The attack by al-Shabab militants on Nairobi's Westgate shopping mall has raised fears that the group is broadening its aim beyond winning control of its homeland, Somalia. Security analysts say al-Shabab has morphed from a regional militant group to a terrorist organization closely aligned with al-Qaida.
Al-Shabab released a photo Tuesday, which they say shows militants from the group inside Nairobi’s Westgate mall. It’s not clear when it was taken.
The choice of a ‘soft target’ is a hallmark of the group, says Sajjan Gohel, security director at analyst group the Asia Pacific Foundation in London.
“The chances of inflicting maximum damage are more likely. It also precipitates the fear factor because terrorism becomes visualized. The chances are it’s being recorded; with new media people can even film events. That is the oxygen of publicity for the terrorist groups and for al-Shabab in particular, this fit into their agenda,” said Gohel.
Al-Shabab says it carried out the attack as revenge for the presence of 4,000 Kenyan troops in Somalia, who are fighting the militants under the African Union banner.
The group carried out a suicide bombing in the Ugandan capital Kampala in 2010, killing 76 people. Uganda also has thousands of troops in Somalia.
Al-Shabab’s primary aim is still regaining control of Somalia - but they also have their sights set on attacking the West, says Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens of the International Center for the Study of Radicalization at Kings College London.
“Their main way of doing this is fighting the insurgency and also striking the countries that are involved in the mission to remove them from Somalia. This includes Kenya and Uganda. So Kenya and Uganda are really at the top of their list as targets but also below that, especially for the global jihadist element of al-Shabab, there is also the desire to hit out at what they see as the real puppet masters of this whole thing, which is America and Israel, who they believe Kenya and Uganda are acting as proxies for,” said Meleagrou-Hitchens.
The targeting of non-Muslims in the latest attack suggests al-Shabab is increasingly rooted in the ideology of al-Qaida, says Gohel.
“What we’ve seen in the last couple of years is an internal conflict emerge within al-Shabab where a core leadership has now aligned themselves ideologically with al-Qaida central, now led by Ayman al-Zawahiri. And it’s that element that has carried out this particular attack, or that is what is believed to be the case,” said Gohel.
Kenyan authorities - and foreign intelligence services - will aim to uncover more about the ideology and international links once the attackers are identified.