NAIROBI/JOHANNESBURG – The attack that killed 69 people in a Kenyan shopping mall over the weekend was the first regional operation undertaken by the new leadership of Somalia’s al-Shabab militants following a bloody power struggle.
After months of pressure from African troops against the al-Qaida-linked group inside Somalia, Ahmed Godane, also known as Ahmed Abdi Aw-Mohamed, 34, seized control of the militants in a June fight that led to the death of several leaders. He’s pushed the movement to be more flexible, according to analysts such as Cedric Barnes, the regional director at the Brussels-based International Crisis Group. The U.S. in June offered a $7 million reward for information on his whereabouts.
Al-Shabab is “different now,” Barnes said in an interview Monday from Nairobi. “It can move fast, it can change direction at will, it can especially do that now under the centralized and firm leadership of Godane.”
In recent weeks, al-Shabab fighters have carried out several attacks, including a bombing at the Turkish Embassy in the capital, Mogadishu, the United Nations compound and Somalia’s airports.
As many as 15 gunmen stormed the Westgate Mall in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, on Saturday, after al-Shabab had vowed to strike East Africa’s biggest economy over the government’s decision to join the fight against its forces in neighboring Somalia in October 2011.
Throwing hand grenades and spraying gunfire, the militants launched the deadliest attack in Kenya since the 1998 bombing of the U.S. Embassy. Kenyan security forces Monday said they gained control of the four-story mall, freeing hostages and killing three of the assailants. At least 63 people are missing, the Kenya Red Cross said Monday.
Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahedeen, which translates as the Movement of Jihadi Youth, sprung out of Somali’s Islamic Courts Union following its defeat in 2006 by troops from neighboring Ethiopia. With Somalia not having a functioning government since the ouster of dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991, al-Shabab promised stability and gained control of most of Somalia’s south including parts of Mogadishu.
Over the past two years, its fortunes have waned as the African Union’s 17,000-member force and a separate U.S.-backed Ethiopian expedition drove it out of major towns, including Mogadishu and the southern port town of Kismayo, where it earned revenue from taxation of trade.
Among the Somali public, support for the group has also faded. About 160 of Somalia’s “most distinguished” religious scholars this month denounced al-Shabab, declaring it was “a religious duty” to turn them in to the authorities, according to Prime Minister Abdi Farah Shirdon Saaid.
“This is unprecedented in Somalia’s history that a group of well-respected and internationally based and local scholars came together and declared a fatwa and denounced the organization, and said they were not speaking in the name of Islam,” Yusuf Hassan Abdi, a member of Kenya’s parliament with President Uhuru Kenyatta’s National Alliance party, said by phone from Nairobi.
They lost support “because of their brutality, their excessive use of force, the execution of innocent people,” said Abdi, who uses a wheelchair after being injured in a December explosion outside a Nairobi mosque.
Since his takeover, Godane has adopted a more radical agenda — vowing to enforce Shariah law across the world — and turned al-Shabab into a more hierarchical organization. The group has also abandoned what Matt Bryden, the director of Nairobi-based Sahan Research institute, called “the cult of the suicide bomber” and began staging operations requiring less sophisticated technology such as guns and grenades as were used at the Westgate Mall.
“Within al-Shabaab, Godane is known to be a proponent of the transnationalist faction,” Austin, Texas-based Strategic Forecasting Inc. said in an emailed note Monday. “The weekend attack in Nairobi could bolster Godane’s leadership of the transnationalist faction within al-Shabaab, while at the same time demonstrating that the group has not been defeated and remains a potent guerrilla threat, despite losing significant territory.”
The attack may also have been designed to provoke a violent response by Kenyans toward the roughly 1 million Somalis in the country, according to Kenneth Menkhaus, a political science professor at Davidson College in North Carolina.
“If they succeed in provoking a backlash in Kenya — either heavy-handed policies by the government or uncontrolled vigilante justice of Kenyans against Somalia — they will be able to reframe the crisis in the region as Somalis against the foreigners,” Menkhaus, who has published more than 50 articles and book chapters on Somalia, said Monday.