Warlords or Counter-Terrorists: U.S. Intervention in Somalia

Andrew McGregor

May 31, 2006

As the insurgencies in Afghanistan and Iraq continue to dominate headlines, a new front in the war on terrorism has opened in Somalia. At a brutal cost to Mogadishu’s civilian population, once-discredited warlords have reinvented themselves as “counter-terrorists,” seeking and apparently gaining U.S. support by characterizing their Islamist opponents as agents of al-Qaeda. The warlords have grouped together as the Anti-Terrorism Alliance (ATA) and insist they are dedicated to expelling foreign al-Qaeda members they allege are sheltered by the Islamic Court Union (ICU). Although nearly all the ATA warlords are cabinet ministers in the new Somali Transitional Federal Government (TFG) located in Baidoa, they have abandoned the TFG to pursue an unauthorized war against their Islamist rivals in Mogadishu. Allegations of U.S. funding for the unpopular ATA leaders are undermining U.S. efforts to stabilize the region.

Warlord Muhammad QanyareATA Somali Warlord Muhammad Qanyare

Thus far, the efforts of the ATA have not been met with success. No “terrorists” have been detained, and ATA forces have not fared well in combat against the Islamists who continue to control most of Mogadishu. Ethiopia is reported to be sending convoys of weapons in violation of the UN embargo to re-equip beleaguered ATA fighters (Shabelle Media Network, May 24). ATA warlord and TFG Trade Minister Musa Sudi Yalahow has declared that the fighting in Mogadishu will continue until “African and Asian” terrorists have been removed from Somalia, while maintaining in reference to ATA funding that “nobody gives us anything” (Puntlandpost, May 19).

Muhammad Dhere, an important ATA leader, claims that Arab and Asian al-Qaeda members have been joined in Mogadishu by members of Ethiopia’s Oromo Liberation Front, offering the observation that some fighters were covering their faces, obvious “proof” of their foreign origins (HornAfrik, May 19). The warlord also accuses numerous members of parliament of being al-Qaeda members, and further claims that 70 MPs are agents of hostile foreign countries (Shabelle Media Network, May 19). Increasingly, accusations of al-Qaeda links have become a common way for the warlords to discredit political opponents.

Former CIA Director Porter Goss is alleged to have visited Kenya in February to coordinate a campaign against al-Qaeda with Somali warlords (the U.S. embassy in Nairobi simply states that it has “no information” about such a visit). According to the TFG and Kenyan security sources, this visit was followed by a CIA mission to Mogadishu that distributed as much as US$2 million in funding to ATA warlords (Daily Nation, Nairobi, May 11). Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Jendayi Frazer stated that she did not know if the ATA warlords were receiving U.S. assistance, but made clear that “We will work with those elements that will help us to root out al-Qaeda and to prevent Somalia becoming a safe haven for terrorists, and we are doing it in the interests of protecting America” (Reuters, May 13).

TFG frustration with the United States is growing. The president, the prime minister, the speaker of parliament, and the minister of health (Abdiazziz Shaykh Yusuf) have all accused the United States of illegal intervention in Somalia through military and financial support of the ATA. President Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmad and Prime Minister Ali Muhammad Gedi insist that the United States deal solely with the TFG rather than cut deals with the warlords. Abdiazziz Shaykh Yusuf adds that Somalis “view the [Islamic] courts as the product of clan elders, and they have a good reputation compared to the warlords” (Midnimo.com, May 17).

The already fragile TFG is in danger of collapse due to Prime Minister Ali Muhammad Gedi’s failure to force the return of cabinet ministers engaged in the Mogadishu fighting. Members of Parliament have called for his resignation, while other MPs accuse the United States of taking revenge on Somalia for U.S. losses in Mogadishu in 1993 (HornAfrik, May 17). The absent ministers are close to being dismissed from the government, which would effectively destroy any chance of the TFG establishing itself as an accepted government.

ATA warlord Muhammad Qanyare has complained that the TFG has “no respect for the [counter-terrorist] work we are doing.” Qanyare explains the absence of the ATA warlords from their cabinet posts by noting that “we are busy fighting with terrorists now. We don’t have time for the government” (Shabelle Media Network, May 24, May 25). Both the TFG and Somali popular opinion hold that the ATA is a collection of paid agents of the United States government. The presence of U.S. warships off Mogadishu and evening flights over the city by U.S. reconnaissance planes has tended to reinforce these perceptions (Haatuf News, Somaliland, May 10).

With the dictates of counter-terrorism in conflict with the methods of nation-building, Somalia is on the verge of another collapse. The battle in Mogadishu is spilling over into a wave of assassinations, grenade attacks and gunfights throughout Somalia. In the capital itself, firing tends to be indiscriminate and thousands of civilians are once more fleeing for safety. U.S. food aid programs are not enough to offset the belief of U.S. responsibility for this new round of misery. If the United States has indeed thrown its support behind the ATA, its efforts appear to be counter-productive. Most ATA fighters battle for pay and the promise of loot. Any serious setbacks or an exhaustion of ATA funds are likely to result in the rapid dissolution of the “anti-terrorist” coalition and a triumph for Mogadishu’s Islamists.

