This story line likely will not get much airtime here in the US, but it is absolutely worth highlighting. First reported yesterday by Swedish newspaper The Local, another European cartoonist is in the crosshairs of al Shabaab. According to the newspaper, Lars Vilks received a phone call in which he was threatened with a similar fate of Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard, who late last week was nearly murdered in his own home with an ax. Interestingly, this is the second AQ-affiliated group to threaten Vilks, who had a bounty set by Islamic State of Iraq leader Abu Umar al Baghdadi back in 2007. A couple key points that stuck out:
a. The man who called Vilks reportedly spoke Swedish with an accent. This likely indicates the caller previously lived in Sweden for some amount of time, likely a part of the large Somali diaspora across Northern Europe.
b. The call originated in Somalia. This likely confirms that al Shabaab was responsible for both the Westergaard and Vilks incidents. Though I have no data to support this claim, my instinct tells me AQ-affiliated foreign fighters in Somalia are more interested in supporting and executing jihadist operations on al Qaeda’s southwestern front than calling a cartoonist that made the headlines back in 2007. This then leads me to believe both incidents are related to al Shabaab vice al Qaeda.
Not to be outdone by neighbors AQAP, al Shabaab continues to make their push into the ranks of transnational terrorist groups while simultaneously attempting to maintain their presence in international media. This could also explain why al Shabaab is going after Western cartoonists who fell out of the international media and Muslim spotlights years ago. The reason (if my previous logic is accurate) then, is two-fold: 1) Western targets garner more media attention than attacks against the Somali TFG and 2) al Shabaab seeks to portray the group as defenders of the faith to the world’s Muslim population.
In the coming months, al Shabaab will continue to explore many additional outlets for expanding operations out of East Africa. The group will attempt to utilize the large Somali diaspora in the US, Canada and Europe as a conduit for future attacks. Operational guidance and attack blessings will likely come from Somalia, as opposed to any kind of leadership asset in the “host” foreign country. I believe any attacks will continue to be small-scale (see DP’s post here for additional information on the morphing AQ operational construct), using minimum personnel and assets in an effort to avoid detection by Western intelligence services and ensure a greater chance for success. Al Shabaab’s attempts to climb in the ranks of transnational jihadists must be taken seriously as it appears the group is serious about bringing their fight to the West.