A former U.S. diplomat says there is a connection between the Saturday’s terrorist attack in Nairobi and Kenyan military involvement in Somalia.
“Al-Shabab has stated that its rational for this very large attack against a civilian mall in Nairobi is to show that it wants the Kenyan forces who have been inside Somalia for almost the past two years to pull out,” said David Shinn, who previously served as U.S. Ambassador to Ethiopia.
The former diplomat said it’s difficult to ascertain whether there has been any tactical or strategic collaboration between al-Shabab and al-Qaida in the Nairobi attack. He also noted one cannot rule out ongoing contacts between the two groups.
“Al-Shabab has made very clear that it has an affiliation with al-Qaida that goes back a number of years. And it will not at all be surprising if there has been at least discussions between al-Qaida Central and the a-Shabab leadership,” he said.
Unconfirmed reports suggest US citizens may have been involved in the attack. If true, Professor Shinn said the situation will be “worrisome.”
“In the past, the Federal Bureau of Investigations and other elements of the US security apparatus have identified some 40 individuals who at one time were living in the United States affiliated in some way with al-Shabab – in some cases going to Somalia and signing up,” he recalled.
“Not all of these people were Somali Americans. A lot of progress has been made in stemming that flow. If there are new people that have joined up in the last year or so, it’s something that needs to be watched carefully, as I’m sure the FBI is doing.”
Al-Shabab has been losing ground in Somalia. Shinn says the Nairobi attack may signal the group’s shifting focus toward neighboring countries.
“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. 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,” he said.
The Kenyan Red Cross says the attack at Nairobi’s Westgate Shopping Mall killed at least 62 people. As of this writing, around 15 attackers and as many as 15 hostages are believed to be inside the mall.
Listen to interview with former US ambassador David Shinn