Alshabab attack on Nairobi a Sign of Political Defeat

The horrible attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi by members of the Alshabab terrorist group from neighboring Somalia is the act of a declining political movement that has lost enormous ground in recent years. When we see this sort of naked terror, it is important to know if an ascendant group is announcing itself or if this is a chicken that has had its head cut off and is now frantically running around headless on its way to oblivion.

Reuters reports

Alshabab is an offshoot of the fundamentalist Islamic Courts movement that took over Somalia briefly in the last decade. Alshabab itself hung on as one faction in the capital until summer of 2011 when it was forced out of Mogadishu. Then last year this time it was expelled from the port of Kismayu, by the Somali federal government forces in alliance with AMISOM, the joint African peace-keeping troops of Kenya, Ethiopia and some other countries. In the past year, Alshabab has launched a number of attacks on Kenya in revenge at the border.

As it has lost power in the capital and lost access to a key port, retaining only an impoverished rural power base, the group has become even more extreme, announcing last year an affiliation with al-Qaeda (though even some leaders found this step unacceptable and split).

In 2010 Alshabab detonated a bomb at a soccer stadium in Uganda, killing 79.

Somalia’s political divisions as of last February:

Somalia_map_states_regions_districts.svg

For background, this Channel 4 TV report from the UK from last winter is still valuable:

eastafrica

38 Responses

  1. Al-Shabab has suffered political defeat in that it is no longer a force in Mogadishu or Kismayu (thanks to AMISOM). Nevertheless, it maintains a rural base in Somalia and, as is evident, retains the ability to plan and execute major terrorist acts. I doubt that it is “on its way to oblivion,” anymore than Al-Qaeda was on its way to oblivion after it lost its base in Afghanistan, or AQAP is on its way to oblivion because it doesn’t control Sanaa or Aden.

    These terrorist groups can be degraded, and have been in the FATA of Pakistan, in Yemen, and to an extent in Somalia, but they cannot be eradicated, at least not in the short-term. That’s why it is important to keep up the counter-terrorism pressure on them, including Al Shabab in Somalia, in order to deprive them as much as possible of their leadership and operational planners. If they cannot be driven into oblivion in the short-term, they can at least be forced to constantly revise their own security, and when drone strikes are on target, have their commanders and operational leadership taken out. Were that not the case, they would have carte blanche to plan and execute even more terrorist attacks.

    • “maintains a rural base in Somalia” translates to “hiding out in the countryside” and “can’t even establish itself as a power in freaking Somalia.

      retains the ability to plan and execute major terrorist acts is a fairly low bar.

      Basically, you just described the Manson Family, except they were at least able to “maintain a rural base” in California.

      There was a time that Al-Shabab had enough contacts and clout to be worth American attention, but that time has pretty much passed. They’re a desperate group getting their butts handed to them by a multinational African force, committing desperate acts for attention. It’s probably just about time to take them off the Christmas card list.

      • ““maintains a rural base in Somalia” translates to “hiding out in the countryside” and “can’t even establish itself as a power in freaking Somalia.””

        I don’t recall you suggesting that about AQAP in Yemen, which you were happy to have droned, although they were operating in the “countryside.”

        “retains the ability to plan and execute major terrorist acts is a fairly low bar.”

        Since when has the ability to plan and execute major terrorist acts become a “fairly low bar” in your world view? It certainly isn’t to the (at last count) 68 people who have been killed in this action.

        “Basically, you just described the Manson Family, except they were at least able to “maintain a rural base” in California.”

        A total non-sequitur, not worthy of response.

        • Bill,

          AQAP in Yemen is strong enough to mount major military offensives against the Yemeni government, as well as putting together terrorist acts significantly more sophisticated than “truckload of guys with rifles.”

          We’re not talking about “major terrorist attacks” when it comes to al Shabab. We’re talking about plain old, ordinary terrorist attacks. These people can’t project power into the United States, or even Europe.

