The survival of Somali al Qaeda affiliate al Shabaab sets a chilling
Armin Rosen, provided by
Published 5:09 pm, Tuesday, April 7, 2015
Last week's terrorist attack in Garissa, in eastern Kenya, is the
deadliest single massacre ever committed by the Somali al Qaeda
affiliate al Shabaab. The murder of 147 people at a university was the
bleakest possible evidence that there is no target al Shabaab
In exacerbating the 2011-2013 Somali famine, Shabaab — which at that
point controlled far more of the fractious Horn of Africa country than
it does currently — contributed to a disaster that ended up killing
over 260,000 people by blockading humanitarian relief. The large-scale
and mostly-invisible atrocity was on a scale that not even ISIS and
Bokko Haram have been able to match yet.
The university attack also shows certain discontinuities with
Shabaab's recent past. A few years ago, Shabaab controlled the Somali
capital of Mogadishu and attracted foreign fighters from all over East
Africa. Today, it's a terrorist group with a remote safe-haven that
actually exports violence to Somalia's neighbors.
The Garissa attack doesn't prove that Shabaab is getting more brutal —
it was always one of the world's most depraved armed groups. This
isn't even the first time it's attacked a university — Shabaab bombed
a medical school graduation ceremony in Mogadishu in 2009.
Nevertheless, the attack shows that in the absence of territorial
control, Shabaab is inflicting its violence wherever it can while
pushing its network outwards.
"Even a small insurgency, transformed, makes for a huge terrorist
capability," analyst JM Berger wrote in a blog post shortly after the
Garissa attack. And Shabaab has transformed itself in a very specific
way, using methods that, as analyst Clint Watts argued in a World
Politics Review article shortly before the attack, could become a
model for ISIS once it loses its territory.
Shabaab has remained dangerous despite the loss of much of its
territory and top leadership, including the domineering Ahmed Godane
and more recently Adnan Garaar, Shabaab's head of external operations
and the mastermind of the September 2013 Westgate Mall attack in
As Rahma Dualeh, a senior consultant with the Nairobi-based think tank
Sahan Research and an expert in security in the Horn of Africa
explained to Business Insider, Shabaab has a large contingent of
foreign fighters and multiple partner groups inside of Kenya. And it's
created an atmosphere of terror in Somalia in places that it doesn't
still control, ensuring that it maintains enough influence to hold on
to its safe-haven well into the foreseeable future.
Shabaab's foreign network
Dualeh said that there are enough entrenched Shabaab-linked local
groups in Kenya to make it counter-productive to look at terrorism as
a problem emanating solely from the Somali side of the border. It's a
local problem that observers and experts still don't fully understand.
As Dualeh puts it, "It's difficult to identify who the 'them' is" when
looking at terrorism in Kenya."
Is it Al Hijra, the shadowy underground extremist network that may
extend into neighboring Tanzania? Is it the separatist Mombasa
Republican Council, or the jihadist Muslim Youth Council, long
considered to be a Kenyan extension of Shabaab influence?
Shabaab may have also have sleeper cells around with the Horn, with
some yet-unknown operational relationship with local groups. Dualeh
recalled Shabaab's March assassination of a lawyer prosecuting
suspected Shabaab terrorists in Kampala, the typically tranquil
capital of Uganda and site of a major Shabaab attack in 2010. The
event raised the ominous possibility that Shabaab was more present in
the region's population centers than many would like to believe.
"Definitely we have to consider the possibility of sleeper cells in
places we might not have been thinking of, like in Kampala or Dar
el-Salam [Tanzania's capital]," Dualeh says.
Complicating matters is Shabaab's success in drawing foreign recruits.
Shabaab originally formed to fight a multinational African force that
dislodged the fundamentalist Islamic Courts Union from power in
Somalia in 2006. There are large, marginalized Somali minorities in
Ethiopia and Kenya, and a very small but nevertheless worrying number
of Somalis in neighboring countries traveled to Somalia to resist what
some of them viewed as a foreign, Christian occupation of their
Those fighters now have a network that can help them carry out attacks
inside their countries of origin — as Dualeh noted, the suspected head
of al Hijra is believed to be responsible for representing Kenyan
Shabaab fighters in Somalia.
Grievances in Kenya ...
Kenya has a large Somali and Muslim minority that's long suffered from
various forms of political and economic exclusion. A still-ongoing
Kenyan invasion of southern Somalia in 2011, along with a string of
terrorists incidents inside of Kenya, have led to spiking ethnic
tensions along with heavy-handed responses from the country's security
"Mass arrests are coming down hard on the Somali population of Kenya,"
Dualeh explains. The government has tried to deflect criticism by
presenting its terrorist problem as a purely external matter — while
also associating legitimate domestic critics with the country's
"People who are talking about economic and political inclusion are
being labeled as terrorists," Dualeh says, saying that the government
is trying "to make their narrative easier" by associating regional or
ethnic autonomy movements in the country's northern and eastern
regions with the Shabaab threat.
Tensions are particularly high in Kenya's northeastern province, an
impoverished and desertifying border area with a large Somali
population, and a region still hosting large numbers of refugees from
This atmosphere of political and ethnic tension has exploded in the
past, during riots targeting Kenya's Somali community in 2012 and an
anti-Somali backlash in the wake of the Westgate shooting.
This gives Shabaab's network a recruitment opening, while fosters a
general sense of uncertainty and panic in which the region's worst
actors could thrive.
... and an atmosphere of terror in Somalia
Shabaab hasn't ruled over Mogadishu for over 3 years. But the group is
still present and has footholds in the displaced persons camps that
ring the city. Shabaab also killed over 20 people, including a
top-ranking diplomat, in an attack on a Mogadishu hotel just days
before the Garissa massacre.
Even if post-conflict investment is pouring in and Somalia has its
most stable government in a generation, Shabaab is a potent physical
and psychological presence and provide a dispiriting lesson in how a
much-diminished terrorist group can exercises power just by lurking in
For instance, the school system in Mogadishu runs off of Shabaab's
schedule for off-days and holidays rather than the government's, years
after the group last ruled the capital. And Shabaab still exacts taxes
from travelers and transport companies entering and leaving the
capital, even if they work with relief organizations.
"In Somalia it’s becoming increasingly more difficult for them to
maintain ground, but just because they don't maintain ground doesn’t
mean they don’t maintain influence," says Dualeh.
"They're coercive in nature even though Shabaab's not physically
there," she adds, speaking of the Somali capital. "It’s going to be a
long time before we see people carrying out their business without the
fear of Shabaab."
A chilling precedent
Shabaab has foreign fighters, entrenched and covert foreign networks,
and a dangerous psychological advantage over its targets.
Total victory over the group is going to take advances against the
group in Somalia, along with concurrent shifts in Kenya's internal
dynamics. And it'll take a return to normality in Shabaab-effected
regions that might take years or even decades to fully affect.
Shabaab shows that even groups that lose the strategic initiative for
years at a time can remain deadly so long as they can exploit local
grievances and keep their networks intact.
The loss of promising, young life in Garissa is both an unfathomable
tragedy, and a warning as to how illusory conventional victories over
terrorists groups can be. ISIS may lose its territory in the Middle
East one day.
But if Shabaab is any precedent, the world will have swapped the
group's vast territorial control for a set of perhaps more manageable
yet even murkier and even less readily solvable problems.
Received on Wed Apr 08 2015 - 05:14:36 EDT