Ronald Sandee, former Dutch counter-terrorism analyst and co-founder of Blue Water Intelligence
Since the death of Osama bin Laden in 2011, the affiliates model of al-Qa’ida has been somewhat loosened, and some regional branches of the group have come to overshadow al-Qaida “central”, which traditionally operated from Pakistan’s tribal areas. It is unclear if al-Qai’da’s leadership is still based in South Asia. There are many indications that al-Qa’ida’s leadership, while scattered, has gathered its global headquarters in Yemen.
One of al-Qa’ida’s affiliates is al-Shabab in Somalia. In the past six or seven years, al-Shabaab has become stronger, more experienced and seems to be ready to expand its jihadist ideology along the east coast of Africa. There has been reliable reporting that there is an exchange of experiences, tactics and knowledge between jihadi groups in the Sahel and West-Africa and al-Shabaab. That said, it might be wise for the European Union and the United Nations to avoid putting al-Shabaab on the terrorism list, since, like the Taliban, it might be amenable to a negotiated settlement, and a terrorism designation would make that more legally complicated.
In mid-2015, al-Shabaab began a series of Blitzkrieg-style offensive operations, attacking and overrunning AMISON bases. This was a change from the regular, smaller-scale ingimahsi attacks. It is unclear what induced the change, but one explanation might be that around this same time al-Qa’ida’s top military leaders, Sayf al-Adl and Abu Mohamed al-Masri, were released from Iran and brought to Yemen. Al-Adl decided that the danger from the drones was too great in Yemen and was later seen by an eyewitness in Somalia. Somalia is an area where al-Adl and al-Masri were active in the 1990s and where they feel comfortable. It might well be that the new tactic was introduced by the top brass of al-Qa’ida. The timeline would support this explanation.
As al-Shabaab became stronger, dissent started spreading in the ranks, first among a few al-Shabaab commanders in the north, and then the southern branch broke away and joined the ranks of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and founded the Islamic State Somalia (ISS) in 2015. Although ISS is said to have only a capable force in the low hundreds it has expanded its activities to all of Somalia. As ISIS became a potential threat, al-Shabaab decided to clamp down on its rival. In January 2019, an al-Shabaab-turned-ISS commander, Yahya Haji Fiile (Abu Zakariya), was killed in the southern town of Bu’ale.
Despite intra-jihadi warfare, both terrorist groups continue their attacks on Somali government forces. A stronger and more capable al-Shabaab has been able to strike in Mogadishu and at military targets. In December 2018 and February 2019, al-Shabaab set off two roadside bombs at nearly identical spots killing in the first explosion the commander of the 12 April Brigade as well as his deputy. In February, two colonels of the same brigade were targeted and killed. The Somali government had received 68 armored combat vehicles from Qatar in January 2019, but the colonels were not driving in one.
The role of the Gulf States is interesting in Somalia. Back in 2013, al-Shabaab executed a suicide attack on a Qatari convoy in Mogadishu that killed at least eight people. Who was in the convoy was never made public. It is believed that Qatar’s elusive intelligence chief, Ghanim al-Qubaisi, was the target of the attack.
The attack made the Qataris reconsider their objectives and it seems Doha decided to take on a more active role in the Horn of Africa. This move, interestingly, coincided with major hydrocarbon discoveries off the coast of Somalia. There seems to be a pattern of Qatari involvement in violence and terrorism in Africa when hydrocarbon is at play.
In 2011, Qatar was deeply involved in the NATO operation to save Libyan civilians and deposed Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. When a second civil war broke out in Libya in 2014, Qatar supported Islamist groups close to the Muslim Brotherhood and some even more extreme forces in eastern Libya. Libya was a competitor of Qatar on the liquefied natural gas (LNG) market; it is no longer.
In West Africa, Nigeria had announced that it was going to develop an LNG plant presenting competition to Qatar. Although Qatar was not able to stop the development of this plant, Qatari involvement in region started to grow. When Westerners were kidnapped by Boko Haram and its offshoots, Qatar was quick to offer its services to negotiate as an intermediary.
A European intelligence official told me that Qatari activities had multiple objectives and were a win-win for Qatar. In secret, Qatar had made deals with Boko Haram that it was going to fund them. Then, the Qataris advised them to kidnap Westerners. Qatar would mediate in negotiations and pay for the release of the Westerners. Boko Haram and al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) would get cash and Westerners would be so happy to have their people freed unharmed, and to not have to break their own laws to pay ransoms, that they would be grateful to Qatar. Qatar was duly hailed in Western capitals. For Qatar, the pot kept boiling at just the right temperature in Nigeria.
In eastern Africa we see that radical Islamic violence was growing not only in Somalia, but, also in Kenya and Mozambique. Both Kenya and Mozambique have recently discovered large amounts of hydrocarbon. In both Kenya and Mozambique there is a strong presence of al-Shabaab. Recently the Islamic State (ISIS) also established a presence in northern Mozambique.
It is very interesting to note that Qatar Petroleum signed deals in Somalia, Kenya, and Mozambique for the exploitation of offshore hydrocarbon fields in recent months. If past is any indicator, Somalia, Mozambique and probably Kenya will see a reduction in violence in the near future and a simultaneous rise in Islamization. New projects by Qatar Charity and Sheikh Eid al-Thani Charity will likely increase in Eastern Africa.
Where the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia have been hailed even by the International Crisis Group (ICG), hardly an organization favourable to them, as playing an important role in creating peace in the Horn of Africa, Qatar’s role has been less positive and after the May 2019 attack in Bosaso—which was directed by Qatar—it is clear that Doha is a destabilizing force, which aggressively pursues its narrow interests.
The Bosaso attack shows that Qatar’s interests in Somalia are not limited to hydrocarbons, but are part of the strategic competition with its Gulf rivals. The car bombing outside the courthouse in Bosaso wounded ten people. In an intercepted telephone call between a Qatari businessman, Kayed al-Muhanadi, and the Qatari ambassador in Somalia, the former boasts that he knows who is behind “the bombings and killings”.
The New York Times got a copy of the phone call and reported that al-Muhanadi, who is close to the ruler of Qatar, Emir Tamim al-Thani, said that the violence was “intended to make Dubai people run away from there”. Al-Muhanadi was clear in his objectives when he said: “Let them kick out the Emiratis, so they don’t renew the contracts with them and I will bring the contract here to Doha.”
By pursuing its objectives through empowering and funding terrorist groups, Qatar is playing a dangerous game. Up to this point, Qatar has evaded scrutiny in Africa, not least because of its lucrative distribution of projects and bribes. As its sinister schemes come to light, Qatar might find itself pushed out of Africa, and in the long-term there is a serious risk of blowback.
 Author interview with confidential European source.
 Author interview. Details withheld to protect source.
 Author interview.
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