Two years after Kenyan troops deployed to Somalia to fight al-Shabab and help pave the way for the first government in 20 years, al-Shabab has taken its fight to Kenya. The Westgate Mall terrorist attack is an indication of the militant group's intentions and capabilities.
In October 2011 Kenyan forces moved into Somalia to counter alleged cross-border kidnappings and attacks by al-Shabab. Within a week, the militant group threatened that it would bring down skyscrapers in Nairobi unless Kenyan soldiers withdrew.
The group finally made good on that threat September 21, when armed men stormed an upscale mall in Nairobi, killing scores of people, injuring about 175, and taking others hostage.
Security experts in the region and some foreign embassies had warned the group was planning an attack on this scale in Kenyan cities.
Emmanuel Kisiangani, a senior researcher with the Nairobi-based Institute for Security Studies, says it appears the attackers were veterans with the terror group and were well-prepared and trained.
“It looks like people who have been with the group for some time," he said. "We have heard information they have had come from different countries. But to organize something like that you need to do a lot of ground work to do a lot of surveillance. So it’s not something [where] you just come in. You have to know how the mall is. So it looks like people who have been with the group for a while.”
Al-Shabab has steadily been losing ground in Somalia and has been weakened by a concerted military effort from a multi-national African Union force and Somali government troops. Once they controlled large portions of the country; more recently they have only been able to carry out hit-and-run attacks.
The result has been a fracturing within the group on how to re-invigorate the fight for its objectives for a greater Somalia under its interpretation of strict Islamic law.
Some al-Shabab leaders want their fighters to operate within Somalia only, while others, like Mukhtar Abu Zubeyr, also known as Godane, are pushing a more global Jihad or holy war.
In an interview with VOA, the former U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia, David Shinn, said the Nairobi attack may signal the group’s shifting focus toward neighboring countries to maximize impact.
“Al-Shabab is not able to go toe-to-toe with professional military organizations like the Kenyan or African Union forces. So it engages in suicide bombings, occasional guerilla attacks - but that doesn’t get it big headlines," he said. "The only way it can get a big headline is to pull off a big event like this in Kenya - attacking unarmed civilians in a soft target.”
Focusing on neighboring countries has also meant recruiting fighters there - which may have given al-Shabab an insider’s advantage in the Westgate mall attack.
2006 - Launches insurgency to take control of Somalia and impose strict Islamic law
2008 - U.S. declares al-Shabab a foreign terrorist organization
2009 - Seizes control of parts of Mogadishu and the port city Kismayo
2010 - Expands control across central and southern Somalia, carries out deadly bombing in Kampala, Uganda
2011 - Blocks drought/famine aid from areas under its control
2011 - East African leaders declare al-Shabab a regional threat; Ethiopian, Kenyan troops enter Somalia to pursue the group, which is driven out of Mogadishu
2012 - Declares itself an al-Qaida ally, loses ground in Somalia, abandons strategic coastal stronghold Kismayo
2013 - Attacks Mogadishu court complex, killing more than 30 and attacks mall in Nairobi, Kenya, killing at least 69 people
The United Nations estimates that al-Shabab has recruited as many as 500 Kenyan youth in recent years, many of them from impoverished families with limited opportunities.
Ali Edachi, a Kenyan community activist and a resident the Nairobi slum known as Majengo, says Kenyan police should have been more vigorous in rooting out these young men - who are well known to the community.
“There is tension and fear in Majengo,” he says, and local young men who are back from Somalia and are well-armed have gone into hiding after the mall attack.
Kisiangani agrees that Kenya’s internal security posture has been lax.
“So it looks like it was an opportunity. They strike when there has been a lull. In recent past we have not had attacks even grenade attacks for a while. So people at the guard they were not quite cautious about security. So the group chose because it was an opportune time to strike because the security was so much lapsed,” said Kisiangani.
The coordination and intensity of the Westgate Mall attack has stunned most Kenyans. The Kenyan government believes it was carried out by a group of about a dozen or so multi-national attackers with surprising sophistication.
Some experts suggest this attack was designed not only to pressure Kenyan troops to leave Somalia, but also to show al-Shabab is still a force to be reckoned with despite its losses in Somalia.
Kenya’s president said his government is resolved to hunt down the group, inside and out of the country.