Al-Shabaab: under pressure at home but still deadly abroad


The horror that unfolded at Garissa University College in north eastern Kenya is yet another reminder of the transnational threat still posed by al-Shabaab. Despite recent infighting amongst the group’s various internal factions, the attack demonstrates how the “internationalist” wing, which favours a strategy of transnational jihad, continues to play a dominant role at leadership level. Also, at least one of the gunmen was a Kenyan national, a law graduate and the son of a local official, highlighting Kenya’s growing problem of youth radicalisation.  The attack comes at a time when the group has suffered a series of setbacks at home in Somalia, including the defection of key intelligence operatives and the successful targeting of its leadership in US special operations, including targeted air strikes. Despite the group’s relative decline and internal squabbling, Garissa is a tragic reminder of its ability to strike out with deadly cross-border attacks into neighbouring Kenya.

The massacre in Garissa is the deadliest terrorist attack Kenya has seen since al-Qaeda bombed the US Embassy in 1998, killing over 200 people. President Uhuru Kenyatta declared three days of national mourning for the 147 victims. The vast majority of the victims were students. The gunmen spared the lives of students able to prove their Islamic faith by reciting verses of the Koran. Those suspected of being non-Muslim were shot or beheaded. In recent years the separation of hostages into two groups, Muslim and non-Muslim, has been a defining characteristic of al-Shabaab’s significant terror attacks in Kenya. The same brutal selection method for execution was used during the Westgate Mall attack in 2013, where 67 people from over 13 different countries were killed. More recently, Al-Shabaab captured 60 bus passengers in Kenya’s northern Mandera County. Half of the hostages were murdered for being unable to recite Islamic creed.

The barbarity of al-Shabaab has matched the brutality of any other al-Qaeda franchise or Islamic State (ISIS). In territory controlled by al-Shabaab, rape victims as young as thirteen have been stoned to death in public stadiums. Limb amputations are common for those accused of social transgressions and crime. Foreign aid workers are murdered and in 2011 the group denied humanitarian access to over 2 million Somalis suffering famine in al-Shabaab controlled territory.

The reinvention of al-Shabaab as an extreme Salafi jihadist group is widely believed to have begun at some point between 2006 and 2008. This process was formalised in 2012 when the group’s leader, Ahmed Godane, oversaw an official merger with al-Qaeda in February 2012, swearing allegiance to Ayman al-Zawahiri. Within the organisation, Godane’s violent internal repression isolated some significant clan elders and even scared off some foreign Islamist fighters. He was killed in a targeted US air strike in September last year. The Pentagon described the operation as a “major symbolic and operational loss” for the group. The loss was compounded by the astute manner in which the government in Mogadishu capitalised on the factional disputes that engulfed the group following his death. The government offered amnesty to any al-Shabaab militant who surrendered to the government. What followed was a series of high profile defections, including an intelligence chief, Zakariya Ismail Ahmed Hersi, a man for whom the US State Department had previously offered a $3m reward for information leading to his capture. Hersi’s defection provided valuable operational intelligence and ramped up the pressure on some of al-Shabaab’s key networks.

Even before Godane’s death, al-Shabaab had suffered a series of strategic defeats and territorial losses. Their retreat from the Port of Kismayo, which was liberated by the Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) in late 2012, was particularly significant as the port was home to an extensive al-Shabaab racketeering operation, financing the group to the tune of millions of dollars through the taxing of the illicit trade in charcoal. Last October al-Shabaab retreated from the last remaining main port stronghold under its control when the town of Barowe fell to a joint force of the Somali National Army (SNA) and the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM).

Even the attack in Garissa itself alludes to al-Shabaab’s relative decline in recent years. The al-Qaeda style 2010 coordinated suicide bombings it launched in Kampala, Uganda, were a more sophisticated terror operation. As was the 2013 massacre at the Westgate Mall in Nairobi. What Garissa does show is that once again, getting a handful of committed ‘suicide gunmen’ to their intended target can lead to an immense loss of life.

From separating the hostages into groups of Muslims and non-Muslims, to the use of volunteer ‘suicide gunmen’, Garissa demonstrated all the trademarks of a major al-Shabaab terror operation. But the massacre does little to mask al-Shabaab’s relative decline as a force in Somalia. The death of Godane has reopened longstanding internal disagreements over ideology and strategy. There are unconfirmed reports that a pro-ISIS faction is developing at the leadership level. The Pentagon’s approach of using air and sea assets to carry out special operations against the group, whilst supporting regional counterinsurgency forces, such as AMISOM, appears to be paying dividends. Despite these positive developments, the horror of Garissa demonstrates the group remains a deadly threat to the civilians it seeks to murder in neighbouring states.


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