Al-Shabab reborn: Armed, lethal and radicalized

In a 2010 posting, “Fractionalized, Armed and Lethal: Why Somalia Matters,” and another one in 2011, “The International Community Must Support Kenya’s War on Al-Shabab,” I outlined a number of factors that made the terrorist group al-Shabab, which has its base in Somalia, extremely dangerous. I stressed the fact that the group was then amassing capacity to export terror, and I therefore called for an international effort to tackle the terrorism problem in that country. I expressed the fear that, left untamed, al-Shabab would pose a serious threat to the region and would eventually have the capacity to export terror far and wide. I warned that the capacity for the militant group to export terror beyond Somalia was grossly underestimated by the international community.

And sure enough, in 2013, the group attacked a busy mall in Kenya, killing over 60 people and injuring many others. Again, in a posting following that attack, “Massacre in Nairobi: Kenya under Siege as Al-Shabab Consolidates,” I proposed that the war on al-Shabab should not be left to Kenya and other African countries alone: Instead, extinguishing the group required well-coordinated international efforts, else the group would continue to impart terror on Kenya for her role in fighting the group inside Somalia.  Yesterday (April 2, 2015), the group killed 147 students and injured many others at a college campus in the northern Kenyan town of Garissa. In between these mega attacks, there have been many others that have resulted in deaths of hundreds of innocent Kenyans.

The United States and several countries have been involved in some credible attempts to extinguish al-Shabab. As a matter of fact, recently there was  growing optimism that al-Shabab was finally on its deathbed, especially following Kenya and other African countries military forces’ involvement in fighting the terror group inside Somalia and complemented by successful targeted hits by the United States that have eliminated key leaders of the group. There was also an expectation that the group would disintegrate with the emergence of a relatively more stable Somalian state, as has been the case over the last few years. Sadly, this group is as strong as ever and, if anything, has become more lethal and radical, behaving much like ISIS: merciless and irrational—especially regarding attacks on innocent people. The recent activities by the terror group clearly show that the perception or optimism of a weakened al-Shabab is quite wrong and likely to be extremely costly in the future. 

Kenya has taken the lead in the fight against al-Shabab, and thousands of its military forces remain in Somalia. But the country has also borne the blunt of the group’s terror activities, which have had serious adverse consequences such as loss of life, negative perception about the country that has impacted tourism, and the general investment climate.  With a large population of Kenyan Somalis and a long, porous border with Somalia, Kenya has found it extremely difficult to control the entry of members of the terrorist group. Furthermore, Kenya’s generosity in accommodating hundreds of thousands of Somali refugees also complicates the war on terror against the group. The desperation among many young Somalis has also been a trigger to join these radicals. No doubt attacks on Kenya are in part a reiteration of the pain inflicted on the group by other countries, including recent killings of al-Shabab leaders by the United States.

The recent activities by al-Shabab clearly point to a well-organized and well-equipped terror group that is determined to impart terror without remorse. Clearly the war on al-Shabab is being lost primarily because, although there have been African and multinational efforts to extinguish the group, these efforts do not go far enough falls short of what is necessary to eradicate the group, and Kenya has been taking a disproportionate share of this war. Yes, there are other important actors including the United States whose drones have made important hits on the group; however, still these and other international efforts are quite limited in their impact and hold little potential to seriously weaken the group. In fact, some of the sporadic hits on the group may be counterproductive as they just trigger more attacks on Kenya. On the issue of al-Shabab, the response by international community has been an embarrassment to say the least. More must be done, but this must be led by Africans themselves, and the African Union must up its game in this respect.

As in my previous posts, I still believe that the international community continues to grossly underestimate al-Shabab’s capacity to export terror and thus maintains only a limited focus on the group than what is necessary to weaken it. In part, I think this is because the international community considers the group’s activities a local East African problem and unlikely to pose a serious threat to the interests of other nations including those of the West. In essence, al-Shabab is not considered a global problem but rather an East African one. This, in my view, has been the primary reason al-Shabab remains active and apparently growing in strength. The success of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, Boko Haram in Nigeria, and the chaos in Yemen, will only encourage al-Shabab, and we are likely to see more activities by this group. In addition, given the proximity of Yemen to Somalia, al-Shabab is likely to be a primary beneficiary of the chaos in Yemen. 

The recent activities by al-Shabab have earned the group a place in what I would refer to the international “Terrorist Hall of Fame,” which will only boost the group’s recruitment efforts and expand its tentacles far and wide. Indeed, al-Shabab has been reborn—armed, lethal, and radicalized.