By Stephanie Linares, Transatlantic Security Analyst
Al-Shabaab, a Somali Sunni jihadist group, was little-known outside the East African region prior to the armed assault on the Nairobi Westgate Mall on September 21, 2013 that killed at least 67 people and cast an international spotlight upon the group. Al-Shabaab, which translates to “The Youth” in Arabic, emerged in war-torn Somalia in 2006. At its peak, the group ran much of southern Somalia but in the past few years it has been significantly weakened by African Union forces and forced to retreat from its urban strongholds into rural areas. Despite its weakened state, the group remains one of the strongest armed groups in south-central Somalia.
The Nairobi mall attack surprised few counterterrorism experts, as al-Shabaab had threatened revenge against Kenya for joining the war against Islamist militants. Two years ago, in an operation codenamed “Linda Nchi,” Swahili for “Protect the Nation,” al-Shaabab’s funding, recruiting and training networks in Somalia were targeted by Kenyan forces. But the well-coordinated attack on the Westgate mall, a symbol of Kenya’s growing economic power, has changed how the international community perceives the group. Even after prior attacks in bordering countries such as Uganda, al-Shabaab was mainly seen as a Somali domestic issue rather than a cause for international concern. The quandary now posed by the Nairobi attack is: What does it signify regarding the group’s intent behind the attack and what future goals may emerge? Was the attack an expression of a desire to join the larger global jihad, or a desperate unifying act from an organization suffering from internal power struggles and losing ground in its home country?
The question of whether al-Shabbab will further evolve into an active threat to Western nations, especially those with large Somali communities (including the United States, Scandinavia and United Kingdom), has been debated. The organization’s growing influence was evidenced in mid-October when several prominent Muslims in the United Kingdom were put under police protection following a threatening hour-long video issued by al-Shabaab. The video, titled “The Woolwich Attack: It’s an Eye for an Eye” singled out several British Muslims, including filmmaker and journalist Mohammed Ansar, who have spoken out against jihad, particularly for condemning the murder of British soldier Lee Rigby. The film identified eleven British “martyrs” who died fighting for al-Shabaab and called for more British Muslims to step up. Foreign combatants from the United States, Europe and the Gulf states have allegedly gained influence within al-Shabaab, drawn by the apparent ambition to wage jihad beyond Somalia’s borders. Even prior to the involvement of Kenyan troops, the UN Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea reported ties between al-Shabaab and other similar organizations in the region such as al-Hijra in Kenya and the Ansar Muslim Youth Centre in Tanzania. Al-Shabaab’s has also produced materials in both Swahili and English in a clear attempt to appeal to international recruits.
The Nairobi attack heightened Western fears regarding the potential of radical Islamist militants using Somalia, already a terrorist hotspot, as a launch pad for further strikes on the region. On October 15th, the U.S. Embassy in Uganda issued a warning regarding the possibility of a “Westgate-style” terrorist attack in Kampala. While Mukhtar Abu Zubair, al-Shabaab’s current leader (who also goes by the name Ahmed Abdi Godane), pledged al-Shabaab as an al-Qaeda affiliate in February 2012, the true level of interconnection between the two organizations remains unclear. Deep rifts within the group exist between members who want to remain focused on jihad within Somalia (known as the “indigenous faction”) and those like Zubair who want to extend the campaign abroad and rebrand al-Shabaab as an international terrorist group. Peter Lehr, a regional expert at the Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence in Scotland, emphasized that al-Shabaab is not a strictly unitary or hierarchical organization, but rather a “kind of an alliance of important clerics with their own troops, and it ranges from radical extremists to very moderate ones…if some spokesperson says, ‘We are part of Al-Qaeda,’ some others might have a different point of view than that.” Despite the internal divide in ideology, it is a fight Zubair may be winning. Following a falling out with Zubair, al-Shabaab’s one-time spiritual leader Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys fled and was arrested by government forces. Omar Hammani, an American-born militant (known as al-Amriki, or “the American”) who openly criticized Zubair’s international jihadist ambitions, was reportedly killed in an ambush by al-Shabaab militants.
Greatly significant is the fact that the Nairobi mall attack was a dramatic break from known patterns of al-Shabaab violence – the group has not been typically associated with spree shootings, choosing soft civilian targets, or actively avoiding Muslim casualties. These factors in the Nairobi attack fit an al-Qaeda template put forth by leader Ayman al-Zawahiri a little over a week before the attack took place. Attacks outside of Somalia are also uncommon – only twice so far has al-Shabaab attacked targets in neighboring countries. Al-Shabaab’s last major violent incident was a coordinated bombing attack against Uganda that killed 76 people in Kampala, Uganda during the 2010 World Cup, purportedly in retaliation for the deployment of Uganda peacekeeping troops in Somalia. The Nairobi mall attack involved 15 or so heavily-armed fighters who were able to hold off Kenya’s military for four days, with some attackers even allegedly being able to escape through a tunnel and avoid capture, suggesting careful planning and a trained strike force – another break from the group’s favored hit-and-run tactics.
What remains consistent with the other attacks, however, is the motivation behind it. By conducting terrorist violence in Kenya, al-Shabaab may hope to cause the Kenyan government to withdraw its troops from Somalia and out of the African Union forces there. Alternatively, it may hope the attack causes a backlash against ethnic Somalis living in Kenya, which would allow the group to take advantage of recruitment possibilities from a victimized populace. In either case, the immediate goal of al-Shaabab is to fight Kenya within its own borders with the ultimate goal of reclaiming its hold on Somalia. While Zubair’s desire to broaden the geographic scope of its operations may come to fruition one day, what has taken place so far is best viewed as a domestic tactic intended to regain a foothold in Somalia. The organization’s apparent merger with al-Qaeda has been described by the UN Monitoring Group as “largely symbolic” and not a truly collaborative effort at this point.