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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France is changing: an army stalks the streets and Boris Johnson wanders the Tuileries

Will Self on the militarisation of France, and Boris Johnson at the Foreign Office.

At the corner of the rue D’Hauteville and the rue de Paradis in the tenth arrondissement of Paris is a retro-video-games-themed bar, Le Fantôme, which is frequented by some not-so-jeunes gens – the kind of thirtysomethings nostalgic for an era when you had to go to an actual place if you wanted to enter virtual space. They sit placidly behind the plate-glass windows zapping Pac-Men and Space Invaders, while outside another – and rather more lethal – sort of phantom stalks the sunlit streets.

I often go to Paris for work, and so have been able to register the incremental militarisation of its streets since President Hollande first declared a state of emergency after last November’s terrorist attacks. In general the French seem more comfortable about this prêt-à-porter khaki than we’d probably be; the army-nation concept is, after all, encrypted deep in their collective psyche. The army was constituted as a revolutionary instrument. France was the first modern nation to introduce universal male conscription – and it continued in one form or another right up until the mid-1990s.

Even so, it was surprising to witness the sang-froid with which Parisians regarded the camouflaged phantoms wandering among them: a patrol numbering eight ­infantrymen and women moved up the roadway, scoping out doorways, nosing into passages – but when one peered into Le Fantôme, his assault rifle levelled, none of the boozing gamers paid the least attention. I witnessed this scene the Saturday after Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel ran amok on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice – it was a little preview of the new state of emergency.

On Monday 18 July the French premier, Manuel Valls, was booed at a memorial service for the victims of the Nice attacks – while Marine Le Pen has been making all the populist running, whipping up anxieties about the enemy within. For many French, the events of the past week – including the failed Turkish coup – are steps along the way limned by Michel Houellebecq in his bestselling novel Submission; a via dolorosa that ends with La Marianne wearing the hijab and France itself annexed by a new caliphate.

Into this febrile drama comes a new player: Boris Johnson, the British Foreign Secretary. What can we expect from this freshly minted statesman when it comes to our relations with our closest neighbour? There is no doubt that Johnson is a Francophile – I’ve run into him and his family at the Tuileries, and he made much of his own francophone status during the referendum campaign. In Paris last winter to launch the French edition of his Churchill biography, Johnson wowed a publication dinner by speaking French for the entire evening. He was sufficiently fluent to bumble, waffle and generally avoid saying anything serious at all.

Last Sunday I attended the Lambeth Country Show, an oxymoronic event for which the diverse inhabitants of my home borough gather in Brockwell Park, south London, for jerked and halal chicken, funfair rides, Quidditch-watching, and “country-style” activities, such as looking at farm animals and buying their products. Wandering among ancient Rastafarians with huge shocks of dreadlocks, British Muslims wearing immaculate white kurtas blazoned with “ASK ME ABOUT ISLAM” and crusty old Brixton punks, I found it quite impossible to rid my mind of the Nice carnage – or stop wondering how they would react if armed soldiers were patrolling, instead of tit-helmeted, emphatically unarmed police.

I stepped into the Royal Horticultural Society marquee, and there they were: the entire cast of our end-of-the-pier-show politics, in vegetable-sculpture form and arrayed for judging. There was Jeremy Corbyn (or “Cornbin”) made out of corncobs – and Boris Johnson in the form of a beetroot, being stabbed in the back by a beetroot Michael Gove. And over there was Johnson again, this time rendered in cabbage. The veggie politicians were the big draw, Brixtonians standing six-deep around them, iPhones aloft.

The animal (as opposed to the vegetable) Johnson has begun his diplomatic rounds this week, his first démarches as tasteless and anodyne as cucumber. No British abandonment of friends after Brexit . . . Coordinated response to terror threat . . . Call for Erdogan to be restrained in response to failed coup . . . Blah-blah, whiff-whaff-waffle . . . Even someone as gaffe-prone as he can manage these simple lines, but I very much doubt he will be able to produce rhetorical flourishes as powerful as his hero’s. In The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History, Johnson writes of Winnie overcoming “his stammer and his depression and his ­appalling father to become the greatest living Englishman”. Well, I’ve no idea if Bojo suffers from depression now but he soon will if he cleaves to this role model. His Churchill-worship (like so many others’) hinges on his belief that, without Churchill as war leader, Britain would have been ground beneath the Nazi jackboot. It may well be that, with his contribution to the Brexit campaign, Johnson now feels he, too, has wrested our national destiny from the slavering jaws of contingency.

Of course the differences between the two politicians are far more significant: Johnson’s genius – such as it is – lies in his intuitive understanding that politics, in our intensely mediatised and entirely commoditised era, is best conceived of as a series of spectacles or stunts: nowadays you can fool most of the people, most of the time. This is not a view you can imagine associating with Churchill, who, when his Gallipoli stratagem went disastrously wrong, exiled himself, rifle in hand, to the trenches. No, the French people Johnson both resembles and has an affinity for are the ones caught up in the virtual reality of Le Fantôme – rather than those patrolling the real and increasingly mean streets without. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt