Firing Line: The Nairobi Massacre and America’s Secret War with Al-Shabab

By James Kitfield

Last September the terrorist group al-Shabab 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-Qaida’s truck-bombing of the U.S. Embassy in 1998. The Islamic extremist group stated that the mall attack was payback for Kenya’s deploying troops to its homeland as part of the African Union Mission in Somalia, also known as AMISOM. There has even been speculation that the carnage was intended to lure the West into another costly civil war.

In reality, the United States is already deeply engaged in a shadow war with al-Shabab, and the success of that campaign helps explain this month’s carnage. As recently as three years ago, al-Shabab 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 AMISOM troops might need to be evacuated—recalling the 1993 U.S. mission after the Black Hawk Down debacle. The group was also recruiting Somali-Americans, primarily from the Minneapolis area, raising fears that the trainees might one day return to the United States to launch terrorist plots.

U.S. Africa Command leaders responded with the “East Africa Campaign Plan” for defeating al-Shabab. A U.S. Africa Command task force, 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 plan drew heavily on lessons learned in Iraq and Afghanistan, where U.S. forces similarly mentored local security forces and honed intelligence-driven counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operations. But the U.S. Africa Command has been happy to operate largely in the background in support of African forces.

The East Africa Campaign Plan has three major pillars. The first is advanced training for African Union troops. U.S. military officials assess the troops of every African country that contributes to AMISOM (including Burundi, Djibouti, Kenya, and Uganda) and design training regimes. U.S. military-to-military exercises with African Union countries shot from just 15 in 2008 to 140 in 2012.

The second pillar is supplying African Union forces with the kind of advanced intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance that has come to define U.S. counterinsurgency operations. Manned and unmanned surveillance aircraft routinely fly over Somalia from bases in Djibouti and Kenya, and the Americans share the imagery and signals intelligence they generate with African Union forces over a specially developed “African Data Sharing Network.”

The third, unpublicized, pillar is the targeting of Shabab leaders. Although officials publicly refuse to comment on the attacks, which are carried out by Special Operations units at Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti, the United  States conducts the same kind of targeted killing strikes in Somalia that it does in Pakistan and Yemen. According to the The Long War Journal, a website that tracks the operations, the United States has killed a number of al-Shabab’s commanders with armed Predator drones and, in at least one instance, a helicopter-borne raid by a Special Forces unit.

With improved training and intelligence, plus U.S. strikes against Shabab leaders, African Union troops have driven the militants out of Mogadishu, the strategic port of Kismayo, and most other Somali cities. “We’ve gone from planning the evacuation of African Union forces from Mogadishu a few years ago to a point where al-Shabab 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.

Recently, al-Shabab’s setbacks have also reportedly caused the group’s leadership to fracture, with one faction wanting to remain focused on operations inside Somalia, and the other arguing for launching terrorist spectaculars against African Union countries contributing troops to AMISOM. The Nairobi attack suggests the latter group either won the internal argument, or has splintered off. Even though the attack risks alienating the large Somalia diaspora living in Kenya, some counterterrorism experts caution against depicting it as the desperate act of a dying terrorist group. “Al-Shabab may be on its heels as an insurgency in Somalia, but this is how al-Qaida affiliates change and evolve in order to survive,” said Bruce Hoffman, director of security studies at Georgetown University.

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