attack against a major hotel that is popular with tourists and business travelers. The warning did not specifically mention al-Shabab, but intelligence officials said the threat bore the hallmarks of such an operation.
The Defense Intelligence Agency told the Pentagon's inspector general in a recent report that the chances of al-Shabab attacking the United States remained relatively low, but the analysts noted that the group had made clear its intentions to kill Americans at any location.
One threat could be homegrown, from radicalized Somali-Americans living in cities such as Minneapolis or Columbus, Ohio, which have large Somali-American communities, analysts said. Another could be from al-Shabab militants in East Africa, who have pilot training and might be able to slip into the United States -- a much more difficult feat now than when the Sept. 11 plotters entered the country in 2001.
For now, al-Shabab threats against Americans remain highest in East Africa.
There are now about 500 U.S. troops in Somalia. Most are special operations forces stationed at a small number of bases across the country. Their missions include training and advising Somali army and counterterrorism troops and conducting kill-or-capture raids of their own.
The United States estimates that al-Shabab has about 5,000 to 7,000 fighters in Somalia, but the group's ranks are fluid.
A Section on 03/22/2020
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