NAIROBI – The massacre at a Kenyan shopping mall by Somalia’s al-Shabab insurgents has shown the still-potent threat of the al-Qaida-linked group even as its fighters struggle at home, analysts say.
The attack, which follows bloody strikes by al-Shabab suicide commandos earlier this year, including against a United Nations base in the Somali capital of Mogadishu, comes in spite of the group losing a string of key towns to African Union troops and bitter infighting in the country.
Dramatic attacks such as Saturday’s brutal siege in Nairobi’s Westgate Mall can be seen as an attempt to bolster their faltering reputation and loss of territory at home, experts say.
“Paradoxically, a weakened al-Shabab is a greater threat outside Somalia than a stronger al-Shabab,” Ken Menkhaus, a professor at Davidson College in North Carolina, wrote in an article after the attack.
He noted that he had previously argued that “were the group to weaken and fragment, it would be more likely to consider high-risk terrorism abroad.”
Al-Shabab chief Ahmed Godane, with a $7 million bounty on his head, is seeking to strengthen his authoritarian control following bloody purges of former comrades after they complained to al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahri about his command.
“The group has been going through its own internal struggles over its leadership and direction,” said J. Peter Pham, who heads the Africa Center at the Atlantic Council in Washington.
“The question now is whether, having marginalized rivals and turned al-Shabab into more of a terrorist group and less of a Somali insurgency, Godane will transform it into a more regional threat.”
Before Westgate, the group’s last large-scale attack outside Somalia was its 2010 bombing in the Ugandan capital, Kampala, in which at least 70 people died.
In recent years, the extremist group has instead struggled inside Somalia, tied down by battling regional armies such as Ethiopia and Kenya, as well as the African Union force (AMISOM).
Al-Shabab fighters fled fixed positions in Mogadishu and have since lost almost all the towns it once held to African Union forces.
“The Westgate attack is the latest sign of the group’s weakness. It was a desperate, high-risk gamble by al-Shabab to reverse its prospects,” Menkhaus argued.
The major attack on Nairobi comes almost two years after Kenya rolled troops and tanks across the border to fight the Islamists on their home turf in southern Somalia, seizing al-Shabab’s former port stronghold of Kismayo.
Since then, al-Shabab leaders have multiplied their warnings of revenge attacks on Kenyan soil, but until now the attacks were on a relatively small scale, at least in the capital.
“The group is just now recovering its elan from the loss of territorial dominance it formerly enjoyed before the AMISOM and Kenyan-led offensives of 2011 and 2012,” Pham added.
Still, al-Shabab fighters control swaths of rural southern Somalia, while U.N. Monitoring Group reports in July estimated it still retained some 5,000 fighters and remains the “principal threat to peace and security in Somalia.”
The group’s threat, as the well-planned attack in Nairobi showed, should not be underestimated.
In a June demonstration of its capabilities, al-Shabab staged a brazen daylight attack on a fortified United Nations compound in Mogadishu, with a seven-man suicide commando group blasting into the complex and waging a deadly gunbattle.
The coordinated attack on the U.N. killed 11, using tactics already tried in April when they attacked a Mogadishu courthouse.
Stig Jarle Hansen, a Norwegian academic and author of a book on al-Shabab, warned that Saturday’s attack — as well as the U.N. and courthouse attacks in Mogadishu — bore similarities to the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks.
“By making the attack so visible, it will hit Kenya where it hurts the most by hitting the tourism sector. I think it very likely that this was calculated. Travel warnings might be issued by Western countries as well,” he said.
“Kenya managed to survive the financial crisis quite well but this will hit them.”
In Washington, the White House has come under pressure to ramp up counterterrorism action against the group in Somalia following the mall attack.
Republican lawmakers Sunday said the attack showed al-Qaida-linked groups are growing in size and strength, belying the Obama administration’s claims that it has grown weaker.
“They’re not on the decline,” said Sen. Tom Coburn, the ranking Republican on the Homeland Security Committee, on CBS television’s “Face the Nation.” “They’re on the rise, as you can see from Nairobi.”
U.S. counterterrorism officials throughout the Obama administration have debated whether to target al-Shabab more directly, especially after its early 2012 tie-up with al-Qaida. But U.S. action has been limited to the occasional drone strike or raid when a particularly high-value al-Qaida target comes into view, while relying primarily on assisting Somali and African peacekeeping forces to carry out the day-to-day fight.
That decision was partly driven by the fear that directly targeting al-Shabab would spur the group to expand its own target list, striking at U.S. diplomatic posts and personnel overseas and calling on members of the Somali diaspora inside the United States to carry out attacks, according to multiple current and former U.S. counterterrorism officials.
Though headed by hard-core Islamist militants, al-Shabab’s more moderate membership has successfully argued to keep the group focused on overthrowing the U.S.-based Somali government, rather than taking on the mantle of al-Qaida’s larger war with the West.
Up until now, President Barack Obama secretly has authorized only two drone strikes and two commando raids against the al-Qaida-linked terrorists in Somalia, while a small U.S. special operations team has advised African peacekeeping troops, as well as helping build a small elite Somali counterterrorism force, according to two former U.S. military officials.
Two former U.S. counterterrorism officials say the preference has always been to meet specific incidents with a specific response but to avoid getting too deeply involved on the continent.
“The ‘don’t expand the fight’ argument has always won,” one said.