[MOHAMED DAHIR/AFP/Getty Images] Somalis burn an al-Shabab flag last December in Mogadishu to protest bombing that killed 24 people.
The announcement could be nothing but moral support. However, it would be a big mistake to underestimate this movement which controls large parts of southern Somalia and its ability to offer logistical support to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
Sheikh Mukhtar Al-Rubu (Abu Mansur), one of the main leaders of the "Shabab" movement, told Somali media on January 1 that his group is ready to "come to the aid" of al-Qaeda fighters in Yemen in case they are attacked by the US. Abu Mansur said during an al-Shabab fighters graduation ceremony in Mogadishu that his group is ready to cross the Gulf of Aden to assist al-Qaeda in Yemen. The latter recently suffered major losses, especially among its leaders who seem to have been killed by air and land raids. The group claimed the air strikes have been carried out by the United States, but the Yemeni government assured that it was its troops who carried out these attacks.
Sending fighters from the al-Shabab movement to Yemen will not be impossible. The distance between the two coasts of the Gulf of Aden can be crossed easily as hundreds of Somali refugees cross it in small boats every year to the south Yemen shores. The Somali government is absent in the south of the country, allowing al-Shabab to organise its fighters and send them to Yemen which welcomes Somali refugees fleeing the civil war in their homeland.
But sending Somali fundamentalist fighters to Yemen could represent a change in the equation. Al-Shabab was previously receiving assistance from "foreign mujahideen" who fought against the transitional government and foreign troops—these troops came from Ethiopia initially and were later replaced by the African Peacekeeping forces from Burundi and Uganda.
While there are no accurate accounts on the number of these "foreign mujahideen" who fight alongside the al-shabab fighters, the Somali government announces periodically that it has killed a number of foreign fighters in attempts to reveal to Somali public opinion that al-Shabab is directly linked to an ideology that is alien to Somali traditions, a clear reference to the influence of al-Qaeda.
The link between al-Shabab and al-Qaeda is obvious, even though the nature of this link is not always apparent. On many occasions last year, the leaders of al-Qaeda and specifically Osama bin Laden and Abu Yahya al-Libi pledged their support for al-Shabab in its quest to overthrow the current Somali government. Al-Qaeda leaders offered justifications allowing al-Shabab to continue fighting even though many of their demands were met, including withdrawal of Ethiopian troops and election of the Islamic leader Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmad as president of the country, who promised to fulfil their demands to implementing Sharia law in Somalia.
Even though the Al-Shabab movement was not known until 2005, links between the two groups can be traced back to the early nineties when al-Qaeda, which was also recently formed at the time, sent a number of its fighters to Somalia to train local fighters for "jihad".
But the support lent by al-Qaeda to al-Shabab did not include granting them the title "Exclusive al-Qaeda agency" in the Horn of Africa as occurred with the al-Qaeda Organization in the Islamic Maghreb and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and in Iraq. This lack of integration is perhaps a choice made by leaders of al-Shabab who have not yet decided whether or not to be an al-Qaeda branch, probably because they will have to change their whole strategy and objectives. By uniting with al-Qaeda they would be expected to fight the West and not simply concentrate on fighting the Somali government.
But not turning into an al-Qaeda branch does not mean that the two groups do not maintain excellent relations and are not fully co-operating. The clearest relationship is one that ties al-Shabab to the al-Qaeda's Yemen branch. Some information appeared lately which shows a much stronger relationship between the two groups then what is seen on the surface.
There were many similarities between the last attempt by al-Qaeda to blow up an American plane in Detroit last month and a similar attempt that Somali security forces aborted without realizing its significance at the time. Somali officials revealed recently that a young Somali man was not allowed to board a plane on November 13th, 2009 heading from Mogadishu to Dubai (making two stops, one in Hargeysa in Northern Somalia and another in Djibouti) after finding out that the passenger had chemical products and a suspicious syringe. Somali officials said that the young man had ties with al-Shabab and that a Somali tribunal had dismissed a case against him for lack of evidence.
As it was later discovered, the Nigerian young man Omar al-Faruk Abdul Mutalib used a chemical substance similar to the one carried by the young Somali.
Security forces are undoubtedly trying to connect the dots between the two attempts and investigating whether the young Somali was on an "experimental" trip to discover how easy it was to smuggle these substances through security checkpoints and onto a plane. The result of this investigation will also determine whether the Somali young man was acting only on behalf of the Somali group, or if this operation was carried out in co-operation with al-Qaeda in Yemen. Al-Qaeda sent the young Nigerian to blow up the American plane.
Camille Tawil is a Lebanese journalist who specializes in Islamist groups. He has authored two books, "The Story of the Arab Jihadists", and "The Armed Islamic Movement in Algeria - From the FIS to the GIA". He wrote this analysis for Al-Shorfa.
This content was commissioned for Magharebia.com.