Kenya’s Shabab Problem Is an American Problem, too

The Qaida-affiliated group that attacked a Kenyan mall has U.S. ties that could pose a security threat to the West.

Kenyan security officers takes cover as gunfire and explosions are heard from the Westgate Mall in Nairobi Kenya Monday Sept. 23 2013. 
National Journal
Matt Berman
Sept. 23, 2013, 10:34 a.m.

The massive, hor­ri­fy­ing shoot­ing in Kenya is tak­ing place on an­oth­er side of the world, but the Qaida-af­fil­i­ated group with West­ern con­nec­tions that is car­ry­ing out the at­tacks is a dis­tinctly Amer­ic­an prob­lem, too. 

At least 68 people are dead in al-Shabab’s ter­ror­ist at­tack at the West­g­ate Mall in Nairobi, which began Sat­urday and con­tin­ues in­to Monday. There are still host­ages in the mall. And, if al-Shabab is to be be­lieved, three Amer­ic­an-born people may have played a part in the at­tack.

Somalia-based al-Shabab has a his­tory of West­ern re­cruit­ment. The or­gan­iz­a­tion it­self grew out of Somalia’s Is­lam­ic Courts Uni­on, a group of sharia courts. Al-Shabab, which means “the youth” in Ar­ab­ic, split off from the ICU after Ethiopia’s in­va­sion of Somalia in 2006. That in­va­sion and the sub­sequent oc­cu­pa­tion rad­ic­al­ized the young splinter group and made it a mag­net for ji­hadists, help­ing the group gain thou­sands of re­cruits by 2008. Ini­tially, the group was fo­cused on fight­ing Ethiopi­an in­terests in Somalia.

In Feb­ru­ary of that year, the State De­part­ment des­ig­nated the group as a for­eign ter­ror­ist or­gan­iz­a­tion, call­ing it a “vi­ol­ent and bru­tal ex­trem­ist group with a num­ber of in­di­vidu­als af­fil­i­ated with al-Qaida.” By the sum­mer of 2010, the group had ex­pan­ded its reach, as evid­enced by a sui­cide bomb­ing in Uganda that killed 74 people.

It’s hard to know ex­actly how many West­ern fight­ers are in al-Shabab, says Vanda Fel­bab-Brown, a seni­or fel­low at the Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion. But al-Shabab has had some mar­gin­al suc­cess at draw­ing re­cruits from the Somali di­a­spora in the United States and the United King­dom. Like oth­er ter­ror­ist or­gan­iz­a­tions, al-Shabab has tar­geted young, dis­sat­is­fied men who have not in­teg­rated well in­to West­ern life.

In June 2010, two men from New Jer­sey were ar­res­ted at JFK In­ter­na­tion­al Air­port and ac­cused of try­ing to join up with al-Shabab in Somalia. Pro­sec­utors in Brook­lyn, N.Y., de­scribe an­oth­er three men fa­cing fed­er­al ter­ror­ism charges in the city as “dan­ger­ous and in­flu­en­tial” mem­bers of al-Shabab. Those three men were ar­res­ted in Africa while trav­el­ing to Ye­men, and none of them is a United States cit­izen. One, however, is Brit­ish.

A con­gres­sion­al re­port from Ju­ly 2011 found that al-Shabab had re­cruited more than 40 Amer­ic­an Muslims, and at that point at least 15 had been killed.

One of the group’s most fam­ous mem­bers was Omar Hammami, an Alabama man who left for Somalia in 2006. Hammami, who tweeted at @abum­amer­ic­an, even­tu­ally broke with Shabab, while still say­ing that he be­lieved in “at­tack­ing U.S. in­terests every­where.” He was re­portedly killed by al-Shabab just last week.

The U.S. and U.K. have taken dif­fer­ent paths to deal­ing with al-Shabab and Somalia to this point. After the mis­sion in Somalia in the 1990s, the U.S. has kept Somalia at an “arm’s length,” says Fel­bab-Brown, re­sort­ing more to lim­ited se­lect­ive strikes than the kind of polit­ic­al de­vel­op­ment that Bri­tain has strived for.

Up to this point, West­ern as­sets have had a lim­ited in­flu­ence with­in Shabab, and the plight of Hammami has ac­tu­ally served as a warn­ing to would-be ji­hadists. In the last few years, al-Shabab has lost some of its in­flu­ence and West­ern re­cruits have at­temp­ted to leave the or­gan­iz­a­tion, some­times say­ing that they didn’t fully un­der­stand what they were get­ting them­selves in­to. The re­cruits have been “more for the show,” says Fel­bab-Brown. She even points to re­cent chat­ter among Shabab lead­er­ship fret­ting over ex­cess­ively poor treat­ment of West­ern as­sets, sug­gest­ing that their role with­in the or­gan­iz­a­tion needs to be re­or­gan­ized.

If al-Shabab claims that three of the Kenyan shoot­ers are Amer­ic­an-born bear out, we may be see­ing what that re­struc­tur­ing could look like.

And the re­cruits — with their West­ern cit­izen­ship, con­nec­tions, and on-the-ground know­ledge — pose an out­sized po­ten­tial threat to the U.K. and the U.S. “I would be very sur­prised if al-Shabab had the ca­pa­city to pull off in the United States any­thing on the scale of 9/11, or even in Bri­tain,” says Fel­bab-Brown. But with re­l­at­ively easy ac­cess through U.S. or U.K. bor­ders, it’s not crazy to ima­gine that Shabab could be cap­able of launch­ing an at­tack on a soft-tar­get by a gun­man abroad — like the at­tack ra­ging in Kenya. And these Shabaab as­sets are likely out there. Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., be­lieves that Shabaab has between 15 and 20 act­ive Amer­ic­an mem­bers.

This fear isn’t just a se­cur­ity threat in the United States or the United King­dom. It’s also a palp­able pri­vacy threat for Somalis liv­ing in the West. The NYPD has already made in­filt­rat­ing sus­pect demo­graph­ic groups (read: Muslim) part of its post-9/11 coun­terter­ror­ism M.O. The Somali di­a­spora is con­cerned it will be un­fairly tar­geted by the U.S. or U.K. gov­ern­ment, get ex­cess­ive at­ten­tion from the FBI or the U.K. Home Of­fice, or be so­cially ali­en­ated of West­ern so­ci­ety, ac­cord­ing to Fel­bab-Brown. In short, great­er at­ten­tion to Shabab could mean great­er at­ten­tion to nor­mal, law-abid­ing Somalis liv­ing in the West. And if you want to cre­ate a mass of young, poorly in­teg­rated Somali men, that’s surely one way to do it.

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