Puntland’s Shaykh Muhammad Atam: Clan Militia Leader or al-Qaeda Terrorist?

Andrew McGregor

September 29, 2010

No roads penetrate the mountains of the Galgala district of Puntland’s Bari Region. Though it lies almost directly south of the steamy and bustling port of Bosaso, Puntland’s commercial capital, the moderate climate and cave-riddled hills of the relatively inaccessible Galgala region form a natural base for guerrilla operations. Control of the area has become a source of conflict in recent years after mineral exploration efforts uncovered a rich trove of various minerals in high demand on international markets.

Puntland MapEfforts by the regional administration of Puntland (a semi-autonomous region of Somalia) to introduce resource exploitation into the area has resulted in a local resistance movement that may have morphed into an Islamist jihadi movement under the command of local Islamist Shaykh Muhammad Sa’id “Atam.” Puntland declared regional autonomy in 1998 to create a stable administration separate from the political chaos and violence engulfing Mogadishu and southern Somalia. The administration is dominated by the Majarteen clan.

Shaykh Atam’s Background

Shaykh Atam, a member of Puntland’s minority Warsangeli clan (a branch of the Darod), is alleged to have been part of the al-Itihaad al-Islamiya (AIAI) forces under Shaykh Muhammad Haji Yusuf that fought the Ethiopian military incursion in southern Somalia’s Gedo region in 1996 (Frontier FM [Nairobi], August 13). As well as being a respected Islamic scholar, Shaykh Atam has been described as educated, disciplined and charismatic. His native Galgala region was once part of the Warsangeli Sultanate that ruled the area from the 13th to 19th centuries.

A known arms-dealer believed to have ties with the arms trade in Yemen, Shaykh Atam equipped a local armed group that resisted efforts by Australian firm Range Resources to carry out resource exploration in the Galgala region in 2006. The ad hoc militia succeeded in driving the exploration company and its security services guard from the area. Shaykh Atam has maintained his militia since and is reported to wield influence in the area through funds provided by arms sales, his advocacy of Shari’a and his ability to play on clan differences with Puntland’s majority Majarteen clan to alienate locals from the regional administration, which normally has only the slightest presence in the area (Reuters, July 28). Shaykh Atam’s militia is sometimes referred to locally as the “Natural Resource Troops” or “The Defenders of Sanaag Resources” (Galgala News Agency, July 31; August 17).

A report issued by the UN Monitoring Group in Somalia in 2008 claimed that information had been received indicating that Shaykh Atam was “aligned with al-Shabaab and may take instructions from Shabaab leader Fu’ad Muhammad Khalaf “Shangole.” The reports also suggested that his forces received supplies of weapons from Yemen and Eritrea. [1]

Clashes Begin

On July 26 Shaykh Atam’s forces attacked Puntland security checkpoints in the Karin district of the Bari region, killing one soldier. Security forces responded with a mass attack on insurgent bases in the mountains (Radio Gaalkacyo, July 26). The next day, Shaykh Atam told a news conference that he intended to continue fighting until his movement took control of the Puntland commercial center of Bosaso and implemented Shari’a there (Radio Shabelle, July 27). He also said the attack was a response to the regional administration’s blockade of supplies to the region (Radio Garowe, July 29).

Shaykh Atam’s militia clashed with security forces again on August 8 (Miisaanka.com, August 9). Al-Shabaab media relayed a report from the militants that claimed the capture of ten named members of the security services (Radio Andalus, August 8). Heavy fighting continued on August 9 near the Galgala town of Karin, with a reported 18 insurgents killed and some 20 wounded security personnel and insurgents arriving at a Bosaso hospital for treatment (Radio Horseed, August 9; Dayniile Online, August 10). General Abdisamad Ali Shire, commander of the Puntland security operations in the region, vowed to crush the insurgents, but military moves to secure important roads in Bosaso led to rumors that Shaykh Atam’s forces had already entered the city (Shacabkha.net, August 9; Somali Memo, August 9). While General Ali Shire issued threats, Puntland Security Minister Yusuf Ahmad Khayre was offering an amnesty to the insurgents if they would withdraw from the fighting even as other government officials said the fighting was spreading to other villages (Dayniile Online, August 10; Horseed Radio, August 9). Shaykh Atam told a sympathetic media source; “We are not here to provoke anyone; however, if the forces in western Bari Region attempt to provoke us with an attack, we will teach them a lesson” (Dayniile Online, August 10).  By August 11, senior Puntland commanders were claiming to have seized the last of Shaykh Atam’s bases, though one of his lieutenants, Abdikarim Ahmad Beynah, insisted that the militants were in fact besieging the security forces (AFP, August 11). Shaykh Atam also accused the security forces of burning farms and torturing residents (Dayniile Online, August 10).

While traditional elders in the Bari region tried to mediate between the regional administration and Shaykh Atam’s group at first, the heavy-handed response of the security services (including the burning of farms and forcing women to remove the jilbab, an Islamic covering that reveals only the face and hands) led some elders to call for an uprising against the regional administration by mid-August (Shabelle Media Network, August 16).

Fighting flared up again on August 20 when Shaykh Atam’s fighters launched an attack on security forces inside Galgala village (Mareeg.com, August 20). Additional forces and weapons belonging to the Puntland Intelligence Service (PIS) and the Puntland Paramilitary were rushed to the Galgala region on August 22 while a committee of elders attempted to restart peace negotiations (Voice of Mudug, August 22; Galgala News Agency, August 26). Apparent differences with the government over the conduct of the fighting in the Galgala mountains led to the resignation of Puntland military chief Colonel Sa’id Abdi Farah “Tutaweyne” (Radio Gaalkacyo, August 22; Raxanreeb, August 22). After a brief lull, ten officers and civilians were killed in a new outbreak of fighting in the Bari region on September 12 (Mareeg.com, September 13).


