The bloody attack by Somali Islamist militant group Al Shabaab on the Westgate shopping mall in the Kenyan capital has added a name to the list of major international terrorist threats – a well-trained, logistically coherent jihadist force; there was little guerrilla improvising in Nairobi.
Al Shabaab’s protracted cross-border raid from Somalia into Kenya confirms fears of increasing instability in the Horn of Africa region.
It proves that African Union troops’ military offensive, over the past two years, to neutralise the Sharia-inspired militia was inadequate. It weakened them, by driving them out of key cities they dominated, but it didn’t defeat them.
An Al Shabaab spokesman as far back as in October 2011 had threatened Kenya with retaliation if it did not get its soldiers off Somali soil.
Ali Mohamud Rage said: ‘‘We, the Mujahideen, say to the Kenyan government: have you thought of the repercussions of the war against us? We are far more experienced in combat than you.’‘
The Kenyans had moved against the jihadists after mounting violence that has made international relief distribution nearly impossible, and has also been used to cow both other Muslims, and Christians, in a bid to impose a strict interpretation of Islamic law.
The Westgate mall assault further confirms that leader Ahmed Godane has emerged the winner from an Al Shabaab internal power struggle; that pitted partisans of concentrating fighting inside Somalia against those in favour of carrying it outside its borders. The group appears to have been consolidated.
It is an off-shoot of the Islamic Courts Union, which fought Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government. Although beaten in 2006, Al Shabaab leaders vowed to wage guerrilla war against those they branded “enemies of Islam”.
As of 2012, the Somalia-based cell of the militant Islamist group al-Qaeda controls large swathes of the southern parts of the country, and directly threatens neighbouring Kenya and its capital.
To discuss the message that Al Shabaab has sent to the world through its Kenya attack, euronews’ Adriaan Lancashire spoke to Valentina Soria from security intelligence and analysis firm IHS Jane’s Group.
euronews: Al Shabaab has shot to the world’s attention. The scale and organisation behind the Nairobi attack proves a certain sophisticated planning and capacity – was this a surprise for Western security services?
Valentina Soria: To some extent, yes. I think that there has perhaps been a sort of complacency on the part of Western security services and Kenyan authorities as well, in terms of the actual capability that Al Shabaab had. [It had] been pushed out of most of Somalia, the main cities in the country – so, I think that there could have been an underestimation of the threat, in terms of the capability that the group still had – both in terms of manpower and also technical capabilities.
I think it’s important to point out that the target itself was a soft target – so, by definition, it wouldn’t have taken too much in terms of actually breaking in. I think that security measures around the complex weren’t particularly up to the task of really defending it properly. So, in that sense it wasn’t as sophisticated as an attack on a more secure location could have been.
euronews: What does it say about the Kenyan security services that the attack and siege dragged out for four days, with so much bloodshed – how do you find their response? Should they have seen something like this coming?
Valentina Soria: The length of time that the attack really went on may have taken even the group by surprise. I suppose that the aim was really to carry out an attack in a very spectacular way, but I would suggest that even the group itself didn’t expect to actually last that long – maybe [expecting] that Kenyan troops, Kenyan security forces, would have moved in more quickly than they did.
There was, somehow, a slow response to begin with. I think that after the initial arrival of troops and security forces, they [the troops and security forces] took time to try and see if there was any chance of negotiating with the militants for the release of the hostages – because at that point there were several hostages still with the militants.
euronews: Myths or propaganda are already circulating about possibly British or American nationals being in Al Shabaab. What does this tell us about the group, that it is going global?
Valentina Soria: Well, Al Shabaab has been focusing its efforts on the recruitment of people from the Somali diaspora in Western countries, including the US, in recent years. In the past two or three years, they’ve really stepped up these kind of recruitment campaigns and that is pretty well demonstrated by the propaganda strategy that they’ve adopted. For example, things like issuing videos on their activities in English [show] a very sophisticated propaganda machine behind their activities.