What Does the Kenya Attack Tell Us About Al-Qaeda in Africa?

by Patrick Brennan

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.

Al-Shabaab definitely hasn’t been on a roll of late: Since around the beginning of 2012, the Somali central government has exerted more control over territory and made the capital more secure than it had been in years. The group began as a militia around 2006 when an Islamist government actually established control over a number of Somali cities, including the capital; Ethiopian forces, with U.S. support, smashed that government and drove them into rural areas in 2007. Shabaab grew into a more important and highly effective militia, at one point in 2010 and 2011 controlling large swaths of southern Somalia, including the important port of Kismayo, and seizing small villages at a regular clip. Since then, the African Union peacekeeping force in the country has won a number of important victories against the Islamist group, and beaten them back significantly, retaking Kismayo in the fall of 2012. (That U.S.-supported East African peacekeeping force — Kenya was unilaterally involved but now is part of the force — and Ethiopia’s involvement has at times meant Shabaab’s terrorist attacks and relatiations against East African countries are perceived as a nationalistic effort to beat back local hegemons.)

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 most obvious evidence: In February 2012, Shabaab’s leader pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda globally, and Ayman al-Zawahiri, the AQ global leader, accepted it. More substantively, they’ve engaged in more efforts to recruit foreign fighters, who obviously lack any interest in avenging East African governments’ involvement in Somalia, and had a good deal of success at it, including gaining a non-negligible number of Americans. Naturally coinciding with this recruiting shift, parts of Shabaab’s rhetoric have put greater emphasis on global Islamic jihad, a permanent war, and attacks on Israeli-affiliated targets, rather than a national struggle to put Somalia under Islamist rule. The rise of suicide attacks in Somalia suggests a rise in the influence of al-Qaeda, too — though like all of these things, it’s important to note that the ideological alignment with al-Qaeda (and global jihad itself) has increased a lot more than we know any specific, useful cooperation has.

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.