Bin Laden’s African Folly: Al-Qaeda in Darfur

Andrew McGregor

May 18, 2006

Could a United Nations peacekeeping mission face al-Qaeda fighters in Darfur? According to Osama bin Laden, if a UN force deploys in the region, al-Qaeda will attack UN troops. On April 23, al-Jazeera television broadcast a Bin Laden audiotape in which he called for al-Qaeda fighters to begin traveling to Darfur to prepare for a “long-term war against the Crusaders,” an apparent reference to the UN force (controlled by the United States in Bin Laden’s mind) that could replace the ineffective African Union mission in the region. The commander of the United Nations Mission in Sudan has announced that the UN force is treating Bin Laden’s threat with “whole seriousness” (Sudan Tribune, April 26). The Sudanese government is doing everything possible to prevent a large-scale UN deployment in Darfur, but this sudden offer of al-Qaeda assistance is surely unwelcome in Khartoum.

Omar and HassanOmar al-Bashir and Hassan al-Turabi

Bin Laden in Sudan

Bin Laden’s presence in Sudan from 1991 to 1996 was enabled by Hassan al-Turabi, the country’s leading Islamist, widely regarded at the time as the real (and unelected) power behind the presidency. Times have changed in Sudan, however. Al-Turabi’s influence on the government waned long ago. His one-time deputy has usurped his position, and al-Turabi has spent most of the last few years in prison or under house arrest. To add to his woes, he has been accused of heresy for his recently declared liberal views on the role of women in Islamic society. Al-Turabi made many enemies in his ruthless pursuit of an Islamic state in Sudan, and they will surely now circle in to take their revenge. The government has seen changes as well; under the provisions of the peace treaty with the South, Southern Sudanese Christians now occupy leading positions in the administration. They are no fans of al-Qaeda.

Most Sudanese do not admire the Wahhabist-style Islam espoused by al-Qaeda. Their Islam is based on the proud Sufi lodges, whose form of worship is violently opposed by al-Qaeda. While al-Turabi and others have had some success in their efforts to radicalize the population, most local Muslims will tell you that Sudanese Islam is in no need of improvement by outsiders. Not everyone in the Khartoum regime shared al-Turabi’s fondness for al-Qaeda. When Bin Laden was in Sudan, the suspicious Mukhabarat (secret service) took note of every move and utterance by Bin Laden and his associates. Attempts were made to turn thousands of pages of intelligence over to the United States after Bin Laden was deported in 1996, but the Clinton administration refused to have anything to do with a “state sponsor of terrorism.”

Despite his sojourn in Sudan, the al-Qaeda leader appears poorly informed about the country. He describes the conflict in Darfur as tribal differences cleverly manipulated by the United States to “send crusader troops to occupy the region and steal its oil under the guise of preserving security there.” In doing so, Bin Laden ignores all the environmental, economic, political, ethnic and religious factors behind the current war. His suggestion that “crusader” forces are trying to “steal” Darfur’s oil resources under the pretext of peacekeeping is absurd. Sudan’s main oil industry is located in Upper Nile Province and is already owned by a Chinese-Malaysian consortium. It will take much more than a peacekeeping force to change that. The Sudanese/Swiss ABCO corporation claims that preliminary drilling in Darfur revealed “abundant” reserves of oil, but it appears that the rights may have already passed into Chinese hands (AlertNet, June 15, 2005; Guardian, June 10, 2005).

China has emerged as the Sudanese regime’s protector on the UN Security Council, and may use its veto to prevent the formation of a UN force in Darfur. China has been quietly active in Sudan for decades, developing a close relationship with the current regime. Sudan already provides 10 percent of China’s petroleum imports. Any attempt by the “crusaders” to bring Sudanese petroleum reserves under Western control could cause friction with China.

Bin Laden also claims that the Sudanese government has abandoned Shari’a law, which is surely news to everyone in Sudan. His assertion that the southern separatist/nationalist movement was sponsored by Great Britain after independence defies historical reality. Ironically, in view of his own failure to grasp regional issues, Bin Laden calls on the mujahideen to learn everything they can about Darfur, for “it has been said that a man with knowledge can conquer land while land can conquer the ignorant.”

Unwelcome Jihadis

One of the two main Darfur rebel groups, the Islamist Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), is allied with al-Turabi, yet even they have rejected Bin Laden’s appeal. A JEM spokesman declared that “Bin Laden is still preaching the theory of an American-Zionist conspiracy when the real problem comes from Khartoum, which is a Muslim government killing other Muslims” (Sudan Tribune, April 23). JEM’s rival group of rebels in Darfur, the much larger Sudan Liberation Army (SLA), has gone even further, declaring that Bin Laden’s intent is to “exterminate the peoples of Darfur.” The Sudanese government dismissed Bin Laden’s appeal, announcing that Sudan would not play host to terrorists. Government spokesmen also declared that a decision to replace African Union forces with UN troops “is not going to be imposed on Sudan” (Sudan Vision Daily, May 8).