A report on a pro-Islamist website pointed out that the Puntland forces from Garowe and Bosaso lacked the necessary “skill, patience and special training” to fight effectively in the mountains of the Bari region, elements possessed by Shaykh Atam’s local forces, well trained in guerrilla warfare (Somali Memo, August 13). It was an assessment shared by Shaykh Atam in a mid-August interview; “I am operating from my backyard [laughing] and thanks to God none of our militiamen was hurt. These people [i.e. the security forces] are moving like animals, firing blank shots while we are firm on the ground because we know the terrain. We do not just fire unless we are sure of what we are firing at… The people who are fighting are members of the local community who took up arms against injustice of displacement, burning down houses, killing the young and the elderly as well as poisoning wells and other sources of water” (Frontier FM [Nairobi], August 13).

Puntland 1Puntland Government Troops on Operations in Galgala

After losing his main bases to Puntland security forces, Shaykh Atam announced a change in tactics on August 14. Rather than trying to defend static positions, the insurgents would now rely on “hit and run methods” (Radio Gaalkacyo, August 14). An example of the new tactic had already been displayed two days earlier, when a hit and run attack on a Puntland security forces base in Bari region was repulsed with the loss of two government soldiers and at least four insurgents (AFP, August 13). Shaykh Atam’s militia typically deploys small arms, mortars and rocket-propelled grenades. It has also used improvised explosive devises (EIDs) to harass security forces and interfere with their supply lines (Shabelle Media Network, August 17; Raxanreeb.com, August 25; Somaliland Press, August 20).

A Battle for Resources?

The current conflict in Galgala has its roots in a 2006 effort by the regional administration to begin resource exploration in the area without local consultation and outside of any existing constitutional framework for such activities. Armed resistance led by Shaykh Atam to attempts by Puntland security forces to force their way into the area led to numerous deaths and the withdrawal of the Range Resources exploration team.

The region was the subject of intense exploration efforts in the early 1990s by Conoco and Phillips Petroleum, but the dissolution of effective government in Somalia after the overthrow of President Si’ad Barre in 1991 led to these firms abandoning their concessions.

Australia’s Range Resources signed a controversial exploration deal with the Puntland administration of Mohamud Muse Hersi “Adde” in 2005. A dispute with then-TFG President and Puntland native Abdullahi Yusuf over the legality of other Puntland resource deals led to the resignation of TFG Prime Minister Ali Muhammad Gedi in October 2007.Yusuf had at first said Puntland had no authority to negotiate such deals outside the framework of the TFG, but a reversal in his stance led to the dispute with Gedi. The resource deals played a large part in the brief creation of the self-proclaimed Warsangeli-dominated Maakhir State (based roughly on the borders of the old Warsangeli Sultanate) between 2007 and 2009.

After being repulsed by the Galgala militia, Range Resources brought in Canadian-owned Africa Oil Corporation (formerly Canmex) as a joint-venture partner in developing Puntland’s oil and mineral wealth in 2007. The election of Abdirahman Muhammad Farole, an Australian citizen, as Puntland’s president in January 2009 marked the beginning of Range Resource’s renewed efforts to conduct oil and mineral exploration operations in Puntland.

Galgala and other parts of the Bari region are above the Majiyahan Ta-Sn Deposit, a zone rich in minerals such as Albite, Quartz, Microcline, Tantalite, Tapiolite, Cassiterite, Spodumene and Muscovite. Some of these minerals are used to produce highly pure concentrations of lithium carbonate, a key component of batteries.

In May 2008 there were reports that the foreign exploration firms had assembled their own 250-man militia, armed with 50 of Somalia’s ubiquitous “technicals,” armored pick-up trucks equipped with a heavy machine gun or anti-aircraft weapons on the flatbed (Garowe Online, May 21, 2008).

The Regional Response

Though the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) in Mogadishu has expressed alarm over the outbreak of violence in Galgala, it has no forces available to assist in the repression of Shaykh Atam’s movement. TFG Minerals and Water Resources Minister Abdi Hasan Awale Qeybdid suggested instead that the government-aligned Ahlu Sunnah wa’l-Jama’a Sufi militia send forces to the region (Markacadey.net, August 9). TFG Member of Parliament Asha Ahmad Abdalla claimed that President Farole was conducting atrocities in his effort to secure Galgala’s mineral resources, for which he had already accepted payment from Western companies. She also accused the TFG of sending arms to the Puntland security forces to assist in this campaign (Dayniile Online, August 16).

Somaliland’s Interior Minister, Dr. Muhammad Abdi Gabose, declared that Somaliland (a self-declared but unrecognized state neighboring Puntland) had not devised a strategy to deal with the Galgala militants, whom he described as “a threat to Somaliland whether they are defeated by Puntland or not… If they are defeated, their remnants can commit acts of terrorism inside Somaliland” (Garowe Online, September 8). The Minister’s remarks indicated that Hargeisa regards the militants as an outgrowth of the Islamist insurgency in southern Somalia rather than a home-grown resistance to efforts by the Puntland administration to exploit the resources of the Galgala region. Even though Somaliland is engaged in a low-level border conflict with Puntland over the city of Los Anod and the regions of Sool, Sanaag and Cayn, Abdi Gabose also appealed for greater security cooperation with Puntland (Garowe Online, August 13; Somalimirror, August 14). Somaliland claims Galgala is part of its eastern Sanaag province, a claim locals have used to assert that the Puntland administration is attempting to operate in areas outside its jurisdiction (Somaliland Press, February 15; August 20).

