Somalia President: Al-Shabab Could Attack the United States

The president of Somalia—hub of the terrorist group that claims credit for this week’s mall attack in Nairobi—says the U.S. could be a target, too. He tells Josh Rogin what the world needs to do to stop them.

09.25.13 10:15 PM ET

The Somali-based terrorist organization al-Shabab, which claimed credit for the devastating attack in Nairobi this week, is an international organization that could attack anywhere, including the United States, according to the president of Somalia.

Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud was in Washington this past weekend when a group of attackers stormed the Westgate shopping center in the Kenyan capital and took hostages in a siege that ultimately left at least 72 dead and 170 injured. Mohamud, who has been leading the fight to push al-Shabab from its territory inside Somalia since he became president last year, gave his take on the organization, its structure, its funding, and what the world needs to do to stop it in an interview this week with The Daily Beast. His main message was that al-Shabab is foreign-financed, filled with foreign fighters, and has wide international reach.

“Al-Shabab is not a Somali agenda, it’s an international agenda. Al-Shabab is working with an international capacity in terms of trading and financial resources,” he said. “Al-Shabab is more of an international problem than a Somali problem. It can happen here in the United States as it is now happening in Nairobi.”

U.S. intelligence officials disputed this assessment in interviews with The Daily Beast. On Monday, Rep. Ed Royce, the Republican chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee said, “I think at this point we do not have any evidence that al-Shabab has a capability of carrying out attacks on the United States. This points to the importance of our surveillance and intelligence capabilities on the ground in east Africa because there are a number of Americans who have joined the group.”   

Mohamud’s government, which was ++recognized by the Obama administration in January after a two-decade break in formal U.S.-Somali diplomatic relations, is widely regarded to be Somalia’s best hope for continuing a transition to a functional democracy and reestablishing government control of the few parts of Somalia now under al-Shabab control. He says that while it’s true the terrorist group still calls Somalia home, it’s not true that the group is Somali in origin or makeup.

“In Shabab there are Kenyans, there are Ugandans, there are Ethiopians, there are Arabs. It is only true that they are headquartered in Somalia, but Shabab is not Somali,” the president said. He said he did not know if any Americans were involved in the Nairobi attack, as the group has claimed.

Al-Shabab is on the defensive inside Somalia due to the combined efforts of Somali, Ethiopian, and international forces, and the group is losing the ability to fight militarily or hold large amounts of territory, Mohamud said, but they are still very capable of attacking soft targets and using terror tactics to kill innocents.

“The Shabab is losing ground and they are not in a position right now militarily to take new territories. They are on the run,” he said. “But their threat is not yet finished. They have still training camps. They have bomb factories in very remote areas… Even if we defeat Shabab militarily completely, that’s not the end of the war with Shabab. They will continue suicide bombs, roadside bombs; this will go on for some time.”

In Washington, Mohamud met with Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, National Security Advisor Susan Rice, and leading lawmakers including Sen. John McCain (R-AZ). He asked them all to increase support for Somalia’s government by providing training and equipment to the Somali military, but also by providing support for state building and civil society development so the government can establish presence and credibility in the rural areas vulnerable to al-Shabab’s influence.

The Somali government controls the capital of Mogadishu, but other large areas remain out of its control, including a major port city and two of the three key bridges that link eastern Somalia to western Somalia, the president said. The strength of al-Shabab lies in their ability to project a relatively small amount of firepower over a large distance.

“They are not large in number but they are so mobile. Today they are here and the next week they are 1,000 miles away from where they were fighting yesterday,” he said.

The U.S. government has used drone strikes to kill high-value targets inside Somalia, a policy that Mohamud sats he supports, even if the strikes kill militants who are Somali citizens.

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“Shabab is an ideology, it’s not a citizenship, it’s not an ethnic group. And anyone who belongs to that ideology is an enemy of Somalia,” he said.

Eli Lake contributed to this story