July 24, 2014
Al Shabaab in East Africa
Al Shabaab voiced its intent and increasingly demonstrates its capability to conduct attacks throughout East Africa. Its first major international attack was in July 2010, when al Shabaab carried out twin suicide bombings in Kampala, Uganda. The absence of a second major attack and the start of a major offensive against al Shabaab in fall 2011 led many to dismiss the Kampala bombings as a one-off strike and to assess that al Shabaab had been significantly weakened. The group had lost control of territory and announced that it would focus on asymmetrical attacks, rather than holding land. Its continued threats against the regional troop-contributing countries (TCC) to the peacekeeping mission in Somalia appeared to be aspirational at best.
The spectacular assault on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya, in September 2013 was al Shabaab’s second major international attack. Al Shabaab cultivated its Kenyan network leading up to the Westgate attack, establishing partnerships with Kenyan extremist networks. Key partners such as al Hijra, a group comprised primarily of indigenous Kenyans, provided al Shabaab with an extensive fundraising and recruitment network in Nairobi and along the Kenyan coast. The growth of these networks allowed al Shabaab to declare a pivot to Kenya on May 22, 2014, encouraging Muslims to take up arms against the Kenyan government. Since then, al Shabaab has claimed responsibility for killing as many as ninety people in a series of attacks along the Kenyan coast in June and July.
Al Shabaab’s activity and rhetoric suggest that the group will continue to conduct operations outside of Somalia. Al Shabaab leader Ahmed Abdi Godane’s May 2014 statement, expressing solidarity with Muslims in the Central African Republic (CAR), indicates that the group’s gaze extends beyond the TCCs. Rumored al Shabaab correspondence with Nigeria’s Boko Haram and potential cooperation with Tanzanian extremist networks further evidence continued operational growth throughout Africa. Al Shabaab’s observed activity, demonstrated operational capability and capacity, as well as expanded regional influence over the past year indicates that, contrary to popular belief, the group remains a dynamic threat throughout East Africa.