The regime of President Omar al-Bashir has bought time to implement its Darfur policy by aligning itself closely with the United States in the war on terrorism. Sudanese intelligence provides valuable information to U.S. security services, knowing that the U.S. desire to protect its homeland overrides human rights concerns in distant states. It is a calculating approach that requires considerable finesse, taking what one can, but never going too far. Allowing al-Qaeda back into the country is not just a step too far, but a jump into the volcano, particularly at a time when Washington appears to be taking a harder line on Khartoum.

It is unlikely that any UN force will be deployed without the permission of the Sudanese government. There will be difficulties in the mission, but the Sudanese government’s aims in Darfur have been largely realized, and it is unlikely that any international force will be entrusted with the job of restoring lands seized by the Janjaweed militias to the dispossessed tribes. The peace agreement’s call for the Sudanese government to supervise the disarmament of the Janjaweed is the main reason for the refusal of Abdul-Wahid Muhammad al-Nur’s faction of the SLA to sign the document (Asharq al-Awsat, May 9).

With desertification sterilizing the traditional grazing lands of the Darfur nomads who supply the bulk of Janjaweed manpower, it will prove nearly impossible to cast the militias and their families back into the desert, regardless of their crimes. Some Janjaweed leaders (like Shaykh Musa Hilal) are already appealing for peace in the interests of consolidating their gains. In the meantime, discipline is breaking down in the African Union force, which has not been paid in two months (Daily Trust, Abuja, May 8). The commander of the AU troops, Major General Collins Ihekire, has called for a quick deployment of UN troops to reinforce the AU mission, whose mandate has been extended until the end of September (IRIN, May 9).


Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir has displayed little interest in exporting Islamic revolution beyond Sudan. That was al-Turabi’s mission, and the president has already threatened to execute him. Similarly, al-Bashir has no interest in hosting a group of armed foreign Islamists who could threaten his regime and whose presence would isolate Sudan internationally. Bin Laden’s declared aim of disrupting the North-South peace agreement is completely at odds with the aims of the regime. Sudan is exhausted by war, and there is oil to be pumped from the wells of the South. The abandonment of the Sudanese government’s jihad in South Sudan was recognition that war is bad for business.

Bin Laden qualified his offer of support by noting that it was not his intention to defend the Khartoum government, for “even though our interests may be mutual, our differences with it are great.” How can Bin Laden send fighters to aid a regime that he just announced he does not particularly support? What does Bin Laden expect will happen to them once they arrive? If this message is genuinely from Bin Laden, it suggests that the terrorist leader is desperately searching for a cause to sustain his movement. There is a crime in Islam called fitna; it means creating discord among Muslims, and it is one of Islam’s greatest offenses. Bin Laden apparently believes that sending Muslims to disrupt peace treaties negotiated by (and between) other Muslims is a suitable aim for his movement. With or without the peace treaty in the works in Abuja, neither Sudan’s government nor the Darfur rebels desire the assistance of al-Qaeda. Should Bin Laden’s followers head to Darfur, there is no doubt a hot reception awaits them.


This article first appeared in the May 18, 2006 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor


GSPC Leader Issues New Threat to U.S. Military Bases in North Africa

Andrew McGregor

May 17, 2006

A recent threat from a prominent Algerian jihadist may expand Algeria’s 14-year-old Islamist revolt to include U.S. military targets in the African Sahara and Sahel. The statement, issued by Mokhtar Belmokhtar (Khaled Abu al-Abbas), comes at a time when the movement is under intense pressure from Algerian counter-terrorism units. In an interview on the website of the Salafist Group for Call and Combat (GSPC), Belmokhtar, a veteran of the Afghan jihad, pledged his support to Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda network while recounting the tribulations of a “jihad of conspiracies and disasters.”[1]

GSPC 1Mokhtar Belmokhtar

 After rising through the GSPC ranks, Belmokhtar disappeared from Algeria for two years, during which time it is believed he was in Mali. In June 2003, there were reports that Algerian commandos and Malian security services had broken up a Belmokhtar-led attempt to attack the U.S. Embassy in Bamako with a truck bomb. After becoming a fugitive in Mali, Belmokhtar returned to southern Algeria to organize the southern command of the GSPC. He was said to have led the January 7, 2005 attack on a military convoy at Biskra that killed 13 Algerian soldiers and five civilians. In the statement, Belmokhtar complains of the establishment of U.S. military bases in Mali and Niger and the future creation of bases in Mauritania and Algeria, claiming that they are a response to reports of GSPC contacts with al-Qaeda.

