There is growing evidence that the Al Qaeda affiliate in Somalia, known as al-Shabaab, is becoming more of a regional terrorist player, with the potential to go global as it targets U.S. citizens and interests.
"We have been getting threats from al-Shabaab against Americans and Westerners," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told ABC News when asked about a decision to warn Americans in Kenya of an imminent terrorist threat. "So it's a very dangerous, uncertain situation. And we want to be sure that whatever information we have, we immediately present to Americans who live, work or may be visiting in Kenya."
In the past day, two targets in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi were attacked with explosive devices. An explosion at a bus stop Monday evening killed at least one person and injured eight others. An earlier attack on a Nairobi night club with a grenade left 13 injured. Both incidents came after the U.S. warned that al-Shabaab would carry out retaliatory attacks after Kenyan troops entered Somalia in mid-October.
A rambling statement posted to a jihadist website purportedly from al-Shabaab promised more violence if foreign troops failed to withdraw. Although the online statement specifically mentioned troops from nearby Burundi, it seemed to underscore al-Shabaab's intention to rid Somalia of any foreign military presence.
"You now have a choice to make," the statement warned. "Either you call for the immediate withdrawal of your troops from our country or you shall receive the bodies of your remaining sons delivered to you in bags. Think long. Think hard. Think of your sons' futures."
In Washington, the State Department could not immediately comment on the latest attack or the intelligence that led to warning American citizens in Kenya to avoid crowds and malls, but department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland did not dispute that the warning was tied to al-Shabaab.
Last summer, when al-Shabaab launched suicide attacks in Uganda to coincide with the World Cup, U.S. officials questioned whether Uganda was the seminal attack, which showed the group was no longer a local player but could launch suicide bombings in other countries.
U.S. officials have consistently warned that the Al Qaeda affiliate has been adept at recruiting Western Europeans and Americans by playing off their allegiance to their native country. A new photo, from the Middle East Media Research Institute, or MEMRI, purports to show an American citizen and spokesman for Al Qaeda, Abu Abdallah al-Muhajir, who recently travelled to Somalia to deliver Korans, clothing and food for victims of the drought.
Seeming to take a page out of Usama bin Laden's playbook, Alabama native Omar Hammami, first identified by Fox News as a spokesman and battlefield operative for al-Shabaab, released an audio message to his followers on Oct. 8. Hammami claimed Islam and life in the West were incompatible, and to reconcile the two is a "dream world."
In a translation by MEMRI, Hammami stresses that the life of jihad may lack modern conveniences, but it is worth the sacrifice and doesn't take long to get used to. Hammami appears to quote an American TV commercial, another nod to his Alabama upbringing, when he says, "If I can do it, you can do it too."
Also known as al-Amriki, which translates as the American, Hammami says the life of the fighter "is not what you see in movies." And appearing confident in his own security, Hammami seems to bait the U.S. intelligence community that monitors the Horn of East Africa. He mocks the "incompetence" of agents claiming that "They always seem to recruit the dumbest of spies to do their dirty work."
Nearly two dozen Americans of Somali descent have disappeared into the al-Shabaab camps since 2007. Last week, two Minneapolis women who claimed they were helping the poor were convicted of providing money to the terrorist group. And Minneapolis native Shirwa Ahmed was the first documented case of an American suicide bomber when he blew himself up as part of al-Shabaab operation in Northern Somalia in late 2007.
U.S. officials tell Fox News that al-Shabaab and the Al Qaeda affiliate in Yemen, which was behind the last two major plots involving planes against the United States, are now working together -- sharing training and bomb-making techniques. It is creating what one analyst described as an arc of instability that now stretches from Yemen and Somalia in the east, to North Africa and west to Nigeria where a little known Islamist group called Boko Haram has increasingly adopted Al Qaeda tactics, including car bombs.
Chief Intelligence Correspondent Catherine Herridge's bestselling book "The Next Wave: On the Hunt for al Qaeda's American Recruits" was published by Crown on June 21st. It draws on her reporting for Fox News into al-Awlaki and his new generation of recruits – al Qaeda 2.0. It is the first book to fully investigate al-Awlaki’s American life, his connections to the hijackers, and the growing threat from al Qaeda in Yemen and Somalia.
Catherine Herridge is an award-winning Chief Intelligence correspondent for FOX News Channel (FNC) based in Washington, D.C. She covers intelligence, the Justice Department and the Department of Homeland Security. Herridge joined FNC in 1996 as a London-based correspondent.