What you need to know about al-Shabab

How the militant Somalia group behind the deadly attack on a Kenyan shopping centre formed, and why it is attacking foreign targets now.

It didn’t take long for the Somali militant group, al-Shabab, to claim responsibility for this weekend’s deadly attack on the Westgate shopping centre in Nairobi. The group, which has a strangely active social media presence despite repeated attempts to close down its twitter feeds, claimed responsibility via twitter and said they were retaliating against Kenyan troops currently fighting militant groups in southern Somalia.

Al-Shabab, which means “the youth” in Arabic, was originally the militant, youth arm of the Islamist coalition the Islamic Courts Union. When Ethiopia invaded Somalia in 2006, al-Shabab gained prominence as part of the armed resistance movement. It flourished in the lawlessness that followed Ethiopia's withdrawal in 2009, bolstered by funding from Eritrea. In 2011 Somalia and African Union forces forced al-Shabab out of Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu, but large swathes of the country are still under al-Shabab control.

Those under al-Shabab rule are subject to the most draconian interpretation of Sharia law, which is violently enforced. Football and music are banned, women are forced to cover their faces in public, and are lashed if they don’t obey. Al-Shabab officially joined Al Qaeda in February 2012, but has long aligned itself with Al Qaeda’s narrative of global jihad, and was first designated by the US as a terrorist organisation in 2008. In 2010 it carried out its first overseas terrorist attack, when two suicide bombers killed 67 people watching the World Cup Final in Kampala, Uganda. Since 2011 al-Shabab has carried out a number of smaller attacks on bars, tourist resorts, churches and military sites in Kenya.

One puzzling aspect of al-Shabab’s latest attack is that many believed al-Shabab was weakening. In September 2012 it was forced out of the strategic port town of Kismayo. The same year,  Somalia's first formal parliament in more than 20 years was sworn in, a sign of improved security and confidence. On 16 September this year, the Somali government secured ₤1.5bn funding from the EU to rebuild the country.

Al-Shabab has also fallen victim to infighting. Its co-founder Ibrahim al-Afghani was killed earlier this year, and several high profile members fled or turned themselves in to government forces following a coup by Ahmed Abdi Godane. Godane is believed to be a keen advocate of closer association with Al Qaeda, and as early as July this year, analysts predicted that Godane’s leadership would lead to an escalation of violence.

As Simon Tisdall concludes in today’s Guardian: "The terrorists are divided and losing ground. But they seem determined to go down fighting."

An image grab taken from AFP TV shows Kenyan troops taking position on 21 September, 2013 inside the Westgate mall in Nairobi. Photo: Getty

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

Show Hide image

What it’s like to be a Syrian refugee in Paris

“We fled from terror and it found us again here. It feels like it is always behind us, stalking us.”

Walid al Omari arrived in Paris a little less than a month ago. Having fled the slaughter of his homeland and undertaken the long and dangerous journey, like tens of thousands of other Syrian refugees, to western Europe, he was finally safe.

Ten days later, a wave of brutal violence tore through the French capital as gunmen and suicide bombers put an end to the lives of 130 people who had been out enjoying a drink, dinner, a concert or a football match.

“It felt like terrorism was everywhere,” recalls the 57-year-old Walid, a former small business owner and journalist from the suburbs of Damascus.

“We fled from terror and it found us again here. It feels like it is always behind us, stalking us.”

Syrian refugees, not just in Paris but across Europe and North America, have since found themselves caught up in a storm of suspicion. The backlash started after it emerged that at least two of the attackers arrived in Europe among refugees travelling to Greece, while a Syrian passport was found next to one of the bodies.

It has not yet been confirmed if the two men were really Syrian – all suspects whose identities have so far been made public were either French or Belgian – while the passport is widely believed to be a fake. But, already, several US states have said they will not accept any more refugees from Syria. In Europe, Poland has called for the EU’s quota scheme for resettling refugees to be scrapped, while lawmakers in France, Germany and elsewhere have called for caps on refugee and migrant numbers.

“I fear the worse,” says Sabreen al Rassace, who works for Revivre, a charity that helps Syrian refugees resettle in France. She says she has been swamped by calls by concerned refugees in the days following the attacks.

“They ask me if the papers they have been given since they arrived in France will be taken away, if they’ll be sent back to Syria,” she says.

Anas Fouiz, who arrived in Paris in September, has experienced the backlash against refugees first hand.

“One waiter at a bar asked me where I was from and when I said Syria he said that I must be a terrorist, that all Arab people are terrorists,” says the 27-year-old from Damascus, who had been a fashion student before leaving for Europe.

The irony is that the terrorist organisation that claimed responsibility for the Paris attacks, the Islamic State, is, along with Bashar al Assad’s army and other militant groups, responsible for the long list of atrocities that prompted many like Walid and Anas to flee their homes.

“As a man in Syria you have the choice of joining the Syrian army, the Islamic state or another militant group, or you run away,” says Anas.

He remembers seeing news of the attacks unfold on television screens in bars and cafés in the Bastille area of Paris – close to where much of the carnage took place – as he drank with a friend. Desensitised by having seen so much violence and death in his home city, he didn’t feel any shock or fear.

“I just felt bad, because I know this situation,” he says. “You just ask yourself ‘why? Why do these people have to die?’.”

Perhaps a more pressing cause for concern is how easily extremists in Europe can travel to Syria and back again through the porous borders on the EU’s fringes – as several of the Paris attacks suspects are thought to have done.

Both Anas and Walid speak of the lax security they faced when entering Europe.

“Turkey lets people across the border for $20,” says Walid.

“In Greece, they just ask you to write your nationality, they don’t check passports,” adds Anas. “It’s the same in Hungary and Macedonia.”

Nevertheless, and despite his experience with the waiter, Anas says he is happy with the welcome he has received by the vast majority of the French people.

In fact, at a time when fear and violence risk deepening religious and social rifts, Anas’s story is a heartening tale of divisions being bridged.

Upon first arriving in Paris he slept on the streets, before a passer-by, a woman of Moroccan origin, offered him a room in her flat. He then spent time at a Christian organization that provides shelter for refugees, before moving in with a French-Jewish family he was put in touch with through another charity.

He says the biggest problem is that he misses his parents, who are still in Damascus.

“I speak to my mum twice a day on the phone,” he says. “She asks me if I’m okay, if I’m keeping safe. She’s worried about me.”