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al-Qaeda and the ICU’s Somali Retreat

Following the trend consistently seen throughout the duration of the advance driven by the Ethiopian army, approximately 3,000 Islamic Courts Union fighters fled the southern Somali port city of Kismayo overnight, the ICU’s final urban stronghold in Somalia. While the overrunning of the al-Qaeda backed Islamist forces that had taken control of the majority of Somalia is a positive development with global implications in the global conflict, Somalia’s strategic importance to al-Qaeda and aligned movements (AQAM) assures that unless the ICU’s force is blocked and decimated in-place, it will regroup with significant al-Qaeda investment and return to the Somali battlefields in relatively short order.

Understanding this, Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government urged Kenya to close its borders, potentially acting as an anvil to the Ethiopian-led hammer in pursuit of the Islamists. A spokesman for the Somali TFG said, “We request the Kenyan government to close its border since the remnants of the defeated Islamic Courts led by Hassan Dahir Aweys are heading towards the Kenyan border.” The abandoned Kismayo stronghold lies 100 miles north of the border with Kenya. Ethiopian reconnaissance aircraft reportedly observed the ICU fighters heading southward toward the border in convoys of light vehicles.

An initial response from Kenya was disappointing, as its assistant foreign minister Kembi Gitura told Reuters, “We are watching the position. Kenya’s position on this is quite clear, we are taking a non-partisan position at the moment.” The degree to which Kenya is able to mount forces to seal its border with Somalia is questionable, especially considering its known level of corruption, a military intelligence official told ThreatsWatch. The possibility exists that, even if enough troops were mustered for the mission, Somali ICU and foreign fighters would be likely to find passage in spots for the right price.

Kenya’s Nairobi-based newspaper The Nation reported on December 29 that Kenya had closed its border with Somalia. The same paper also reported on January 1 that ten ICU fighters had been arrested at the Liboi border crossing point, demonstrating the ICU’s intent to fall back and regroup in Kenya. What remains unknown is the level of success the ICU has had in quietly buying passage or avoiding Kenyan security points altogether.

A spokesman for Uganda’s military said that the African nation has 1,000 troops prepared to come to the assistance of Somalia’s TFG “immediately after they are cleared by the [Ugandan] ministry of foreign affairs.” TFG spokesman Abdirahman Dinari said that Uganda and Nigeria have combined to offer as many as 8,000 troops total in assistance. The Somali government has also made formal requests to the African Union for a peacekeeping force.

While Somali Prime Minister Ali Mohamed Gedi offered amnesty to Islamist fighters remaining who laid down their arms, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister vowed to press on until “he has ferreted out certain Islamic leaders,” chief among them Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys.

Prior to his involvement in the Islamic Courts Union, Aweys co-founded al-Ittihad al-Islami (AIAI) along with Adan Hashi Ayro. The group has links to al-Qaeda and in the mid 1990’s, al-Ittihad conducted terrorist attacks in Ethiopia against the government there.

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross summarizes various known terrorists within the ICU and al-Ittihad, including a prisoner held at the US detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Gouled Hassan Dourad. The Director of National Intelligence office’s detainee biographies states that Dourad was a member of al-Ittihad al-Islami – under al-Qaeda’s head of East African operations, Abu Talha al-Sudani (a.k.a. Tariq Abdullah) – and had performed duties in support of IAIA terrorist plots, including plans to attack a US base in Djibouti with a suicide truck bomber and plans to kidnap western NGO workers for ransom to fund operations. Dourad, a Somali, received training at al-Qaeda terrorist training camps in Afghanistan in 1996.

While the purge of the ICU and its al-Ittihad-aligned terrorists from their Somali strongholds is much welcomed good news, the overriding concern going forward is centered on the fate of those ‘melting away’ in retreat – a wise tactic that allows them to fight another day. The ICU is not being decimated, but chased, and will return unless blocked and destroyed in-place. Somalia is a central front in the global conflict with al-Qaeda and aligned movements (AQAM) because they seek to establish it as an African base similar to that it once had in Afghanistan and currently enjoys from Waziristan and the North West Frontier Province in Pakistan. Al-Qaeda will not give up this strategic design easily.

The defeat of the ICU Islamist forces fleeing combat in Somalia requires more than allowing them to melt into the southern horizon. It remains to be seen, but there is little to suggest that the Kenyans are up to the anvil task in equal proportion to the capabilities and will evident in Ethiopia’s hammer.