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Al-Shabaab on the Move in Somalia

Members of the Islamist organization al-Shabaab briefly captured Adaado, a town in central Somalia, on April 3. The raid saw at least 17 casualties before being beaten back by Somali government units. al-Shabaab is composed of the most extreme remnants of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) that previously dominated Somalia before the Ethiopian-led and American-backed invasion in December 2006. This insurgent group has since engaged in a long running campaign of terrorism and guerrilla attacks against Ethiopian troops and the Somali Transitional Federal Government. Ominously, al-Shabaab's operations of late are creeping upward on the scale of complexity in asymmetric warfare, moving closer to more sophisticated attacks including the holding of territory. According to one report:

Previously, ICU remnants staged intermittent attacks across Somalia, including launching grenades in Mogadishu. But recently, the Islamist fighters have become more brazen, carrying out attacks in daylight and seizing control of towns in southern and central Somalia. The Associated Press reported Thursday that Adaado is the eighth town seized by the Islamist fighters in recent weeks.

The government of the United States took concrete action against al-Shabaab in March by adding the group to the State Department's list of foreign terrorist organizations. al-Shabaab, which translates along the lines of "the youth," is also known as the Mujahedeen Youth Movement. From State's release:

The consequences of these designations include a prohibition against the provision of material support or resources to al-Shabaab and blocking of all property and interests in property of the organization that are in the United States, or come within the United States, or the control of U.S. persons. Secretary Rice took this action in consultation with the Attorney General and the Secretary of the Treasury. Designations play a critical role in our fight against terrorism and are an effective means of curtailing support for terrorist activities and pressuring groups to renounce terrorism.

Al-Shabaab, headed by Aden Hashi Ayro, an al-Qaeda trainee, has moved beyond a purely indigenous Somali movement through its attraction of fighters from the wider Islamic world. Much of its senior leadership also has al-Qaeda connections. Sheikh Muktar Robow, an al-Shabaab leader, apparently welcomes State's designation. As he said to the BBC:

"Al-Shabab feels honoured to be included on the list. We are good Muslims and the Americans are infidels. We are on the right path," he said.

Classifying al-Shabaab a foreign terrorist organization, with the attendant prohibitions, is a respectable first step against the group, but far from any panacea. Concerned observers will be watching developments in Somalia to see if al-Shabaab is capable of moving from something of an acceptable nuisance to an existential threat against Somalia's flailing government.