Shabaab’s Attack in Kenya: Indicators of a resurgence or a last ditch effort?

Foreign Policy helped me post an article today which provides a brief, high level discussion of my initial impressions from al Shabaab’s four day siege at the Westgate mall.  Thanks to Foreign Policy for the opportunity and help with my prose. I also did an interview with CBS Philly linked here for those interested in hearing me drone on about Somalia.

Now, in my more typical style, I do have a few notes with regards to what I’m reading in the media.  There have been people trumpeting the return of al Shabaab and how this shows al Qaeda resilience.  We’ve heard this before.  In 2011, when Shabaab merged with al Qaeda there were vigorous warnings that Shabaab in Somalia was potentially the most dangerous al Qaeda affiliate.  Yet, this merger actually became the tipping point for Shabaab’s decline. We’ve also heard similar claims in recent years about AQAP in Yemen, AQIM in the Sahel, Ansar al-Sharia in Libya, and now AQ in the Sinai and Nusra/ISIS in Syria. These affiliates are not likely to all be the most dangerous threat (there can be only one) nor on the rise at the same time. So what are we to believe?  I always try to remember that counterterrorism is an industry as much as it is a discipline, without terror attacks and hype, we’d all have to start talking about Russia or climate change (boring). Back to Kenya…here are my thoughts in addition to what I posted at Foreign Policy.

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  • The Westgate Mall attack is not surprising, it’s more surprising this didn’t happen sooner – In 2007, I had the opportunity to work with Dr. Jacob Shapiro, Vahid Brown and a team of researchers on al Qaeda’s (Mis) Adventures in the Horn of Africa looking at how al Qaeda historically operated in the region.  After doing our analysis, we became increasingly more concerned about Kenya and its vulnerability as a target for terrorism.  See chapters 5 for some conclusions of this report and chapter 2 and 4 for some Kenya discussion.  Al Qaeda and now al Shabaab operatives have been moving through and attacking in Kenya for two decades.  Al Shabaab has been attributed with 50-100 incidents in Kenya this last year alone.  There have been concerns about an attack for years, its disappointing that this concern did not translate into a disruption of this attack.
  • Uhh, seems like media forgot Shabaab has been killing its own – As those who read this blog probably know, al Shabaab and its emir Ahmed Godane (Abu Zubeyr) have been leading a vicious campaign to kill off its own members in recent months.  Godane killed off his former deputy Ibrahim al-Afghani, pushed Sheikh Aweys into the hands of the Somali government and has been fighting against Shabaab elements loyal to Sheikh Muktar Robow.  Terror groups usually aren’t considered ‘strong’ or ‘resilient’ if they spend as much time killing their own people as they do their adversaries.  This infighting doesn’t seem to be getting much play in the media.
  • Uhh, Anyone remember that Shabaab killed its most celebrated American foreign fighter, Omar Hammami, just last week – This also seems to be overlooked in the discussion of resilience.  Omar Hammami was killed by Shabaab just last week; a public relations nightmare for the terror group.  Godane and Shabaab may have conducted this Nairobi attack because they needed a success to reset the agenda about their infighting and killing off of foreign fighters.
  • Shabaab isn’t dead, and it will never entirely go away – As described by Dr. Jeffrey Herbst in his book States and Power in Africa, African governments can rarely extend their authority beyond the capital. The Somalia Federal Government is no exception. Shabaab will retain their southern Somalia safe haven for some time which enables them to conduct attacks like the one we see in Nairobi.  Even if this area is cleared, Shabaab will just morph into another group with similar objectives and ideology, much in the way Shabaab came from AIAI and the Islamic Courts Union.
  • Godane is crazy, and maybe this attack is just about appealing to al Qaeda to get back into their good graces – As @AllthinngsHLS pointed out last night, Godane may just want to get back on al Qaeda’s radar.  This is something I failed to bring up in my interview and should be noted.  It also sits well with the hypothesis from last year that the Shabaab-AQ merger was nothing more than an exit strategy for Shabaab’s emir Godane who comes from the Isaaq clan and lacks significant clan support to endure in Somalia.  As Omar Hammami and Shabaab’s defectors noted, Godane likes violence, so maybe this is just about killing.
  • If notorious foreign fighters are the attackers, does this mean a resilient Shabaab or taking one last gamble? – Some claims of unknown reliability have said the attackers were Westerners and one may in fact be a woman, the infamous “White Widow” Samantha Lewthwaite.  If Shabaab used these foreign fighters, it could mean they were really focused on drawing international attention, or it could mean, that’s all they have left.  Either way they may have preferred these foreign fighter for their ability to cross into Kenya with less scrutiny.  If the “White Widow” was such an attractive recruitment tool, why would Shabaab use her for an attack?  Maybe she is a die hard and wanted martyrdom, who knows, we’ll probably not know the logic anytime soon.

To say Shabaab is resurgent or dying is premature since the attack isn’t complete and there is much we don’t know.  But here are the questions I’ll be looking at over the coming days, weeks and months to make this assessment.

  1. How quickly will al Shabaab follow up with another attack in Kenya?  Through its Twitter feed, al Shabaab claimed that this was the first of many attacks to come in Kenya. However, in July 2010, Shabaab executed a suicide bombing in Kampala, Uganda.  Some saw this as the start of Shabaab’s external operations in the Horn of Africa, but up to now there has been no strategic campaign for the region. If Shabaab quickly executes follow up attacks in Kenya in the coming days and weeks, this would suggest resurgence on Shabaab’s part. However, if Shabaab fails to generate another attack over the next six months, the Westgate attack may represent a last desperate attempt by a group to generate popular support, resources and personnel.
  2. Can Kenya control its reaction to the Westgate attacks? As seen by the 2007-2008 Presidential election violence, Kenya is prone to uncontrollable violence between ethnic groups, clans and tribes. Al Shabaab certainly intended for the Westgate attack to provoke Kenyans to overreact and commit large-scale violence against Muslims both in Kenya and in Somalia. If Kenya falls into this trap, they could hand al Shabaab the victory they desperately seek.
  3. How will Kenyan Muslims react to the Westgate mall attack? Kenyan Muslims have for years felt repressed by the Kenyan central government and the beginning of the “War on Terror” only exasperated this tension.  However, the 1998 Embassy bombing and the 2002 Paradise Hotel bombing killed or harmed Kenyan Muslims more than it did other Kenyans and Westerners.  In the Westgate attack, the attackers went to great lengths to target non-Muslims. Analysts should watch closely in the coming days to see the reaction of Kenyan Muslims from Mombasa up the Kenyan coast to Somalia.  If Kenyan Muslims reject the Westgate violence, then Shabaab will fall short in rallying Kenyan Muslims against the government.  If on the other hand, Kenyan Muslims appear indifferent or even condone Westgate violence, this could suggest deeper popular support for Shabaab throughout Kenya.
  4. Will the Westgate Mall attackers turn out to be of Somali, Kenyan, Western foreign fighters or a mix of all three? If the attackers turn out to be Kenyan Muslims or Somalis that have resided in Kenya for some time, this would be a troublesome sign for Kenya.  It may mean the attack was planned, prepared and executed locally – a troubling sign for Kenya. However, if the attack were executed strictly by foreign fighters, it may suggest that Shabaab used its Western passport holders to gain access to softer targets – also a troubling sign for the West who’ve been concerned for years about Western foreign fighters to Shabaab returning back home.
  5. Will the Global Somali Diaspora be inspired or appalled? – I assume a motive for the attack was for Shabaab to regenerate their support in resources and manpower from the Somali Diaspora.  Will this work?

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