As part of its national reconciliation policy, the second of Algeria’s two mass amnesties of Islamist radicals took effect on March 13. As part of the amnesty, 2,200 militants (many of whom were involved in savage atrocities) were released from prison while the families of their victims poured into the streets of Algiers in protest. A general amnesty has been offered to fighters still in the field that expires at the end of August. Many GSPC leaders have taken advantage of the offer, each bringing with them their secret knowledge of GSPC activities while promising to encourage other militants to follow their example. The policy is an enormous gamble for the government; rumors abound of ex-prisoners who have returned to arms, but the government has not confirmed any instances of this. Belmokhtar cites the immunity granted to the Algerian military for their role in the civil war as a reason to continue his jihad.

In June 2005, a Belmokhtar-led GSPC raid on the remote Lemgheiti barracks in Mauritania (near the Mali border) killed 15 soldiers. The 150-man assault force apparently contained a large number of Mauritanians who were heard speaking Hassaniya, the Mauritanian dialect of Arabic (Nouakchott Info, June 7, 2005). The attack accomplished little and was even condemned by Mauritania’s Islamist opposition.

With the raid on Lemgheiti, the GSPC demonstrated that they still pose a threat to isolated military outposts, but their ability to attack targets such as U.S. military bases is doubtful. The movement can count only some 500 to 600 fighters, and these cannot be easily concentrated in one place. Many GSPC leaders have been killed or captured in the last few years, including Abu Bilal al-Albani, who is believed to have been Belmokhtar’s liaison with the shrinking northern faction of the movement. Even Belmokhtar’s father has been in touch with the militant to urge him to abandon his struggle against the government (Asharq al-Awsat, January 3). Despite the tiny size of his force, Belmokhtar is not content to take on just the United States and his own government, but has also promised to punish the governments of Mauritania, Niger and Mali for their cooperation with the U.S. military (La Liberté, May 11).

GSPC 2 Until now, there has been little credible evidence that the GSPC in Algeria was coordinating their activities with al-Qaeda (declarations of support for al-Qaeda is not the same as operational cooperation). Much of the evidence presented by Algeria’s Department of Intelligence and Security tying the GSPC with bin Laden’s group cannot be independently verified and in some cases has been hotly disputed (Le Monde Diplomatique, February 2005). On May 3, UPI reported that the northern Algeria-based leader of the GSPC, Abu Musab Abdel Wadoud Abdel Malek, made an appeal in a letter to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi for assistance. UPI gave no indication where they obtained the letter, which contains unlikely errors arising either from the translation or the Arabic original.

Despite GSPC declarations of allegiance, it appears al-Qaeda has backed off from its connections to the Algerian militants, whose organization is considered unreliable due to defectors and infiltration by the security services (al-Hayat, June 7, 2005). Nevertheless, the Algerian government has emphasized these “connections” in order to obtain military and counter-terrorism assistance. Based largely on GSPC activities, the United States has upgraded a $7 million regional military assistance program (the Pan-Sahel Initiative) to the $500 million Trans-Saharan Counter-Terrorism Initiative. Despite U.S. expressions of concern that al-Qaeda might create operational bases in the desert (a near impossibility), the new program appears to have more to do with securing emerging petroleum resources in the Sahara/Sahel region.

It is difficult to see how al-Qaeda could provide any direction or material support to Belmokhtar’s militants in south Algeria, who have been increasingly contained in remote regions by Algerian security forces. Aside from the occasional raid or ambush, Belmokhtar’s faction of the GSPC has been more occupied with smuggling than revolution in the last few years (El Watan, January 11, 2005).

In Algeria, the appeal of petro-wealth is now stronger than the urge to continue the misery of La sale guerre (The Dirty War). Rising prices for petroleum products have led to a sudden revival of Algeria’s battered economy and the government is using oil revenues to build infrastructure and pay down its foreign debt ahead of schedule. Belmokhtar and the remaining GSPC holdouts are swimming against the tide of public opinion in Algeria. Even Hassan Hattab, the GSPC founder, now repudiates his association with the group and calls for the remaining militants to take advantage of the amnesty. Belmokhtar’s threat to attack U.S. installations may be seen as an effort to internationalize the GSPC’s war to revitalize a movement that is slowly dying in Algeria.

This article first appeared in the May 17, 2006 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Focus.

[1] http://www.moon4321.net/pages/hiwar5.html .

