Al-Shabab, the group behind the Westgate mall attack in Nairobi last week, has been around for years as a militia group fighting for territory in Somalia.
But with U.S. support, Somali and other African forces took back much of the groups territory.
When al-Shabab militants, dressed in casual clothes, turned up in a ritzy shopping mall in Kenya and gunned down men, women and children, the group shifted from an insurgent movement to a terrorist organization.
“A week ago al-Shabab wasn’t in the news,” says Bruce Hoffman, a a terrorism expert at Georgetown University and the Rand corporation. “Arguably, outside of Somalia, no one really cared about them.
“Today they’ve dominated the headlines for nearly a week,” Hoffman continues. “They’ve been successful in staging an enormously bloody terrorist event, and it’s catapulted itself back into prominence as one of the major terrorist forces in the world today.”
Prominence as a terrorist force, not an insurgent force: That was the old al-Shabab, the one defeated by the Somali military and African Union forces. Under pressure, it’s been transformed: No more fighting head-on, trying to hold territory. Instead, it’s allied with Al Qaeda and dedicated to global jihad.
Al-Shabab is much leaner than it once was, says Katherine Zimmerman, who has been following al-Shabab as an analyst at the American Enterprise Institute.
“Many of the individuals who were there purely to fight an insurgency have peeled away,” Zimmerman says. “So what we have now is a strong contingent of individuals who are in al-Shabab because it is an Al Qaeda affiliate.”
Westgate was not its first terrorist attack; that was in Uganda three years ago. But that attack was controversial within al-Shabab; some of the group’s more traditional leaders opposed it. Those leaders, Zimmerman says, have since been purged.
“The leadership is now united in conducting these sorts of attacks abroad in a way that it wasn’t three years ago,” she says.
An Act Of Strength, Or Desperation?
And the Westgate attack showed that al-Shabab now has significant capability as a terrorist group. But does that necessarily make it stronger? Not really, says Andrew McGregor, a terrorism analyst with the Jamestown Foundation.
“My view is that al-Shabab has really taken kind of a desperate stand here with this kind of attack,” McGregor says. “Knowing that there will be inevitable retaliation, possibly ending the existence of al-Shabab as an organization, and even more probably ending the existence of much of its leadership.”
McGregor thinks the United States, Kenya, and other governments will now be even more determined to go after al-Shabab. And he doesn’t see the Westgate mall attack bringing the group more outside support. A lot of its income, McGregor says, has come from Somalis abroad — the diaspora.
“I think a lot of the diaspora community is not going to look very favorably on this, because now Somalis will be viewed in these other other foreign countries as potential security risks,” he says.
McGregor does say he’s in the minority in thinking the Kenya attack showed al-Shabab’s decline, not its reemergence.
Examples from other countries may be useful here. Georgetown University’s Hoffman compares al-Shabab with the group Al Qaeda in Iraq, or AQI. It once controlled territory in Iraq, was beaten, and lately has carried out attacks in Syria.
“We thought as well that Al Qaeda in Iraq was crushed in 2009, 2010,” Hoffman says. “But it merely reinvented itself as a terrorist organization, and one could argue is now even more formidable and more consequential. Much like al-Shabab, it’s operating on a transnational playing field.”
Counterterrorism officials do point out that al-Shabab, like AQI, is fighting a
regional struggle. Despite the big attack in Kenya, they say al-Shabab is not yet seen as threatening the U.S. homeland.