After the recent large scale attack in Garissa Kenya that was preceded by an assassination in Uganda, two massacres in Mandera near the Somali border of Kenya, and a gratuitous made-for-film raid of Mpekatoni near the Kenyan coast, al Shabaab has now slain seventeen people at the higher education ministry in Mogadishu. Early reports hint at a level of sophistication where the security wall was first compromised by a car bomb allowing armed Shabaab fighters to enter.
Setting aside al Shabaab’s long held international connections with al Qaeda, Boko Haram, and other groups plus their ability to recruit from as far away as the United States, take a moment to look at what this series of attacks says about a jihadist movement’s ability to strike the home front in a regional context. Remember that Shabaab, Boko Haram, and IS have all held varying quantities of territory. Al Shabaab was the first to lose major tracts of territory along with the resources and logistical advantages including the holding of major coastal port cities.
Al Shabaab began as an outgrowth of the Islamic Courts Union in Somalia. When, as a local Somali Islamist group they were defeated by the Somali government with the help of Ethiopia, factions of the ICU formed al Shabaab in 2006 and began to take large swaths of territory in the southern half of the country. For a long time they controlled two strategically important ports, Kismayo and Barawe, where they could make a lot of money and import weapons and fighters. Kenyan counter terrorism efforts along with the African Union mission, AMISOM, put boots on the ground, took ground in both cities and held it. This was a strategic short term blow to the finances and logistical benefits enjoyed by al Shabaab. Attacks in Kenya and Uganda showed an increasing diversity of tactics. Al Qaeda style targeting and bombing, raids of armed gunmen, assassinations from motorcycle drive-by’s, and car bombs are all part of the al Shabaab play book.
Describing al Shabaab as a regionally focused group has it’s downsides. Where al Shabaab saw defeat on the ground they were able to export the violent form of Jihad through out East Africa. The bombing in Uganda that killed 76 World Cup fans in Kampala in 2010 had devastating consequences with an Al Qaeda-like signature that displayed the advantage Shabaab’s relationship with the group. Al Shabaab has respectable propaganda and social media capability. The group makes clear in their words, actions, and with their targets that they want Shariah law imposed and Christians and non-Muslims should either be submissive or dead.
It would be amiss to interpret the military defeat of al Shabaab in regions of Somalia as the main cause of their diaspora of diverse attacks across the region. Yes, there is a cause and effect there but not one of such simplistic description. Al Shabaab’s resilience and ability to adapt and survive is largely rooted in their religious ability to attach meaningfulness to killing. Media and even regional officials often try to explain Shabaab’s recruitment of youth as exploitation of the poor, marginalized, and disenfranchised. That is a tactic and a factor but not the answer to the equation.
Late last year, National Defense University issued a report on the rising Islamist threat in Tanzania. Citing smaller scale and under-reported Shabaab attacks, Dr. Andre LaSage had this to say,
“Thus far, the attacks in Tanzania have been relatively unsophisticated.They have involved crude homemade explosives, handguns, and buckets of acid; they have been focused on poorly protected targets of opportunity;and they have not resulted in mass casualties. However, as events over the past few years in neighboring Kenya have demonstrated, today’s seemingly minor and manageable threats can evolve quickly into something far more lethal and intractable.”
Imagine being a Ugandan, Kenyan, Somali, or Tanzanian citizen. Each of these societies are largely Western and share a very similar idea of what is normal with Europeans and Americans. They have university, work, transportation, courthouses, and restaurants just like us. They also live on the front lines of a religious war where some Imams recruit their children and raise them to assassinate parents to symbolize their coming conquest of the West.
After ascertaining scope and behavior patterns within East Africa, reconsider the international scope of this jihadist movement and their threats to export the jihad to the U.S. The regional pattern of al Shabaab’s adaptation will hint at the future behavior of Boko Haram and IS in the territories they hold in the near future. Also keep in mind that these movements follow a message that is proliferated globally through the internet. Al Shabaab has made clear that they want the experience of citizens in Bloomington Minnesota to resemble the experiences of citizens of Nairobi shopping at the Westgate Mall. Al Shabaab, IS, Al Qaeda, AQIM, AQAP, and Boko Haram are all part of the global jihadist movement and all have made threats against the U.S. What are now battlefronts in Africa will be the new normal if those who sign up for the global jihad have their way.