One of the main focuses of yesterday's UK Foreign Office conference on Somalia was, perhaps unsurprisingly, the terrorist threat posed by al-Qaeda's newest franchise, al-Shabaab. The very fact that the British government sought to host such a high-profile conference in London demonstrates how serious this threat is being taken.
Among the biggest concerns is that one of the over 40 Americans or 50 Britons who have travelled to Somalia to fight for the Islamist insurgency will one day return to their home countries, trained and primed to carry out a deadly attack. This internationalisation of the al-Shabaab agenda has been made all the more likely by group's recent merger with al-Qaeda, whose leader Ayman al-Zawahiri excitedly announced two weeks ago that "the jihadist movement is growing with God's help". This is not to say that the group didn't have ambitions to attack the West before their official merger with the terror network, and their American-born Western spokesman Omar Hammami, who is also one of al-Shabaab's military commanders, is part of a faction within the group who have long wanted to target countries outside of their immediate region.
Hammami is emerging as a central figure in the group's strategy to recruit Western Muslims, and he has become something of a figurehead for Western jihadis. On the online extremist forums, many of the users put his face on their profile pictures, and he is depicted as a heroic revolutionary who, in the cause of Islam, traded the luxuries of Western life for the brutal and deadly deserts of Somalia. Indeed, it is through new media provided by the internet that al-Shabaab is spreading its ideology, and Hammami's lectures are readily available online.
His message is simple and, perhaps more importantly, it gives his listeners the misguided opportunity to fulfill their desire to, as they see it, defend their co-religionists in the same way Islam's founder did in the 7th Century. The situation for Muslims around the globe, Hammami argues, is the same as that faced by Muhammed in the early years of Islam when he and his followers were persecuted by pre-Islamic tribes. Aware that many of his listeners wish to emulate the Prophet, he exploits this desire in order to recruit them to the global jihadist cause, claiming that no act is greater in Islam than travelling to epicenters of jihad such as Somalia and fighting. The appeal of this call is clear, and Omar Hammami's proven prowess on the battlefield gives him the kind of credibility that a promoter of jihad requires.
2012 is therefore shaping up to be a critical year for al-Shabaab, and they seem to recognise this. The Kenyan army currently fighting the group in the Western parts of Somalia (and taking part in the Kenya's first ever war) is finding it more difficult than expected, but their resolve to win is, as yet, unshaken. In addition, now that the merger with al-Qaeda is official, al-Shabaab have possibly made it easier for President Obama to authorise drone strikes against the leadership, and could prove to be a major own goal. Nonetheless, the appeal of the group among Western jihadis remains strong, and its international connections with Somali diaspora communities means it is now the best placed the al-Qaeda franchise to oversee attacks in Western countries.