Thursday, February 23, 2012
Somalia's hard line Islamist rebels are reported to have taken delivery of up to 30 surface-to-air missiles smuggled to them from Libya since the fall of Muammar Gaddafi.
Russian mobile surface-to-air missile systems
According to intelligence sources in Mogadishu and western diplomats, the "SAM 7" shoulder launched missiles, similar to those used in an attempt to down an Israeli airliner in Mombasa, Kenya, 10 years ago, were delivered to the al Shabab -held port city of Kismayo recently.
The al Qaeda -linked Shabab have become a major focus of international counter-terrorism operations and have been described as the fasted growing threat to the West. They are accused of turning southern Somalia into a training area for global jihadists.
If they have taken delivery of these highly sophisticated weapons, which are relatively easy to use, there is a clear danger that they will be used to target Kenyan Air Force jets, and helicopters, currently in action in southern Somalia against the Shabab.
It is equally likely that some of the SAM7s may be smuggled into Kenya or elsewhere in East Africa.
They could be used against commercial airliners in revenge for recent advances by African Union (AU) forces from Uganda and Burundi who have driven the Shabab out of the Somali capital, Mogadishu.
The Shabab have claimed responsibility for a spate of grenade and roadside bomb attacks in Kenya over the last year and for the killing of over 70 revellers who were watching the last football World Cup at a club in Kampala, Uganda .
Some of their members have also been linked to earlier atrocities, including the bombings of the American embassies in Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam in 1998.
There has not been any physical evidence of the SAM7s in southern Somalia yet. The Shabab would have an interest in spreading a rumour that they have such weapons in order to disrupt Kenyan operations and sow fear more generally.
Equally the Somali government may seek to gain increased military support by raising the spectre of the international threat posed by what they are now calling al Qaeda in the Horn of Africa - on the day an international conference on Somalia is hosted by Prime Minister David Cameron in London.
Nonetheless intelligence sources told Sky they were confident their information that the SAM7s, which had been stolen from Col Gaddafi's armouries after the fall of his regime last year, were smuggled to Somalia.
The former Libyan leader had stockpiles of hundreds of surface-to-air missiles - very few of which were accounted for after the chaos of the revolution which deposed him.
The UN Security Council approved a resolution to expand the number of AU troops in Somalia to 17,700 on Wednesday. The resolution includes provisions for the use of helicopters, which are seen as a "force enabler" in the battle against the Shabab.
But their potency would be drastically reduced if the Islamist rebels were able to use SAM7s.
"We don't know how serviceable the missiles are. There is some hope that they may not have functioning battery packs. But initial reports are that they are functioning and therefore we have to take the reports that they are in Kismayo very seriously. Al Shabab have access to foreign fighters who most certainly would be able to use them," a senior diplomat in Mogadishu said.
Meanwhile details of life among the Shabab emerged during an interview with two recent defectors who fled the rebels after being recruited from a madrasa, a religious school, four years ago.
They told Sky News that they had seen "many" ethnic Somalis from Britain among foreign fighters from Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Egypt.
"I heard them talking. They said if we are defeated here then we will carry out bombings in England and we will transfer the jihad to there. They were holding British passports, they were saying we are planning to go back to the UK that's what they were saying," Mohammed Dahreer, 19, said.
Today's conference in London on Somalia is to be attended by over 40 international organisations and countries. The aim is to shore up the fractious Transitional Federal Government and draw clan warlords into a Somali political process.
The Shabab has been losing ground rapidly to attacks on three fronts. AU troops have pushed out of Mogadishu while yesterday Ethiopian forces captured the central Somali town of Baidoa. In the south Kenyan soldiers are dug in preparing for a major assault on the Shabab capital, Kismayo, a wealthy port city.
The movement, which recently said it had formally joined al Qaeda's global jihad has also lost ground among ordinary Somalis, judging from the steady movement of refugees out of areas under its control to Mogadishu.
This may be partly due to the level of brutality it has displayed.
"They bully the people. Anyone who opposes their orders - will have his head cut off. Once I saw a man who used to sell khat (a narcotic tree shoot). He was ordered to close his shop during prayers. He didn't so he was arrested and then slaughtered him by cutting his head off and leaving it on his chest in the street," Dahreer said.
"We didn't know (they would be so brutal) - but we were told that we were obliged like every other Muslim in the country to join jihad".
They told of how they had been given special bomb-making training in a camp near the village of al Adde and in Kudhaa, near Kismayo, from an Egyptian they named as Al Khatab al Maseri.
But above all, they left the Shabab because of the callous execution of their wounded comrades by officers on the battlefield. They both described how if a fighter was wounded in the chest or head, they were shot dead by their own side.
"There was heavy fighting in Mogadishu and one of my comrades was hit by a mortar. While he was on the ground he was shot to death by a Shabab officer," Mahat Abdi, 21, said.
"This happened at many front lines when we were in the fighting - this was not the first time," he added.
Source: Sky News