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Enduring Freedom's shift in focus belies Horn of Africa's security threat

Germany's recent decision to pull out of Operation Enduring Freedom was based on an assessment that labels the terror threat in the Horn of Africa as limited. Defense analysts suggest the region is still a major concern.

A German soldier looks through the visor of a machine gun

German marines will now search for pirates not terrorists

If the German Defense Ministry is to be believed, the terrorist threat in the sea off the Horn of Africa has been reduced so significantly that it sees no further reason to deploy its force of 90 marines and a navy reconnaissance plane as part of the US-led Operation Enduring Freedom. Due to an assessment that claims that the threat is now 'limited,' Germany has ended its involvement six months earlier than its mandate stipulated.

Germany has been involved in the Operation Enduring Freedom as part of the mission aimed at stopping Islamic terrorists smuggling arms to groups in Africa from the Arabian Peninsula for over eight years. The German navy joined the task force in February 2002, some five months after the United States established the operation after the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington.

With the last German troops completing their tours of duty in the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean last week, Germany's naval focus now shifts to the Mediterranean. One German navy frigate will remain off the coast of Africa as part of Operation Atalanta, a European Union mission to protect aid shipments into Somalia from pirate attack.

However, with increased al Qaeda activity being reported across the Gulf of Aden in Yemen, affiliated Islamist groups continuing to battle for control of Somalia and reports that Osama bin Laden's terror network is extending its influence into Kenya, the German decision has caused some surprise among security analysts.

Somalia at the heart of region's spreading extremism

armed fighters from Somalia's al-Shabab jihadist movement

Al Shabab is fighting to install an Islamic caliphate in Somalia

"The terrorist threat emanating from the Horn of Africa is limited at the moment," Jeremy Binnie, a terrorism expert at Jane's Defence Group, told Deutsche Welle.

"However, there is a lot of concern that Somalia might turn into something akin to Taliban-controlled Afghanistan in the 1990s. The pro-al Qaeda group there, the Shabab, controls much of the south of the country and is currently threatening to overrun Mogadishu. The only thing stopping them is a small force of African peacekeepers. So there are worries that southern Somalia could become a safe haven for jihadists from other countries and a base for training."

"There are already indications that the Shabab is being supported by a small number of foreign jihadists and has recruited possibly hundreds of young men from Europe and North America, most of them Somalis," Binnie added. "There have also been a few reports of Yemen-based al Qaeda operatives turning up in Somalia. The worry is that these guys could be used to carry out international terrorist attacks."

"At the same time, there are worries about the geographical proximity between Somalia and Yemen, meaning it is possible that the Shabab will link up with Bin Laden's Yemeni branch, al Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula."

Yemen supply lines still bringing arms, personnel to Africa

Last year's failed bombing of a Detroit-bound airliner by an al Qaeda suspect with links to Yemen highlighted the country's growing reputation as the new hub for terrorism in the region. Yemen is a blueprint nation for radical Islamists; it has a weak government, it is deeply divided by a tribalistic and violent civil war which is pushing the country toward the status of a failed state and has a culture in which most men carry weapons, therefore making identifying terrorists extremely difficult.

The land of Osama bin Laden's ancestors has also become a melting pot of refugees from the conflict in Somalia and returning Jihadists from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. With Africa in its sights, it is thought that al Qaeda sees Yemen as an ideal staging point for fanning the flames of extremism across the Gulf of Aden in Somalia and beyond.

The United States Embassy is pictured with blasted ruins next to it in downtown Nairobi

Al Qaeda has targeted Kenya since the US embassy attack

Despite having a less direct shipping connection to Yemen than Somalia, sharing a border with the failed state puts Kenya at risk of infiltration by Islamist terror groups. Instead of having to navigate through the international forces in Indian Ocean to reach the Kenyan coastline, Arab-based terrorists can smuggle weapons and personnel overland to Kenya via Somalia.

It has been reported for as long as Germany was part of Operation Enduring Freedom that al Qaeda was seeking a foothold in Kenya and that al Qaeda operatives had infiltrated the country's Islamic communities on its Indian Ocean coast.

Poor relations between Kenya's coastal Muslims and the country's inefficient security forces have provided al Qaeda with a new base from which it can extend its growing network throughout eastern Africa. Inland in Kenya, border camps filled with refugees from Somalia are reported to be just as fertile a breeding ground for young extremists.

Meanwhile, Kenya has its own home grown terror problem. The Kenyan Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan was alleged to have been the leader of al Qaeda in Somalia and the mastermind behind the bombing of the Paradise Hotel in Mombasa and the attempted downing of an Israeli passenger jet in November 2002. He was also suspected of involvement in the 1998 US embassy bombings in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam in Tanzania. He was killed by US Special Forces near Mogadishu in September 2009.

Changing face of mission shifts threat focus

David Hartwell, an expert and risk analyst for the Middle East and North Africa, believes that the changing nature of Operation Enduring Freedom has shifted the focus away from its original mission meaning that the Horn of Africa and land-based threats are now longer in its remit.

German marines off the coast of the Horn of Africa

German troops will leave but the threat will remain

"The Germans have made a fair assessment on Enduring Freedom but it's one based on the level of threat within the operation's initial mission which was to capture fleeing extremists and Taliban from Afghanistan and stop them getting to places like Yemen, Saudi Arabia and Oman," Hartwell told Deutsche Welle.

"In its original form, it hasn't recorded that many successes as there have been few significant arrests of wanted figures on the seas. As such, Enduring Freedom has mutated into the anti-piracy mission which is having more success in containing the pirates. But it has been agreed that there is less of a need for naval forces to be searching for fleeing extremists now, especially in the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean."

"The region itself is still unstable with civil wars and extremism in both Somalia and Yemen but those involved in Enduring Freedom are wary of getting involved in the internal politics in these countries so we'll see more countries following Germany's decision and refocusing on the piracy mission," he added.

Author: Nick Amies

Editor: Rob Mudge

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