TSG IntelBrief: Assessing al-Shabab’s Revenge Threat
September 17, 2014
Bottom Line Up Front:
• With the so-called Islamic State understandably generating intense concern, the threat of al-Shabab in Africa actually might be a more immediate terrorist problem
• Ugandan authorities recently disrupted a serious plot involving 25 people associated with al-Shabab, likely thwarting a revenge attack promised by the group after the death of its leader Ahmed Abdi Godane on September 2, 2014
• The attack apparently involved explosives at a crowded venue to create initial chaos, with armed gunmen then shooting for maximum casualties, similar to the Westgate Mall attack in Nairobi, Kenya that left at least 67 people dead nearly one year ago
• Al-Shabab has a demonstrated record of conducting high-profile terrorist attacks in both Uganda and Kenya against soft targets, as well as in Somalia; the group will most certainly continue to seek opportunities to conduct revenge attacks.
A troubling truth of current geopolitical threats is that no matter how much one group seizes the headlines, as in the understandable case of the so-called Islamic State, other groups might present a more immediate concern in terms of terrorist attacks on soft-targets. Al-Shabab, the al-Qaeda affiliated terrorist group based in Somalia, vowed to conduct retaliatory attacks against several African countries as well as the United States after the early September targeted killing of Ahmed Abdi Godane, the group’s leader.
Unfortunately, al-Shabab’s vows of revenge are not mere bluster, but likely a clear statement of intent. Last week, Ugandan security officials disrupted a serious plot by suspected al-Shabab operatives in the capital of Kampala. The suspects, along with their weapons and explosives, were arrested in the suburbs of the capital, with large Somali populations. Officials believe the suspects intended to set off explosives at various crowded soft targets, and then armed gunmen would attack civilians to cause as many causalities as possible, much as the Westgate Mall attack in Nairobi, Kenya on September 21, 2013 that killed at least 67 people.
The Ugandan arrests are a significant intelligence success and, as Scott H. DeLisi, the US Ambassador to Uganda, noted in a phone call to Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, “the work of the Ugandan security agencies certainly saved lives.” The intelligence agencies evidently trailed the operatives as they snuck across the Ugandan border from both Kenya and South Sudan and then continued to travel to the Kampala suburbs of Kisenyi, Nakulabye, Kasubi, Busega, and Lungujja. The nature of soft-target attacks is that it greatly narrows the window of disruption, in that malls, large markets, and similar venues are by design open and easy to enter. If the intelligence services hadn’t detected the plot before it was launched, it would have like resulted in significant loss of life.
The cooperation between Ugandan and US officials is vital to suppressing al-Shabab. It was the accurate information from the Ugandan Peoples Defense Force (UPDF), as part of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), that led to the US airstrike that killed al-Shabab leader Godane. In a way, the Ugandan success is a hint of what can be achieved with regional coalitions like that being attempted in the formation of an anti-IS coalition in Syria and Iraq, composed of Western and Arab countries. Without local sources working with local services, US airstrikes will be symbolic at best. Creating a regional force that has a sustained presence, much like AMISOM, provides a platform from which moderate regional governments can expand their reach into chaotic landscapes.
Despite this success, the threat of a near-term al-Shabab revenge attack remains extraordinarily high. Al-Shabab’s new leader, Ahmad Umar Abu Ubaidah, reaffirmed both his group’s commitment to al-Qaeda and vengeance for the death of Godane. Al-Shabab has found success before in Uganda, killing 76 people watching the 2010 World Cup in Kampala as revenge for Uganda’s participating in AMISOM. In addition to Uganda, al-Shabab is a threat to both South Sudan and Kenya, as evidenced by the Westgate attack. The US embassy in Kampala has lowered the threat level slightly, while Ugandan officials remain on high alert. Given the group’s history and public statements for revenge, al-Shabab will remain an extremely viable threat for the near-term across the region.
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