TSG IntelBrief: Al-Shabab’s Determination to Strike Outside Somalia
September 23, 2013
The September 21 attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya, by the Somali terrorist group al-Shabab puts the organization squarely back in the international spot light. After suffering a series of significant setbacks over the past two years at the hands of UN-backed African Union (AU) forces, and stepped-up American military campaigns, al-Shabab lost significant ground in its own back yard. The group was driven from several key cities and towns—including the capital, Mogadishu, and the vital port city of Kismayo—it had seized while fighting weaker, Somali government forces. After losing a large number of fighters against the AU, al-Shabab was forced to retreat into more rural, less accessible areas to reconsolidate.
Having lost the initiative and its ability to muster large numbers of fighters capable of seizing urban centers and mounting large-scale offensives, al-Shabab returned to its traditional modus operandi within the last few years, and has claimed responsibility for several raids and bombings throughout Somalia, including a complex attack in June on a UN compound in Mogadishu and the suicide bombing of a restaurant earlier this month.
This weekend’s attack in Kenya, which is reminiscent of the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks, should come as no surprise. Not only has al-Shabab been promising just such an action for the past two years as retribution against Kenya for the aggressive role it has played against al-Shabab—both unilaterally and as a key contributor to the AU force currently operating in Somalia—but Kenyan security forces reportedly disrupted a major plot for an attack in Nairobi in September of last year. Coupled with the successful July 13, 2010, al-Shabab attack in Kampala, Uganda, these incidents prove the group is capable of operating effectively outside of Somali borders, and sets an operational precedent for future—now current—cross-border operations.
Given the effectiveness of its past several operations, it’s not unreasonable to expect more of the same from al-Shabab in the future. However, with preliminary news reports indicating the group’s latest attack is responsible for the death of Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta’s nephew and at least one Canadian diplomat—and either killed or injured American, French and, possibly, Chinese nationals—al-Shabab may have bitten off more than it can chew. President Obama has already pledged American support to help Kenya in its efforts to track down the perpetrators, and Britain has reportedly sent a special team of security advisors to the site. Israel, at the behest of the Kenyan government, has reportedly also sent a special team of advisors to the scene.
With the Kenyan President having a personal stake in this terrorist attack, and with major Western nations committed to backing Kenyan efforts to bring to justice the perpetrators after the fact, it’s apt to question whether al-Shabab’s latest “victory” may be or short-lived.
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