Al-Shabab Shifts Focus From Territory To Terrorism

Sep 28, 2013
Originally published on September 28, 2013 2:05 pm

Al-Shabab has been around for years as a militia group fighting for territory in Somalia.

When al-Shabab militants, dressed in casual clothes, turned up in a ritzy shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya, last weekend and gunned down men, women and children, the group shifted from an insurgent movement to a terrorist organization.

"A week ago, al-Shabab wasn't in the news," says Bruce Hoffman, a a terrorism expert at Georgetown University and the Rand Corporation. "Arguably, outside of Somalia, no one really cared about them."

Yet the group has dominated the headlines this week. "They've been successful in staging an enormously bloody terrorist event," Hoffman says, "and it's catapulted itself back into prominence as one of the major terrorist forces in the world today."

That's prominence as a terrorist force, not an insurgent force. That was the old al-Shabab, the one defeated by the Somali military and African Union forces — with U.S. support. Under pressure, it's been transformed. No more fighting head-on, trying to hold territory. Instead, it's allied with al-Qaida and dedicated to global jihad.

A Changed Al-Shabab

Al-Shabab is much leaner than it once was, says Katherine Zimmerman, who has been following al-Shabab as an analyst at the American Enterprise Institute.

"Many of the individuals who were there purely to fight an insurgency have peeled away," Zimmerman says. "So what we have now is a strong contingent of individuals who are in al-Shabab because it is an al-Qaida affiliate."

The attack at Nairobi's Westgate mall was not the group's first; three years ago, al-Shabab suicide bombers struck Uganda during a World Cup final. That attack was controversial within al-Shabab. Some of the group's more traditional leaders opposed it. Those leaders, Zimmerman says, have since been purged.

"The leadership is now united in conducting these sorts of attacks abroad in a way that it wasn't three years ago," she says.

An Act Of Strength, Or Desperation?

The Westgate attack showed that al-Shabab now has significant capability as a terrorist group, but does that make it stronger? Not necessarily, says Andrew McGregor, a terrorism analyst with the Jamestown Foundation.

McGregor thinks the Kenya attack showed al-Shabab's decline, not its re-emergence, though he acknowledges he holds the minority perspective.

"My view is that al-Shabab has really taken kind of a desperate stand here with this kind of attack," McGregor says. "Knowing that there will be inevitable retaliation, possibly ending the existence of al-Shabab as an organization, and even more probably ending the existence of much of its leadership."

McGregor thinks the United States, Kenya and other governments will now be even more determined to go after al-Shabab. He doesn't see the Westgate mall attack bringing the group more outside support. A lot of its income, McGregor says, has come from Somalis abroad — the diaspora.

"I think a lot of the diaspora community is not going to look very favorably on this, because now Somalis will be viewed in these other foreign countries as potential security risks," he says.

A Fight That Crosses Boundaries

Examples from other countries may be useful here. Georgetown University's Hoffman compares al-Shabab with the group al-Qaida in Iraq. That group once controlled territory in Iraq, and it was beaten back. Lately, though, it has carried out attacks in Syria.

"We thought as well that al-Qaida in Iraq was crushed in 2009, 2010," Hoffman says. "But it merely reinvented itself as a terrorist organization, and one could argue is now even more formidable and more consequential. Much like al-Shabab, it's operating on a transnational playing field."

Counterterrorism officials do point out that al-Shabab, like al-Qaida in Iraq, is fighting a regional struggle. Despite the big attack in Kenya, they say al-Shabab is not yet seen as threatening the U.S. homeland.

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Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

And in the wake of the attack in Nairobi, Al-Shabab appears to be less an insurgent movement and more of a terrorist group. But whether that means they're stronger or weaker is a matter of debate, as NPR's Tom Gjelten reports.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: Al-Shabab has been around for years as a militia group fighting for territory in Somalia. Then suddenly, Al-Shabab militants turn up in a ritzy shopping mall in Kenya, dressed in casual clothes and gunning down men, women and children.

BRUCE HOFFMAN: A week ago, Al-Shabab wasn't in the news and arguably outside of Somalia no one really cared about them.

GJELTEN: Bruce Hoffman is a terrorism expert at Georgetown University and the Rand Corporation.

HOFFMAN: Today, they've dominated the headlines for nearly a week. They've been successful in staging an enormously bloody terrorist event. And it's catapulted itself back into prominence as one of the major terrorist forces in the world today.

GJELTEN: But as a terrorist force, not an insurgent force. That was the old Al-Shabab, the one defeated by the Somali military and African Union forces. Under pressure, it's been transformed. No more fighting head on, trying to hold territory. Instead, it's allied with al-Qaida and dedicated to global jihad. Katherine Zimmerman has been following Al-Shabab as an analyst at the American Enterprise Institute.

KATHERINE ZIMMERMAN: It is much leaner than it was. And many of the individuals who were there purely to fight an insurgency have peeled away. So, what we have now is a strong contingent of individuals who are in Al-Shabab because it is an al-Qaida affiliate.

GJELTEN: Westgate was not its first terrorist attack; that was in Uganda three years ago. But that attack was controversial within Al-Shabab. Some of the group's more traditional leaders opposed it. But those leaders, Zimmerman says, have since been purged.

ZIMMERMAN: The leadership is now united in conducting these sorts of attacks abroad in a way that it wasn't three years ago.

GJELTEN: And the Westgate attack showed that Al-Shabab now has significant capability as a terrorist group. But does that necessarily make it stronger?

ANDREW MCGREGOR: My view is that Al-Shabab has really taken kind of a desperate stand here with this kind of attack.

GJELTEN: Andrew McGregor is a terrorism analyst with the Jamestown Foundation.

MCGREGOR: Knowing that there will be inevitable retaliation, possibly ending the existence of Al-Shabab as an organization and even more probably ending the existence of much of its leadership.

GJELTEN: McGregor thinks the United States, Kenya, and other governments will now be even more determined to go after Al-Shabab. And he does not see this big attack as bringing the group more outside support. A lot of its income, McGregor says, has come from Somalis abroad - the diaspora.

MCGREGOR: Now, I think a lot of the diaspora community is not going to look very favorably on this because now Somalis will be viewed in these other foreign countries as potential security risks.

GJELTEN: McGregor does say he's in the minority in thinking the Kenya attack showed Al-Shabab's decline not its reemergence. Examples from other countries may be useful here. Georgetown University's Bruce Hoffman compares Al-Shabab with the group AQI - al-Qaida in Iraq. It once controlled territory in Iraq, was beaten, but lately has carried out attacks in Syria.

HOFFMAN: We thought that al-Qaida in Iraq was crushed in 2009, 2010, but it merely reinvented itself as a terrorist organization and one could argue is even more formidable and more consequential, much like Al-Shabab it's operating on a transnational playing field.

GJELTEN: Counterterrorism officials do point out that Al-Shabab, like AQI, is fighting a regional struggle. Despite the big attack in Kenya, they say Al-Shabab is not yet seen as threatening the U.S. homeland. Tom Gjelten, NPR News Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.