Addis Ababa regards Shaykh Atam’s forces as a wing of al-Shabaab; according to the Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs; “The ongoing fighting between Puntland forces and al-Shabaab is an indication that the threat posed by this group is not just limited to southern Somalia regions but to other parts of the country that are peaceful.” The ministry urged Puntland and Somaliland to cooperate in forming “a powerful force” to fight al-Shabaab (Dayniile Online, August 18).

Despite claims that the administration has Galgala under control, President Farole has also appealed for international assistance in putting down the revolt; “This war terrorists have launched on Puntland today will not be limited to this region. If the international community does not assist us, the war will spread all over the region. Indeed it has already reached Kampala” (AFP, July 26). Shaykh Atam has mocked President Farole’s requests; “He pleaded that the international community and women take up arms… We are self-sufficient and God is our shepherd because we have been attacked without provocation” (Dayniile Online, August 10). He suggested Ethiopia had denied a request by Farole for the intervention of the hated Ethiopian military; “Farole went looking for additional forces from the Ethiopian colonizers but they rejected his requests for fear that they might be afflicted with painful lessons similar to the ones in southern Somalia where they were engaged in jihad. We are now undertaking a jihad similar to that one and we will defend ourselves from anyone that attacks us” (Dayniile Online, August 16).

The Puntland Intelligence Service

The Puntland Intelligence Service (PIS), led by Colonel Ali Muhammad Yusuf “Binge,” is the strongest armed group in Puntland and has taken the lead in the fighting in Galgala. The security force is largely drawn from the Osman Mahmoud subclan of the Majerteen and was established in 2001. It has been a frequent target of suicide-bombings and assassinations directed by al-Shabaab, which intends to extend its influence into Puntland. The PIS owes much of its prominence in Puntland’s power structure to aid and assistance provided by the United States and Western intelligence agencies. In addition it is alleged to receive 50% of the state budget. It has been frequently accused of inciting clan warfare between Majarteen and Warsangeli in the Bosaso region and acting in a provocative fashion towards leaders of the Islamic community (Puntlandpost, March 25, 2009).  In April 2009 the newly elected Abdirahman Muhammad Farole ordered the PIS to shut down its Bosaso office after numerous public complaints, but the PIS obtained an extension (Garowe Online, April 29, 2009). The clashes in Galgala will help cement the PIS presence in the region. The PIS is unpopular in Bosaso, where residents commonly refer to it as “Ashahaada la dirir,” i.e. “Those who fight against the unity of God” (Hiraan Online, August 18).

Farole has struggled since his election to establish his dominance over the powerful PIS. Matters came to a head in March when the President ordered the sacking of the PIS leader since 2004, Osman Abdullahi “Diyane.” [2] There were suggestions that Farole suspected Diyane of using his contacts with Western intelligence agencies to provide damaging information regarding Farole’s links to Puntland-based piracy to the United Nations. To emphasize his reforms of the organization, Farole also decreed that the PIS would be henceforth named the Puntland Intelligence Agency/Puntland Security Force (PIA/PSF) (Somaliland Press, March 14).  However, this rather unwieldy moniker has failed to catch on and the organization is still commonly referred to as the PIS.

The PIS has also cooperated with Ethiopian security services by arresting and handing over leading members of the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), an ethnic-Somali separatist movement that has traditionally used Puntland as a cross-border refuge (Garowe Online, April 25, 2008; May 4, 2008).

The Information War

The director of Bosaso’s Radio Horseed, Abdifatah Jama Mire, was sentenced to six years in jail and a fine of $500 in August as a penalty for “interviewing and broadcasting views of people who are fighting the government” after conducting an interview with Shaykh Atam. Prosecutors had only asked for a three-year jail term (National Union of Somali Journalists, Nusoj.org, August 14). Abdifatah, who was not allowed legal representation, pointed out that an interactive interview with Shaykh Atam broadcast on the Paltalk network had already covered much of the same ground and had even been quoted by Puntland authorities to support their position that Atam was connected to al-Shabaab (Shabelle Media Network, September 4; Garowe Online, August 14).

On August 15, Puntland Information Minister Abdihakim Ahmad Guled banned local media from interviewing leaders of the insurgency or even commenting on official news reports of the fighting (Radio Gaalkacyo, August 16). VOA reporter Nuh Muse Birjeb was also banned from the region after interviewing Shaykh Atam. [3]

Al-Shabaab media outlets have taken up the cause of Shaykh Atam’s movement and its fight against “the apostate militia group that works for the Christian government of Ethiopia [i.e. the Puntland security forces]” (Radio Andalus, August 8).

Shaykh Atam – an Associate of al-Shabaab and al-Qaeda?

Soon after the fighting in Galgala began, al-Shabaab spokesman Shaykh Ali Mahmud Raage “Ali Dheere” announced that Shaykh Atam’s militia had no connection to al-Shabaab and consisted solely of local people; “It should not be [the case] that every time a group of Muslims fight against current regimes that they should be said to be part of al-Shabaab” (VOA Somali Service, July 29). Shaykh Atam also denied any involvement of al-Shabaab at the time.

A UN Secretary-General’s report earlier this month described the Galgala militants as “a clan militia… believed to have close connections to al-Shabaab.” The Puntland press presented this as validation of the government’s claims the insurgency in Bari region was being orchestrated by al-Shabaab (Garowe Online, September 15). [4]

Puntland administration security advisor Ahmad Husayn announced on August 13 that the administration had evidence that foreign fighters had joined Shaykh Atam’s group, but did not provide any proof (Radio Gaalkacyo, August 13). Shaykh Atam has denied the presence of any foreign fighters in his group at almost every opportunity. One recent report claimed hundreds of Islamist fighters from southern Somalia had arrived in Bosaso to join the fight against the Puntland government, though this could not be verified (Dayniile Online, September 17).

