Intelligence agencies say young extremists are travelling to training camps in Somalia as they once did in Afghanistan
At a court hearing on Monday in the port city of Mombasa, a young British man in a black T-shirt stood in front of a judge and heard prosecutors claim he was a member of a terrorist group, planning attacks against targets in Kenya.
As far as the police in Nairobi are concerned, Jermaine Grant, 29, is involved with al-Shabaab, which has been responsible for numerous bombings in Mogadishu and northern Somalia, and is seemingly determined to export its violence further afield.
Grant, whose family comes from Newham, east London, may come to represent something slightly different to western intelligence agencies.
Over the last six years, they have monitored a number of Britons and Americans flying to the horn of Africa, seeking al-Shabaab training camps in the vast ungoverned spaces of Somalia, in much the same way as their counterparts did on trips to Pakistan and Afghanistan in the 1990s.
The agencies believe about 200 foreigners, perhaps Grant included, have helped al-Shabaab wage an insurgency in Somalia, and plot attacks on other western targets in neighbouring countries.
But what they haven’t seen – yet – is these people returning home, and bringing terror with them. The experience of Iraq and Afghanistan suggests it may only be a matter of time before another circle of this kind is complete.
The problems posed by al-Shabaab to the security of Somalia, and the knock-on effects for the west, will be part of the discussions at this week’s London conference, but there are no easy solutions, and lots of potential pitfalls.
Al-Shabaab, which means “the youth” in Arabic, is not Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida. It evolved into a clan-based Islamic insurgency that became prominent in southern Somalia in 2006, rebelling against the country’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and its Ethiopian and western supporters.
It is estimated to have only a few hundred core members, but has recruited up to 6,000 soldiers, sometimes forcibly.
Experts say the group is nominally led by Sheikh Mohamed Mukhtar Abdirahman – “Abu Zubeyr” – but most analysts insist it is a disparate coalition with divisions at all levels.
Some of the deepest fissures are ideological: between those whose aims are essentially domestic, and those who have adopted broader ambitions for jihad, similar to those of al-Qaida.
Bin Laden certainly wanted to adopt al-Shabaab, but it is not clear whether everyone in al-Shabaab was so enamoured with the idea.
Recently, the 10,000-strong African-Union-backed military mission (Amisom) has been pushing back against the group, which has also been squeezed from the south by 2,000 Kenyan troops invading the country last October.
But Anna Rader, from the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) thinktank in London, warns the insurgency is resilient.
“It has shown an ability to adapt and evolve over the years, and it has shown that it becomes more coherent under pressure. It is a pragmatic group,” she said.
Last week, the group claimed responsibility for a car bombing outside a police building in the capital, Mogadishu – via a Twitter feed (@HSMPress) that has thousands of followers.
There is talk of increasing the cohort of Amisom troops to 20,000. Some say a force like that might crush al-Shabaab – others that it would galvanise and reinvigorate its followers to greater feats of resistance against what is seen as the west’s proxy army.
The US and British intelligence agencies are increasingly concerned about al-Shabaab developing links with other al-Qaida affiliates, particularly Aqap (al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula), and spreading Islamist-inspired extremism to west Africa, including Nigeria, where some militants have declared links with al-Qaida.
Andre Le Sage, a leading authority on al-Shabaab at the National Defence University in Washington, recently told the New York Times: “What I’d be most concerned about is whether Aqap could transfer to Shabaab its knowledge of building IEDs [improvised explosive devices] and sophisticated plots and Shabaab could make available to Aqap recruits with western passports.”
There is some evidence of links between al-Shabaab and Somali pirates, who sometimes launch their attacks from areas run by the group. They have developed working business arrangements – the pirates pay a stipend to be left in peace.
But what can the west do to contain al-Shabaab, which exists in a lawless country that has been tearing itself apart for the best part of 20 years?
The US has spent an estimated $500m (£315m) to train and support east African forces, and a Special Operations Command unit has been orchestrating missile strikes from drones, including one last month on the outskirts of Mogadishu that killed an alleged al-Qaida member from London, 27-year-old Bilal el-Berjawi.
Attempts are being made to squeeze funding for the group, some of which comes from the Somali diaspora in the US, the UK, Sweden, Germany and Australia.
The number of foreigners known to have gone to camps in Somalia is still small.
They include at least 40 from the US, and a similar number from the UK. Grant is facing trial on charges that he denies. Another British woman, travelling under the name of Natalie Faye Webb, 26, is on a Kenyan wanted list.
Though the al-Shabaab camps are not on the scale of those seen a decade ago, the National Security Council has been warned that it only takes one extremist to return home unnoticed to create potential havoc.
With this in mind, David Cameron has ramped up the rhetoric in recent months, calling Somalia “a failed state that directly threatens British interests”.
The development minister Andrew Mitchell then described it as one of the “most dysfunctional countries in the world”.
Shortly before Christmas, the chief of the defence staff, General Sir David Richards, made the most intriguing comments of all – with words that suggested some kind of more direct military intervention by the UK was being considered.
Talking to an audience at RUSI, he reflected on the campaign in Libya, and then turned to Somalia.
“While we were essentially able to rely on Arab partners and the National Transitional Council in Libya, and can assist, for example, Amisom’s vital mission in Somalia indirectly, it would be foolhardy indeed and against all the lessons of history to imagine that we will never deploy combat troops again.”
He added: “Treating the causes of instability and terrorism at source is better and cheaper than dealing with the consequences, as Somalia’s piracy demonstrates.”
from Nick Hopkins, Richard Norton-Taylor