By Scott Stewart
The prolonged armed assault launched against Nairobi's Westgate Mall by al Shabaab gunmen has brought much attention to the group and the tactic it has employed. When looking at the Nairobi attack, however, it is important to understand that al Shabaab is not some new entity, armed assaults are not a new tactic and the Westgate Mall attack is not an indication that the group poses some sort of deadly new transnational threat.
Al Shabaab has a long history of insurgent and terrorist operations in the region, and it has long possessed the ability to conduct such an attack in Nairobi. What the Westgate Mall attack truly reflects is a change in intent on behalf of al Shabaab's leadership, rather than a change in the group's capability. This change of intent was a result of changes in the group's strategic footing in Somalia.
While the world's attention has just now been drawn to al Shabaab, it is not by any means a new militant entity in East Africa. Stratfor ran a four-part series on al Shabaab in May of 2008 detailing the group's formation and history ; links between al Shabaab leadership and al Qaeda; the implications of that relationship; and how al Shabaab fits into the context of the U.S. campaign against the global jihadist movement.
In June 2010, we published an analysis of the potential for al Shabaab to become a transnational threat akin to al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. At that time we concluded that al Shabaab was not likely to conduct transnational attacks in the United States or Europe, but that the group could prompt lone wolf militants to strike in the West.
In July 2010, al Shabaab conducted three coordinated bombings at two venues showing World Cup soccer games in Kampala, Uganda. The attacks killed 70, wounded scores of others and served as a warning of al Shabaab's ability to conduct attacks in East Africa. Al Shabaab claimed credit for the Kampala attack, stating that it was launched in response to Uganda's military intervention in Somalia — the same justification the group used to justify the Westgate Mall attack.
In April 2012, we discussed the threat al Shabaab posed to Kenya. At that time, we concluded that al Shabaab possessed the capability to strike soft targets in Kenya and Nairobi, but that despite several low-level attacks linked to al Shabaab, it was not in the group's best interests to conduct high-profile attacks in Kenya. The rationale behind this was that Kenya, and specifically Nairobi, served as an important finance and logistics hub for al Shabaab. A significant strike in Nairobi could rouse the anger of the Kenyan government, alienate the population and severely restrict the group's ability to use Kenya as a logistical hub for its operations in Somalia.
The Westgate Mall attack shows the group's calculations have changed.
In recent months, al Shabaab's leadership has experienced some dramatic changes. These changes became readily apparent in June, when al Shabaab leader Ahmad Abdi Godane (also known as Abu Zubayr) began a purge of dissident leaders to tighten his control over the group. In the so-called "Godane Coup," his forces assassinated Ibrahim al-Afghani, a senior al Shabaab leader who had criticized Godane's leadership in an open letter. This criticism arose following defeats on the battlefield that resulted in significant losses of men, materiel and territory and generated considerable internal strife and disagreement. Godane acted decisively to quell this dissent in a bid to consolidate what remained of the Somali jihadist movement.
It appears that Godane's forces have finally caught up with and killed U.S. citizen Omar Hammami, also known as Abu Mansur al-Amriki, who Godane's forces had pursued for several months due to his criticism of Godane. Another important al Shabaab leader, Sheikh Mukhtar Robow, also known as Abu Mansur, remains with the group and is not challenging Godane's leadership. He no doubt took into account what befell his colleagues who did challenge Godane. Meanwhile, the fear of meeting al-Afghani's fate has moved Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, who lead the Islamist militant group Hizbul Islam before joining al Shabaab, to defect to the Somali government.
With Godane's consolidation of power over the remnants of al Shabaab now complete, the internal conflict between al Shabaab leaders that has crippled the group appears to be a thing of the past. Godane has now reportedly assumed direct control of the group's political, strategic and even tactical direction. This means that he was most likely the one responsible for the decision to conduct a high-profile attack in Nairobi.
Frankly, at this point we do not know for certain what caused the change in Godane's calculus.
Despite numerous threats by the al Shabaab leadership against Kenya over the past two years, the Kenyan military occupied parts of Somalia but the group had yet to carry out any meaningful attacks inside the Kenyan capital. It is possible that the Westgate Mall attack was the result of Godane feeling the need to follow through on these threats to re-establish his credibility, both internally and externally.
Meanwhile, the loss of the port of Kismayo in September 2012 — which served as an important source of funding for al Shabaab — and the reduction in aid to the group from the government of Eritrea would appear to make the finance and logistics networks in Kenya more critical to the group than ever. Unless Godane is irrational, and we have no reason to believe he is, the group's finance and logistics network in Kenya had apparently already been damaged to the point that the importance of preserving it no longer served as an arrestor to al Shabaab attacks in Kenya.
Following the 2012 low-level bombings in Nairobi and the subsequent warnings of threats to attack hotels, Kenyan and international authorities have blacklisted many businesses in Kenya that were linked to al Shabaab. The Kenyan government has also cracked down on the Muslim Youth Center, a Kenyan group that has pledged allegiance to al Shabaab and Godane and that has served as an important source of funding and manpower for the group. And Kenyan military actions in Somalia, including stationing troops along the Kenyan-Somali border and wresting control of border towns from al Shabaab, may also be making it more difficult for the group to access its support network in Kenya.
Strength or Weakness?