Shaykh Atam has also received verbal support from Somalia’s Hizb al-Islam militia. The chairman of Hizb al-Islam in the Banaadir region (which includes Mogadishu), Ma’allin Hashi Farah, issued a statement on August 12 calling on “the mujahideen, wherever they are, to support their brother Shaykh Atam, who is battling Puntland. I encourage fighters loyal to Hizb al-Islam to travel there” (Kismaayo News Online, August 12; Dayniile Online, August 12).

Shaykh Atam claims that the people of his region have never had any relations with the Puntland administration, which he regards as an “apostate party.” It was their decision to “invade” Galgala that led to the fighting – he and his militia have no responsibility for the conflict. Shaykh Atam’s explanation of the fighting has little of the incendiary Islamist rhetoric that pervades al-Shabaab’s provocative insistence on the conquest of areas of Somalia outside their control in the interest of forming an Islamic Caliphate. According to Shaykh Atam; “Our interest is to defend ourselves. Any Muslim person would love to live in freedom and with his religion – and also to defend yourself against any enemy that invades you… We are not intending to invade anyone; however, we have been invaded and we also defended ourselves and we will continue fighting” (BBC Somali.com, August 10). Puntland’s General Abdullahi Ahmad Ja’amah “Ilka Jiir” denied claims the administration was fighting clan militias in Galgala; “We are fighting terrorists and the people must understand that the government is there to defend them from any attack (Garowe Online, August 21).

While Shaykh Atam denies the Puntland administration’s so-far unsubstantiated claims of the presence of al-Qaeda members and foreign fighters in his militia, he has made his own claims of an American and Ethiopian presence in the Puntland security forces attacking the area. In particular he says three American officials arrived in the wake of the Puntland security forces to take pictures of the battle-sites, including damaged mosques, madrassas and an Islamic library burned down by Puntland forces (BBC Somali.com, August 10; Dayniile Online, August 10).

Shaykh Atam has been vague about his relationship to al-Shabaab, making any possible relationship to the movement more a matter of interpretation than assertion. Typical is his response to a BBC Somali service reporter’s question regarding his ties to al-Shabaab and al-Qaeda:

There is nothing like that. Al-Shabaab has already said that we have no relations except the Islamic brotherhood ties between us… We are Muslims and if being a Muslim [means] you are a member of al-Shabaab or al-Qaeda – so be it. We are Muslims, who are opposed to those against the religion… Our ideology is based on Islam. We never carried guns to fight – but we were invaded and forced to fight” (BBC Somali.com, August 10).

The Shaykh was a bit more explicit in a Paltalk teleconference but still stopped short of clearly identifying his group as a wing of al-Shabaab; “We are al-Shabaab and al-Shabaab are us; we are joined in the same struggle to fight for the establishment of an Islamic state in Somalia” (Horseed Media, July 27).


Shaykh Atam’s revolt may be viewed as an example of a clan-based conflict over resources quickly evolving into an Islamist insurgency under the political/religious conditions developed during the “war on terrorism.” Though the conflict may have local origins, as an Islamist seeking the rule of Shari’a in the Galgala region, Shaykh Atam may find natural ideological if not material allies in al-Shabaab. There is little evidence yet to suggest that the Galgala rebellion is a new front in al-Shabaab’s struggle to bring the northern regions of Puntland and Somaliland under its control, but folding the conflict into the larger “war on terrorism” allows the Puntland administration to use extraordinary measures to consolidate its control of the region without fear of international approbation.

Shaykh Atam’s belief that the regional administration of Puntland is apostate and in need of elimination places him firmly in the takfiri camp of the Salafi-Jihadist movement that includes al-Shabaab and al-Qaeda. The shift from local militia to Islamist movement leaves little room for reconciliation with the Puntland administration. According to Shaykh Atam; “We can only engage in talk with Muslims who believe in the one God and in Prophet Muhammad as his messenger, but anti-Islamic people are apostates. The Prophet (p.b.u.h.) said that whoever changes his religion should be fought” (Frontier FM, August 13).


  1. Report of the UN Monitoring Group on Somalia submitted in accordance with resolution 1811 (2008), http://daccess-dds-ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/N08/604/73/PDF/N0860473.pdf?OpenElement
  2. Presidential Decree No. 27, March 12, 2010, http://www.puntland-gov.net/viewnews.asp?nwtype=News&nid=News201331312101644706
  3. VOA Somali, August 10, 2010, http://www.voanews.com/somali/news/somali/Attam-oo-ka-hadlay-qabsashada-Galgala-100346509.html
  4. For the Secretary-General’s report, see http://wwww.reliefweb.int/rw/rwb.nsf/db900SID/EGUA-89AUFT?OpenDocument


This article first appeared in the September 29, 2010 issue of Militant Leadership Monitor

Egyptian Islamic Group Ideologist Dr. Najih Ibrahim Says Time Is Not Right for Islamists to Seize Power

Andrew McGregor

September 23, 2010

Dr. Najih Ibrahim, the principal theorist of Egypt’s al-Gama’a al-Islamiya (GI – Islamic Group), has outlined a new future for the GI, Egypt’s most notorious terrorist group in the 1990s and the domestic movement of many Egyptian extremists who went on to form the core leadership of al-Qaeda.

