Dhaka, Bangladesh
A growing threat to Africa

A growing threat to Africa

Shabaab has been successful in honing a message that reaches people outside of Somalia, notably the West, opines Shabtai Gold

The attack on the Westgate mall in Nairobi is being described by Kenyan officials as an “isolated incident,” but experts say this may only be true in terms of its scale.
Somalia’s Al Shabaab group claiming the massacre that killed at least 67 people, has managed to disrupt life in Kenya since 2011. It began with cross border raids and kidnappings, then escalated to grenade attacks and shootings, though mostly limited in scope.
The Westgate siege has now brought Kenya and its allies in the West to a “crisis point,” said Mike Jennings, the Chair of the Centre of African Studies at SOAS, University of London.
“No government in the world is capable of stopping all attacks, but it does seem to be that there are problems with Kenyan intelligence. And this is compounded by Kenya’s already ongoing domestic political crisis,” Jennings noted.
Among the unanswered questions about the attack, one of the most crucial is: What’s next? “Is this a one-off spectacular, reminding the international community that Shabaab still matters, or do they have the capacity to keep this going?” asked Jenning.
Anneli Botha, a former police officer now working as a senior researcher focused on counter-terrorism at the Institute for Security Studies, said Shabaab will try to stage more attacks outside its base in Somalia.
“I think Shabaab will try over and over again to intimidate the public in Kenya, Uganda and Burundi and the East Africa region as a whole,” she said.
Those are the main countries contributing troops to the African Union (AU) peacekeeping mission in Somalia fighting the groups.
Botha notes that Shabaab has been successful in honing a message that reaches people outside of Somalia. Notably, several Westerners are said to have been involved in the mall attack.
In 2010, the group claimed blasts in Uganda which killed 74 football fans watching World Cup games. The attackers included people who had never been to Somalia. To be sure, the group is on the back-foot, losing ground to the AU force backing the central government in Somalia. It still controls swaths of territory in the south of the country, but it rules by fear and has lost significant popular support.
“Paradoxically, a weakened Shabaab is a greater threat outside Somalia than a stronger Shabaab,” Ken Menkhaus, an analyst at the Enough Project, a human rights group, wrote this week.
The group has splintered into factions, in part as fighters became disillusioned after suffering defeats. Violent internal clashes have resulted in the most radical elements of Shabaab, with a more global ideology, now controlling the organisation.
In this sense, the attack on Kenya is an attack on a country that contributes to foreign forces in Somalia — “invaders” in Shabaab’s language — but also a strike against a key Western ally in the region.
Nairobi was the scene of a horrific massacre before, when the US Embassy was targeted by Al Qaeda in 1998, killing more than 220 people.
According to Menkhaus, Shabaab is now desperate to “reframe the conflict in Somalia as Somalis versus the foreigners, not as Somalis who seek peace and a return to normalcy versus a toxic movement.”
Experts say that while Shabaab can continue to be weakened, it is unlikely to be defeated militarily anytime soon. Besides tightening counter terrorism measures to prevent future attacks, the only other option on the table is negotiations.
“I don’t think a political solution is easy or can be done over one or two years. But certainly for the long term it is the only realistic solution,” said the University of London’s Jennings.
“No matter how much they increase the African Union forces within Somalia, no how matter how much they beef up security along border, no matter how much assistance the US and other international government provide — a small committed force can undertake guerrilla action and can be very difficult to defeat.”
He cautions, however, that the group remains divided, making the prospect of talks all the more difficult. Many of the moderates within Shabaab seem to have split off in recent years, some even joining the Somali government, said Botha, the security analyst.
The group is left with hardliners who, in the future, might realise they cannot achieve their objectives and will be willing to negotiate an end to the conflict.
Alternatively, they might refuse all compromise and instead fight to the death.
Meanwhile, investigators from several countries were aiding Kenya to piece together the evidence from the mall attack.
The country is marking the first of three days of mourning, with flags being flown at half mast. Sombre, religious and nationalist music was being played on television stations to a backdrop of scenes of rescue from the attack.
The Red Cross said 71 people were still missing, though Interior Minister Joseph Ole Lenku told a press conference he believed only a “minimal” number of bodies lay beneath the three floors of the mall that collapsed.
Lenku said most corpses were probably those of terrorists. He confirmed five Al Qaeda-linked gunmen were killed in a shoot-out with security officers, while 10 people are in custody for questioning, though it was unclear where they were arrested.

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