“The Chechen Network” on Trial: Terrorist Prosecutions in Paris

Andrew McGregor

May 4, 2006

Modern France has a long history of dealing with terrorists, whether the bomb-throwing anarchists of the late 19th century or the more sophisticated Corsicans, Basques and Islamists of the late 20th century. As the republic enters the 21st century, it finds itself grappling with an Islamist threat that reflects the nation’s changing demographics. Five to six million residents of France are now Muslim—a full 10 percent of the population. Aside from a substantial number of Muslim West Africans, most French Muslims hail from former French provinces in North Africa. Algeria is home to many of France’s most radical Islamists, a country that has endured fifteen years of terrorist attacks, kidnappings, massacres and civil strife.

chechen network 1Judge Jean-Louis Bruguière (Le Monde)

French authorities have adopted an aggressive campaign to pre-empt terrorist strikes. Expanded counter-terrorism measures have been matched with wide-scale roundups of French Muslims, who may now be held for six days without charges and up to four years without trial. Although nearly all France’s terrorism suspects are French-born or North African in origin, the republic’s leading investigator of terrorist cases suggests that the most dangerous threat to France and Europe comes from an elusive and mysterious source: “the Chechen Network.”

Terrorists on Trial

Twenty-seven North Africans were brought to trial in Paris on March 20, 2006, on suspicion of planning terrorist attacks on the Eiffel Tower and numerous other targets. Investigators allege that Russian institutions in France were also targeted by the Islamist militants as retaliation for the destruction of the Chechen terrorist unit at Moscow’s Nord-Ost Theater in October 2002. The actual charge against the defendants is “criminal conspiracy in relation to a terrorist network,” which carries a sentence of up to 10 years’ imprisonment on conviction. Several of the suspects are alleged to have served in the small corps of international mujahideen in Chechnya. Many appear to be former members of the GIA (Armed Islamic Group) or GSPC (Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat), militant Algerian Islamist organizations responsible for numerous atrocities. A French security service, La Direction de la Surveillance du Territoire, uncovered the so-called “Chechen Network” while investigating Islamist efforts to recruit French nationals for the fighting in Chechnya. Mass arrests of North Africans followed in the Paris suburbs of Courneuve and Romainville in December 2002.

The man behind the prosecutions is Judge Jean-Louis Bruguière. In France, judges may act as investigators, with those suspects recommended for prosecution sent before other judges for trial. Judge Bruguière began work in terrorism investigations in 1991, and is now responsible for the coordination of all judicial aspects in France’s battle against terrorism. Bruguière and others have aggressively used the generous powers provided to them by the new anti-terrorism legislation to cast wide nets in the Muslim community, collecting large numbers of suspects. Many of the accused have been acquitted after lengthy periods of detention.

The Case of Said Arif

Said Arif, 41, is a former officer in the Algerian army and one of the defendants in the “Chechen Network” case. After deserting the army he traveled to Afghanistan, where he is said to have attended al-Qaeda training camps. Mr. Arif and several other suspects are accused of taking additional training in the production of chemical and biological weapons in Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge, allegedly under the tutelage of Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi when the career criminal was still being described as a bio-chemical weapons expert (al-Zarqawi is now leader of the al-Qaeda faction in Iraq). No evidence has been presented to substantiate the existence of such training facilities, and even the presence of al-Zarqawi in the Pankisi Gorge remains open to question. There was undoubtedly training available in the creation of more conventional explosive devices while Chechen warlord Ruslan Gelayev rebuilt his guerilla force in the Gorge in 2001-2002. Some 200 foreign mujahideen were present in Gelayev’s camps. Many were Turkish nationals, while the Arab contingent included a number of Algerians. It is these individuals that the prosecution charges with returning to France to carry out acts of terrorism.

chechen network 2Said Arif (Le Point)

Already suspected of involvement in the December 2000 plot to bomb the Strasbourg Christmas market, Arif escaped the December 2002 roundup of al-Qaeda suspects accused of preparing chemical attacks in France. In May 2003, Arif and his wife (a Swedish national) moved with their children to Syria. Two months later Arif was picked up on the street by Syrian intelligence services. His family was first detained then deported to Sweden. Arif alleges he was tortured in Syria before being extradited to Paris in June 2004. The procedure was unusual, in that Syria has no extradition treaty with France. The extradition may have been the result of a personal visit to Syria by Judge Bruguière.

France allowed members of Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) to question the suspects before trial, as part of a joint investigation between Russian and French security services. Mr. Arif has also attracted the attention of the Spanish secret services. Arif is said to have revealed to Spanish investigators a plan to carry out a chemical attack on the US naval base in Rota, Spain (Spanish Herald, May 4, 2005). Arif’s lawyer has called for the rejection of any evidence based on testimony elicited from his client under torture in Syria. A verdict in the trial is expected on May 12.

The ‘Chechen Threat’

The term “Chechen” figures in almost every reference to the current case. Judge Bruguière and others speak of “the Chechen Network,” while their detractors refer to it as “the Chechen Trace.” Judge Bruguière claims that Chechnya serves as the main training base for Islamist militants, having replaced Afghanistan in this regard. Bruguière describes the “Caucasian problem” as “a true international problem because the majority of the Chechen cause has been hijacked by al-Qaeda” (AP, December 9, 2004). According to the judge, Chechnya serves as “an aircraft carrier” for Islamists “to continue the fight against the West” (CNN, May 13, 2003). At times Bruguière ascribes to the Chechen rebels powers worthy of a James Bond villain; in 2004 he told the New Yorker magazine that Chechens were training Islamists how to hijack satellites, enabling them to shut down communications, power grids and Western defense networks (New Yorker, August 2, 2004).

