Al Shabaab Out of the Shadows

This week Al Shabaab came out of the shadows in Somalia to launch a coordinated assault on an upscale shopping mall in Nairobi, killing 67 people and wounding many more in the worst terrorist attack in Kenya since Al Qaeda’s truck bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi in 1998. The Islamic extremist group claimed this week’s attack was payback for Kenya’s deploying troops to their homeland as part of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). There has even been speculation that the carnage was intended to lure the West into another costly civil war and quagmire.

In reality the United States is already deeply engaged in a shadow war with al-Shabaab, and the success of that campaign in recent years helps explain this week’s risky terrorist attack. “The fact of the matter is we’ve actually had a very aggressive effort to go after al-Shabaab in Somalia, both through direct U.S. counterterrorism efforts, but also through support for AMISOM, the international force that includes Kenya and has pushed al-Shabaab out of a number of its strongholds in Somalia,” Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for Strategic Communications, told reporters this week. “And, frankly, I think it was that pressure on al-Shabaab that, in terms of their own professed motivation, led them to pursue an attack against Kenya.”

Indeed, as recently as three years ago, Al-Shabaab was a full-scale insurgency on the verge of victory on its home-turf. Its militants had boxed African Union peacekeepers into a few square blocks in downtown Mogadishu. American officials feared that thousands of AMISON troops might need to be evacuated from Mogadishu—recalling the 1993 U.S. evacuation after the Black Hawk Down debacle. The group was also recruiting Somali-Americans, primarily from the Minneapolis area, raising fears that these trainees might one day return to the United States to launch terror plots. Shirwa Ahemed actually became the first American to participate in a suicide attack as part of an al- Shabaab operation in 2008. This week there were are unconfirmed reports that Americans were part of the assault force that murdered scores of men, women and children in Nairobi. A few years ago, Al Qaeda deputy Ayman al-Zawaihiri trumpeted al-Shabaab’s gains as “a step on the path of victory of Islam.”

U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) leaders responded to those gains with the “East Africa Campaign Plan” for defeating al-Shabaab. AFRICOM’s Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA), based at a former French Foreign Legion outpost in the tiny country of Djibouti just to the north of Somalia, has led the effort. The campaign plan drew heavily on lessons learned in Iraq and Afghanistan, where U.S. forces likewise mentored local security forces and honed intelligence-driven counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operations. But in Africa the U.S. military is not the dominant player, and AFRICOM has been happy to operate largely in the background in support of African forces.

With improved U.S. suppluied training and intelligence, plus targeted U.S. precision strikes against al-Shabaab leaders, African Union troops have driven al-Shabaab militants out of Mogadishu, the strategic port of Kismayo, and most other Somali cities.  This week’s terrorist attack in Kenya was likely an attempt by al-Shabaab to reverse those setbacks. “We’ve gone from planning the evacuation of African Union forces from Mogadishu a few years ago, to a point where al-Shabaab has been kicked out of most urban areas and has lost credibility with the vast majority of Somalis who reject their ideology,” said a U.S. officer who helped design and execute the East Africa Campaign. “To me their decision to attack a soft target in a neighboring country where they will now enjoy even less support among their countrymen is a sign of desperation.”

Read the entire article this Friday in National Journal


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