July 24, 2014

Al Shabaab in East Africa

Multiple crises throughout the world—in Iraq, Syria, Ukraine, and now Israel—have pulled attention from growing violence in East Africa. Al Qaeda’s group in Somalia, al Shabaab, now has an operational reach that covers all of the Horn of Africa. Even within Somalia, al Shabaab continues to conduct significant attacks in the capital, Mogadishu, and in key cities like Kismayo, Baidoa, and Beledweyne. There exists a popular notion that al Shabaab is in decline due to the efforts of Somali forces and the African Union peacekeepers, a view echoed on June 3, 2014 by U.S. Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman. But al Shabaab’s recent activity in the region belies any such claim.[1] Al Shabaab still controls significant territory in Somalia and in the past year, has been active in Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia, Tanzania, and Djibouti.

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.[2] 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.[3] 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.[4] 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.[5] 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.[6]

Al Shabaab has also focused its efforts on other TCCs. Of the six primary countries, al Shabaab has attempted attacks in four over the past year. Two al Shabaab operatives attempted, but failed, to bomb an October 16, 2013 World Cup qualifying match in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and Ethiopian authorities announced the arrest of five Somali conspirators on December 19.[7] Uganda remains a target. U.S. Embassy Kampala has issued several terror warnings in the past year for Uganda, most recently citing a specific threat to Entebbe International Airport on July 3, 2014.[8] Al Shabaab has also been tied to the May suicide attack at a Djibouti restaurant popular among Westerners.[9] Though not all of al Shabaab’s attacks have been successful, its growing operational reach and regional influence is evident.

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.[10] Rumored al Shabaab correspondence with Nigeria’s Boko Haram and potential cooperation with Tanzanian extremist networks further evidence continued operational growth throughout Africa.[11] 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. 

[1] Wendy Sherman, “U.S. Foreign Policy in Somalia,” United States Institute of Peace, June 3, 2014. Available: http://www.usip.org/events/us-foreign-policy-in-somalia
[2] Chris Harnisch, “Al Shabaab’s First International Strike: Analysis of the July 11 Uganda Bombings,” AEI’s Critical Threats Project, July 14, 2010. Available: http://www.criticalthreats.org/somalia/al-shabaabs-first-international-strike-analysis-july-11-uganda-bombings-july-14-2010-4532
[3] Paul Cruickshank and Tim Lister, “Al-Shabaab breaks new ground with complex Nairobi attack,” CNN, September 23, 2014. Available: http://www.cnn.com/2013/09/22/world/meast/kenya-mall-al-shabaab-analysis/
[4] Fredrick Nzes, “Al-Hijra: Al-Shabab’s Affiliate in Kenya,” CTC Sentinel, May 29, 2014. Available: https://www.ctc.usma.edu/posts/al-hijra-al-shababs-affiliate-in-kenya
[5] “Somalia’s Al-Shabaab chief says war ‘shifting to Kenya,’” AFP, May 22, 2014. Available: http://www.theeastafrican.co.ke/news/Somalia-s-Al-Shabaab-chief-say-war--shifting-to-Kenya-/-/2558/2323312/-/ict24e/-/index.html
[6] Drazen Jorgic, “Islamists kill 50 in Kenya, some during World Cup screening,” Reuters, June 16, 2014. Available: http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/06/16/us-kenya-attacks-idUSKBN0ER0FF20140616
“Islamist militants kill 15 more in new attack on Kenya coast,” The East African, June 17, 2014. Available: http://www.theeastafrican.co.ke/news/Islamist-militants-kill-eight-more-in-new-attack-on-Kenya-coast/-/2558/2351298/-/10xuqxjz/-/index.html
Joseph Akwiri, “Gunmen kill at least 29 in latest raids on Kenyan coast,” Reuters, July 6, 2014. Available: http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/07/06/us-kenya-attacks-idUSKBN0FB05R20140706
[7] Aaron Maasho, “Ethiopia says arrests five suspects in soccer match bomb plot,” Reuters, December 19, 2013. Available: http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/12/19/us-ethiopia-bombers-idUSBRE9BI14F20131219
[8]“Possible Westgate-style attack in Kampala,” U.S. Embassy Kampala, October 15, 2013. Available: http://kampala.usembassy.gov/sm101513.html
“Potential for a Terrorist Attack in Kampala Feb/Mar 2014,” U.S. Embassy Kampala, February 10, 2014. Available: http://kampala.usembassy.gov/sm_021014.html
“Potential for a Terrorist Attack in Kampala May/June 2014,” U.S. Embassy Kampala, May 6, 2014. Available: http://kampala.usembassy.gov/potential_terrorist_attack_kampala_may_june_2014.html
“Possible Attack at Entebbe International Airport,” U.S. Embassy Kampala, July 3, 2014. Available: http://kampala.usembassy.gov/em-070314.html
[9] “Al Shabaab claims responsibility for Djibouti suicide attack,” Reuters, May 27, 2014. Available: http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/05/27/uk-djibouti-attacks-idUSKBN0E72AA20140527
[10] “Shabaab Leader Links France, Missionaries to CAR Attacks,” SITE Intel Group, May 14, 2014. Available at SITE.
[11] Sigi De Vos and Alexander Smith, “Boko Haram Trades Terrorist Tactics with Somalia’s Al Shabaab,” NBC News, July 6, 2014. Available: http://www.nbcnews.com/storyline/missing-nigeria-schoolgirls/boko-haram-trades-terrorist-tactics-somalias-al-shabaab-n140456
Tres Thomas, “Threat of Al-Shabaab and Extremist Attacks Grows in Tanzania,” Somalia Newsroom, July 11, 2014. Available: http://somalianewsroom.com/2014/07/11/threat-of-al-shabaab-and-extremist-attacks-grows-in-tanzania/
“Tanzanian police arrest 11 for undergoing al-Shabaab military training,” Sabahi Online, October 8, 2013. Available: http://sabahionline.com/en_GB/articles/hoa/articles/newsbriefs/2013/10/08/newsbrief-01
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