Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Somalia has suffered major setbacks in that country in the last year and a half. Saturday’s horrific attack on an upscale shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya shows al-Shabaab is not only alive but is capable of sowing mayhem outside the borders of the country it has fought over for nearly a decade.
The military-style assault Saturday at the Westgate Shopping mall in Nairobi was the first major al-Shabaab attack outside of Somalia since 2010 when the group set off bombs at multiple locations in Kampala, Uganda, killing more than 70 people who had gathered to watch the world cup.
Since then, al-Shabaab and its supporters have launched cross-border raids and smaller attacks inside Kenya, a country that has trained and supported Somali fighters aligned with the country’s weak interim government. In this same period, though, the group has lost its base of operations in southern Somalia. The last strong hold for al-Shabaab fell in October 2012 when Somali government forces, along with African Union peacekeepers, drove al-Shabaab out of its last safe haven in the port city of Kismayo.
Mohammed Abdirahman Farole, the media adviser to and son of the president of Somalia’s Puntland region, said the attack in Nairobi Saturday represented a new strategy for al Qaeda’s Somalia affiliate. “This is part of a new phase for al Qaeda because al Shabaab lost the big war in Somalia,” he said. “They have attacked a soft target in order to tell the world, ‘we are here.’” Farole’s father has aligned with American allies like the United Arab Emirates to take on pirate coves in his territory and fight al-Shabaab. Farole’s son said he assessed that al-Shabaab had the capability to launch attacks throughout the region and perhaps even in the West. “They are becoming an international organization,” he said.
“Since the beginning of 2012 al-Shabaab went from being a major governing entity in southern Somalia to losing its last stronghold in Kismayo,” said Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “Similar to a number of other jihadist groups toppled from power, the group largely melted away in 2012. But it retained military capabilities.”
Wire services reported scenes of carnage from Nairobi as a small team of armed men wearing black began firing inside the crowded upscale shopping mall. The attack shared characteristics with the military-style assault in downtown Mumbai, India in November 2008. They both involved small teams of what appeared to be well-trained shooters who chose soft targets for a killing spree. One factor that made Saturday’s attack even more horrific was how the Twitter account affiliated with al-Shabaab provided live updates on the popular social media site. By 5:00 pm on Saturday, Twitter suspended the suspected al-Shabaab account known as @HSM_Press.
“To my mind, it is surprising that it has taken so long for the Mumbai tactics to reappear,” said Bruce Riedel, who served 30 years at the CIA as an expert and analyst on terrorism and is a contributor to The Daily Beast. “Mumbai was really a tactical breakthrough in the use of trained multiple killing units. The biggest surprise is that we have not seen more people try to emulate that tactic sooner.”
Riedel and other analysts have said there is a lot of evidence that al-Shabaab and al Qaeda’s core leadership in Pakistan have shared tactics and had regular communications. “It may not be a lot of people, but there is every reason to believe the communications are steady between these groups. Al-Shabaab has never wavered in their fealty to Zawahiri,” he said. (Ayman al-Zawahiri is al Qaeda’s leader.)
The attacks in Nairobi also come after U.S. intelligence agencies this summer got hold of a virtual business meeting of al Qaeda’s top leaders and representatives and leaders of its many affiliates. In the meeting, the leader of al Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen, Nasser al-Wuhayshi, was promoted to the role of general manager, a position that gave him authority to order attacks from al Qaeda’s affiliates.
A U.S. intelligence official reached Saturday said it was too early to connect the Nairobi attacks to Wuhayshi’s promotion or a new phase in al Qaeda’s strategy in its war against the west. The official said, however, that there was some evidence to suggest that a series of Qaeda attacks Friday in southern Yemen may have been the plot on Western interests that drove the State Department last month to close embassies throughout the Middle East. The official stressed that this was “very possible,” but did not convey that it was an official assessment.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated the name of the shopping center under siege. It is the Westgate mall, not the Westlake mall.