Judge Bruguière’s emphasis on the Chechen aspect of the current trial has filtered down to the media. An Associated Press headline announced “Chechen Rebel Trial Opens in Paris” (March 21, 2006), even though not a single Chechen is among the accused. Olivier Dupuis, an outspoken member of the European Parliament, has questioned Judge Bruguière’s continued use of the term “Chechen network” in a case involving only EU citizens. The MP asks whether such “false information” might be “responsible for the growth among EU citizens of feelings of racial hatred, intolerance or even violence towards Chechen refugees living in member countries.”


There is no question that France faces a serious terrorism threat from North African extremists, but Judge Bruguière’s persistent obsession with Chechnya as an exporter of terrorism to Europe remains difficult to explain. Europe is now awash with Chechen refugees, yet none have been convicted of terrorist plots against their hosts. The Pankisi Gorge came under the control of US-trained Georgian security forces in October 2002. The Chechen separatist leadership is intent on expanding its rebellion to the rest of the Russian North Caucasus, but otherwise has expressed more interest in joining Europe than destroying it. Arab participation in the Chechen war is also at a low ebb, with jihadists from France and elsewhere being drawn to the far more accessible conflict in Iraq.

Short of new evidence being introduced at the trial, the actual Chechen content of France’s “Chechen Network” appears to be nil. A recent French security review described the greatest threats to national security as coming from young, alienated Muslim youth and converts to radical forms of Islam such as Lionel Dumont, a former French Catholic who became one of Europe’s most wanted terrorists before being sentenced to 30 years in prison by a French court in December 2005. With Algeria’s ruthless militants now identifying France as their main enemy, the continuing focus on a shadowy Chechen threat would appear to be a dangerous distraction for French security.

This article first appeared in the May 4, 2006 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Chechnya Weekly

Prosecuting Terrorism: Yemen’s War on Islamist Militancy

Andrew McGregor

May 4, 2006

Any observer of Yemen’s political scene cannot help but notice that Yemen appears to be awash with al-Qaeda suspects. Mass trials follow mass arrests as hundreds of suspects flow through Yemen’s legal system. Some are selected for execution and others for lengthy prison sentences, but many avail themselves of early release or periodic amnesties. The system seems designed to weed out those who present a direct threat to Yemen or its regime, while relieving U.S. pressure in the war on terrorism by offering a constant demonstration of activity. In the wings of this performance is the constant threat of an insurgency led by Yemen’s powerful Islamist movement.

Yemen Map 2The Legal Frontline

A continuing irritant in Yemen-U.S. relations is the status of Shaykh Abd al-Majid al-Zindani, the country’s most prominent Islamist and leader of the Iman University in Sanaa. In February 2004, the U.S. Treasury Department identified al-Zindani as a “specially designated global terrorist” (Terrorism Monitor, April 6). The U.S. would like to see the Shaykh extradited for his al-Qaeda connections and possible involvement in the USS Cole bombing, but al-Zindani enjoys the personal protection of Yemen’s president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who describes him as “a moderate.” The president called such extradition attempts “unconstitutional” and noted that “we are not the police of any other country” (Yemen Observer, March 1)

The Shaykh met in early April with Khaled Meshaal, the Syrian-based leader of Hamas. At a fundraising event for the new Palestinian government (which has lost nearly all foreign aid from the West), al-Zindani referred to Hamas as “the jihad-fighting, steadfast, resolute government of Palestine” (UPI, April 14). Al-Zindani is a leading member of Yemen’s Islah Party, an Islamist opposition party that often works closely with the government. The leader of Islah is Shaykh Abdullah al-Ahmar, chief of the powerful Hashed tribe. President Saleh and many other government figures are members of the Hashed. Al-Ahmar is close to the Saudis, and it is partly through his mediation that many long-standing territorial and security disputes have been resolved in the last few years.

Al-Zindani is one of many Yemeni “Afghans,” the term used for veterans of the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan. Rather than alienate the so-called Afghans, Saleh’s regime has used them to eliminate opponents of the government, most notably in the assassination campaign against members of the Yemen Socialist Party in the period 1990-94. Others are reported to have been deployed against Zaidi Shiite militants in Northern Yemen.

Meanwhile, Saudi-born Mohammad Hamdi al-Ahdal is facing the death penalty in another U.S.-related prosecution. A veteran of conflicts in Afghanistan and Chechnya, al-Ahdal is charged with being a leading member of Yemen’s al-Qaeda network, raising funds and organizing bomb attacks on U.S. interests in the country. He has admitted to collecting over one million Saudi riyals to buy the allegiance of Yemeni tribesmen in the Ma’rib region. Nineteen security men were killed in a three-year pursuit of al-Ahdal that ended in 2003. Al-Ahdal used his chance to speak in court to charge Saudi and U.S. authorities with pressing Sanaa for a conviction. Al-Ahdal’s onetime superior in al-Qaeda, Ali Qaed Senyan al-Harthi, was killed in Ma’rib in 2002 by a U.S. unmanned Predator aircraft.

