Over the weekend, gunmen from the Somali Islamist militia al-Shabaab killed dozens of Kenyans and Westerners — 62, at last count — in a shopping mall in Nairobi, specifically targeting non-Muslims, and then took control of the facility and held hostages there. Kenyan security forces took back the mall today, it appears, but because of connections between al-Shabaab and al-Qaeda, this massacre has attracted plenty of attention in the West. So what does the horrific massacre mean, and what kind of threat does al-Shabaab present?
Somalia is actually more peaceful than it has been in years, and al-Shabaab as a whole is weaker than it’s been in a while — but this weekend demonstrates it’s clearly pursuing attacks on Western targets (the shopping mall attacked was popular with expats), while it definitely does have real ties to al-Qaeda’s core in Pakistan and the capability to inflict international terror attacks, in East Africa, at least.
That’s all been good news for Somalia and bad news for Shabaab, but this weekend’s events suggest that, as the group’s capability as a national insurgency has been diminished, their capability to inflict international terror attacks hasn’t. Their other major international attack, the bombing of a rugby club in Kampala, Uganda, that killed 74 people in 2010, happened when they were doing much better for themselves in Somalia.
Why would they be capable of perpetrating this weekend’s attack while their position in Somalia has been substantially degraded? This isn’t because, as some have suggested, the defeat of Shabaab in Somalia was prematurely proclaimed, or illusory. Rather, Shabaab, or parts of it, have essentially transformed from an Islamic insurgency within the country into more of an ideological, Islamist terror group, which has strengthened it in some ways but weakened it in others.
The increasing international-jihadist focus of Shabaab hasn’t actually accompanied by a significant amount of attacks nor by a clear strengthening of the group’s operational capabilities — it clearly has coincided with a degrading in their tactical strength at home, and this weekend’s attack isn’t clearly more sophisticated than what they did in Uganda in 2010. Partnering with al-Qaeda may have gained them some funding and training they wouldn’t have otherwise, but it’s also caused real splits in Shabaab’s leadership, and we don’t know if that’s made up for their eroded fundraising base in Somalia (the loss of access to ports being a big shift in this, their decreasing popularity also hasn’t helped). Sadly, Somalia’s border with Kenya is so porous and Kenya so insecure that it’s also important to note that, while this attack was long and deadly enough to show a good deal of sophistication and training, it doesn’t mean al-Shabaab is a fearsome terrorist force.
Al-Shabaab is most certainly part of the global Islamist terror threat, and a recent addition to that squadron. But it’s risen in that respect as its broader power has diminished and the unstable area that’s supposed to be the breeding ground for terror has actually grown safer. While the U.S. still has good reasons to support stability in Somalia in the quite cheap ways it’s done so in recent years, those efforts haven’t prevented the development of an Islamist terror threat there. Eliminating the existing jihadist elements of Shabaab probably should still involve strengthening our local partners — the Kenyans, the African Union peacekeeping force, and the Somali government — but that didn’t prevent Shabaab from becoming an international jihadist threat. The relationship between Islamist insurgencies and international terror, obviously, is more complicated and less linear than we might like.