David Shinn, former State Department coordinator in Somalia and the U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia from 1996 to 1999, told me that while it's important to avoid overstating the links between al-Qaeda and al-Shabab, those links do exist. "There is no question that Islamic extremism in the form of the al-Shabab organization exercises significant influence in Mogadishu and much of southern Somalia," Shinn wrote in an e-mail message. "Although a decentralized organization, it receives external funding and by its own admission has some association with al-Qaeda."The entire column is accessible here. Image: Suspected pirates (at left) intercepted by French troops off Somalia. The photo was released by the French Defense Ministry earlier this month. ECPAD-FrenchDefense Ministry. UPDATE 4/22: Here are the contents of the interview for the Inquirer article:
Q: What kind of a foothold -- if any -- do you believe Islamic extremists have in the Horn of Africa now? What must the U.S. and international community do to substantively engage the problems we're seeing in that region? A: There is no question that Islamic extremists in the form of the al-Shabaab organization exercise significant influence in Mogadishu and much of southern Somalia. Although a decentralized organization, it receives external funding and by its own admission has some association with al-Qaeda. In fact, it may be claiming a stronger tie to al-Qaeda than is, in fact, the case. There is some evidence of loose and fragile ties between al-Shabab and a few of the Somali pirate organizations. On April 15, two senior al-Shabab leaders praised the pirate attack on the U.S.-flagged Maersk Alabama. Al-Shabab appears to be primarily interested in a connection with some of the pirates for purposes of smuggling arms into Somalia. The pirates are only interested in obtaining ransoms and making money. They do not appear to have any ideological connection with al-Shabab or any terrorist organization. I would not make too much of the al-Shabab-pirate connection, but in some cases they are using each other for their own purposes. Extremists and terrorists have also operated periodically in other parts of the Horn, especially along the Swahili coast of Kenya and during an earlier period in Sudan when Osama Bin Laden was resident there from 1992 until 1996. In the first instance, the United States and the international community must do more behind the scenes to support the moderate Somali government of national unity. A widely-accepted Somali government committed to ending piracy is the only way to eventually end the scourge of piracy and extremist activity in Somalia. In the case of piracy, the international community should recognize that egregious illegal fishing by foreign vessels for many decades has contributed to undermining the Somali economy and help put an end to the illegal fishing until the Somali government is capable of doing so on its own. At the same time, illegal fishing does not justify piracy. Once the country is reasonably secure, the international community will have to increase significantly development assistance to Somalia. In the meantime, it should continue to provide humanitarian aid. Events in Somalia have impacts on the wider region, which, in turn, impacts Somalia. Kenya, Ethiopia, Djibouti, Eritrea, and Sudan all have a key role to play in improving the situation in Somalia. Unfortunately, not all of these countries have consistently made positive contributions. Q: What is the extent of the connection, if any, between al-Shabab and al-Qaeda? A: I cover that in detail in the CTC Sentinel article. A few al-Shabaab members trained in Afghanistan with the Taliban. There are some foreign terrorists who are part of al-Shabaab. But most are young Somali opportunists who have no particular ideological commitment. Al-Shabaab is decentralized with different leaders. A few of them claim close ties to al-Qaeda. There is little proof that the connection is all that close.