          They’re, quite literally, the bush league.

        • “These people can’t project power into the United States, or even Europe.”

          They don’t have to, Joe. They have affiliated themselves with Al-Qaeda, and it is enough that they have the potential to mount attacks against US interests in East Africa. (e.g., American Embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam in 1998.) You may think Al-Shabab is on its last legs, and you have a right to your opinion. But there are counter-terrorism experts who know a lot more about the organization than either you or I, and they suggest we may be witnessing a resurgence in their ability to plan and execute attacks.

        • “There hasn’t been a drone strike in Somalia since June 2012.”

          The key phrase you are overlooking is “potential resurgence.” Their potential resurgence (as evidenced by the Nairobi attack), plus their affiliation with Al-Qaeda, suggests we keep them on the counter-terrorism radar screen. Did I say drone them? No, I did not. But keep them on the radar, and if they are in a resurgent mode, then consider appropriate action.

        • They don’t have to, Joe. They have affiliated themselves with Al-Qaeda, and it is enough that they have the potential to mount attacks against US interests in East Africa. (e.g., American Embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam in 1998.)

          The embassy attacks in 1998 were organized and carried out by the actual al Qaeda run by bin Laden, not some local, single-nation organization affiliated with it, like al Shabab. Not the same thing at all.

          You may think Al-Shabab is on its last legs, and you have a right to your opinion. But there are counter-terrorism experts who know a lot more about the organization than either you or I

          There hasn’t been a drone strike in Somalia since June 2012. Those experts seem to be in agreement with the perfesser and me – or, rather, we seem to be in agreement with them.

    • “major terrorist acts”

      Look, it’s very sad and disturbing that a dozen guys with rifles can kill lots of people in a mall, but it’s not 9/11. It’s not even putting a bomb on a plane.

      It’s something any sufficiently-motivated car full of rednecks can do, if they’re brainwashed enough. This isn’t AQ, or AQAP. It’s barely November 17.

      • ““major terrorist acts” Look, it’s very sad and disturbing that a dozen guys with rifles can kill lots of people in a mall, but it’s not 9/11. It’s not even putting a bomb on a plane.”

        It doesn’t have to be 9/11 or a bomb on a plane to be a major terrorist act. You had better refresh yourself on the definition of terrorism.

        • I’m quite aware that al Shabab’s attacks are terrorism, Bill. November 17 is a terrorist group, too.

          But neither rise to the level that warrants the type of attention that AQAP or AQ International gets. The goal of the war against al Qaeda – the actual, non-metaphorical war – is to knock those actual major terrorist threats down to the level of al Shabab. When President Obama and his defense and intel chiefs talk, correctly, about decimating al Qaeda, they’re talking about rendering them as bush league as al Shabab.

        • “When President Obama and his defense and intel chiefs talk, correctly, about decimating al Qaeda, they’re talking about rendering them as bush league as al Shabab.”

          “Bush League” is a subjective term in the eye of the beholder. That such a Mumbai-like attack can be carried out in Nairobi suggests that it could be carried out against US interests in East Africa as well. If this proves to be a resurgence of Al-Shabab, as some have suggested, it pays to keep them on the radar.

        • “November 17 is a terrorist group, too.”

          The core members and leadership of the November 17 terrorist organization were tried and convicted in Athens in December 2003. Without its leadership and core members, the group is considered to be basically inactive now. I know something about their activities, as I was working just up the road in Sofia, Bulgaria when they assassinated the CIA station chief Richard Welch on December 23, 1975 in Athens.

          After the assassination of Welch, they assassinated several US military officers and many Greek officials. They carried out sophisticated, well-planned assassinations, as well as bank robberies to finance their operations. I assure you, they were not “bush league.” To suggest they were demonstrates a lack of understanding of how nimble and sophisticated they were in carrying out their operations. To conflate November 17 and Al-Shabab as being similar today makes no sense, as November 17 has been rendered inactive and Al-Shabab, as we have seen, remains very active.

