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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Leave.EU is backing a racist President - why aren't more Brexiteers condemning it?

Our own homegrown Trump trumpeters. 

The braver Republican politicians are condemning Donald Trump after he backtracked on his condemnation of far-right protestors in Charlottesville. “You had a group on one side and group on the other,” said the US president of a night in which an anti-fascist protestor was run over. Given the far-right protestors included neo-Nazis, it seems we’re heading for a revisionist history of the Second World War as well. 

John McCain, he of the healthcare bill heroics, was one of the first Republicans to speak out, declaring there was “no moral equivalency between racists and Americans standing up to defy hate and bigotry”. Jeb Bush, another former presidential hopeful, added: “This is a time for moral clarity, not ambivalence.”

In the UK, however, Leave.EU, the campaign funded by Ukip donor Arron Banks, fronted by Nigel Farage, tweeted: “President Trump, an outstanding unifying force for a country divided by a shamefully blinkered liberal elite.” A further insight into why Leave.EU has come over so chirpy may be gleaned by Banks’s own Twitter feed. “It was just a punch up with nutters on all sides,” is his take on Charlottesville. 

Farage’s support for Trump – aka Mr Brexit – is well-known. But Leave.EU is not restricted to the antics of the White House. As Martin Plaut recently documented in The New Statesman, Leave.EU has produced a video lauding the efforts of Defend Europe, a boat organised by the European far-right to disrupt humanitarian rescues of asylum seekers crossing the dangerous Mediterranean Sea. There are also videos devoted to politicians from “patriotic" if authoritarian Hungary – intriguing for a campaign which claims to be concerned with democratic rights.

Mainstream Brexiteers can scoff and say they don’t support Leave.EU, just as mainstream Republicans scoffed at Trump until he won the party’s presidential nomination. But the fact remains that while the official Brexit campaign, Vote Leave, has more or less retired, Leave.EU has more than 840,000 Facebook followers and pumps out messages on a daily basis not too out of sync with Trump’s own. There is a feeling among some Brexiteers that the movement has gone too far. "While Leave.EU did great work in mobilising volunteers during their referendum, their unnecessarily robust attacks and campaigning since has bordered on the outright racist and has had damaged the Brexit cause," one key Leave supporter told me. 

When it comes to the cause of Brexit, many politicians chose to share a platform with Leave.EU campaigners, including Labour’s Kate Hoey and Brexit secretary David Davis. Some, like Jacob Rees-Mogg, get cheered on a regular basis by Leave.EU’s Facebook page. Such politicians should choose this moment to definitively reject Leave.EU's advances. If not, then when? 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.