The attack on a mall in Kenya this week by a radical Islamic group came as a surprise to many. The Somalia-based al-Shabab had lost territory and influence over the past few years. But as policymakers coordinate a response to the terror attacks, some analysts warn against an aggressive military response inside Somalia that could alienate locals, and increase support for extremists.
Since Kenya joined the African Union Mission in Somalia with the backing of Ethiopian troops, al-Shabab’s hold on southern Somalia seems to have weakened.
Its attacks seemed to be reduced to hit-and-run attacks or the use of suicide bombers.
This week, several fighters attacked Nairobi’s Westgate mall with machine guns, grenades and other weaponry. Al-Shabab claimed credit.
Some analysts say the change in tactics comes as the result of internal feuding between factions. They say hardliners want spectacular attacks on regional enemies that can also improve recruitment, while others, dubbed “nationalists,” want the focus to stay strictly within Somalia.
The hardliners are led by Ahmed Abdi Godane, who has quarreled with other members of al-Shabab and executed top commanders including American-born militant Omar Hammami. He is said to have criticized the brutal treatment of fellow Muslims by al-Shabab’s occupying forces. ….
Reuters quotes diplomatic and Somali intelligence sources that say the attack may have involved Godane’s secret service, the Amniyat, which has its own chain of command and finances. It may also have included a Shebaab unit called Iktihaam, Arabic for “to storm in.”
Anneli Botha is a senior researcher with the Transnational Threats and International Crime Division of the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria. She said al-Shabab has always been violent, and is not sure it’s necessarily a change in the group’s leadership that moved the group to an extreme.
"I don’t think the hardliners took control," said Botha.
"Gadane who is still the leader is still a hardliner, and the fight was not between moderates and extremists but between locals and foreigners. There were quite a few eliminations of foreign fighters considered to be potential traitors. Losing ground in Somalia led to suspicion between different factions of al-Shabab and that foreigners may be selling them out."
Yet, the purge within al-Shabab did not eliminate foreign participation. Botha said the Islamic extremist group relies on the participation of regional recruits to help plan and carry out attacks. She said, for example, that a Ugandan cell was instrumental in the 2010 bombings in Kampala that killed over 70 people.
And Kenyan authorities say foreigners appear to be among those involved in the mall assault. Botha said her colleagues in Nairobi had also received tweets claiming to be from al-Shabab naming the nationalities of the attackers. Other news agencies have also received notes allegedly sent by the group. Most have not been independently verified.
"I don’t know how true it is, but [our Nairobi office] got a message from al-Shabab with more details on those responsible for the attack," said Botha. "I was amazed by the number of foreigners involved: two Somalis, a Kenyan, a Swede, one from Finland, one from the UK, 6 from the US, one from Russia and two from Syria.
"If that’s verifiable information, then it’s not only the attack (which has an international flavor) but those behind the attack. With that come other questions: if we think al-Shabab cleaned house and went after foreigners, having such a large number of people involved that are foreigners is quite interesting. It’s still early days…But if it’s true, we have to do a very different analysis."
Observers say part of the effort to end al-Shabab is to dry up funding, which comes from a variety of sources. They include the Somali Diaspora, al-Qaeda, and revenues earned by the group from smuggling, taxes and revenues on the sales of dates, bananas and small livestock from the time it held the Somali port of Kismayu.
But analysts say there’s more, including a network of cultural and religious institutions in Kenya. They include a Kenya-based affiliate from Nairobi’s Majengo neighborhood called al-Hijra, which also has experience fighting in Somalia.
"All of these groups understand which buttons to push, and when," said Botha.
"If I look at Kenya, there is a growing sense of the split between Nairobi and the coast. There is the Mombasa Republican Council that wants to secede because they feel they’ve been treated as second class citizens; the same in Tanzania – with Zanzibar and Pemba that want to separate from the mainland. The root of all of this is effective nation building has not succeeded."
The attacks are likely to bring about change.
The press has criticized the performance of the immigration services and the Kenyan police.
Anneli Botha, who has held training workshops with law enforcement officers, said the issue of police effectiveness is not limited to Kenya.
"Every country on this continent has a problem with corruption," she said. "Some of them have massive problems with (civil service) salaries being paid: I think the police are often the poorest paid within the continent. Similarly, in some cases the military do get better training and better equipment and salaries in some countries.
"All of these issues need to be addressed. I know Kenya is going through a new reconstruction process [of the political system] and police reform process. And I hope one could take these lessons and move forward. "
There’s also concern that the attacks may affect domestic politics.
The Hague-based International Criminal Court this week adjourned the court proceedings against Kenya’s Deputy President William Ruto so he could return to help deal with the crisis. He and President Uhuru Kenyatta are being tried for their alleged roles in post-election violence six years ago.
Analyst Vanda Felbab-Brown, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Brookings Institution, is concerned the attacks will move the focus from much needed political and economic reforms in Kenya.
"The ICC suspended the trial for this week, " she said. "This does not mean the trial should be cancelled, but my expectation is that Kenya’s political leadership will try to use this and the broader counter-terrorism agenda to end the ICC trial and find a way to avoid reforms to devolve power, to include groups that have been underrepresented, and they will try to use counter-terrorism cooperation as leverage for getting away with same old policies that are deeply unhealthy and destabilizing (for the country) in the long term."
There may also be calls for the US to take direct military action in the region.
Former Army vice Chief of Staff General Peter Chiarelli told American television that US forces are likely developing a list of al-Qaeda targets in the region in reaction to the mall attack.
Some analysts assert that until now, the US has not placed as much emphasis on drone strikes in Somalia, as it has in Yemen and Pakistan.
They say the Obama administration has avoided direct military involvement in Somalia to prevent retaliatory attacks on US diplomatic posts. Instead, analysts say the US shares intelligence and provides training and support for US allies in the region, including AMISOM troops in Somalia. The US also has the ability to deliver logistical support and equipment using air and sea routes, as well as a base in Djibouti.
President Obama has promised “whatever law enforcement help that is necessary” including forensics teams and FBI resources to help with the investigation of the mall attack.
But others, including analyst Anneli Botha, say the West would be better served by exploring the grievances behind local support for extremism. They say an aggressive military reaction against the extremists could play into the hands of al-Shabab and al-Qaeda – who want to reshape local grievances into a global war between Muslims and Christians.
Listen to analysts' views of al-Shabab attack on mall in Kenya