Foreign Fighters Expel Residents to Turn Mogadishu Suburb Into a Stronghold, Locals Say; Peacekeeper Toll Said to Hit 53MOGADISHU—Foreign-born Islamist fighters have established a stronghold in a northern suburb of Somalia's beleaguered capital, posing another threat to a country whose instability is a growing concern for East Africa and Western allies.
Foreign fighters affiliated with Somalia's most powerful militant group, Al Shabaab, have executed and driven off residents from Mogadishu's seaside suburb of Qobdoro, say some former residents. These people say the foreign fighters have banned all but their most trusted Somali allies from the area—a suburb of villas, movie theaters and shade trees that locals, referring to the new inhabitants' ties to al Qaeda, now call "Little Afghanistan."
Some 500 foreign and Somali fighters have taken over Qobdoro, Somali intelligence officials estimate. Militants have used sandbags to barricade the streets of the area and have turned its soccer stadium into a military base, say former residents. The sound of gunfire can be heard echoing from the area at night.
Intelligence and security experts worry that seasoned foreign fighters are providing training to Al Shabaab militants, who have controlled much of Mogadishu and southern and Somalia in recent years and are now locked in urban battle with Somalia's government and troops from the African Union.
On Friday, two Nairobi-based diplomats told the Associated Press that 53 AU peacekeepers have died in fighting here since the AU launched a major offensive against Al Shabaab militants two weeks ago. The toll is higher than the six peacekeeper deaths AU has publicly acknowledged. Officials from the AU declined to comment.
Hundreds of Al Shabaab militants have been killed in the recent offensive, say officials from the AU mission in Somalia, known as Amisom. AU troops have made small advances in Mogadishu, but Al Shabaab fighters still appear to control more than half of the capital.
The government says it plans to attack areas in northern Mogadishu. Qobdoro is located about four miles from Mogadishu's presidential palace, the Mogadishu government's base.
Foreign militants began pouring into Somalia in 2009, invited by Al Shabaab leaders. They have since formed a leadership core of Al Shabaab. U.S. and African intelligence officials have said they see an overlap, in both training and membership, with al Qaeda groups in Pakistan and Yemen. Intelligence officials say they believe al Qaeda is using the Somali group as a host body, allowing its operatives access to other African countries.
Qobdoro provides space for "[foreigners to] train Somalis for bomb-making, suicide bombings, indoctrination, extremism [and] fighting," said Abdi Ali, a retired Somali military official and security expert based in Mogadishu. "I do believe they want to make the village like Pakistan and Afghanistan…where the militants have got safe havens and military camps."
The militants' ultimate goal, U.S. and African Union officials say, is to establish a base in Somalia to launch attacks against Western targets. An early expression of that strategy came in July, when Al Shabaab claimed responsibility for multiple bombings in neighboring Uganda that left 76 people dead.
Sheik Ali Mohamud Rage, an Al Shabaab spokesman, said recently the group is planning new strikes against Uganda and Burundi, which have sent troops to Somalia as part of Amisom's efforts.
Many of the foreign militants are ethnic Somalis who have grown up elsewhere—in Uganda, Kenya, the U.S. or European countries. The more-experienced among them have fought in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan, according to AU and Somali intelligence officials.
Some of these fighters, who Al Shabaab says make up more than 10% of its personnel, brought suicide-bombing and weapons expertise. They have also imposed harsh Islamist justice, with residents of Al Shabaab-controlled areas describing beheadings and amputations for minor infractions, such as theft. Such moves have sapped the group of some local support.
Many former Qobdoro residents said they fled because of executions carried out by foreign militants.
"My cousin and his friend were beheaded at same time in the village," said Qamarey Yusuf, who said she fled in 2009 with her five children to Mogadishu's Madina district after insurgents in Qobdoro fired mortars at AU peacekeepers, drawing heavy return shelling.
She said a former neighbor, who had joined Al Shabaab, told her by phone that he had seen the men's bodies in the town.
An Al Shabaab fighter who identified himself as Ali said foreign militants have given the group added punch. "Their role in getting our enemies out of their positions is remarkable," he said. "We hope the few places the enemy controls will soon fall in the hands of Islam."
Another Al Shabaab fighter from Somalia, Ibnu Hassan, said he had seen Qobdoro and described how militants have dug trenches and covered them with grass to trap AU peacekeepers' tanks.
Al Shabaab has warned against any efforts by the Somali government and AU forces to dislodge them from such strongholds. "They will suffer again and again if they try to attack us," said Mr. Rage, the spokesman.wall street j