Here are some questions and answers about the hardline guerrillas and their international reach:
WHY DO WE CARE NOW?
Western security agencies have long said Somalia is a safe haven for foreign militants plotting attacks across the region and beyond. But until recently the focus has mostly been on preventing Somalis abroad becoming radicalised then returning to join the rebels and fight the U.N.-backed government.
There have been several cases of this, including reportedly the suicide bombers who struck a university graduation ceremony in Mogadishu on Dec. 3, and last September at the heart of the African Union's (AU) main military base in the capital.
Somali officials said the bomber who killed 22 people, including three government ministers, at the graduation was a 26-year-old Danish citizen of Somali descent. One of the AU base bombers was reportedly from Seattle, while about 20 young men are also said to have disappeared from Minneapolis's large Somali community in the last two years to join al Shabaab.
Experts say such individuals are more willing and motivated than native Somalis to stage suicide attacks -- perhaps because of their experiences of living in the West and the problems that may have caused them in terms of their own identity.
But al Shabaab's external reach has been highlighted after Friday's attack on cartoonist Kurt Westergaard in Copenhagen -- as well as its pledge to support Yemeni insurgents linked to al Qaeda who are believed to be behind the foiled Christmas Day bombing of a commercial airliner over Detroit. [ID:nLDE60002X]
WHAT IS AL SHABAAB'S RECORD?
The rebels have threatened in the past to launch attacks in neighbouring Kenya and Ethiopia, as well in Uganda and Burundi, which both sent troops for the AU's peacekeeping mission AMISOM.
But they have so far failed to follow through. Experts believe some al Shabaab financiers have large amounts of funds in real estate in Kenya's capital Nairobi -- meaning they would not want to see any attacks that put their investment at risk. Some analysts suggest the absence of any strikes in Kampala or Bujumbura suggests much of the rebels' rhetoric maybe just that.
That has not stopped concerns being stoked further afield, however. Last August, police in Australia said they had foiled a suicide attack on an army base there by four men with al Shabaab links in that country's biggest terrorism case. [ID:nSYD478739]
Then Danish police said the 28-year-old who broke into Westergaard's house had links to al Shabaab and al Qaeda and that the attempted killing was "terror related". [ID:nLDE60100M]
The group's ties to Yemen have also come under close scrutiny given Washington's renewed security focus on the Arab world's poorest nation following the foiled Dec. 25 attack.
Regional analysts say there has long been a degree of cooperation between people-trafficking gangs and other organised criminals on both sides of the Gulf of Aden, but that the extent of any other links remains unclear.
On Saturday, Somalia's defence minister told Reuters that al Qaeda insurgents in Yemen had sent two boat loads of weaponry to al Shabaab fighters in the rebel-held southern port of Kismayu in recent days, but gave few other details. [ID:nLDE60105U]
WHAT ARE AL SHABAAB SAYING?
Veteran al Shabaab commanders declined to speak to Reuters on the record about the group's global connections, but a senior rebel official who agreed to talk on condition of anonymity said they received help from many individuals in Islamic nations who supported their struggle to impose sharia law across Somalia.
The official said jihadists from across the Muslim world had joined them, including high profile al Qaeda suspects like Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, indicted for his alleged role in the 1998 Kenya and Tanzania U.S. embassy bombings that killed 240 people. Asked about a report that Fazul, a Comorian in his late 30s with a $5 million reward on his head, was now leading the group, the official said he would not answer because he was protecting his fellow mujahideen from the Western nations hunting him.
Most Somalis said they believed Ahmed Abdi Godane remained al Shabaab's leader. He has not been seen in public for months, but sends audio recordings to local media. He is believed to be in close contact with the senior foreign members of al Shabaab.
No one knows for sure, but experts say a reasonable estimate of al Shabaab's total manpower is no more than 5,000, with perhaps 500-plus foreigners. A regional analyst said Yemenis made up a significant portion of the foreign element.
Other foreigners in al Shabaab's ranks reportedly include white Americans and Europeans, Kenyans, Sudanese, Indian Ocean islanders, Pakistanis and Algerians. (Reporting by Reuters journalists in Somalia and Kenya, William Maclean in London; Editing by Giles Elgood)
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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