Al Shabaab: Background on the Somalia-based Terrorist Group that Attacked a Nairobi Mall

The al Shabaab (variously spelled “Shabab” and “Shebaab”) terrorist group, an al Qaeda-affiliated organization with roots in Somalia, attacked shoppers in a Nairobi, Kenya mall this weekend, killing scores. A seige continues there.

Mwangi Kimenyi, director of the Africa Growth Initiative, writes that the “cowardly and unprovoked attack on innocent people demonstrates the fact that al-Shabab is determined on revenge for the leading role that Kenya played in stabilizing Somalia” and that the war against the terrorist group “should be a war by all nations that seek peace and that value the life of all people.”

Bruce Riedel, who directs the Intelligence Project at Brookings, connects the Nairobi mall tactics to those used in the 2008 terrorist assault on Mumbai. “Mumbai was really a tactical breakthrough in the use of trained multiple killing units,” Riedel told The Daily Beast. “The biggest surprise is that we have not seen more people try to emulate that tactic sooner.” Amplifying this connection to al Qaeda, Riedel added: “It may not be a lot of people, but there is every reason to believe the communications are steady between these groups [al-Shabaab and al Qaeda’s core leadership in Pakistan]. Al-Shabaab has never wavered in their fealty to [al Qaeda leader] Zawahiri.”

Senior Fellow Vanda Felbab-Brown visited Somalia in April 2013, finding there an “upbeat vibe about the progress achieved over the past year.” Yet she noted the precarious nature of that progress, and spoke to the continuing threat from al Shabaab, saying that it is “much weakened” but that many “fighters have simply gone to the ground … with their weapons.”

She told the New York Times today that “Shabab is both far more fractured than it has been and arguably more radicalized. They are far more limited in what they can do in Somalia, and that drives spectacular attacks abroad. … The leadership needs to demonstrate they are still alive, both abroad and to their own fighters.

Senior Fellow Daniel Byman detailed the extent to which al Qaeda, through offshoots like al Shabaab, remains alive in Africa and has even prospered.

Byman explained the origin of the Somalia-based group in a paper last year titled “Breaking the Bonds Between Al-Qa’ida and Its Affiliate Organizations,” a description that bears reprinting in full:

In February 2012, the Somali-based Shebaab formally declared its loyalty to al-Qa’ida, a move that capped the transformation of al-Qa’ida’s on-again, off-again relationship with Somali militants into a more substantial partnership. In the early 1990s, al-Qa’ida tried to work in the collapsed Somali state, but often found the violent civil war there overwhelming, so much so that its operatives were unable to make significant inroads. It did, however, use Somalia as part of a regional base for attacks against U.S. and UN peacekeepers and strikes in Kenya against U.S. and Israeli targets.

During that decade, al-Qa’ida worked with al-Itihaad al-Islami (AIAI), a Somali militant group that wanted to make Somalia an Islamic state. Other foreign jihadists also helped train members of AIAI, and wealthy donors from the Persian Gulf states, along with al-Qa’ida, played a key role in funding the group. In the late 1990s, however, AIAI collapsed. Several years later, in 2003, a small al-Qa’ida-linked network emerged in Mogadishu, and after only a couple of years began to gain strength.

Beginning in 2005, the al-Qa’ida core started to make considerable gains in Somalia, and by 2007, the Shebaab, which had split from other Islamist groups, was trying to establish closer links to it. In 2008, both al-Qa’ida and the Shebaab used their respective websites to praise each other, and in September 2009, the Shebaab made a public declaration of allegiance to Osama bin Laden. The love fest continued in the years that followed, with the Shebaab pledging support for Zawahiri after bin Laden’s death and then in 2012 more formally joining al-Qa’ida by declaring Shebaab members “will march with you as loyal soldiers.” Some fighters who had trained in al-Qa’ida camps in Afghanistan moved to Somalia to train members of the Shebaab, and the two groups currently cooperate closely on everything from indoctrination and basic infantry skills to advanced training in explosives and assassination.

Al-Qa’ida members now also reportedly play important roles in the Shebaab leadership—by one count, over half of the Shebaab’s executive council are foreigners, and the organization in turn has embraced more global rhetoric and propaganda. Out of a total of 3,000 to 7,000 fighters, perhaps 200 to 300 are non-Somalis, and a number of others are Somalis from the diaspora. As the International Crisis Group concluded, “The hardliners, led by the foreign jihadis, wield enormous influence and have access to resources and the means to dictate their wishes to the less powerful factions.”

In 2011, Kimenyi had warned that al Shabaab “is growing in strength and if unchecked, the group will spread its tentacles to all of Africa and the Middle East.” He also pointed out how a lawless Somalia was becoming a breeding ground for terrorists and Kenya’s front-line role in the fight to eradicate it:

The continued fragmentation and absence of operational state organs to enforce rule-of-law has exposed the people of Somalia to abuse by war lords and terror groups. Kenya, however, has remained steadfast in its support of the people of Somalia. The country is home to many Somali refugees and has been an important link for the delivery of aid to Somalia. In the past, Kenya has housed the Somali government and even today, Kenya is the only place that many Somali nationals consider a safe haven. For decades, Kenya has carried a disproportionate burden imposed by the flow of Somali refugees and, thus would be a major beneficiary of a peaceful Somalia. Al Shabaab, however, does not represent the people of Somalia.

Read more from Kimenyi on why Somalia matters.