Najih IbrahimDr. Najih Ibrahim

A founding member of the movement, Najih Ibrahim, was released from prison in 2006 in a mass release of 1200 GI members from Egyptian jails. His release followed a 2003 decision by the movement to renounce political violence and the initiation of the “Revisions project”, led by imprisoned GI leader Sayed Imam Abdulaziz al-Sharif (a.k.a. Dr. Fadl), once a close associate of al-Qaeda’s Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri. The Revisions project has now spread to other parts of the Arab world, as imprisoned Islamists re-examine their advocacy of political violence and terrorism. Najih Ibrahim discussed the implications of the recent death of Egyptian state security officer, Major General Ahmad Ra’fat al-Tayyib, the sponsor of the Revisions project. The GI ideologue insists that this event will have little impact on the Revisions, as General al-Tayyib’s individual approach to the project has now become state policy. The Revisions initiative is now “a deep-rooted ideology.”

Najih Ibrahim pointed to the recent release of the eldest son of former GI leader, Shaykh Omar Abd al-Rahman (imprisoned in the United States since 1996), as proof of the success of ongoing reconciliation efforts. Shaykh Omar’s son, Muhammad, spent seven years in prison after his arrest in Afghanistan as part of the exiled group of GI hardliners that dominated al-Qaeda’s leadership (al-Masry al-Youm [Cairo], September 5). Muhammad is married to the daughter of the late Shaykh Mustafa Abu al-Yazid, another Egyptian Islamist who acted as al-Qaeda’s commander in Afghanistan until his death by U.S. missile strike earlier this year (al-Sharq al-Awsat, June 2).

Referring to the aborted Koran burning in Florida and American perceptions of Islam in general, Najih Ibrahim maintains that Americans should learn about Islam “from its sources, and not from the Zionist media or from the behavior of al-Qaeda… The fact is that Bin Laden is not Islam; Islam is greater than Bin Laden, greater than all the Islamist movements, and greater than the behavior of all Muslims.”

Instead of the direct pursuit of power, Najih Ibrahim advocates a policy of “participation, not replacement”:

The Islamist movement started with the concept of replacement, namely that the Islamists replace the regime. No, let us abandon this concept, and support the concept of participation and cooperation in what is good. Let us leave for the state the sovereignty issues, and we handle Islamic call, education, and the development of society, its progress, educating its ethics and preserving its identity… Whoever the ruler might be, we will not clash with him. We will cooperate with him in what is good. What we can change in a kind way, and by good word, we will change, and what we cannot will be beyond our ability.

Najih Ibrahim says the GI believes Islamists should abandon the idea of seizing power, as the goal is unrealistic. “If they achieve power, they will be forced to relinquish it by the regional and international powers,” Ibrahim said. He warns Islamists that they will be put under siege and subjected to negative portrayals in the media and economic blockades that will make payment of government salaries or alleviation of poverty impossible. Najih Ibrahim even considers participation in the People’s Assembly elections undesirable, saying the funds used for election campaigns could be better used to support the 4,000 orphaned children of deceased GI members and the 12 GI members still under sentence of death in Egyptian prisons. He holds little hope for change at the executive level, saying presidential elections will be “only a formality” that will lead to the re-election of President Hosni Mubarak or his son, Jamal Mubarak. “It will not be anyone other than one of these two,” Ibrahim believes. Najih Ibrahim warns of the danger posed to the Islamist movement by secularists who are eager to push the Islamists into confrontation with the ruling power. After doing so, the secularists then turn “into the followers and entourage of the ruler; they climb over our skulls and wounds, they take control of media, culture and everything and leave us to go to prisons and detention camps as usual.”

This article first appeared in the September 23, 2010 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor


Hizb-I-Islami Leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar Claims Civil War that Followed Russian Withdrawal Will Not Be Repeated

Andrew McGregor

September 23, 2010

Engineer Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, leader of Afghanistan’s Hizb-i-Islami and a former prime minister of the country, recently outlined his views on the future of the Afghan conflict, the jihad in Pakistan, the role of al-Qaeda, the legitimacy of suicide attacks and other issues (Geo News TV, September 15). [1]

Hekmatyar PakistanGulbuddin Hekmatyar on an Official Visit to Pakistan

The fate of Northern Alliance leader Ahmad Shah Masood at the hands of al-Qaeda assassins posing as Algerian journalists in 2001 is never far from the minds of Afghan political leaders, so to protect Hekmatyar’s security the interview with Pakistan’s Geo News TV was carried out by sending Hekmatyar a videotape containing questions and receiving a videotape carrying replies in return.

Hekmatyar sees most parties to the current conflict in Afghanistan coming out weaker as a result of the war. Iran and Pakistan have become embroiled in their own difficulties, while even al-Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban are not in a position to aid the Afghan mujahideen as they did in the past. Afghanistan’s own Northern Alliance has “disintegrated,” while other proxy groups used by Russia and the United States have become “diluted”. “The United States and its allies will have to face a similar fate after the evacuation from Afghanistan as the Soviet Union did. They will neither be able to do what they did after the 9/11 incident, nor what they did after Soviet Union’s withdrawal [when] they created the Northern Alliance in collaboration with Russia, which blocked the establishment of an Islamic government by the mujahideen.” Iran, however, is accused by Hekmatyar of cooperating with the United States while pretending to be its opponent. As a result, “Iran never had the level of influence in Afghanistan’s internal affairs as it has now.”

