'At your service, Osama' - the African Bin Laden behind the Uganda bombings
By Colin Freeman and Mike Pflanz in Nairobi
Published: 2:45PM BST Saturday, 17 July 2010
'At your service, Osama' - the African Bin Laden behind the Uganda bombings
As Somalia's al Shebab militants claim responsibility for bombings in Kampala, the Telegraph profiles their spiritual leader, accountant-turned-jihadi Ahmed Abdi Godane.
The leader of Somalia's al-Shebab militant movement, he prefers to be heard rather than seen, ranting away in radio broadcasts from his group's strongholds in northern Mogadishu. Thanks to his fatwahs against pop music, foreign films and even televised football, he already has a captive audience - as of last week, though, he made the rest of the world take notice too.
"What happened in Kampala was just the beginning," he warned in his latest broadcast, gloating over Sunday's twin suicide bombings in the Ugandan capital, in which Shebab-backed "martyrs" slaughtered 76 people as they watched the World Cup final. "If Uganda and Burundi do not withdraw their troops from Somalia, there will be more bombings like these."
Delivered with the same fiery rhetoric with which he recently declared himself "at Osama bin Laden's service", Godane's warning confirmed what many outside Somalia have long dreaded: that the Shebab, which has imposed a Taliban-style regime across much of the anarchic, war-torn land, would one day begin exporting its brand of Islamist violence to the wider world.
Last Sunday's attacks, designed to punish both Uganda and Burundi for providing troops to support Mogadishu's shaky Western-backed provisional government, marked the first time the group had struck outside its own borders. Now, having proved the Shebab's credentials as the world's newest international terrorist group, security officials fear it is only a matter of time before Godane, also known as Abu Zubayr, orders similar attacks against the West.
"This is a move into a different league altogether, and will put Godane and al Shebab on the world map," one Nairobi-based security official told The Sunday Telegraph. "He is very much of the international jihads mindset, and wants Islamic rule across the world, from Somalia to Alaska."
Just like the piracy crisis off Somalia's coastline, the Shebab's declaration of wider war is a sign of how Somalia's problems are becoming those of the wider region. The Ugandan president, Yoweri Museveni, whose security forces yesterday arrested 20 people in connection with the bombings, has called for more troops to be sent Somalia, this time not as bodyguards to the government, but to hunt down the Shebab.
"We are going on the offensive and will get these people," he vowed, calling on other African nations to help beef up the force from its current 5,000 to at least 20,000.
But many fear that would play directly into Godane's hands, allowing him to raise the spectre of a foreign "invasion" against which more Somalis would flock to the Shebab. Such a scenario could ignite a region-wide conflict, pitting the mainly Christian nations of the rest of East Africa against the predominantly Muslim population of Somalia.
Until now, the Shebab - which means "youth" - has thrived through the very fact that the rest of the world has left Somalia to its own devices. Just like the Taliban in Afghanistan, its leaders first won credibility by imposing a degree of law and order in a land plagued by warlords and criminals, and devoid of proper government for 20 years.
Today it controls much of southern Somalia, as well as parts of the capital, Mogadishu. But the relative security it provides has proved a Faustian pact for those who live under its rule. As well as harsh Sharia punishments, such as stonings and amputations, the Shebab imposes religious edicts as extreme as anything the Taliban dreamed up.
The list of "banned" activities, for example, goes well beyond just the obvious targets like music, drink and fraternisation between the sexes. It also includes banning women from wearing bras - on the basis that they showcase the chest - and banning men watching the World Cup: in the stern words of a Shebab spokesman, "they will not benefit anything or get any experience by watching mad men jumping up and down."
Instead, the Shebab encourages more wholesome forms of recreation, such as last year's notorious Koranic recital contest, in which a teenaged winner was awarded prizes of an AK-47, two hand grenades and an anti-tank mine.
Until recently, Western diplomats took comfort that such an odious vision at least had no ambitions beyond Somalia's borders. The focus of the Shebab's military efforts was mainly against the Western-backed transitional government, which it sees as Western stooges, and which currently controls little more than a few blocks of Mogadishu. But in the past year, the Shebab has taken on a more internationalist outlook, recruiting hundreds of foreign fighters into its ranks and advertising Somalia as a safe base from which to wage global jihad.
Much of that dramatic change in direction is put down to Godane, who last year issued a blood-curdling jihadist video called entitled "At your service, Osama". In it, he urged all Somalis to follow the al Qaeda leader, and vowed that "the wars will not end until Islamic Sharia is implemented in all continents in the world."
He is, nonetheless, an unlikely contender to become Africa's answer to bin Laden: born in the breakaway republic of Somaliland, he is described as small, slightly-built figure in his late 30s, whose early career included a spell as an accountant for an airline. In the late 1990s, he joined al Itihad al Islamiya, a now-defunct militant group, and went to Afghanistan to fight.
He and his followers quarrelled with Itihad's leadership when it mooted the idea of peaceful politics after September 11, producing the nucleus of what would go on to become the Shebab today.
However, last week's bombings were not their first taste of foreign blood. In 2003 and 2004, the same splinter group were responsible for a string of murders of Western aid workers, including Richard and Enid Eyeington, a British couple who ran a popular school in Somaliland. While eight men were subsequently sentenced to death for the murders, Godan, according to the US State Department, was "implicated" in the planning.
Today, his main role is as the Shebab's spiritual leader, although like Mullah Omar, the one-eyed ruler of the Taliban, he is extremely reclusive. He rarely appears in public, and is careful never to have his photograph taken - mindful, it seems, of the fate of his comrade Adan Hashi Ayro, who was killed by a US missile strike in 2008.
"Apparently he turns up on the battlefield quite often, but comes dressed just in jeans and a baseball cap to blend in," said Abdi Aynte, the author of a recent research paper on the Shebab, who has interviewed some of Godane's former comrades.
What makes him effective, though, is not his battlefield experience but his background in finance and airlines. "He knows how to move money and people, both of which have been useful in building up links with foreign jihadists", said Mr Aynte. Western intelligence officials estimate Godane may now have recruited up to 500 foreign jihadists in Somalia, some drawn from warzones like Iraq and Afghanistan, others from diaspora communities in Britain and America. The former bring a wealth of guerrilla expertise, but it the latter that cause Washington and London the real worries - they give the Shebab the potential to spread their mayhem to the streets of London and elsewhere.
"Despite all the West's talk about the war on terror, al Shebab has been allowed to become much more powerful and extreme than it used to be," said Rashid Abdi, a Naroibi-based Somali expert with the International Crisis Group thinktank. "Countries with big diaspora communities, like the US and Britain, should now be especially concerned."
Such fears are shared by British police, who claim to have detected evidence of Shebab funding networks within the 100,000-strong Somali community. The British government points out that the vast majority support only moderate Islam, but to quote Godane, it only needs a few people "at Osama's service" to cause the damage – and judging by a recent trip that Mr Abdi made to London, already some are showing signs of radicalisation.
"I was in Shepherd's Bush, where five years ago, all the young Somali men were wearing jeans and trainers," he said. "Now many are growing beards and wearing robes. Sure, a change of wardrobe proves nothing. But I have seen how communities get sucked into the al-Qaeda web, and I was worried by what I saw."