What next for al-Shabab?

The decision to launch a terrorist attack abroad might reflect its inability to mount a successful offensive against African Union troops on the ground but it is also a mark of al-Shabab’s enduring strength.

It didn’t take long for the Somali militant group al-Shabab to claim responsibility for the deadly siege on the Westgate shopping centre in Nairobi. The group, which maintains an active social media presence despite repeated attempts to close its accounts, announced on Twitter that it was carrying out the attack in retribution for Kenyan troops now fighting militants in southern Somalia.
 
Al-Shabab, which means “the youth” in Arabic, first emerged as a radical youth arm of the Union of Islamic Courts, an Islamist coalition, and gained prominence as part of the armed resistance to Ethiopia’s invasion of Somalia in 2006. It flourished in the lawlessness that followed Ethiopia’s withdrawal in 2009, bolstered by funding from Eritrea. In 2011, African Union troops forced al-Shabab out of the Somali capital, Mogadishu, but swaths of the country are still under al-Shabab control. Al-Shabab officially joined al-Qaeda in February 2012 but has long aligned itself with al-Qaeda’s narrative of global jihad. In 2010 al-Shabab suicide bombers killed 67 people in the Ugandan capital, Kampala, and since 2011 it has carried out smaller attacks in Kenya.
 
The group’s latest and most ambitious strike on a foreign target reflects its changed circumstances in Somalia, as well as a shift in al-Qaeda’s global strategy. Militarily, al-Shabab’s position in Somalia is weakening. In September 2012, it was forced out of the strategic port town of Kismayo. The same year, Somalia’s first formal parliament in over two decades was sworn in, and just five days before the Nairobi attack the Somali government secured a pledge of €1.5bn from the EU to rebuild the country.
 
The decision to launch a terrorist attack abroad might reflect its inability to mount a successful offensive against African Union troops on the ground but it is also a mark of al-Shabab’s enduring strength.
 
“I’ve seen a lot of commentary that says this has been one of the dying throes of the organisation,” says Raffaello Pantucci, a senior research fellow at the defence and security think tank the Royal United Services Institute. “But really the organisation is showing that it still exists and is able to carry out complex operations.”
 
The Westgate siege follows a period of infighting. Al- Shabab’s co-founder Ibrahim al-Afghani was killed earlier this year and several highprofile members fled or turned themselves in after a coup by his leadership rival Ahmed Abdi Godane. Godane is seen as a keen advocate of greater foreign involvement and closer association with al-Qaeda.
 
Meanwhile, there’s al-Qaeda’s organisational structure following Osama Bin Laden’s death. “Al-Qaeda, with al-Shabab as a key affiliate, wants to set up an East African arm,” says Jonathan Russell, a Middle East analyst at the Quilliam Foundation, which researches counter-extremism. “There’s a high proportion of Muslims there, plus the power vacuum in Somalia offers a real strategic opportunity for al- Qaeda.” This mirrors a broader trend, with al-Qaeda evolving from a monolithic organisation into looser groupings of regional affiliates.
 
The Westgate attack was a chilling reminder of al-Qaeda’s global reach and the disastrous consequences of Somalia’s civil collapse, but Russell believes al-Shabab has “bitten off more than it can chew”. A nephew of Uhuru Kenyatta, Kenya’s president, was killed in the attack, adding a personal dimension to his pledge to redouble his country’s military offensive in Somalia. The US, UK and Israel have already announced their support.
The spokesperson for Somalia's Al-Shabaab militant group, Robow Abu Mansur (C), is escorted on December 14, 2008 by bodyguards to a press conference just outside Mogadishu. Image: Getty

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 30 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory Game of Thrones

Photo: Getty
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Britain is running out of allies as it squares up to Russia

For whatever reason, Donald Trump is going to be no friend of an anti-Russia foreign policy.

The row over Donald Trump and that dossier rumbles on.

Nothing puts legs on a story like a domestic angle, and that the retired spy who compiled the file is a one of our own has excited Britain’s headline writers. The man in question, Christopher Steele, has gone to ground having told his neighbour to look after his cats before vanishing.

Although the dossier contains known errors, Steele is regarded in the intelligence community as a serious operator not known for passing on unsubstantiated rumours, which is one reason why American intelligence is investigating the claims.

“Britain's role in Trump dossier” is the Telegraph’s splash, “The ‘credible’ ex-MI6 man behind Trump Russia report” is the Guardian’s angle, “British spy in hiding” is the i’s splash.

But it’s not only British headline writers who are exercised by Mr Steele; the Russian government is too. “MI6 officers are never ex,” the Russian Embassy tweeted, accusing the UK of “briefing both ways - against Russia and US President”. “Kremlin blames Britain for Trump sex storm” is the Mail’s splash.

Elsewhere, Crispin Blunt, the chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, warns that relations between the United Kingdom and Russia are as “bad as they can get” in peacetime.

Though much of the coverage of the Trump dossier has focused on the eyecatching claims about whether or not the President-Elect was caught in a Russian honeytrap, the important thing, as I said yesterday, is that the man who is seven days from becoming President of the United States, whether through inclination or intimidation, is not going to be a reliable friend of the United Kingdom against Russia.

Though Emanuel Macron might just sneak into the second round of the French presidency, it still looks likely that the final choice for French voters will be an all-Russia affair, between Francois Fillon and Marine Le Pen.

For one reason or another, Britain’s stand against Russia looks likely to be very lonely indeed.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.