Surprisingly, Hekmatyar appealed to the Taliban of Pakistan to abandon their fight against the government of Asif Ali Zardari and devote their energies to driving out the foreign troops based in Afghanistan. Should the current situation change in Pakistan, the direction of its mujahideen could be refocused. “If the occupying forces attack Pakistan or any other Muslim country, it will become obligatory on all Muslims to support the Pakistani mujahideen. No doubt, the supporters of infidels [i.e. the Islamabad government] are also violating the teachings of Islam, but we need to differentiate between the bigger and smaller enemies and adopt different approaches in dealing with them.” Hekmatyar claims Afghan president Hamid Karzai does not have the authority to negotiate a withdrawal of U.S. and other foreign forces from Afghanistan. Instead, he offers a plan prepared by his party entitled Milli Meesaq (the National Charter), which he claims is supported by a majority of Afghan politicians.

The veteran Islamist warlord claims there is little chance of al-Qaeda re-establishing itself in Afghanistan, though he says their presence has been exaggerated to justify the aggression of the Western nations. “There are no al-Qaeda centers or warriors in Afghanistan anymore. The Western countries themselves have accepted that the number of al-Qaeda warriors in Afghanistan is less than 100. Is it possible that 150,000 troops equipped with modern weapons have been fighting for nine years to kill 100 warriors?”

Nevertheless, Hekmatyar advocates tactics closely associated with al-Qaeda, including attacking religious scholars who oppose suicide attacks as “pro-government opportunists.” Other than those who carry out strikes against mosques, those who give their lives in suicide attacks will be “well rewarded by God.” When asked if responsibility for 9/11 lay with al-Qaeda, the Jews or the Americans, Hekmatyar said he believed al-Qaeda was responsible, “because the Jews cannot prepare such committed people who can sacrifice their lives in suicide attacks.”

This article first appeared in the September 23, 2010 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor

Nigerian Security Commanders Dismissed after Boko Haram Militants Blast Their Way Out of Prison

Andrew McGregor

September 16, 2010

Threats made in July by the new chief of northern Nigeria’s Boko Haram sect were fulfilled in recent days with a mass prison breakout of incarcerated sect members and what appears to be a series of killings of security personnel by motorcycle-riding gunmen. Imam Abubakr Shekau warned of a new jihad by Boko Haram members seeking revenge for the ruthless repression of their movement in July 2009 by security services angered by Boko Haram attacks on their posts and personnel (Ansar al-Mujahideen, July 11).

Bauchi PrisonBauchi Prison

The September 7 escape of over 700 prisoners in Bauchi Prison was apparently inspired by a Boko Haram pledge that their members would not spend the Eid al-Fitr holiday in prison. Eyewitness accounts told of a daring assault by a handful of militants that went on for two hours without relief from security forces. According to these accounts, the militants had cut or shaved their habitual long beards to better infiltrate prayer gatherings close to the prison. AK-47 assault rifles were concealed under their babanrigas, a loose flowing top worn over trousers. On a signal the militants began their attack on the prison gates while trying to assure terrified residents they were on “a mission” and were not there to attack civilians.

Some who were not close to the prison initially thought the gunfire was firecrackers set off to celebrate the Eid.  One witness said, “There was nothing to make anyone suspicious of them. They wore normal dress and did not sport their trademark long beards. But by the time they sprang into action, it was clear that they were well trained. The guns looked very sophisticated and they handled them with expertise like combatants” (Vanguard [Lagos], September 11). Four individuals, including a policeman, a soldier and two civilians, were killed in the attack (Nigerian Tribune, September 12). As many as 759 prisoners escaped during the assault, of whom 123 were Boko Haram members awaiting trial on charges stemming from the July 2009 violence.

The Boko Haram unit that carried out the assault had clearly planned to take advantage of the relaxed atmosphere during the Eid festivities, striking just as the guards were preparing to break their fast. According to Bauchi Governor Isa Yuguda, “All of us were caught unaware by the attackers because they came at the time nobody was expecting, considering that we are in the holy month of Ramadan, when all true Muslims are expected to be fasting and not engage in anything that could lead to the shedding of blood.”

Following the prison break, alarm spread throughout the northern states of Bauchi, Borno, Gombe and Kano, where 25 Boko Haram suspects are being held at the Kano Central Prison. The Kano Sallah (Eid al-Fitr) celebrations were marked by a show of force by security personnel and a military convoy including a tank accompanying Kano Governor Ibrahim Shekarau to the Kano Central Mosque (Next, September 12). The governor of Bauchi State pledged a door to door search would be conducted to find all Boko Haram suspects (Next [Lagos], September 13). Security at the Gombe State Prison was also intensified in expectation of further attacks (Vanguard, September 10).

President Goodluck Jonathan used the mass escape as an opportunity to make sweeping changes in Nigeria’s military and police leadership, sacking Chief of Army Staff Major General Abdulrahman Dambazzau (who was in New York on official duties at the time), Inspector General of Police Ogbonna Onovo, Chief of Defense Staff Air Marshal Paul Dike, Naval Chief Vice Admiral Ishaya Ibrahim and the Director General of the State Security Service Afakriya Gadzama.

Minister of Defense Prince Adetokunbo Kayode insisted the changes were not dismissals, pointing out the two year terms of the security commanders had expired in August and the president was merely exercising his prerogative to appoint new leaders (Vanguard, September 10; Nigerian Compass, September 10). The president made clear what he wanted from the security services, saying, “My expectations are that our armed forces and security agencies should be proactive. We must employ intelligence to nip crises in the bud even before it can occur” (Vanguard, September 12).

Jonathan broke the traditional stranglehold of northern Muslim tribes on the military command by appointing Major General Onyeabo Azubike Ihejirika of the Eastern Ibo tribe as the new Chief of Army Staff. Ihejirika is the first Ibo to lead the military since the Ibo-supported Biafran secession war of the 1960s. The appointment was made with wide commendation from southern Nigerian governors and politicians (Vanguard, September 10).

