Meeting al-Shabab’s elusive leader

Ahmed Omar, who has previously lived in Kenya, seeks to expand the group’s war beyond Somalia.

al-Shabab Somalia
The Somalia-based group has recently carried out several cross border attacks in Kenya [AP]

“Please, switch your camera off,” said a slim, masked bodyguard dressed in a camouflage uniform – a firm but friendly request.

It was February 2014, and the current Emir of al-Shabab Ahmed Omar, also known as Abu Ubaydah, was visiting the farming town of Bulo Mareer to settle a bloody dispute between clans in the lower Shabelle region. 

At that time, he was the chairman of al-Shabab governors, commanding several thousand troops.

He was the peace envoy and trusted lieutenant to Ahmed Godane, the former leader of the armed group who was killed in US air strikes in September 2014.

Omar was of average build and tall, and walked into the vast garden tucked behind a hospital.

The clan elders in the garden briefly held their breath as he approached the gathering. It was apparent we were in the presence of an elusive but important person, a drone-target-important kind of person, the kind that has a bounty of several million dollars on their head.

From our first eye contact, it was obvious he didn’t warm to cameras or journalists. I was the only journalist there and was later told that I was the only foreign reporter he had ever met.

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Senior clan elders with henna-red beards and prayer beads had been bussed in for the occasion from the capital, Mogadishu.

A clan feud had simmered for more than a year and the late leader had had enough.

Lower Shabelle, with its agricultural wealth, was the group’s big prize and the feud distracted from its campaign against the government and African Union force.

Rising star

Omar’s star was rising as the group’s leader was busy playing hide-and-seek with American drones and planes.

The trusted lieutenant ran the day-to-day affairs of the al-Qaeda-affiliated group.

The meeting took place in the shadow of mango and banana trees, which also acted as protection against aerial surveillance.

Omar, a broad-shouldered figure, spoke with clear, monotone, dialect-free short sentences. He lacked the charmed and poetic words of his boss.

Over the years, Omar proved his efficiency and loyalty to the cause, endearing him to the group’s feared leader.

One example of such loyalty can be tracked to September 2013.

Then, Omar was al-Shabab’s governor of Bay and Bakool, a region home to many of al-Shabab’s fighters.

The rapping American

Omar Hammami, alias Abu Mansoor al-Amriki, was an al-Shabab poster boy, but many thought he had outgrown his shoes – a term used in Somalia to describe individuals with raised self-importance.

An Alabama native with a $5m FBI bounty on his head, Hammami had criticised the leader, Godane, before seeking refuge in the jungle of Bay and Bakool. 

The fallout was well publicised.

The American, who was known for his rapping skills, thought he would be safe in Omar’s backyard – a fatal error of judgment.

Under orders from Godane, fighters loyal to Omar tracked the American down and killed him in a hail of bullets.

With that move, Omar proved his loyalty to the cause and announced himself to everyone in style; he was to be taken seriously.

Living in Kenya

After the collapse of the Siad Barre regime in 1991, Omar, like hundreds of thousands of other Somalis, had crossed the border into Kenya.

He lived there for several years and learned the language, sources close to him have told me, adding that Omar knows Kenya like the back of his hand.

READ MORE: Al-Shabab claims deadly Kenya attack

Like other senior operatives of the group, his aides told me, he is not just driven by ideology but also by bad experiences while living in East Africa’s biggest economic power.

Attacking Kenya is his pet project; daring hours-long sieges are his way of grabbing people’s attention, while foot soldiers with AK-47s are his preferred mode of communication.

Bloody beginning

In his first six months in charge, more Kenyans died in al-Shabab attacks than during Godane’s three-and-half-year reign.

Shedding the blood of his perceived enemies in Kenya is what drives him, his close associates told me.

He, like most leaders of the group, knows he will likely have a short lifespan.

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They are constantly on the move to evade being tracked down by drones, so they spend their time thinking of ways to reach paradise with the blood of their enemies.

For the last two years of the former emir’s reign, Omar was responsible for al-Shabab’s footsoldiers. It is reported that he established at least one battalion of Kenyan-only fighters.

The idea is that many of these Kenyan al-Shabab fighters will later return to Kenya and wreak havoc in the coastal region, bringing the thriving tourism industry to its knees.

Counting war spoils

Unlike Godane, who only called for Kenyan troops to withdraw from Somalia, Omar is known for having bigger war plans and political appetites.

He wants the Kenya-Somalia border to be redrawn, with Kenya ceding its Somali region to Mogadishu. He also wants all non-Muslims out of northern Kenya.

Although Kenya’s government has brushed off his demands, many non-Somali Kenyans who have long worked in the country’s north have heard Omar’s call loud and clear. They have packed up and left.

Long-marginalised, northern Kenya lags far behind the rest of the country and its youth – poor and unemployed – are Omar’s next target.

Alongside the promise of paradise and beautiful wives, Omar is willing to offer competitive salaries in return for waging war in Kenya – not in Somalia.

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Knowing he is on borrowed time, he wants to be remembered in Kenya; al-Shabab leaders usually enjoy no more than four years in office.

Omar’s latest venture, the El-Ade base attack, was possibly the worst military disaster Kenya has faced since independence in 1963.

He knows Kenyans, exhausted by the continuous corruption scandals of their elite, are growing war-weary.

Every blow, big or small, is amplified and Omar wants to drive his demands home.

While a year ago his commanders sounded like they were up against a brick wall on their way to paradise, now they are upbeat while counting their war spoils.

And with truckloads of weapons and ammunitions, thanks to recent raids on African Union bases, Omar and his henchman are likely to be getting ready for their next ambush or suicide mission.

Follow Hamza Mohamed on Twitter: @Hamza_Africa

Source: Al Jazeera