Al-Shabaab, literally ‘The Youth’, is an Islamist group that emerged out of the chaos unleashed by the ouster of Somalia’s military dictator Mohammed Siad Barre in 1991, especially after the defeat of the Union of Islamic Courts in 2006. Originally focused on taking over Somalia and ruling the country along Islamic tenets, the group has since metamorphosed into a terrorist organization following the successful intervention in Somalia of African Union forces under the auspices of the African Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). As a terrorist organization, Al-Shabaab’s attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi on September 21 2013 represented the group’s most brazen and sophisticated operation against Kenya to date. The terrorists achieved maximum effect with a hostage-taking that resulted in a four-day siege before they were finally vanquished and the mall secured by a combined force of Kenyan police and military. The attack, which resulted in more than seventy deaths, including roughly two dozen foreigners, has several implications for peace and security in Kenya and the broader East African region.
First, the ease with which the terrorists were able to ferry their weapons and plan, organize, and execute their dastardly act undetected raises doubts about the efficiency and effectiveness of the Kenyan intelligence and security agencies. Indeed, following the attack, a member of Kenya’s Senate initiated a motion to have the security agencies overhauled and the director of the National Security Intelligence Service (NSIS) removed ‘for sleeping on the job.’ Yet, according to the director, the agency had passed on credible information about the attack and its timing to the top leadership of the Kenyan police and to members of the national security committee who, apparently, failed to act to forestall it. Was this a case of mere incompetence or corruption, or, as some speculate, an advertent decision to allow the attack to go on as a diversion from the ongoing cases at The Hague? Both the president and deputy president of Kenya face charges at The Hague for crimes against humanity as a result of their alleged leading role in masterminding post-election violence in the country in 2007-2008. Indeed, at the time of the terrorist attack, the deputy president was already at The Hague for his case and, following the terror attack on Westgate, successfully petitioned the International Criminal Court (ICC) to return home to ‘help the president deal with the terrorist crisis.’
The second implication lies in the reason for the attack: the presence of Kenya’s military forces in Somalia to help drive out Al-Shabaab and establish some semblance of political order and stability in the country that has known none since the ouster of military dictator Mohammed Siad Barre in 1991. By invading Somalia and wresting control of the port of Kismayu from the group, the Kenyan forces scattered its members and engendered a major sense of grievance on their part. Kismayu was Al-Shabaab’s principal source of revenue. According to United Nations estimates, the group was collecting anywhere between $35 million and $50 million annually in customs duties and taxes on businesses in the port. Loss of control over Kismayu rendered Al-Shabaab desperate enough to launch their brazen terror attack on September 21. The implication here is that all East African countries with forces in Somalia are targets for attack by the group. They must thus refine their intelligence and security capacities to keep ahead of Al-Shabaab or else pay the price of complacency, as Kenya has done in 2013 and as Uganda did in 2010 when, in revenge against Uganda’s military presence in Somalia, Al-Shabaab bombed a nightclub in Kampala full of revelers watching the World Cup finals, killing more than sixty.
Third and most worrying for East African countries are indications that the individuals who executed the terrorist attack on the Westgate Mall were not all Somali but, rather, non-Somali East Africans who were recruited and trained by Al-Shabaab in South Somalia and then deployed to carry out missions on behalf of Al-Shabaab militants not accustomed to operating abroad. This possibility makes it imperative that Kenya and other East African countries pay close attention to the strategies and tactics used by Al-Shabaab to recruit, radicalize, and train their foot soldiers. In particular, they need to understand the profiles of individuals who are likely to be targets of, and receptive to, such radicalization so they can suffocate the recruitment channels and starve the group of new membership.
Fourth, whereas many commentators view the Westgate Mall attack as evidence that Al-Shabaab members have upped their game and broadened their transnational linkages, it may just as well have been borne of despair over their defeat within Somalia. Al-Shabaab emerged as an organized group with the ambition of taking over and ruling Somalia following the defeat of the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) in 2006. The group quickly took control of South Somalia, including the port of Kismayu and two other small ports north of it. Their defeat in turn by the military forces of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) shattered their dream of ruling the country and either drove them underground or forced them out of their homeland. Indeed, for a long time, Al-Shabaab appeared wary of attacking Kenya on account of its significance to them for recruitment, investment, and fundraising—especially from the Kenyan Somali community. By finally attacking Kenya, Al-Shabaab bit the proverbial “hand that fed them.” The suspicion the Somali community is likely to face in Kenya in the wake of the attack and the crackdown that may follow—already President Uhuru Kenyatta has signaled his intention to close down camps housing Somali refugees—will inevitably generate a backlash against Al-Shabaab, not only among Kenyan Somalis, but even among the business community in Somalia.
In the final analysis, the defeat of Al-Shabaab requires an integrated, long-term approach, beginning with a comprehensive national security and intelligence policy framework that focuses less on traditional military and legal approaches shrouded in secrecy and more on surveillance and intelligence gathering involving local communities. In the short term, it is imperative that the African Union (AU), working in conjunction with the UN, expedite the stabilization of Somalia, complete with the establishment of an effective, fully representative, and legitimate Somali government with the requisite capacity to maintain law and order within the country’s borders. This will clearly transform the existing conditions and severely undermine the ability of Al-Shabaab and similar groups to launch attacks and spread terror within Somalia and the neighboring regions.