Nineteen men currently on trial in Sanaa are accused of planning attacks against U.S. interests as revenge for the killing of al-Harthi. The suspects, including five Saudis, are accused of operating under the instructions of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, leader of the al-Qaeda faction in Iraq (Yemen Times, April 16). Two of the accused have admitted to possessing arms and explosives for use in training fighters for Iraq and Afghanistan, but proclaimed that their war was with the United States, not Yemen (Yemen Observer, March 4).

In an interesting case that attracted little attention, a group of former Iraqi army officers were acquitted on appeal in March on charges of plotting to attack the U.S. and UK embassies in Sanaa. Other former Iraqi officers are reported to have found employment in Yemen’s military. The two armies cooperated extensively in the Saddam Hussein era, and a large part of Yemen’s military received training in Iraq. The Iraqis have spent three years in prison, but appealed to be allowed to stay in Yemen over fears for their safety in Iraq.

Furthermore, on April 19, a group of 13 Islamists led by Ali Sufyan al-Amari were handed prison terms of up to seven years for plotting attacks against political and security officials in Yemen. Prosecutors announced in late April that 60 more suspected members of al-Qaeda are being brought to trial (26September.com, April 25).

Though the mass prosecutions suggest Yemen is mounting a successful campaign against Islamist militants, hundreds of convicted extremists have found a quick route to freedom through cooperation with Yemen’s Dialogue Committee, which engages the prisoners in a Quran-based rehabilitation program. Other convicted Islamists are released in periodic amnesties, while suspects with political connections are often never brought to trial. Over 800 Zaidi Shiite rebels were freed in March in order to resolve the 2004-2005 conflict that erupted in the mountains of Northern Yemen. While the “revolving door” system of Yemeni justice frustrates U.S. security agencies, dispute resolution, mediation and reconciliation are all traditional art forms in Yemen’s fractious social framework. They are what prevent the state from disintegrating, and Saleh’s proficiency in these skills keeps the regime afloat.

Hunting Fugitives

Yemeni security forces continue the hunt for the 23 Islamists who escaped prison in Sanaa in February 2006. The facility was run by Yemen’s leading intelligence service, the Political Security Organization (PSO). Particularly distressing to the U.S. was that many of the fugitives had been involved in terrorist attacks against U.S. interests, while some were making their second escape from PSO prisons. Eight of the escapees have surrendered or been captured, but the two most prominent fugitives, Jamal al-Badawi and Jaber Elbaneh, remain at large. Al-Badawi was sentenced to death in 2004 for planning the attack on the USS Cole, while Elbaneh was one of the so-called “Lackawanna Six,” a terrorist cell based in upper New York state. Of the six, five are serving sentences in U.S. prisons, but Elbaneh escaped to Yemen where Yemeni police eventually detained him.

Security forces are reportedly using tribal and religious leaders in negotiations with the other fugitives for their surrender (Yemen Observer, April 3). Several PSO prison governors were put before a military tribunal on April 27 on charges of “inadequate conduct” in relation to the escape. The PSO is widely believed to include Islamists in its ranks, and there were serious questions raised at the time of the escape regarding PSO assistance to the escapees.

Yemen HousingThe escape has created barriers to the release of over 100 Yemeni detainees in Guantanamo Bay. The Yemen government maintains that 95 percent of these prisoners have no involvement in terrorism. According to a government study, most of the captive Yemenis worked in Afghanistan as teachers of the Quran or the Arabic language (26September.com, March 21). Nevertheless, some prisoners already released from Guantanamo Bay have been charged in Yemen with membership in al-Qaeda. One Yemeni prisoner who is unlikely to be released anytime soon is Shaykh Muhammad Ali Hassan al-Muayad, who is serving 75 years in a Colorado prison for financing terrorism. The Shaykh was a member of the Shura Council of the Islah Party and imam of the main mosque in Sanaa before he was arrested in Germany in 2003 and extradited to the U.S. Al-Muayad complains of mistreatment in the U.S. and his family is appealing to President Saleh to intervene.

Yemen and the War in Iraq

U.S. intelligence has identified Yemen as a leading source of foreign fighters in the war in Iraq. The leader of the Islamic Army of Aden-Abyan (one of Yemen’s largest Islamist militant groups), Khalid Abd al-Nabi, has complained that members of his group were arrested by PSO officers and then taken before U.S. operatives for interrogation regarding plans to fight coalition forces in Iraq (Yemen Times, April 4). The Islamic Army was formed in 1994 from “Afghans” who had helped Saleh’s regime defeat Southern Yemen’s socialists. They are accused of maintaining ties with al-Qaeda while sending fighters to join al-Zarqawi’s network in Iraq.

