The recent attack against a Kenya mall caught me by surprise. The event was of little interest until I learned an al-Qaida affiliate implemented the operation. My main area of focus regarding al-Qaida and militant Islamist activities has evolved around the Middle East, Europe, South Asia and the Caucasus to lesser extent; Africa has occupied a lesser interest, until now. Al Shaabab’s recent operation was a potential turning point for the Somali-based group and for al-Qaida. It is contingent upon if the attack was planned or executed by Al Shaabab or if it received assistance from al-Qaida’s regional affiliates. It could prove a game-changer for the al-Qaida and militant Islamist movement if the later occurred.
The Sept. 21-24 Nairobi mall siege was notable from several perspectives:
• Al Shaabab followed a new al-Qaida operational directive.
• A strong possibility exists that several regional affiliates assisted Al Shaabab with the operation’s planning and execution.
• The organization’s may poise a direct threat to the U.S. homeland, if Americans of Somali decent were involved in the Nairobi operation.
Evolution of Al Shaabab
Al Shaabab (Arabic for “The Youth”) was formed as a small, armed militia for Somalia’s Islamic Courts Union in the middle part of the last decade. The courts were Somalia’s prime political entity from the early 2000s until 2006, when Ethiopian military forces ousted the union from Somalia’s capital. Al Shaabab separated itself from the courts and became the dominant political force in Somalia shortly thereafter. Its principle objective is the creation of an Islamic emirate in Somalia, northeastern Kenya, and parts of Ethiopia. Al Shabaab became an al-Qaida affiliate in February 2012 — an association which may have contributed to the sophistication of the recent Nairobi operation.
Al Shabaab’s main terrorist activities focused on Somalia until 2010. In July 2010, it attacked crowds watching the World Cup at an Ethiopian restaurant and rugby center in Uganda’s capitol, Kampala. Seventy-six civilians were killed in the operation. The Nairobi mall attacks were equally devastating. The operation was different considering the attacks were more sophisticated, followed a new al-Qaida operational modus operandi and possibly pose a new direct threat to the United States.
The recent attack followed al-Qaida’s new modus-operandi. Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaida’s leader, issued new guidelines for how al-Qaida and its affiliates should execute operations several weeks ago. These included attacking only Western targets, taking hostages when circumstances allowed and avoiding Muslim casualties; Al Shaabab precisely followed these guidelines precisely in the recent attack. The operation occurred at one of Nairobi, Kenya’s most upscale malls, the Westgate. Al Shabaab operatives entered the complex at three-different locations. It involved 6-16 participants. The operation morphed into a four-day siege. Seventy-two civilians were killed when the event ended.
Several issues need resolving surrounding the operation. How did Al Shaabab execute the attack given a potential degree of internal division within its ranks? Did it receive assistance from al-Qaida’s regional affiliates? And did it involve non-Somali, especially American recruits? All of those are of concern with various European, Israeli and especially counterterrorism circles. How Al Shaabab’s internal affairs impacted the operation is a question. Its current leader, Abdi Godane, took the reins of power several years ago. Many of his opponents were killed or forced into exile. A possibility exists Godane executed the attack to enhance his power and to reinvigorate the organization.
A second concern regards the potential extent Al Shabaab worked with al-Qaida’s regional affiliates to execute the operation. Various reports have detailed Al Shabaab’s efforts at enhancing its links with other African/Middle Eastern al-Qaida groups, most notably al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb and Boko Haram (a Nigerian based affiliate). A 2011 House Homeland Committee Report even detailed the operational links Al Shaabab had developed with al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. A key question counterterrorism analysts need answered is did any of those organizations assist Al Shaabab in the planning and execution of the Nairobi attack?
The final issue is determining whether the attackers were entirely of Somali decent or if other nationalities additionally participated. Al Shaabab claimed via Twitter that several of the attackers came from the U.S., Finland, Canada and the U.K. It’s a bothersome possibility since Al Shaabab has recruited members from throughout America’s Somali diaspora. A vital worry within the U.S. counterterrorism community is that those individuals could return to and attack different American targets.
In conclusion, the recent Nairobi attack is possibly problematic for the American counterterrorism community, if it is learned Al Shaabab received assistance from al-Qaida’s regional affiliates and involved U.S. participants. Both developments could augment the resources available to the Somali based organization. It may also increase the chances of a direct attack by Al Shaabab against the American homeland.
Matthew Kennedy has a master’s degree in diplomatic studies from the University of Westminster in London. He’s lived in Europe, Asia and Russia. Comments or questions can be directed to firstname.lastname@example.org.