GW Expert Answers Questions on Al-Shabaab

Former Ambassador David Shinn discusses the extremist group claiming responsibility for the Nairobi mall attack.

david shinn kenya
Photo by Stephen Taylor.
September 25, 2013

While the Islamic extremist group al-Shabaab has lost popular support and control of much of its native Somalia, last weekend’s attack in Nairobi demonstrated it still has the ability to carry out a large-scale terrorist assault.

To learn more about al-Shabaab, George Washington Today talked to Africa expert David Shinn, professorial lecturer in the Elliott School of International Affairs and former U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia and Burkina Faso.

Q: What is al-Shabaab, and what are its ultimate goals?

A: Al-Shabaab, which means “the youth,” appeared as an organization by that name in 2007, although some of its leaders and members have roots that date back to earlier Islamist organizations in Somalia. All the al-Shabaab leaders seem to agree that they want to create an Islamist government in Somalia that operates under a strict interpretation of sharia. This includes practices such as the stoning to death of women for adultery. There is a faction of al-Shabaab that also believes in the international jihadist movement and the creation of an Islamic caliphate. The agenda of this group extends well beyond the borders of Somalia. Al-Shabaab has an estimated 5,000 persons under arms, including some 300 foreigners.

Q: What is al-Shabaab’s relationship to al-Qaida?

A: Some al-Shabaab leaders have said for years that the organization is affiliated with al-Qaida, although it was only in 2012 that al-Qaida reciprocated the affiliation. Over the years, al-Shabaab has probably received some training and perhaps some specialized equipment from al-Qaida. Its link with al-Qaida has most likely resulted in some financing and foreign personnel from the international jihadi movement. 

Q: What is al-Shabaab’s role in Somalia now?

A: Al-Shabaab controlled nearly all of south and central Somalia until about a year ago. The African Union Force in Somalia (AMISOM), which was confined to part of Mogadishu from 2007 until about a year ago, managed to force the al-Shabaab organization out of the greater Mogadishu area, although al-Shabaab retained supporters in the area. 

Kenyan troops, who eventually became part of AMISOM, and allied Somali groups, took the important port city of Kismayu in southern Somalia from al-Shabaab in September 2012. Somali forces allied with the Kenyan troops took control of other parts of southern Somalia known as Jubaland. Ethiopian forces moved across their long border with Somalia and squeezed al-Shabaab into a reduced area. Al-Shabaab has been pushed out of all major Somali towns but still controls significant pockets across south central Somalia, especially in rural areas. It continues to mount ambushes, targeted killings and IED attacks. 

Q: Was this attack predictable? Have we seen a similar pattern in past attacks by al-Shabaab?

A: Al-Shabaab has threatened for the past two years to carry out a major attack inside Kenya. The only surprise to me is that it did not happen sooner. There have been well over a dozen small attacks against soft targets in Kenya, presumably carried out by al-Shabaab. 

This is the first large al-Shabaab attack outside Somalia since the bombing in July 2010 of two bars in Kampala, Uganda, that killed more than 70 innocent civilians, mostly Ugandans. Uganda provides the bulk of troops for the AMISOM force in Somalia and the attack was apparently retribution for that effort. Al-Shabaab has the capacity to continue small attacks in neighboring countries. As the neighbors increase their vigilance and countermeasures, it is not clear that al-Shabaab will be able to conduct such a major attack any time soon. 

Q: Does the attack signify a change in al-Shabaab’s tactics or direction? Will this attack strengthen or weaken al-Shabaab?

A: The attack shows that al-Shabaab has the capacity to carry out a major attack—at least on a one-time basis—against an unarmed, civilian, soft target. This attack does not signal a change in its stated tactics or direction because it has long threatened to do something just like this. 

Over the short term, the attack may strengthen al-Shabaab by attracting additional financial support and possibly even recruits from the international jihadi community. They want to be where the action is. Lately the action has been in Syria. Now there appears to be another opportunity for them. 

Over the long run, this attack and al-Shabaab suicide bombings in Somalia will weaken the organization. This attack will strengthen the resolve of governments and people in the region to defeat al-Shabaab. More importantly, it and the suicide bombings in Somalia that kill fellow Muslim Somalis will alienate a growing number of Somalis and make it more difficult for al-Shabaab to develop Somali support. Without significant Somali support, al-Shabaab is eventually doomed to fail.