In 2002, the government mounted a largely ineffective assault with heavy artillery and helicopter gunships on the group’s training camp in the mountains near Hatat in Abyan district. Abd al-Nabi surrendered to the government, but was only briefly detained before being released without charges. Convicted Islamist militants released through the Dialogue Committee program agree to avoid further militancy within Yemen, but there is no mention made of Iraq.


A report released in April by Yemen’s Ministry of Planning and International Cooperation revealed that 41 percent of Yemenis are below the poverty line and lack access to basic health and educational services (Yemen Times, April 25). Rising food prices, a 17 percent unemployment rate and a general lack of opportunity for Yemen’s youth provide a pool of dissatisfied recruits for Islamist organizations.

The number of Yemenis currently fighting in Iraq is probably not large, but the presence of the conflict provides an external outlet for Yemen’s most militant Islamists, much like Afghanistan once did. With the Islamist opposition forming the largest political force in Yemen outside of the current government, the United States will continue to find it difficult to leverage the Saleh regime. Any U.S. intervention at this point would present serious consequences for the stability of the region. For now, Yemen will remain a troubling ally in the war on terrorism.

This article first appeared in the May 4, 2006 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor

Islamists and Warlords Clash in Mogadishu

Andrew McGregor

May 2, 2006

Hopes of restored stability in war-ravaged Somalia have been dashed as warlords and Islamists skirmish across battle-lines in Mogadishu. The new Transitional Federal Government (TFG), once expected to restore order to Somalia, has been sidelined as many of its warlord cabinet ministers rush to join the fighting. Despite a UN arms embargo, weapons continue to pour into the country from Ethiopia and Yemen.

Hassan Dahir Aweys 2Shaykh Hassan Dahir Aweys

Northern Mogadishu is controlled by the Islamic Courts Union (ICU). The Islamists of the ICU have restored order in regions under their control since 1992 through a rigid and often ruthless application of Sharia law. Funded in part by Islamic businessmen, the ICU maintains a 1,500-man militia and provides limited health and education services. Some ICU leaders, like Shaykh Hassan Dahir Aweys, were formerly active in al-Itihaad al-Islamiya, a militant Islamist group destroyed by warlord—and new TFG president—Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmad. Shaykh Hassan favors the establishment of an Islamic state in Somalia, but says that al-Qaeda could never find refuge in Somalia due to the country’s complicated social system, which cannot be easily penetrated by outsiders (al-Sharq al-Awsat, April 12).

Across the barricades from the Islamists are their opponents in the recently formed Anti-Terrorism Alliance (ATA). Many ATA warlords are ministers in the new TFG government, which formed in Kenya in 2004 and moved into Somalia’s southern city of Baidoa last year. The ATA are supported in part by Mogadishu businessmen who suffered financially from the ICU’s closure of the city’s lucrative entertainment facilities. ATA leaders characterize the ICU as “terrorists” tied to al-Qaeda. The ATA is widely believed by Somalis to be in the pay of the United States and under the direction of U.S. intelligence, despite denials by both ATA and U.S. spokesmen.

Leading the ICU is Shaykh Sharif Shaykh Ahmad, who declared a holy war against the ATA on April 19. The 45-year-old chairman of the ICU refers to the ATA as the “Party of the Devil,” and claims the people of Mogadishu have joined the ICU in self-defense (Radio HornAfrik, April 18). Both sides have created defensive positions throughout Mogadishu in preparation for new fighting. Financial incentives have been offered by both sides in an effort to recruit fighters from the numerous clan militias. The presence of U.S. naval ships and aircraft off Mogadishu has heightened tensions in the city, as many believe they are preparing to snatch ICU leaders by helicopter. U.S. forces are reported to be enlisting support from local militias to hunt down five al-Qaeda suspects believed to be at large in Somalia (al-Sharq al-Awsat, April 12). ATA warlord Muhammad Qanyare Afrah (TFG national security minister) has threatened to capture ICU leaders and turn them over to the U.S. as al-Qaeda suspects.

As the militias face off in Mogadishu, the remainder of the TFG can only look on. Their alliance is already strained, its political hierarchy largely imposed by Ethiopia. It is unlikely to stand any period of prolonged pressure before breaking down. President Abdullahi cannot rely on any other force other than militias from his home region of Puntland, who are not well-liked in Mogadishu.

There is a danger that renewed conflict may be perceived within Somalia and the Islamic world as a struggle between Islam and the United States (through its ATA proxies). At a rally on April 21, an ICU-allied shaykh expressed the Islamist perception of the U.S. role in Somalia: “We will not be governed by a few warlords financed by the enemy of Islam” (Middle East Online, April 21). Many Somalis fear foreign intervention from Ethiopia or the United States, but have tired of the warlords and are unlikely to support them whether in the guise of the ATA or the TFG.

This article first appeared in the May 2, 2006 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Focus