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Dismantled al-Shabaab cells reveal group's inner workings

Suspected al-Shabaab members are detained by Somali security forces during an operation in Mogadishu on December 8, 2014. [Mohamed Abdiwahab/AFP]

By Shukri Mohamed
Saturday, December 27, 2014

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MOGADISHU — The Somali government can learn a number of lessons about al-Shabaab's plans and methodology from the captured members of three terror cells recently dismantled in Mogadishu, security analysts say.

On December 3rd, Somali security agencies said they had successfully dismantled three al-Shabaab cells that were carrying out targeted assassinations, bombings and other attacks using vehicles.

"The security agencies of Somalia have destroyed three terrorist cells that used to cause problems for the public," said Ministry of National Security spokesperson Mohamed Yusuf Osman. "These three cells are al-Shabaab's Amniyat cell, the cell that carried out drive-by shootings, which has been dismantled, and the one that planned attacks and explosions."

Osman assured the public that al-Shabaab has been dealt a heavy blow and it is no longer possible for them to carry out acts of terrorism. He thanked Somali citizens for their help in ensuring the success of "the first phase of stabilising the country".

A few days later, Somali National Television (SNTV) broadcast a short documentary showing captured al-Shabaab operatives confessing to attacks they had carried out in Mogadishu, including the assassinations of government officials, lawmakers and civilians.

Shuayb Ibrahim Mahdi, an al-Shabaab operative who appeared in the December 7th broadcast, said the cell he belonged to carried out most of the assassinations in Mogadishu in the past year, including the killing of three lawmakers and a recent attack on the United Nations headquarters in Mogadishu.

Mahdi said his cell had rented a house in Mogadishu's Dharkenley district and the cell members owned vehicles, weapons and other equipment which they carried out their attacks.

Lessons to be learned

The SNTV exposé clearly shows the end has come for al-Shabaab's militia, said Abdirahim Isse Addow, director of government-run Radio Mogadishu.

However, he said, there are lessons to be learned from the information provided by the captured al-Shabaab members on the group's methods and its ongoing threat to the public.

"When I speak about the evident danger, I mean the cells and how they work, their co-ordination and the operations they carried out, and the amount of time it took for them to be captured," Addow told Sabahi. "It creates a sense of fear in you."

"On the other hand, it is good that a cell like that with a lot of connections, weapons and equipment has been dismantled," he said. "All of that indicates the return of peace, good governance and progress, and the weakness of al-Shabaab."

The short documentary also demonstrates the full return of the trust between the public and the government, Addow said, as the al-Shabaab operatives were captured through information provided by members of the public who lived in the areas where the incidents took place.

"There used to be a fear that members of the public would be killed if they provided information about al-Shabaab," he said. "That was propaganda spread among the people by the militia, but now the public has become confident that the government has a firm grip on, or will get a firm grip on, the suspects about whom information is forwarded."

Developing new deterrents

The government should use the information obtained from the captured al-Shabaab members to create a system for monitoring house and property rentals, said Colonel Sharif Hussein Robow, a former intelligence officer in the Mohamed Siad Barre regime.

"When a house is being rented now, the transaction takes place directly between the landlord and the tenant, but the government has to create a system that is different from that," he told Sabahi.

He suggested the government require landlords to provide copies of their rental agreements to the local administration, for all prospective tenants to undergo background checks before a property is leased to them and for the government to carry out periodic reviews on all rental properties to ensure they are not used for criminal activities.

Robow cautioned, however, that al-Shabaab has been using women and children as a ploy to make the houses look like families occupy them.

"When we are talking about al-Shabaab, we are talking about people who have failed in life and are in a gang," he said. "Take a look at the video and how happy the man is as he speaks about slaughtering people. So to them, these activities are quite normal."

Addow noted that extremist organisations operate by their own rules, and have issued false fatwas permitting them to use vulnerable Muslim civilians as shields when conducting attacks against those they view as the enemy.

"Those fatwas, which most Islamic scholars oppose, include the permission to kill 100 civilians if one enemy combatant is killed in the same attack. They only think about using the public as a shield," he said.

"Imagine the conscience of a person who moves women and children and other innocent people into a home that contains landmines, weapons and explosives," Addow said. "This contradicts Islamic law, humanity and Somali culture. It is a violation and a game played on the minds of women and vulnerable people."

A blow to al-Shabaab in Mogadishu

The dismantling of al-Shabaab cells will deal a devastating blow to the destructive operations the group has carried out in the capital, said Abdiaziz Mohamud Guled "Afrika", a terrorism affairs reporter for SNTV and Radio Mogadishu.

"This is a big blow to the terrorists because al-Shabaab has spent a lot of time planning the formation of these cells," he told Sabahi. "Al-Shabaab has trained specific members for this strategy, rented homes for them and spent a considerable amount of money on them. So it took them quite a long time to set up these cells."

"For example, these cells consisted of 12 individuals as we found out, and 10 of them were captured, including their leader," Guled said. "The remaining two will have a difficult time escaping because all of the information about them is known. Therefore, this indicates that the destructive activities al-Shabaab has been carrying out in the capital are ending."

Robow, the former intelligence officer, warned that there may be additional cells that operate in the same fashion, and cautioned security agencies to be extra vigilant.

"I think that other cells can exist in the city, therefore a lot of caution has to be displayed," he told Sabahi. "There has to be integration with the people, monitoring of the vehicles that are traveling within the city and whom they are carrying so that attacks like the ones that took place in the last year can be avoided."

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