Abdi Sheikh and Richard Lough
MOGADISHU // Al Shabab’s attack on a shopping mall in the heart of the Kenyan capital has thrust it to the forefront of the global terror movement after years of internal feuding over the group’s aims.
The apparent sophistication of the weekend raid, involving about 15 heavily armed fighters who held off Kenya’s military for four days, suggests careful planning and a trained strike force that goes beyond the Somali group’s hallmark hit-and-run tactics.
Regional intelligence experts said they believed the attackers, who killed 67 people in an assault that shocked Kenya and the world, were members of a crack unit loyal to the group’s leader, Ahmed Godane, who has been seeking to rebrand Al Shabab as a significant international terrorist group.
The mall attack bears out western fears that the insurgents would use Somalia as a launch pad for strikes on regional countries.
Al Shabab has been weakened by an offensive, led by the African Union, which has expelled the group from urban strongholds in Somalia.
“They have not been dying in the past two years. They have developed guerrilla tactics instead of face-to-face fighting,” said a Somali intelligence officer who identified himself as Ahmed, a former Islamist fighter.
Al Shabab is a militia that emerged from Somalia’s Islamic Courts Union movement that pushed US-backed warlords out of the capital Mogadishu.
The group’s first signature strike abroad came in 2010 when coordinated explosions killed more than 70 people in the Ugandan capital Kampala on the night of the Fifa World Cup final. The group said the attack was to avenge the deployment of Ugandan peacekeepers in Somalia.
Repeated threats of a big strike on Kenyan soil had failed to materialise, however. But Saturday’s attack on the mall, a symbol of Kenya’s economic power, has changed that.
“A lot of people have been thinking of Al Shabab as a Somali issue but after this attack they are going to be viewed more as a part of Al Qaeda and the global terrorist network,” said Ali Soufan, whose Soufan Group provides strategic security intelligence to governments and businesses.
The change in approach follows a power struggle between those who wanted to keep its fight within Somalia — the so-called “indigenous faction” — and those led by Godane who wanted to take extend the campaign further afield.
“External attacks tend to happen when a group is trying to consolidate,” said Leah Farrall, a former counter-terrorism analyst with the Australian Federal Police. “In recent months you have been seeing a tremendous amount of fracturing in their domestic environment.”
It is an internal fight that Godane appears to have won. After falling out with Godane, Al Shabab’s one-time spiritual leader, Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, fled and is now in government custody. A prominent US-born militant, Omar Hammami, was killed in a gun battle this month, after he criticised Godane’s wider ambitions.