An increasingly vocal Islamist group says its leader has been appointed to represent an al-Qaida-linked Somali militia in Kenya, a development that underscores the dangers Kenya faces from Somalia's insurgency.
The statement by the Kenya-based Muslim Youth Center came amid a flurry of warnings from embassies about planned terror attacks in Kenya. The Somali militant group al-Shabab has promised to attack Kenya for its decision to send troops to Somalia in October.
The Muslim Youth Center was named in a United Nations report last year for recruiting, fundraising, and running training and orientation events for al-Shabab. An official al-Shabab spokesman did not answer questions about whether the center now represents al-Shabab in Kenya, but a statement published on the center's blog on Wednesday was unequivocal.
"There can be no doubt that Amiir Ahmad Iman Ali's elevation to become the supreme Amiir of Kenya for al Shabaab is recognition from our Somali brothers who have fought tirelessly against the kuffar on the importance of the Kenyan mujahideen in Somalia," the statement said. The word kuffar appears to be an alternative spelling of kafir, an Arabic word meaning "unbeliever."
Ali was featured in combat fatigues giving a 50-minute lecture in a Jan. 6 video produced by al-Kataib, al-Shabab's media foundation. He referred to wars in Yemen, Afghanistan, Iraq and Chechnya. It was the first time an al-Kataib video was dedicated solely to his message, according to SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors communications from jihadi groups.
"If you are unable to reach the land of jihad ... then raise your sword against the enemy that is closest to you," Ali said. "Jihad should be now be waged inside Kenya, which is legally a war zone."
"You don't have to get permission from your parents," he added.
Al-Shabab threatened huge terror attacks in Kenya in October after Kenyan troops entered Somalia over concerns that insecurity from Somalia's 21-year-old civil war was spilling over the border. The U.S. Embassy has put extra security measures into place and last week the British Embassy warned that a terror attack was being planned.
Ali, also known as Abdul Fatah of Kismayo, is a Kenyan who has been based in Somalia since 2009 and commands a force of 200 to 500 fighters, according to the July U.N. report. The report said that "he now intends to conduct large-scale attacks in Kenya, and possibly elsewhere in East Africa."
Ali speaks fluent Swahili, English, Arabic and some Somali, according to a security official in Kenya. He has also studied Islamic teachings extensively and has two degrees. The official asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
The official said that Ali wanted to be seen as Kenya's answer to Anwar Al-Awlaki, an American cleric killed in Yemen last year by a U.S. missile strike.
A post on the group's website purporting to be from Ali complained about impunity for Kenyan army officers who have killed Muslims, set up arbitrary police detentions and renditions — complaints also voiced by Kenyan and international human rights groups.
But Ali also warned in a statement rife with spelling errors: "The Muslim lands will once again rule with Shari'ah and your kufr democracy will be dumped in the seewage."
Two other Kenyans in Somalia — nicknamed "Taxi Driver" and "General" have more battlefield experience that Ali, said the official, but could not match his religious education. They all maintained strong ties to four religious leaders in Kenya that are linked to al-Qaida, said the same official as above.
So far the Muslim Youth Center is the best-known of the Kenyan jihadi groups, said another analyst, but it remained one of several. The groups were not very coordinated and it was unclear the extent to which they were directed by al-Shabab. The analyst asked not be named because he was not authorized to speak to the press.
Since its troops entered Somalia, Kenya has suffered more than a dozen grenade attacks. Four explosive devices targeting police have been planted in a northern refugee camp housing Somalis, and gunmen have also shot residents in northern Kenya towns. Somali fighters also raided a Kenyan police camp earlier this week, killing six people and kidnapping at least four.
But so far, there have not been any attacks causing major casualties — a source of some annoyance to senior al-Shabab leaders. Last year, a senior al-Shabab official in Somalia urged sympathizers in Kenya to "stop throwing grenades at buses" and make a "huge blast".
The center's use of its blog, the release of the al-Kataib video and a Twitter feed to proclaim its allegiance to al-Shabab could mean it was preparing for a big attack, the analyst said.
But, he added, it might also mean it was being used to mask the activities of other, less visible groups.