Al Shabaab- A new force in global terrorism?

In the aftermath of the recent bloody massacre in Nairobi, David Anthony Coen looks at the emergence of Somalia-based terrorist group Al-Shabaab.

On the 21st September 2013, an atrocity was carried out in the Westgate shopping centre in Nairobi, Kenya. 72 people were killed and over 175 were injured. The group responsible for this act of terror was the Somalia-based militant group Al-Shabaab, which in Arabic means ‘The Youth’. Al-Shabaab grew out of the youth wing of the Islamic Courts Union which controlled large parts of southern Somalia until 2006. A strict version of Sharia law has been imposed in areas under its control, including the stoning to death of women accused of adultery and amputating the hands of thieves.

The attack in Nairobi was a clear response to Kenyan troop’s involvement in Somalia, who accused Al-Shabaab fighters of kidnapping Kenyan tourists. Al-Shabaab terrorists were also responsible for the double suicide bombing in Uganda’s capital, Kampala, which killed 76 people watching the 2010 World Cup final on television. From a worldwide perspective the obvious question that arises from these events is whether or not Al-Shabaab is a new terrorist threat to the West.  It is currently banned as a terrorist group by both the United States and the United Kingdom, and is believed to have between 7,000 and 9,000 fighters. This begs the question as to how serious is the threat posed to the world at large?

Al-Shabaab has strong links with Al-Qaeda. On February 9th 2012, Al Shabaab’s leader Mukhtar Abu al-Zubair “Godane” announced the terrorist organisation would be joining forces with the world renowned Al-Qaeda through a fifteen minute video message. This association with the most dangerous force in global terrorism is a worrying sign. Together they pledged to walk the path of Jihad and Martyrdom which was drawn by Al-Qaeda’s martyr Osama Bin Laden. Although Al-Qaeda has been repressed by the death of Bin Laden, this still signifies a potent threat to world safety. US officials believe that with Al-Qaeda on the retreat in Afghanistan and Pakistan, its fighters will increasingly take refuge in Somalia.

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However, the most important issue lies with US and British involvement in the attacks, and the idea of Global Jihad.

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Al-Shabaab makes use of modern technology to convey its ideology and claim responsibility for any of its actions against opposing forces. The twitter account belonging to the Islamist military organisation was twice shut down by the website in the last nine months.  As a result, it had to be restored online under a slightly different name. Through this means, the world can interpret the values that motivate Al-Shabaab to act in such a heinous manner as was displayed in Nairobi. The tweets at the time of this attack were as expected; detailing their retaliation against Kenyan involvement in Somalia- ‘fighting the Kenyan kuffar (infidels) inside their own turf’. The organisation even responded to media claims that a British widow of a man involved in the 7/7 bombings had a pivotal role to play in the events. Most importantly, the social media website was used to threaten the Kenyan government to remove their troops from Somalia and by doing so restoring peace to their own nation. The terrorist organisation’s links with Al-Qaeda and their use of media to threaten and bargain indicate that Al-Shabaab may be a force to be reckoned with in future global affairs.

However, the most important issue lies with US and British involvement in the attacks, and the idea of Global Jihad. Kenya has claimed that Americans were involved in the Nairobi mall attack and although this has yet to be validated, it is a matter of serious concern for the US government. The obvious worry for the US is that those recruited to Al-Shabaab (those from Somalian-American communities in the US) may return and use their abilities on America.  The Somalian president has voiced his concerns over Somalian-American involvement in Al-Shabaab and the organisation as a whole: “They are a threat to the continent of Africa, and the world at large”.

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Computer memory sticks were recovered from a senior Al-Shabaab operative who was killed, detailing overly ambitious, aspirational plans to attack targets in Britain.

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The emergence of “Godane” as leader is another worrying development in the evolution of the group. He was, as previously mentioned, behind the merger with Al-Qaeda and has a hard-line, international agenda. “Godane” defeated his rival within the group, Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, in an internal power struggle. Aweys had prioritised the groups focus on the struggle within Somalia. With his full grip on the organisation, “Godane” seems to have expanded this focus to international affairs. The attack on the Westgate shopping centre in Nairobi captured the world’s attention through the extensive media coverage of the incident and also by marking the worst terrorist attack in Kenya since the US embassy bombings by Al-Qaeda in 1998. He has also carried out cross-border raids into Kenya, involving larger amounts of fighters and going deeper into Kenyan territory than previously.

Therefore this attack on Nairobi demonstrates a tendency to internationalise Al-Shabaab’s activities. This in turn would satisfy the foreign fighters involved in the organisation who believe in the creating of Global Jihad. While there is still of course a pivotal emphasis on controlling Somalia, perhaps “Godane” and his foreign recruits are now looking towards the bringing of Sharia law to the whole world as a long term target. There is also rumoured British involvement with the “White Widow”: a widow of a London suicide bomber who was thought to be heavily involved in the organisation of the attack on Nairobi. The obvious fear in Britain, or at least the main reason to be cautious, is the return of trained British recruits. Computer memory sticks were recovered from a senior Al-Shabaab operative who was killed, detailing overly ambitious, aspirational plans to attack targets in Britain. Although this would not seem to pose a credible threat, it is yet another reason for Britain to remain alert in the face of Al-Shabaab and its British recruits.

The tragedy in Nairobi does not highlight Al-Shabaab as being an immediate and serious threat to world safety.  However, it does offer a reason for us to remain watchful of the terrorist organisation’s activities.