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The Group Behind the Terror in Kenya

Earlier this month, the Bipartisan Policy Center’s (BPC) Homeland Security Project released a terrorism threat assessment. In the assessment, authors Peter Bergen, director of the National Security Program at the New America Foundation; Bruce Hoffman, director of the Center for Security Studies at Georgetown University; Erroll Southers, associate director of research transition at the Department of Homeland Security’s National Center for Risk and Economic Analysis of Terrorism Events at the University of Southern California and former FBI special agent; and former CIA operative Michael Hurley, analyzed the terrorist group, al-Shabaab, responsible for the deadly attacks in Kenya.

Here are some key facts about the group that appear in BPC’s report.


Threat Assessment

Over the past few years, al-Shabaab has lost substantial territory and influence in Somalia. While it could remain a threat to Western targets, due to the group’s influence among the Somali diaspora population and its formal merger with al-Qaeda in 2012, recent battlefield defeats have forced it to focus internally. It has never conducted a successful attack in the West, and it has not been linked to any mass-casualty attack outside of Somalia since its launched bombings in Kampala, Uganda, in July 2010.

Activities Since 2010

Al-Shabaab controlled most of Somalia south of autonomously governed Puntland in 2010, but recent operations by African Union and Kenyan forces have ended its domination of southern Somalia.

In 2011, the U.N.- sanctioned African Union Mission to Somalia (AMISOM) partnered with Somali troops to fight al-Shabaab militants, and in August of that year, AMISOM and Somali transitional federal government (TFG) forces defeated al-Shabaab forces in Mogadishu, forcing the militants from a stronghold they had controlled since 2009. Afterward, the militants began employing guerilla tactics in Mogadishu, conducting bombings against AMISOM and TFG military bases. According to the National Counterterrorism Center, “al-Shabaab is responsible for the assassination of Somali peace activists, international aid workers, numerous civil society figures, and journalists.”

The National Counterterrorism Center also noted, “The group gained additional notoriety by blocking the delivery of aid from some Western relief agencies during the 2011 famine that killed tens of thousands of Somalis.”

Somalia expert Ken Menkhaus observes that despite these weaknesses, al-Shabaab will “remain one of the most powerful militias in southern Somalia for some time to come. It continues to possess a network of cells in all of Somalia’s major urban areas and a capacity to engage in acts of terrorism.”

Al-Qaeda Affiliations

Although al-Shabaab has long been regarded as a regional offshoot of al-Qaeda, its leaders only declared their formal ties to the international terror organization in February 2012. While the group seems to have been interested in an alliance before then, in 2010, bin Laden instructed the group’s leaders to keep their association with al-Qaeda a secret, fearing that openly linking the groups would put al-Shabaab at a disadvantage. By February 2012, however, bin Laden was dead and al-Shabaab had just suffered significant losses in its southern Somali safe haven. Zawahiri, who had petitioned bin Laden to reconsider his views about the proposed merger between Shabaab and al-Qaeda, believed the time was right to announce formal ties between the two groups.

As al-Shabaab was then in the midst of its struggle against AMISOM and Kenyan forces, this was likely a move to bolster support from the international extremist community and out-of-area fighters. With al-Shabaab controlling significant—albeit shrinking—swaths of land in southern Somalia, however, its newfound alliance with al-Qaeda’s central leadership and its recognition of Zawahiri’s authority creates a risk of terrorist plots in the West. For instance, in 2010, a militant linked to al-Shabaab traveled to Denmark to kill Kurt Westergaard, a Danish cartoonist who had drawn cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad that were deemed offensive by many Muslims. Westergaard only survived the assault because he had installed a safe room in his house.

Western Recruitment

By recruiting English-speaking Muslims and members of the Somali diaspora, al-Shabaab has been able to persuade a number of British and American citizens to die for its cause. In October 2007, for instance, an unnamed British Somali was one of the first Western-based jihadists to kill himself in the name of al-Shabaab when he detonated a suicide vest at an Ethiopian army checkpoint and killed at least 20 soldiers.

While there are a number of American citizens fighting for a variety of al-Qaeda-affiliated or -inspired organizations, al-Shabaab seems to boast the most American fighters. According to a 2011 report by the House Committee on Homeland Security, an estimated 40 Americans have joined al-Shabaab in the last few years, at least 24 of them coming from the Somali community in Minnesota. Al-Shabaab has prominently featured these recruits in its propaganda operations, releasing three official videos that starred Abu Mansoor al-Amriki (“the father of Mansoor, the American”), who is actually Omar Hammami, a 25-year-old from Alabama who was raised as a Baptist and converted to Islam in high school. One of the videos shows Hammami preparing an ambush against Ethiopian forces and features English rap lyrics extolling jihad. Three of al-Shabaab’s American recruits have died in suicide attacks.

Al-Shabaab has also been able to attract a similar number of members from the Somali Canadian community. The group’s online presence has enabled its mobilization of Western sympathizers, particularly in Somali chat rooms, where al-Shabaab militants are able to persuade their ethnic brethren to sympathize, join, or financially support their cause.

While investigations are still ongoing, early reports indicate the terrorist group used the internet both before and during the attacks to broadcast their message. BPC’s online radicalization report helps shed light on the growing role the internet plays in terrorist organizations and offers recommendations for policymakers in dealing with the threat of online radicalization.

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