Up to a thousand foreign fighters, including Britons, have answered the call to jihad in Somalia and are leading street-fighting Islamist extremists in the war-torn capital Mogadishu, The Times has learnt.
Early yesterday the Western-backed Government launched a counter-offensive after almost a fortnight of attacks by insurgents that have killed at least 200 civilians.
At least 45 people were killed yesterday in battles across the city, the highest daily death toll for months.
The insurgents’ attacks have threatened to topple the shaky Government of Sheikh Sharif Ahmed only weeks after the international community pledged £135 million to support him.
Senior security officials in the region say that the foreign fighters are behind the recent success of the extremists. More than 290 fighters from Britain, the US, Canada, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia entered Mogadishu in the past two weeks.
An intelligence report seen by The Times, which is due to be presented to the US Congress next week, states: “An estimated ten foreigners have taken the lead to command both Somali and foreign fighters in Mogadishu and other parts of Somalia.”
“I have no doubt that some of the foreign fighters are British as well as North American and Scandinavian,” said Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, the top Somali diplomat for the United Nations. One Western diplomat with experience in Somalia said: “These foreigners are the ones with al-Qaeda links. I would be surprised if Britons were not the leading foreign members of al-Shabaab.”
In March the propaganda unit for the al-Shabaab militia released a video entitled Ambush at Bardale, in which a white American, thought to have a special forces military background, was filmed leading dozens of Somali fighters. “Mortar by mortar, shell by shell; only gonna stop when I send them to hell,” he rapped over the footage in a clear attempt to glamorise the insurgency and appeal to young disenfranchised Westerners.
A year earlier, al-Shabaab released another propaganda video, this time of a British suicide bomber who addressed the camera in English.
“Al-Shabaab welcomes and calls foreign fighters for jihad,” said Jason Mosley, an Africa analyst at Oxford Analytica. In most cases foreign fighters bring religious fervour helping to radicalise the bulk of disparate al-Shabaab militants, who fight mostly for money or under duress.
A smaller number have military skills, financing and weaponry. “We understand that these fighters are providing training to the extremist insurgents and are helping to mobilise funding and source weapons, the level of which we have never seen before,” Nicolas Bwakira, the head of the African Union (AU) Somalia mission, said.
Intelligence sources said that foreign jihadis from Britain and elsewhere had joined an alliance of al-Shabaab factions and Hizb al-Islam extremists that have coalesced around Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys. The Sheikh, who is wanted as a terrorist by the US, returned from exile in April to take on the fragile Administration of Mr Ahmed.
Mr Aweys said yesterday that nearby Eritrea was supporting him in a holy war.
His comments came on the same day as the African Union urged the UN Security Council to impose sanctions on Eritrea because of its assistance to the rebels.
He also claimed: “There may be two or three Arabs who were moved by Islam to fight alongside us. But there is no large number of foreign Mujahideen in Mogadishu. We and the Arabs are all Muslims — so we are Arabs.”
“We are not fighting for positions but for Islam. It is agreed upon within Islam that Christians and those they support are the same — so war is incumbent upon us, like prayer.” He predicted that the Government would be defeated soon.
The current administration is the 15th attempt to form a functioning executive since the collapse of the last Government in 1991. Since then Somalia has known nothing but war and chaos.
Mr Ahmed’s hilltop presidential palace is protected by 4,350 AU peacekeepers with tanks and artillery. The besieged Government controls little more than the hill, the airport, port and a couple of roads in Mogadishu.
The Government’s fighters have a tendency to desert in their hundreds when not paid, often reappearing as hired guns for the insurgents. Mr Bwakira said that his peacekeepers were facing newer and heavier military equipment, including surface-to-air missiles. They are also falling victim to suicide attacks, which are attributed to foreign influence. In February 11 Burundian peacekeepers were killed by suicide bombers in Mogadishu. “It is an extremely dangerous development,” Mr Bwakira said.
The influx of foreigners has raised fears that Somalia might become an alternative hideout for al-Qaeda extremists from Afghanistan and Pakistan. The al-Qaeda operatives responsible for bombing US embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam in 1998 and a hotel in Mombasa in 2002 are thought to have found a safe haven in Somalia.
Western intelligence agencies are directing their attention and resources to the region. “If this threat is not contained Somalia could become the Swat Valley of Africa,” said Ted Dagne, a Washington-based Somalia expert.
“There is no doubt that the foreign component of al-Shabaab is more extreme than those on the ground,” said Rashid Abdi, a Somalia analyst at the International Crisis Group, who added that the bulk of the militants were hired guns, not idealogues.
“There is a feeling now that al-Shabaab is ruled by foreign fighters; that they are dictating policy and this has all come about in the last couple of months.”
100 civilians killed in the past ten days
46,000 civilians displaced
10 journalists killed in Somalia since 2007
15,000 UN-AU peacekeepers now in Somalia
Sources: Times database, Committee to Protect Journalists