Since losing control of much of the territory it previously governed in Somalia over the past two years, including significant portions of Mogadishu and strategically important locations such as the port of Kismayo and towns along the border with Kenya, al Shabaab has changed tactics and has engaged in insurgency and terrorism rather than attempting to fight direct battles against its militarily superior foes. (Whenever the group has tried to stand and fight, it has lost badly.)
The group is considerably weaker than it was in 2011 or early 2012, but it requires far less resources to conduct insurgent and terrorist attacks than it does to wage conventional warfare, hold territory, govern people and provide services. This means that even though al Shabaab has lost significant territory and resources, if it is careful in employing what resources it has left, the group can likely conduct a protracted insurgency campaign for years. (This is similar to what the Afghan Taliban did when faced with superior American and coalition military forces.) The idea behind this theory is not necessarily to defeat the enemy on the battlefield, but merely to survive while making the occupation of Somalia as costly as possible for the foreign troops involved in African Union Mission in Somalia, eventually forcing their withdrawal. If the foreign troops were to withdraw, al Shabaab would have the opportunity to regain control of Somalia. Indeed, al Shabaab adopted precisely this strategy following the July 2006 Ethiopian invasion of Somalia. The group waged a protracted insurgency and then re-emerged as a conventional force after Ethiopian troops withdrew in January 2009.
The adoption of an insurgency strategy is an admission of weakness by al Shabaab rather than a sign of strength, and the current offensive has dealt the group far more losses than the 2006 Ethiopian invasion did. Even so, al Shabaab will be able to survive in hideouts for the foreseeable future and conduct insurgent operations such as raids, ambushes and terrorist attacks.
While the group has shown the ability to conduct complex attacks inside Somalia, it has yet to demonstrate the ability to conduct anything more than rudimentary attacks outside Somalia. Thus, at present the group appears to continue to pose a regional threat rather than a true transnational one.
Contrary to some media reports, armed assaults are not some new terrorist tactic that began with the November 2008 Mumbai attack. Such attacks have been quite prevalent during the modern era of terrorism. A variety of actors in a number of high-profile attacks have adopted the tactic, such as the Black September operation against Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics; the December 1975 seizure of the OPEC headquarters in Vienna, led by Ilich Ramirez Sanchez (also known as "Carlos the Jackal"); the December 1985 simultaneous attacks against the airports in Rome and Vienna by the Abu Nidal Organization; and the September 2004 school seizure in Beslan, North Ossetia, by Chechen militants.
In some instances — such as the December 1996 seizure of the Japanese ambassador's residence in Lima, Peru, by the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement — the objective of the armed assault is to take and intentionally hold hostages for a long period. In other instances, such as the May 1972 assault on Lod Airport by members of the Japanese Red Army, the armed assault is planned as a suicide attack designed to kill as many people as possible before the assailants themselves are killed or incapacitated. Often attacks fall somewhere in the middle, like the assault on Westgate Mall. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb attempted a prolonged hostage seizure involving hundreds of hostages at the Tigantourine natural gas facility near Ain Amenas, Algeria, in January.
Armed assaults are relatively easy for militant groups to conduct because they rely more on the type of guerrilla warfare skill set taught in most militant training camps and less on terrorist tradecraft, which is more difficult to teach and master. It is far easier for an organization to launch an armed assault against a mall with AK-47s and hand grenades than it is to construct and employ a large vehicle bomb — especially when the organization has the type of network inside Kenya that al Shabaab does. In other words, while the Westgate Mall attack proved quite bloody, it was a simple attack against a soft target and it does not evidence any sort of complex terrorist capability on part of al Shabaab. It certainly does not suggest the group has any newfound capabilities — as previously noted, it has had the ability to launch this sort of attack inside Kenya for years.
We have also seen al Shabaab conduct armed assaults against targets in Mogadishu in recent months, such as the attack on Mogadishu's courthouse in April and the attack against a U.N. Development Program compound in June. In these attacks, the assailants were on suicide missions and attempted to create as much carnage as possible before being neutralized.
A Canadian citizen is thought to have been involved in the courthouse assault in Mogadishu. If reports that al Shabaab employed American citizens of Somali descent and European militants in the Nairobi attack are true, it is quite interesting that the group did not choose to attempt to send those militants home to conduct attacks in the United States or Europe. This may suggest these fighters were known and wanted at home and therefore could not return. It could also indicate that Godane sees such foreign fighters — like Omar Hammami — as potential problems, and so sought to rid himself of as many of them as possible through the Nairobi attack. A report emerged in recent weeks that a foreign fighter accused by al Shabaab of being a spy was given the choice of conducting a suicide attack or being executed by Godane's forces. Alternatively, foreigners could simply have been more willing to go on suicide missions than Godane's Somali fighters.
The fallout from the Westgate Mall attack will be harsh for al Shabaab. Many Kenyans consider the attack to be their 9/11, and public sentiment will be hardened against al Shabaab and perhaps even against Somalis in general. The attack will also cause even further attention to be paid to Godane by the Kenyans as well as their American allies. The Americans have already conducted strikes against Somali militant leaders in the past. When al Shabaab's leadership was divided and hiding in separate regions, a decapitation strike was more difficult. The "Godane Coup," which consolidated al Shabaab leadership into the hands of one man, may have made such a strike far more practical — and potentially more effective.