        • Bill,

          The 1998 embassy attacks were organized and carried out by international al Qaeda, the organization headed by bin Ladin, not some local, single-nation group that is merely “affiliated” with them.

          And as far as those counter-terrorism professionals go, there hasn’t been a drone strike in Somalia since June 2012. It would appear that those professional agree with the perfesser and me – or, rather, that we agree with them.

          Of course intel agencies should keep al Shabab on the radar. Like any other ordinary terrorist group, the type of ordinary counter-terror operations (a combination of law enforcement and intelligence work) is an appropriate response – which makes them very unlike AQ in Pakistan and Yemen.

    • Hammer, meet hammer. Laudable statement of faith that more of the same will produce some kind of healthy result. “The operation was a success, madam, but unfortunately the patient died. Your co-pay is $4 trillion. You can pay at the window on your way out.”

      • “The operation was a success, madam, but unfortunately the patient died. Your co-pay is $4 trillion. You can pay at the window on your way out.”

        Another non-sequitur, this time descending into irrelevancy even by its own terms.

        • What has all the money and blood spent on futile military activity in that part of the world bought “us,” again? Just wondering…

      • There IS a functioning government in Somalia.
        Unfortunately, it is the government of the Puntland Autonomous Region.

        The “Federal Government of Somalia” has all the legitimacy and popular support of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, or Karzai in Afghanistan.
        Current Somali President Xasan Sheikh MoXamuud was elected in August 2012 by the legislature selected and installed by the USA. He has ties to the MB.

        Saying the “Islamic Youth Movement” is an offshoot of the Islamic Courts Union is technically correct, but entirely misleading. The previous President, Sheikh Sharif Shaikh Axmed, was the leader of the ICU and the USA asked him to join the “transitional government.”

        I think it is likewise misleading to speak of “Somali federal government forces.” They are less effective than the pretend “Afghan National Army.”

      • “Your co-pay is $4 trillion.”

        I remember when it was only neoconservatives who couldn’t tell the difference between invading Iraq and conducting counter-terrorism operations against al Qaeda.

  2. As it has lost power in the capital and lost access to a key port, retaining only an impoverished rural power base, the group has become even more extreme

    The word “shabab” wouldn’t, by any chance, translate to “Republican,” would it?

    • “The word “shabab” wouldn’t, by any chance, translate to “Republican,” would it?”

      To use this tragedy as a vehicle for humor and to score political points is tasteless and very poor form.

  3. What can possibly go wrong when we picks sides and determine the outcome of internal national politics of another?

    No bad has ever come when Western powers treated the residents of far away lands like children…

    • The really fun ones, PW, are where “we,” meaning the sneaky-petes and SOPs that operate nominally as elements of “US” Force Projection and Manipulation (but “have their own agendas,” as has been the case since the first warrior castes in the first mud-walled towns,) manage to create, or fertilize and encourage, BOTH “sides,” and then have “US” weapons sold to and “technical assistance” provided to both, to the occasional point that some of “our” guys kill some of “our” guys, in the “heat of battle,” and in the “fog of war,” and beneath the Floods of Money, and the flux of ponderous and pedantic and dysingenuous (sic intended) BS…

  4. We can thank the Bush administration for giving us Alshabab in the first place. This is the fruits of their regime change in Somalia.

    • I would say that the “regime chamge” of 1993 produced the ICU,
      and that continuing Western meddling in the ICU produced the Islamic Youth Movement.

      For folks who can’t afford to follow this story closely,
      a port like Kismayu is not all that strategic when you don’t have trading partners overseas.
      Food Aid brought to that port used to be surreptitiously turned over to the al Shabaab AT THE PORT for onward transport and distribution.
      Now it looks like al Shabaab simply commandeers the delivery trucks on the outskirts of town.
      They rule the Shabelle.

