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.

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The first godless US election

America’s evangelical right has chosen Donald Trump, who hardly even pays lip service to having faith.

There has never been an openly non-Christian president of the United States. There has never been an openly atheist senator. God, seemingly, is a rock-solid prerequisite for American political life.

Or it was, until this year.

Early in the 2016 primaries, preacher and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee and former senator Rick Santorum – both darlings of the evangelical far right – fell by the wayside. So did Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, the son of a preacher.

Ted Cruz, once the Republican race had thinned, tried to present himself as the last godly man, but was roundly beaten – even among evangelicals – by Donald Trump, a man whose lip service to religion was so cursory as to verge on satire.

Trump may have claimed in a televised debate that “nobody reads the Bible more than me”, but he demurred when pressed to name even a verse he liked. His pronouncements show a lack of any knowledge or interest in faith and its tenets; he once called a communion wafer his “little cracker”.

The boorish Trump is a man at whose megalomaniacal pronouncements any half-hearted glance reveals a belief in, if any god at all, only the one he sees in a mirror. The national exercise in cognitive dissonance required for America’s religious rightwingers to convince themselves that he’s a candidate with whom they have anything in common is truly staggering.

But evangelicals don’t seem troubled. In the March primary in Florida, Trump carried 49 per cent of the evangelical vote. He won Mississippi, a state where fully three-quarters of Republican primary voters are white evangelicals.

In the Democratic primary, Bernie Sanders became the first Jewish candidate ever to win a presidential primary – though he has barely once spoken about his faith – and Hillary Clinton has spoken about god on the campaign trail only occasionally, without receiving much media play. In fact, when the question of faith came up at one Democratic debate there was a backlash against CNN for even asking.

The truth is that Christian faith as a requisite for political power has drooped into a kind of virtue-signalling: the “Jesus Is My Homeboy” bumper-sticker; the crucifix tattoo; the meme on social media about footprints in the sand. It is about identity politics, tribal politics, me-and-mine versus you-and-yours politics, but it hasn’t really been about faith for a while.

What the hell happened?

Partly, there was a demographic shift. “Unaffiliated” is by far the fastest-growing religious category in the US, according to a study by the Pew Research Center, which also showed that the total proportion of Americans who define as Christian dropped almost 9 percentage points between 2007 and 2014.

There is no doubt that America is still a fairly devout nation compared with the UK, but the political mythos that developed around its Christianity is a relatively late invention. The words “under god” were only implanted into the pledge of allegiance – between the words “one nation” and “indivisible” – in 1954, by President Eisenhower.

The ascendance of the political power of the Christian right in America happened in 1979, when a televangelist called Jerry Falwell founded a pressure group called Moral Majority.

Moral Majority’s support for Ronald Reagan was widely credited for his victory in the 1980 election, which in turn secured for them a position at the top table of Republican politics. For three decades, the Christian right was the single most important voting bloc in America.

But its power has been waning for a decade, and there are greater priorities in the American national psyche now.

Trump’s greatest asset throughout the primary was what makes his religiosity or lack thereof immaterial: his authenticity. His lack of a filter, his ability to wriggle free from gaffes which would have felled any other candidate with a simple shrug. This is what not just religious voters, but all of the Republican voting base were waiting for: someone who isn’t pandering, who hasn’t focus-grouped what they want to hear.

They don’t care that he may or may not truly share their belief in god. Almost all voters in this election cycle – including evangelicals, polling suggests – prioritise the economy over values anyway.

On top of that, the Christian right is facing the beginnings of an insurgency from within its own ranks; a paradigm shift in conservatism. A new culture war is beginning, fought by the alt-right, a movement whelped on anarchic message boards like 4chan, whose philosophical instincts lean towards the libertarian and anarcho-capitalist, and to whom the antique bloviation of Christian morality politics means nothing.

Trump doesn’t pander, an approach only made possible by social media, which amplifies his voice six millionfold while simultaneously circumventing the old establishment constructs – like the media – which had previously acted as gatekeepers to power.

The Christian right – now personified in Jerry Falwell Jr and Liberty University, which Falwell senior founded in the Seventies – found itself another of those constructs. They were forced to choose: jump on board the Trump Train or be left behind.

They chose Trump.

Nicky Woolf is a writer for the Guardian based in the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.