The prison breakout was preceded by a series of killings of policemen in northern Nigeria by motorcycle-riding gunmen. The attacks that killed six policemen in two months were initially blamed on armed robbers (Next, August 26; Nigerian Tribune, August 27).

The use of AK-47 assault rifles by the militants raised concerns over the flow of arms into the northern region. The President-General of the Maritime Workers Union of Nigeria accused security services of overseeing illegal arms imports through the ports. He stated, “Last week, members of Boko Haram, armed with AK47 rifles, attacked the Bauchi prison and its environs. How did they get the arms? You go to Niger Delta, come to Lagos and other parts of the country, illegal arms are everywhere and in the wrong hands” (Vanguard, September 12). Meanwhile in the north, security officials recently seized 52 AK-47 rifles, 1,700 rounds of ammunition and $32,000 in cash being smuggled from Chad to the flashpoint city of Jos, where thousands of people have been killed in sectarian violence in recent years (AfrikNews, August 18).

This article first appeared in the September 16 2010 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor

Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula Clashes with Yemeni Military at Lawdar

Andrew McGregor

September 16, 2010

Heavy fighting between alleged al-Qaeda forces and government troops near the town of Lawdar in Yemen’s Abyan governorate broke out on the weekend of August 21-22 following a deadly ambush by AQAP fighters, claiming a reported eight to 11 soldiers and at least 14 militants (Reuters, August 22; Sep26.net, August 21; AFP August 22). Yemeni military forces were dispatched to the district to re-establish the government’s writ. Al-Qaeda militants and members of the secessionist Southern Mobility movement were given 24 hours to leave Lawdar or the houses they were staying in would be bombarded. Following a mass flight of civilians and the expiration of the ultimatum, more fighting broke out on August 22, as militants resisted their expulsion. Defense Minister General Muhammad Nasir Ahmad Ali was reported to be leading the security operations in Lawdar District personally (AFP, August 22).

Lawdar (BBC)

Tribal mediation apparently failed in the conflict around Lawdar, with fatal consequences for one of those involved. A leader of the al-Fadl tribe, Shaykh Hussein Saleh Majdal, was assassinated along with his two bodyguards in an attack on the evening of September 4. The shaykh was described as leading the mediation between security forces and al-Qaeda militants (ArabNews.com, September 5; Yemen Observer, September 7).

Government sources have repeatedly referred to armed elements of the secessionist Southern Mobility movement as fighting alongside al-Qaeda in the struggle for Lawdar District.  They described a plan by Southern Mobility leaders to assemble their followers in a march intended to break the security cordon around Lawdar (al-Watan, September 11). Security authorities also announced the detention of Muhammad Ahmad al-Mansub, an alleged “terrorist subversive element” who was arrested at a roadblock while in possession of documents alleged to detail the cooperation between AQAP and Southern Mobility (al-Siyasah [Kuwait], September 7). Southern Mobility, however, acknowledges it has activists in the region but says they are involved in “peaceful struggle” (Aden Press Online, September 12).

Although Deputy Interior Minister Saleh al-Zuari declared Lawdar District fully purged of “terrorist elements” on August 24, continuing operations revealed that the militant presence was far from vanquished. A day after al-Zuari’s statement, gunmen riding motorcycles targeted a military patrol in a public marketplace in the Zinjibar District of Abyan, killing four soldiers (Yemen Observer, August 28).  On August 27, Yemeni troops took the worst of it in a clash with the militants near Lawdar, leaving 11 dead. Two militants were killed, including (according to security officials) the al-Qaeda second-in-command in Lawdar, Adel Saleh Hardaba (Yemen Observer, August 28).On the same day a 25 year-old al-Qaeda suspect was arrested in northern Abyan while on his way to Lawdar. He was found in possession of an explosives belt and told investigators he had been assigned by al-Qaeda commander Ali Alwi al-Saqqaf to carry out a suicide bombing in Lawdar (Yemen Observer, September 1).

Fighting erupted again on August 31 in which another 12 militants were reported killed. The alleged leader of al-Qaeda forces in the district, Salah Ali Abdullah Al-Damani, was arrested on September 5, though sources vary as to whether he was captured in a night-time raid or seized at a checkpoint (26Sep.net, September 5).

By September 7, AQAP fighters were reported to have largely, but not entirely, pulled out of Lawdar and were heading to nearby Ma’rib and Shabwah governorates, both current hotbeds of anti-government militancy. The director-general of Lawdar District, Ahmad Ahmad Ali al-Qafish, told journalists that the fighters included Saudi, Pakistani, Egyptian, Syrian and Somali elements, though this could not be confirmed (al-Siyasah [Kuwait], September 7). Defense Ministry sources reported three foreigners were discovered amongst the militants slain in the fighting of August 20-21 (26Sep.net, August 21).

This article first appeared in the September 16 2010 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor

Yemen Arms Dealer Faris Manna Claims Government Arming Houthist Rebels

Andrew McGregor

September 9, 2010

Yemen is not only one of the world’s most heavily armed nations on a per capita basis, but also serves as a regional hub for arms shipments, a lucrative trade that has the approval of Yemen’s government. One of Yemen’s most prominent arms dealers, Faris Manna, had a falling out with his former sponsor, President Ali Abdullah Saleh, after being imprisoned earlier this year on charges of providing arms to the Houthist rebels of northern Yemen. Manna recently gave an interview to an Arabic language daily in which he claimed Saleh’s government was responsible for arming the Houthist rebellion, a claim supported by his brother, the former governor of Sada’a governorate (elaph.com, August 17).