      As a phony Christian hypocrite, while I don’t like supporting an Islamist Jighadist organization like the Islamic Youth Movement,
      they are the only game in town
      when it comes to getting food aid to the hinterlands.
      -

      • There was no regime change in 1993. There was no regime. The government had collapsed, and both the international response and the ICU were consequences of the chaos of that internal Somali implosion.

    • Hargeisa is ruled by a tribe.
      Garowe is ruled by another tribe.
      Mogadisco used to be ruled by another tribe.
      I’m not sure anyone is “in control” in Bosasso.

      The only way to get stability in that area is to let the indigenous folks work it out – prob’ly along tribal lines.

      Farole was the best thing to happen to Somalia in the last decade.
      How much does the CIA support him ?
      Not at all, because he stands for Somali control over Somali affairs.

      • Brian, can you recommend other sites and or publications from which you are drawing current information on Somalia?

        • Castellio,

          Garoweonline dot com looks like a Somali language website, but if you click on the links, it has most of its content in English.

          My only expertise re: Somalia was a couple years back, working on a proposal to USAID for development funds for Puntland as a way to stop the piracy that originates from within Puntland. Get the locals to stamp it out.

          A former Puntland Minister and I put together a sweet proposal, but it went nowhere.
          I had forecast that the piracy problem could not be eliminated through military force. Apparently I was wrong.

  5. I’m puzzled by the assessment (from Professor Cole and Joe from Lowell) that the Westgate mall attack is a sign of “weakness” and will have only a negligible effect. Isn’t terrorism a concern precisely because it requires such a minor effort (in terms of money and training) on the part of the terrorist group?

    Kenya relies heavily on its tourism industry. If only ½ of one percent of all tourists who were planning to visit Kenya in the coming year decide to cancel their plans, that is still a significant economic impact. A four-day act of terror arranged for only a few thousand dollars could wipe out a year of million-dollar advertisements for the adventure of a lifetime on safari in Masai Mara.

    Isn’t that one reason why, after 9/11, our country embarked on a war rather than a fugitive hunt? If the members of Al Shabab figure out that their survival depends on learning how to remain fragmented, to become better ghosts, to hit and disappear, hit and disappear, couldn’t they rebound and continue to wreak havoc?

    The video from Channel 4 showed that there was a lot of local support for the Al Shabab fighters. I find that worrisome. Also, the report that a number of Americans may be among the terrorists in the Westgate mall is a big concern. What is happening to make refugees leave our land of opportunity for the wastelands of war? …

    • As horrible as these attacks on soft targets like malls are, they are typically signs of desperation and failure, not of success. Alshabab cannot get back Mogadishu this way, and, if anything, has stiffened Kenya’s resolve to root them out. They may give some cultists temporarily inflated egos because of the attention, but there is no strategic advance to be had here. The economic effect is ephemeral and minor.

      • “The economic effect is ephemeral and minor.”

        the service sector contributes about 63 percent to Kenya’s GDP, and tourism dominates the service sector. I would suggest that this attack will chill tourism, at least for a couple of years, and that will have a rather large negative effect on the economy.

  6. True what Dr. Cole said about the economic effects. I think they are often overstated. German tour operators are already booking Egypt again, for crying out loud.

  7. Final thought on Al-Shabab. If one year hence Joe is proven correct and Al-Shabab has effectively folded its tent, with the Nairobi attack a sort of final death rattle, I will stake Joe to a steak dinner, should he be anywhere near Washington, DC. That applies to Professor Cole as well.

    On the other hand, if one year hence Al-Shabab has experienced a resurgence and has evolved into a regional organization and cat’s paw for Al-Qaeda, well, I’ll take mine medium rare please.

    Cheers,

    Bill

    • Not a fair deal. The most likely situation would be that a year from now, Al-Shabab will still be around planning attacks. These guys never fold their tents. Bet that they will be no different this time in a year or else, as your bet, a regional power.

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