After the horrors of the Westgate Mall attack in Nairobi, there will be inevitable questions about the nature of Islamic terrorism in East Africa. However, the attack itself is part of an on-going conflict in Kenya that in turn is part of a bigger regional conflagration based on Somalia. In fact the attack on the mall can be traced back to an international intervention that produced a number of unintended consequences, one of which has been the transformation of the group that perpetrated the attack, Al-Shabaab.
In fact the continued fighting in Somalia and the relative success of the African Union forces against Al-Shabaab fighters may have made the situation less stable and more dangerous for a number of reasons, not least because the movement may have splintered in to a number of cells capable of perpetrating terrorist atrocities rather than holding territory.
What of Al-Shabaab itself? A rather shady organisation that grew out of the youth wing (‘shabaab’ means ‘youth’) of a wider organisation, al-Ittihad al-Islami, one of the Somali extremist groups that existed in the 1980s and 90s, al-Shabaab itself remained relatively unimportant until 2007 following the invasion of Somalia by Ethiopian troops. At that time, al-Shabaab was serving as the military wing of a group known as the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), which established a form of governance within Mogadishu and in parts of the countryside. Following the Ethiopian invasion, the ICU collapsed and al-Shabaab took up arms against the Ethiopian forces, retreating in to a swampy area in the South.
At this point, the movement runs a very conventional guerrilla war against the Ethiopians, at various times supported by the Eritreans in a proxy war against her Ethiopian rival. However, the growing prominence of al-Shabaab and its Islamic roots make it fertile ground for the growth of Al-Qaeda links, as part of a regional spread of Islamic radicalism from Yemen, into the Horn and down the East coast. The increased links are attended by a change in philosophy of violence and a move to the use of suicide bombing as a means of spreading terror at the same time as continuing its conventional warfare against international forces.
In 2008 al-Shabaab mounts a series of suicide bombings against government offices and international agencies as well as the Ethiopian consulate, stating that the attacks are retaliation against the international community for the invasion of Somalia. With the advent of AMISOM in Somalia and African Union troops from Uganda and Burundi, al-Shabaab widened its terrorist campaign and in 2010 mounted its first international attack against an Ethiopian restaurant and rugby club in Uganda.
The AMISOM forces have been very successful on the ground in Somalia and al-Shabaab does not control the same level of territory as they did in 2008. The Kenyan military incursion that started in 2011 has been particularly successful, with the effective Kenyan military pushing back the fighters significantly, including capturing one of al-Shabaab’s last strongholds, Kismayo, a key source of revenue. It was this that led al-Shabaab to call the Westgate attack revenge for Kenyan involvement in Somalia.
The horrific attack can therefore be traced right back to an international intervention in a regional conflict. Not only does this point to a close link between terrorism and more conventional warfare, but also to the transnational nature of much conflict within Africa. The purpose of the attack itself was clearly to send a signal to the Kenyans that they should not send troops to Somalia, and yet it was also a signal that the African Union Somali offensive was being successful.
Losing territory and increasingly unable to hold territory against troops, al-Shabaab has been forced to rethink its strategy. Unfortunately the most logical model for a new strategy is localised cells of terrorists, usually connected to the Somali diaspora, which is very developed following twenty years of conflict. There are approximately 250,000 Somalis in Nairobi alone, which could provide a fertile breeding ground for radicalism, let alone other groups in Uganda and Tanzania.
The blueprint for this type of incident was the Mumbai hotel attack of 2008, which showed the weakness of many public areas frequented by westerners and wealthy locals and was capable of provoking an over-reaction by security forces that could lead to further radicalisation.
Whilst the blueprint is clearly international, al-Shabaab is likely to remain localised and regionally focussed, which makes it far more clear that the only way to deal with radicalised and violent groups like this is to adopt a regional security strategy linked to the conditions as well as the control of regional diasporas. The advantage of groups like al-Shabaab is that once they lose territorial integrity they can reinvent themselves as localised actors with a decentralised form of governance that does not require central bureaucracy and control. This has clear implications for the western approaches to supporting states without related regional strategies.
At the same time, they have a tight system of rules governed by Sharia law, although as the emergence of the most recent al-Shabaab leader, the hard line Ahmed Abdi Godane, also known as Mukhtar Abu Zubair, shows following considerable internal political conflicts and continual defeats of al-Shabaab fighters in Somalia. Worryingly for the region, however, according to a paper from the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, Godane’s tactics were considered too crude by Osama bin Laden.
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