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Jihadist vets boost Somalia's Islamists

disclaimer: image is for illustration purposes only
by Staff Writers
Mogadishu, Somalia (UPI) Jul 12, 2010
Bombings that killed more than 70 people watching the World Cup final have been blamed on al-Shabaab Islamists in neighboring Somalia, whom Kenya says are being reinforced by veteran fighters from Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Al-Shabaab, which means "The Youth" in Arabic, has threatened several times to attack Uganda and Kenya, which support the beleaguered Western-backed Transitional Federal Government in Mogadishu, Somalia's war-wrecked capital.

A day after the bombings, at two venues packed with soccer fans watching the final between Spain and the Netherlands on satellite television, al-Shabaab said it was responsible for the attacks.

If it transpires that al-Shabaab, which is allied to al-Qaida, is indeed behind the explosions, it would mark the movement's first operation outside Somalia and that would be an ominous milestone.

The bombings followed recent reports that al-Shabaab has been reinforced by veteran Islamist fighters from Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan and is increasingly recruiting Somalis living in the United States and Europe.

These reports came from the U.S. military's Africa Command, Somali intelligence officials, al-Shahaab defectors and most recently by Kenyan Foreign Minister Moses Wetangula.

U.S. and Western relief agencies involved in Somalia estimate that al-Shahaab has 10,000-15,000 fighters.

The reported infusion of hardened foreign fighters could indicate the conflict is approaching a new phase of internationalization, with al-Shabaab more inclined to mount a major push to topple the shaky TFG that increasingly seems to be hanging on by its fingernails.

In that context, the Kampala bombings, if they were the work of al-Shahaab's foreign veterans, could indicate the Islamists are prepared to widen the conflict.

U.S. intelligence has long feared that al-Qaida would move into Somalia and other ungoverned spaces in the Horn of Africa and Yemen, which dominate key shipping and oil tanker routes, to mount a new offensive against Saudi Arabia and other key oil producers in the Middle East and expand outward into the turbulent African continent.

There are no hard figures for the number of foreign fighters in Somalia but estimates by U.S. and Somali officials run as high as 1,200.

The TFG was installed in Mogadishu in December 2006 by invading U.S.-backed Ethiopian forces which ousted a short-lived Islamist regime. The TFG has long sought greater U.S.-led international efforts to stabilize the war-torn Horn of Africa country.

So have Kenya and Uganda, which have helped train the TFG's military forces. When U.S. Vice President Joe Biden visited Nairobi in June, Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki called on the United States to lead an intensified effort to restore order in Somalia.

Possibly bolstered by the foreign fighters, al-Shabaab has recently stepped up its operations.

It has been gaining ground in central Somalia. It took the key town of Beledweyne in early July, ousting the rival Hizb-ul Islam militia, and overran sizable chunks of the enclave the government controls in Mogadishu. That now covers barely 5 square miles.

The Islamists have seized several government-held positions and other institutions of President Sharif Sheik Ahmed's fragile administration and have closed in on his hilltop presidential palace, known as Villa Somalia.

Al-Shabaab has attacked the 4,000-strong African Union peacekeeping force known as Amisom, that these days does little else except protect Sheik Ahmed's precarious presidency.

The TFG's position itself is so precarious that government troops demanding unpaid wages stormed the palace two weeks ago and barricaded themselves in with 20 lawmakers as hostages until the government paid them.

The TFG has talked for months of mounting a major offensive against al-Shahaab in the seaside capital and in the south and center of Somalia.

But no big push has materialized. Apart from mutinous troops, many of whom have defected to al-Shabaab in recent months, parliament is badly divided and the government is riddled with infighting and corruption.

Senior army officers frequently sell new issues of arms and ammunition to the insurgents, foreign aid workers say.

The country, the epitome of a failed state, has been without an effective government since clan warlords toppled the dictator Mohammed Siad Barre in 1991.

Over the years Somalia has served a rear base for al-Qaida, which launched its jihad against the West in the mid-1990s by attacking U.S. troops deployed in Somalia as part of a U.N. force to aid the starving population.

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