Faris MannaFaris Manna

The 40-year-old Manna, a former organizer for the ruling General People’s Congress, describes himself not as an arms retailer but as a facilitator, arranging deals between Arab and African consumers and foreign suppliers, principally in Russia and Eastern Europe, where he maintains offices. “I conclude arms deals, like other international companies that facilitate deals between states and arms manufacturers… We bring the parties closer together, and help them reach agreements. This is our role, nothing else,” explained Manna. Despite the accusations against him, Manna denies selling arms in local Yemeni markets. “I have never done that. This is what tendentious people say. They spread such rumors. We work in the framework of the Yemeni constitution and law, as well as within the international law,” he stated.

According to the Yemeni arms merchant, who acted as an intermediary in negotiations between the government and the Houthist rebels, it is the state that made room in local markets for the arms trade, which it supplies through stocks discretely removed from military garrisons; “I want to say that there was collusion in certain army garrisons to hand over weapons to the Houthists. It has become clear that their ammunition came from the Army, and all their rifles and weapons came from the Army. There are photographs and documents that prove this. All the proof is available. The matter has become clear and unambiguous.” Manna has useful connections to the Houthists – his brother Hassan Manna was formerly governor of Sada’a governorate, the home of the Houthist rebellion. Faris says his brother resigned as a result of his unjust detention; “How could he go on working when his brother was wrongly and unjustly arrested? He refused to carry on working, but out of respect for the brother president of the republic, may God protect him, and in appreciation of the relations between us and him, we did not publish our resignation.” Several weeks after his brother’s arrest last January, Hassan Manna threatened to reveal the “true source” of the Houthist arms, suggesting that the Ministry of the Interior was heavily involved in shipping arms to the northern rebels, though this accusation was strongly denied by Brigadier General Muhammad Abdullah al-Qawsi, following which Hassan Manna warned the press against publishing any further comments on the issue delivered under his name (Yemen Tribune, February 21).

Manna claims the charges against him were the work of the National Security Agency (NSA), which sought to create a divide between himself and the president, his long-time patron. In June, a supporter of Faris Manna fired on a security convoy carrying him to court from Sana’a rooftops (Yemen Observer, May 11). Manna denied allegations that his family was behind the attack (Yemen Gazette, July 3).

This article first appeared in the September 9, 2010 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor

Saharan Mercenary Employed by al-Qaeda Freed in Hostage Exchange

Andrew McGregor

September 9, 2010

While mercenaries have played an important role in the war on terrorism from the beginning, the use of private forces has until recently been associated with counter-terrorism efforts. However, since al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) began establishing a Saharan front, they have been compelled to hire local guides and suppliers, much like every other non-native interloper in the region. Many of the AQIM leaders in the Sahara are Arabs or Arabized Berbers from the coastal mountains of Algeria, nearly 2,000 miles from their current zone of operations in the desert near the Mali border.

Sahara MercenaryOmar Sid Ahmed Ould Hamma

Omar al-Sahrawi (the nickname of Omar Sid Ahmed Ould Hamma) is one such employee of al-Qaeda participating in AQIM’s lucrative kidnapping operations without necessarily sharing the same ideology. In late August he was freed from captivity in Mauritania as part of a hostage exchange and ransom deal demanded by AQIM in return for the release of two Spanish captives.

Reports from Spain claim the hostages were released in exchange for between $4.8 million and $12.7 million as well as the release of al-Sahrawi (El Mundo [Madrid], August 23; ABC [Madrid], August 23). The two captives, Roque Pascual and Albert Vilalta, were kidnapped in Mauritania on the road from Nouakchott to the coastal town of Nouadhibou (formerly Port Étienne) in November 2009 (Afrique en Ligne, August 29). The men are employees of the Barcelona-based NGO Accio Solidaria. A third Spanish hostage taken at the same time, Alicia Gamez, was released by AQIM in March. It is believed a ransom was paid in this case as well.

In a telephone interview with a French reporter, al-Sahrawi declared, “I have nothing to do with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Me, I do business, and if you sell something to someone who is from AQIM, it does not mean that you are from AQIM. I am a businessman (AFP, August 24). In his homeland of Mali, security sources identified al-Sahrawi as a cigarette smuggler and transporter of illegal immigrants.

Al-Sahrawi had been sentenced by a Mauritanian court to 12 years of hard labor for his role in the abductions. Following his release and extradition to Mali, where the hostages were being held, al-Sahrawi was reported to have been present at the release of the hostages so AQIM could see if he was alive and in good health. Mauritanian TV footage showed al-Sahrawi joking with the hostages (AFP, August 25). On his return, Al-Sahrawi reportedly celebrated his release by declaring, “I have come back free to Mali” (Nouakchott-Info, August 26).

Referring to the failed Mauritanian-French effort to free a French hostage in July that resulted in the death of seven AQIM operatives and later the execution of the hostage, AQIM said the release of the Spanish hostages was a “lesson for the French secret services to take into consideration in the future” (al-Jazeera, August 24). Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero said the release marked a “day of celebration.” He made no mention of the ransom (Ennahar [Algiers], August 23).

Algiers is reported to be displeased with the ransom, some of which will likely be used to buy arms for further attacks within Algeria (Ennahar, August 25). Mauritania has also failed to garner AQIM’s good-will through the release; only two days later a would-be suicide bomber was killed by security forces as he tried to ram an explosives-laden truck into the Nema military barracks, 750 miles east of Nouackchott (al-Jazeera, August 25; AFP, August 25).

This article first appeared in the September 9, 2010 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor