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

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The rise of anti-Semitism in Donald Trump's America

On Monday, a Jewish cemetery was desecrated. 

Anti-Semitism is once again on the rise in America. Since January alone, there have been 67 bomb threats against Jewish Community Centres in around 27 states around the country. On Monday, a Jewish cemetery in St Louis, Missouri was desecrated, with over 100 headstones overturned. There has been a large increase in online anti-Semitic threats and hate speechSwastikas have been spray painted on the streets of New York.

Trump's poorly-executed "Muslim Ban" has closed the United States to people from seven majority-Muslim countries, including refugees from Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Somalia. But the divisive "them" and "us" rhetoric of the White House has had repercussions for other groups as well. 

Jewish people have not explicitly been the focus of any kind of executive order (after complaints about his lack of action, Trump called anti-Semitism "horrible"). Nevertheless, the new administrations appears to be implicitly pandering to anti-Jewish sentiment.

Take, for example, the official White House tribute issued on Holocaust Memorial Day in January. It failed to directly mention Jewish people at all. Jewish groups, including those representing Republicans, criticised the omission. Trump's chief of staff Reince Priebus defended the statement, saying: "I mean, everyone’s suffering in the Holocaust, including, obviously, all of the Jewish people.”

Superficially, one could attribute this to ignorance. But how politicians phrase their words matters. It is a common tendency of anti-Semites to play down, ignore or reject the idea that the Holocaust was targeted at Jews. It is hard to believe that no one within the White House would have been aware of the kind of dog whistle this omission sent to the extreme right. 

That White House staff includes Trump's chief strategist, Steve Bannon, who was the executive chairman of Breitbart, viewed widely as the online news outlet of the "alt right".

Timing also matters. The decision to shut US doors to Syrian and and Iraqi refugees was announced on Holocaust Memorial Day. The irony of an order singling people out for their faith wasn't lost on Jewish groups, who know all too well how many German Jews fleeing the Nazis were turned away from other shores. 

Trump's response time sent a message too. When a Hasidic Jewish reporter asked Trump about the growing anti-Semitism at his press conference on 16 February, he responded as if it was a personal attack, calling the question "very insulting" and telling him to sit down. Despite tweeting vociferously about Saturday Night Live and his daughter’s clothing line being dropped by a department store, Trump only managed to issue a statement condemning anti-Semitism on Tuesday.

David Samuels is a prominent Jewish writer living in Brooklyn, New York. He told me: "American Jews are threatened by rising anti-Semitism on both the right and left, which FBI statistics show to be more serious and more deadly than any animus directed towards Muslims or any other religious group.

"I feel sad that this is now my country, not because I am Jewish but because anti-Semitism is a degenerative thought-virus that makes people crazy by promising to explain everything that happens in the world with reference to a single prime mover - the Jews.

"Because anti-Semitism is a conspiracy theory, and not a form of social prejudice, it is fatal to rational thinking, in a way that simple racial or religious prejudice - including prejudice against Jews - is not."

Whatever the intentions of the Trump administration, the reaction in the country at large shows it is playing with fire. Americans must hope that Trump, who has three Jewish grandchildren, will come to his senses and rid his support base of any who seek to use the presidency to infect the country with their diabolical ideology. 

Lola Adesioye is a British writer based in New York. Follow her @LolaAdesioye.