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.